Commentator after commentator, from politicians to journalists, is blaming the recent chaos in London and beyond on “criminality”. What does that even mean? Crime is a product of social conditions, not a thing in and of itself. Recognising that people smashing, looting and burning are committing crimes is not an explanation – of course they’re criminals, what they’re doing is against the law.
What people aren’t recognising is that this kind of criminality is a direct product of consumerism. These kids have been told, all their lives, that what they own is more important than who they are or what they do. Having the right trainers, having the latest iPhone, eating the right chocolate bar – these are the things that are supposed to make you happy.
All through the ‘90s and into the new millennium, people were able to fund their consumerism with debt. Credit cards were handed out like sweets at a children’s party. Can’t afford it? Borrow. You need a new car, remortgage your house – the value of your two-bedroom ex-council flat is up 20%!
Then came the 2008 crash and the credit dried up. Ads for credit cards were replaced with ads for extortionate legal money lenders like wonga.com. The poor suddenly got poorer. Going into debt wasn’t the breeze it was before. But the consumerism didn’t adjust – on the contrary, politicians and economists looked to the consumers to boost the economy to help the poor banks out as bonuses for those at the top of the industry returned to their original level – and higher.
Areas like Tottenham are areas of high unemployment and social dislocation. Gang culture has grown across the UK for years, as Labour’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” became ASBOs, stop and search and other repressive measures.
And then the Tories were elected – benefits cut, EMA cuts directly targeting the pockets of these young consumers. After the first student protest that attacked Milbank, every subsequent demonstration had large numbers of kids from the very same areas now in chaos. How were their legitimate concerns addressed? With kettles, riot police and political indifference.
Tottenham was hit very hard by the cuts, particularly youth services, which had their budget cut by 75% across the borough of Haringey. Eight of 13 youth centres were closed, bringing warnings that riots would ensue. An area so hugely dependent on state support was always going to suffer badly from cuts.
To make matters worse, when teachers, lecturers and public service workers went on strike on 30 June, the Prime Minister condemned the strikers as “irresponsible“. What message did he think he was sending to school-kids slagging off the very people who should be their role models?
Then came the News of the World scandal and the revelations of police corruption. What many suspected was shown to be true, the police, politicians and the corporate media were working together and breaking the law. This is all cognitive dissonance on a major scale, a society supposedly based on respect for authority and the rule of law is revealed to be nothing of the kind. The situation was like a tinder-box doused in petrol.
And then the police shot a man dead in Tottenham and left the community without answers. The shooting of Mark Duggan lit a show burning fuse that exploded in Tottenham on Saturday night. The events in communities elsewhere saw what happened there and took advantage. Stretching the police by popping up all over the city meant they could loot with impunity.
What is looting but the collapse of the agreement in society that a building full of desirable items can sit on the high street and you need to pay to take things from it? Suddenly people found that this wasn’t true any more, you could just break the window and take what you wanted and, as was discovered in Tottenham Hale Retail Park early Sunday morning, no-one could stop you. CCTV cameras, ubiquitous in our surveillance society, were either forgotten or ignored.
A dangerous sense of power and fearlessness overtook a considerable part of the youth of this country. Worse, all respect for other people was gone and firebugs started burning things, with no apparent concern for the people who lived above the buildings they burned. Muggings, stabbings and shootings ensued.
Mass waves of criminality like this are not simple; they are a sign of a complete collapse in social relations for a large sizeable of the population. What makes it so tragic is that they were absolutely predictable, not just by those in the communities where the trouble is. In April last year, they were predicted by the leader of Liberal Democrats – now Deputy Prime Minister – Nick Clegg, if the Tories won with a narrow majority. Instead, the government has less legitimacy than that and the riots are far worse than anyone could have predicted.