Three separate links can sum up the violence on Britain’s streets at the moment: two videos, and one news report. The first is a blog by an NBC reporter that quotes an exchange between a Londoner and another reporter who asked if rioting was the best way to express discontent:
"Yes," said the young man. "You wouldn't be talking to me now if we didn't riot, would you?"
The TV reporter from Britain's ITV had no response. So the young man pressed his advantage. "Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you."
The second is the now much-viewed video of a Hackney resident squaring up to looters. Fearlessly and knowingly, she chastises them, furious that rather than “doing it for a cause” they are destroying homes and businesses, all for some shoes and TVs.
The third is less moving, and in fact bleakly comic: Nick Clegg, after biscuits in his leafy suburban garden, warning Sky News back in April last year that if the Tories gained power and inflicted upon the population unmandated cuts, there would be riots.
Taken together, these represent the key elements of the present crisis: police incompetence and arrogance, media complicity and callousness, the short-sightedness of the rioters, and the contempt politicians have had for the public over the past year that evidently continued this week. The dismal conclusion is that we live in a fundamentally sick society, not just unable to resolve its injustices and inequalities but unable even to acknowledge them.
The Petri dish in which the riots emerged was decades of neglect, unemployment and deprivation: most areas affected by the riots have unemployment rates above the London average of 8.8 per cent. Hackney yearly vies with Manchester, Liverpool and Tower Hamlets as the most destitute local authority in the country. In London, the richest tenth of the population possess 273 times the wealth of the poorest, making it the “most unequal city in the West”. Across the country for the last thirty years, wages have dropped as a proportion of national wealth for everyone but a tiny minority. In twenty years, the gap between rich and poor will reach levels not seen since Queen Victoria was on the throne.
This is not an excuse for rampant destruction: for centuries, the poor have suffered, but they have at key moments over the past two centuries responded through organisation, protest and mutual aid, and through such united action real achievements have been made in a way that setting alight to their own communities never could. Nevertheless, it is an explanation, and an explanation is clearly demanded.
On top of this is the abysmal record of the nation’s police, particularly the Met. Having been deeply involved in the widespread phone hacking criminal conspiracy as co-conspirators rather than investigators, and with numerous high-profile cases of both them and the IPCC clearly covering-up their role in killings on London’s streets, it was hardly surprising that when they shot Mark Duggan they immediately came under angry scrutiny from locals.
Their inability to handle the simple questions they were asked is testament to their arrogance, but this was by no means isolated. The figures for the amount of deaths in police custody and following contact with the police are staggering. Since 1998, 333 people have died in custody with no officer ever convicted.
Their demeaning harassment of the youth through stop and search, with certain communities particularly targeted, is a clear burden incomprehensible to those who don’t have to put up with it. Nor was it very long ago that the Tories were planning to bring back the disastrous Sus laws. It should be unsurprising then that criminalising entire populations makes them more willing to commit criminal acts.
And where were politicians amongst this? Osborne was in Los Angeles, Cameron in Tuscany, Clegg in Spain, with Johnson refusing to state where he was and evidently reluctant to come back. The problem is not so much that they were on holiday, but more that a foreign holiday is a luxury few can now afford. When Tory MP Oliver Letwin said he didn’t want “people from Sheffield going on any more cheap holidays”, he revealed the class hatred that motivates many of his kind.
Such sentiment is the bitter fuel for the austerity drive that is breaking our country apart, and the targets of this assault are not just the poor youth of our inner city neighbourhoods but also workers such as the fire fighters battling to save those same neighbourhoods from flames. The insanity of the rioting becomes clearest here: we should be uniting against the greed and recklessness of austerity, not replicating it.
Yet some in the left are wrong to refuse to condemn the riots because they are instead the result of structural problems rather than merely bad parenting or the moral failure of the rioters. The early cheering that an “insurrection” was underway in Tottenham was dampened when the targets shifted from police cars to shops, and mostly dissipated when it became clear that hatred of the police was complimented by a desire to loot and burn non-political targets. Looting and burning is not the virtue of the left, but instead of neo-liberalism, and we now have a grim mirror image of capitalism’s savaging of our society over the last three decades.
The rioters are a microcosm of the ethics that resulted from that savaging: self-indulgence, competition, and violence. The reason the left should be condemning rather than excusing violence and looting is therefore precisely because it is the structural problem of a society that promotes wretched values. The woman filmed barracking the looters knew this: build something lasting rather than reflexively copy the dominant principles of the society we live in. We should indeed aspire for luxury for all, but it should be through production, not destruction.
The response has at times been terrifying. Demands for the army on the street and shoot to kill policies are hopefully not representative, or else no lesson has been learned from the disaster of Northern Ireland. The only lasting solution is an end to austerity, exclusion and brutality. More than that, we need a functioning, inclusive left rather than the self-interested and chronically romantic one we’ve been lumbered with over the last two decades, or the wing that pointlessly dreams of the return of a mythical Labour Party.
A proper response needs to constructively direct anger where it’s deserved and properly assault the destructive principles inculcated within us: self-interest and self-indulgence even to the point of violence. When youths loot it’s “sheer criminality”, when the rich loot it’s “austerity”. Both are born of the same society, and both need abolishing. We don’t need austerity, and no-one should need to steal.
From the ashes, communities are coming together to defend, reclaim and clean up their streets. Rage may be directed at rioters, but it is also directed at Nick Clegg and Boris Johnson’s tasteless photo-ops. The principles of mutual-aid and respect exist, and they can and will be more powerful than the army, police or any rioters. But they need to remain as our principles in the face of violence from both the rich and the dispossessed. Only through this can we hope to overcome a pathological society; in the words of the anonymous woman from Hackney, “do it for a cause”.