Explanation not excuses

It’s not just the looters that need to be brought to justice, writes Michael Calderbank

October 13, 2011
5 min read


Michael Calderbank is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. He is also a parliamentary researcher for a group of trade unions.

After the tidal wave of post-riot pontificating, the media analysis has boiled down in essence to just three words – the acts were ‘mindless’, the actors ‘feral’ and the need is for ‘justice’. True, the words have a certain resonance for some of those who directly experienced, and continue to live with, the riots and their aftermath. It’s hard to see people mugging the injured, looting from charity shops or leaving ordinary families burnt out of their homes without feeling an instinctive revulsion. As Steve Platt comments (Plattitudes, page 8), if sections of the left think that excuses are in order, they are only furthering their isolation.

But excuses aren’t the same as trying to understand the underlying reasons for the summer riots. And if the right sees itself as vindicated by the censorious response, it ought to watch out. Those words of condemnation indict it too. Consider the definitions.

Mindless – 1a) Lacking intelligence or good sense; 1b) Having no intelligent purpose, meaning, or direction. 2) Giving or showing little attention or care; heedless.

If people are treated as though they are mindless, they will live down to expectations. What would a society be like that treated all its young people as bearers of ‘intelligence’ and ‘good sense’, that wanted to invest in giving them ‘purpose, meaning or direction’?

It’s a fair bet that such a society wouldn’t oversee a substantial increase in youth unemployment, scrap education maintenance allowances and treble tuition fees. Surely, if any actions lack ‘intelligence’ or ‘good sense’ and ‘show little attention or care’ to the lives of millions of young people, then they are those of this government.

And it’s not just the government. The neoliberal model of a market-driven society tells people that their worth lies only in their ability to consume more and better. Every day the media flaunts the millionaire lifestyles of footballers and celebrities as the marker of what constitutes ‘success’. Is it any surprise that, in creating aspirations that it is impossible for the vast majority of people to fulfill, a deep well of resentment begins to be stored up that is capable of overflowing onto our streets?

Feral – 1a) Existing in a wild or untamed state. 1b) Having returned to an untamed state from domestication. 2) Of or suggestive of a wild animal; savage.

People are acting like wild animals, as though there were no such thing as society. If the entire policy framework of more than three decades has effectively replaced solidarity, fellow feeling and public-spiritedness with an atomised pattern of isolated individuals in competition with each other, can we really be surprised that a generation of young people who have known nothing else now act without letting a moment’s thought for other people get in the way of getting their hands on what they want?

Ed Miliband should also take note. As Hilary Wainwright argues (page 30), the Labour Party’s founding division between the political (for which read electoral) and the industrial planes continues to hold back the development of a countervailing force based on the unions’ directly political engagement in the community.

And while we’re talking about the ‘wild’ and ‘untamed’ forces in society, let’s not forget the toxic trinity of state, capital and media. The phone-hacking scandal has opened a window of opportunity for thorough-going structural reform. But can our feral elite be tamed?

Justice – 1) Just behaviour or treatment. 2) The quality of being fair and reasonable.

This is perhaps the trickiest to define: what constitutes ‘justice’? Clearly it is a concept that ought to be central to the operation of the law, but something being lawful does not necessarily make it just.

Take the distinction between tax evasion and tax avoidance. The fact that the latter is not technically against the law doesn’t make it any less of an outrage that the richest individuals and wealthiest corporations on the planet – together with black market trading and other corrupt payments – defraud us of well over a trillion dollars globally. Here in the UK, the amount of unrecovered tax is estimated at a staggering £120 billion – money that could go a long way towards avoiding public service cuts.

The government’s hypocrisy is breathtaking. As Richard Murphy points out (page 27), at the same time that we are seeing people given punitive sentences for relatively minor thefts, those who are stealing on a gargantuan scale by squirrelling away money in Swiss banks have effectively been told they can keep most of their ill-gotten gains. How can anyone seriously talk about justice when the very richest in society are pushing for the elimination of the 50p tax rate at the same time as schools, hospitals, and libraries are being starved of cash and millions of children are growing up in poverty?

Justice implies a universal reach – where there is exclusion, there is also injustice. This has a direct bearing on the recent wave of protests about social injustice in Israel (see page 42). Can campaigners really fight effectively for a fairer deal within Israel without also challenging the theft of Palestinian lands and mass ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people? It’s not just the looters that need to be brought to justice.


Michael Calderbank is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. He is also a parliamentary researcher for a group of trade unions.


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