In Manchester on Tuesday night thousands descended upon the city centre: some to loot, some to fight the police, some for the thrill. What happened here and across the country showed the ugly end-point of the political and economic project of the last 30 years.
The town centre was a scary place on that evening. The rioters and looters were often reckless, acting with little care for the safety of themselves or others. A few were just out to hurt other people, and as it got dark hardened gangs prowled the streets to take advantage of the situation. Nobody wants this.
But those who watched in horror from afar would most likely have misjudged the atmosphere early on. There was an odd sense of humour to it. While there were no clear political targets or obvious message, this didn’t mean those involved were wild animals fighting one another for each and every trinket. They were largely groups of friends acting with universal abandon, high on a sense of control and nothing to lose.
Not all took part in the destruction and stealing, many were there for the spectacle in a place where without money they are normally so unwelcome. Nearly all shared a passionate hatred of the police, who they perceive to unfairly harass them, their friends and their families every day. Some would explain how the cuts were affecting them and limiting their aspirations, and how people were “frustrated” and “angry”. They didn’t necessarily condone what was happening, but they understood it. Others openly said they were just there to make money – a reflection of the values extolled by social elites.
No Return to ‘Business as Usual’
Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, Peter Fahy, said in a myopic and revealing statement, “Nothing in Manchester has happened to provoke this behaviour”. He and other leaders in the city making similar claims are trying to avoid the difficult questions which these events have raised. Manchester’s elite do not want to take responsibility for any part of this social crisis, and are failing to address the reality of the country’s and the city’s social and economic situation. The riots engulfing cities up and down the nation were predictable and predicted, but the political establishment has willingly ignored the signs for years. Anyone who didn’t see this coming really wasn’t paying attention.
So why has this happened? What makes a young person willing to wreck a city centre, risk their physical safety and potentially gain a criminal record which would scupper their employment prospects? The sad truth is these kids don’t believe they have much of a future in our present society: their actions were of people with little to lose, the actions of those without a stake in society. Councillors may not like to admit it, but these too are “real Mancunians”.
In the aftermath councillors, both Labour and Liberal Democrat, have been talking about a return to “business as usual” – a call to keep calm and carry on, grass up your kids and get to work. But the usual business in this city is vast inequality and the exclusion of a substantial proportion of the youth from the limited political, social and economic successes seen here.
Thousands of rioters did not materialise out of thin air, but were drawn from some of the most deprived parts of the UK. 27 per cent of children in Manchester grow up in severe poverty – the highest level in the country. It also has the lowest life expectancy in England, and has had an unemployment level among 16 to 24 year olds of around 30 per cent for over 20 years. As of April this year, the figure stood at 28 per cent, as opposed to the national average of 20 per cent. Two thirds of these youngsters are males. In a city with a student population of 10 per cent, 16.9 per cent of people have no qualifications. This is the “real Manchester” for so many young people, and it is the reason why returning to business as usual is unnaceptable.
The only attempt by any of the political leaders in Manchester to account for the causes of what has happened is to point to the supposed weaknesses and tactical failings of the police. The best the Manchester Evening News could manage was to point the finger of blame at parents. All are keeping a systematic silence on the poverty and inequality which blights the city when it’s staring them in the face. It seems now they have been caught up in the lie for so long they are literally incapable of comprehending what went on, even as one political or economic crisis after another strips the fragile legitimacy of their position. All these facts have long been public knowledge, but the Council refuses to acknowledge it, unwilling to stain the ‘Manchester brand’.
To create this brand a grand project of social engineering has been carried out in Manchester and throughout the UK since the 1980s. In Manchester this is born out most visibly in its urban geography: the poor existing in run-down estates or moved from area to area as regeneration projects bring demolitions, gentrification and rising house prices.
The city centre is a good case in point. It has been turned into a citadel of the rich, the domain of property speculators, bankers, elite culture and consumer capitalism. Marginalised youth are often moved on by police and private security guards unless they are spending money. They are at best expected to take up menial service sector jobs – of which there are not even enough – and catch whatever crumbs fall from the top table. It is no surprise then that people should turn to crime for both money and self worth, and that they should lose respect for ‘their’ city: the reality is it is not theirs. Council Spokesperson Pat Karney’s condemnation of those “trying to destroy our city” revealed far more than he meant it to.
Addressing the Real Problem
The embrace of neo-liberalism has created not just inequality but also an atomised, individualistic society, where self-seeking greed and a lack of respect for others are presented as virtues. In some respects, the rioters hold a mirror to the dominant values of mainstream society.
The austerity measures currently taking place are a continuation of a long running process of redistributing wealth from poor to rich, and they will increase this inequality further. There have been warnings that this would lead to rioting, even from the likes of Nick Clegg. Most notably in Manchester the Council decided this year to practically abolish the city’s youth services as part of its programme of spending cuts – the only local authority in the UK to attempt a 100 per cent budget reduction in this area. They were warned by local campaigners that it could lead to violence.
The question now for the Council is straightforward: do they have the guts to admit this and begin a real discussion? The situation is crying out for a serious commitment to the future of the city’s abandoned youth and for a council and populous that listens to them. There are communities around Manchester who will be desperate for some sort of engagement. There will be many who won’t, feeling the political system has simply nothing to offer them, and at present they’re not far off the mark. None of these problems will go away unless the council in Manchester and the government in Westminster address the issues of structural inequality, deprivation and exclusion. That will be an incredibly difficult and messy job. Are any of them prepared to stick their head above the parapet? If not, expect this to be just the beginning.
This article was originally published on www.manchestermule.com