As I write, highly civilised human beings are rampaging through English cities, intent on sacking their own communities like history’s laziest barbarians. Not cinematic zombies, or feral mutant rats, or innately evil criminal demons, as they’ve been dubbed, but human beings. Mostly teenagers and schoolchildren on holiday, kicking off a viral riot for larks. Like many of my infantile generation, my first thoughts turned to the mythological heroes of the pop-culture pantheon. I wished for the benign vigilantism of Batman or the ironic fascism of Robocop to blast clean the London streets but, alas, cruel reality prevailed, and I could only watch as the grinning, hooded imps mugged the country of its self, swiping the old toothless lion and the skeletal, shuddering unicorn to turn into combat-dogfood, while the police line passively stood by.
After three nights, London cells are beyond capacity after police lost control of the streets. Salford is a battlefield. People are seriously taking about calling the army into the capital if the situation does not dissipate, and acquiescing to martial law, like terrified children calling for their parents. American CNN reporters move nervously around zone 2 London wearing flak jackets and kevlar helmets.
The sense of anarchy was particularly helped by the absence of heroic political leaders. There was no David Cameron to save the day, despite the use of the Cameron-Signal (a giant top-hat projected onto the night sky). And there was no Boris Johnson, who was expected , like Napoleon on his march to retake Paris, to step out from the police line, approached the rioters by himself, pull open his shirt to expose his bare chest, and cry the challenge, “Here I am. Kill your Mayor, if you wish.” Instead, everyone was away on expensive holidays in nicer countries, until the shitstorm back home grew too pungent to ignore.
Tonight, thousands of besieged police officers will attempt to reclaim London, Manchester and Birmingham, as if from an foreign invasion force. Residents may have to gather and fight hand-to-hand for their neighbourhoods. Logic miserably suggests that the riot will grow increasing viral over the week and spread to other urban areas. Local curfews by Friday – enforced by paramilitary police tooled up with tasers, water cannon and tear gas – are not inconceivable at present, with considerable bending of the law.
Personally, I’ve been physically unaffected. I live in Warwickshire, a rural county of rolling wheat fields and castle towns, which a native of Tottenham might consider more Hobbiton than Holloway Road. If I had been avoiding BBC News and social media for the past few days, I would still be largely unaware of the rioting. Nearby Coventry, where I work, is a notorious rough post-industrial city, and a piss-up of post-war urban planning, but as yet without any sign of civil upheaval. An insufficient number of wastrels, perhaps.
As we know, it was all sparked by a protest against the increasingly dubious police shooting of Mark Duggon, quickly snowballing into high-spirited anti-police/anti-everything rioting, then finally avalanching into adolescent anarchy, with truly dystopian levels of looting, arson and armed robbery. Last night, it seemed like an episode of Skins written by JG Ballard.
At first, as Tottenham’s Allied Carpets began to burn, I thought I saw fledging class warfare. Not a class struggle in a strictly Marxist sense, as it was the non-working class seizing products rather than the means of production, but some form of spontaneous civil insurgency. A capitalist peasant’s revolt, spurred by the black death of government spending cuts. But those are my own political prejudices. The riots have clearly not developed in any politically driven path. No-one has trashed Scotland Yard or stormed the gates of Buckingham Palace. The most common targets appear to have been the likes of Currys, Phones4U, Nandos and JD Sports; the very places the rioters would spend their money if and when they had any. Greed at play, yes, and a joyously big fuck-you to the police, but perhaps also a self-destructive urge (and also a basic business sense, as there is the most demand for such goods for any black marketers).
I have so far only experienced the rioting as a media event. However, as a member of middle-class England, I feel like I’ve been mugged along with everyone else, mugged of a national identity. To paraphrase a local playwright, he who loots my shops loots trash but he that filches from me the good name of my country, robs me of that which not enriches him, but makes me poor indeed. As well as the actual criminal damage of the rioting, the kids have shown the world that our society has polarised to point of civil war.
While the riots of Thatcher’s Britain were synonymous with race, and racism, with black-and-white grievances, the current disturbances are a mixed ethnic bag, and are not even easily categorised by economic group. It’s not simple Chav War as plenty of middle-class London trendies have joined in the mayhem. If I still lived in London, maybe, for some ungodly reason, I would be grabbing myself some free Tesco’s Value Range basmati rice too.
And the motivations? It’s certainly not a lust for fame or cry for attention, given the number of photographers and cameramen being assaulted for attempting to document events. Stop and ask a mid-frenzy rioter for an voxpop interview and you’ll most likely be told, “piss off, pussyole”, and relieved of your phone. A more articulate marauder might claim to be an anarchist, or offer some indignant diatribe about police persecution and the general lack of ‘respect’ that obsesses certain youngsters. This signals a sense of inadequacy and resentment at the society that glances at them askance, crosses the road to avoid them, and clearly thinks, ‘chav bastard scum’. But I doubt any of them would start quoting Das Kapital. It’s more a case of bubbling teenage hormones than the cold thud of ideologies.
Good old-fashioned mob mentality is also clearly at work, with the sheer scale of these flash-riots offering the sort of anonymity that breeds misanthropy, like a Youtube comment box, as well as the thrill of empowerment that comes with intimidation, especially for those for whom intimidation is their only interaction with society. The riots seems to have sprung up only in areas with a large enough deprived inner-city area for numbers to fully digest the individual. This would also explain why the rioters arrested so far have included graduates and professionals, caught up in the heat of destruction. Those charged so far have included a graphic designer, an army cadet and even a youth worker. They pled guilty and blamed the madness of crowds.
As well as the ad-hoc criminality at play, perhaps including some gangster organisation, what about the arson and general destruction of any destructible surface? It appears to be just for laughs, indicative of a Dark Age sense of humour. In The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer illustrates the violent humour of a violent culture rife with brutality and oppression, when the spectacle of a severely concussed man repeating failing to remount his horse was the equivalent to a Mr Bean sketch. This is the humour of a people who get their giggles from extreme schadenfreude, from watching someone’s car going up in flames, or urinating over a homeless person. It’s the cruel, unenlightened humour of kids who grew up hard, watching Jackass without getting the irony.
The lankiest and most recognisable suspect in the line-up of explanations, for me, is the whole thing being a grotesquely amoral mirror image of shopping therapy. The centres of our communities are shopping malls, and our value as citizens is proportional to our collected consumer products. In a sense, these riots might be seen as the logical progression of consumer culture. Running through consumerism is an overriding sense of personal entitlement. The sense of deserving new trainers, deserving a plasma telly and deserving a Macbook supersedes any guilt over the globalised serfdom of the third-world work force which you perpetuate with your purchase. Entitlement is the selfish brat offspring of egalitarianism and the heir to Western culture, and that brat is currently making an almighty mess in mum and dad’s bedroom.
As a child, I remember constantly demanding the latest industrially produced toys characterised by media-constructed narratives: Transformers, Thundercats and their beloved ilk. The selfish demand for these products was imprinted into me, and it was up to my parents to work against it by instilling in me a moral code. I can believe that plenty of parents have failed in such a quest, or simply not bothered. That brattish bawling for new toys continues into adulthood and allows for the emotional satisfaction of consumer culture, tempered by morality or not. And (undisputedly, I’m afraid), lacking a father figure makes that sense of morality more unlikely.
I’m coming to the conclusion that the current rioting is not rioting for political or social ends, in the traditional sense, but are simply riots as a consumer product, or a party game. We’re as familiar with the media iconography of rioting as we are with the bright colours of Optimus Prime or the Power Rangers. Maybe kids who’ve grown up watching footage of the striking miners and the Poll Tax protesters clashing with police, the LA riots, as well as the recent Arab Spring, are now just childishly acting it all out, feeling entitled to smash everything up as if they had any genuine political agenda. It could just be a case of retro-rioting; play-acting; an infantile game that can only end it tears.
At least there have been some encouraging scenes in all this, such as the clean-ups, and the immigrant and Muslim communities like Dalston’s Turks, making a stand against the looters as if England was a concept worth defending, which it is. When George Orwell wrote his essay The Lion and the Unicorn, the blitz was raging and a multinational London pulled together against the despair, death and the wanton criminality in the blackouts. Orwell hoped the destruction and solidarity would allow room for socialism to grow in England’s country garden. Unfortunately, that socialism only got as far as the NHS before his wartime runner-up Britain was bankrupt, and American consumerism barged in instead. And here we are. The price of WWII was paid not for a socialist paradise but for us to avoid the tracksuit-kids dicking about in HMV, and do our best to ignore the reason why they’ve nothing better to do than hog the display X-boxes all day, stinking of weed in every sense.
As well as the hoodie-affiliated social and family failings we’re all familiar with, I would say that the self-centred cultural entitlement that we all nurture had led us to this. Hopefully, this will all soon peter out, and we can look back at this week as a harsh reality check for the importance of community, with everyone involved, and with deeper values than price tags. And to ensure our community is properly funded enough to forcibly guide the wayward back to civilisation. So, if someone finds a lion and a unicorn under their child’s bed, among brand new boxes of trainers, please do the right thing and return them. It’s getting embarrassing.
Like those making a stand against the mob, and from falling into the mob, I believe in England, and I believe that we shall go forward.
Image by Todd G, used under a CC licence.