Tag Archives: Youth

Rioting and social meaning.

Without wanting to add to the enjambment of talking heads filling the airwaves, proffering immediate reactive grist to the 24hr news mill, I would say a couple of things.

That roaming, swarms of teenagers and young people, male and female, and, crucially black and white (despite the shameful, racist attempts by the right wing press and commentators to paint this as exclusively “black” behavior) should rampage through large swathes of London engaging, primarily, in the looting of shops for private gain, is instructive of the nature of the events themselves.

This is to say that these riots differ fundamentally from the riots in Brixton, Toxteth and Broadwater Farm in the 1980’s which were clearly identifiable as caused by an antagonistic and racially toxic relationship between the police and impoverished urban communities.  Where those riots involved the communities at large and of all ages, whereas these seem to involve, almost exclusively, the young.

The economic dimension of the trouble cannot be overlooked, although the simplistic “liberal/underlying social causes/deprivation” vs “reactionary/lazy shiftless criminality” binary does little to illuminate and everything to obscure.  The overriding visual trope of the events has been of young people looting goods/money etc… that would be inaccessible to them normally.

To escape this kind of binary, addressing the riots on a systemic level may be more fruitful.  This is to say, that the economic paradigm which Britain has wedded itself to since the dissolving of the post-war settlement in the early 1980’s, promotes and enforces one single frame of identity, behavior and measurement above all others:  Consumption.

This is to say that one’s primary identity is that of consumer, the country’s economic success (and that of it’s politicians) stands and falls on levels of  consumption and consumer confidence.  When consumption falls, we are, de facto in a state of crisis.

The individuals engaging in the mass looting of electrical outlets, sports shops and jewelers are engaging in behavior which is reinforced by the culture in which they have been surrounded throughout their lives.  This is not as those on the right fantasise, the “black gangster” culture, rather the culture of capitalism itself.

This outbreak of violent, acquisitive psychosis is not an aberration, rather an entirely foreseeable consequence of a society and economic system which teaches, above all, that one’s entire social role, achievement, life as such is defined by one’s role as consumer;  by what, how and the extent to which one can consume.  When the means (capital) to achieve, what Veblen termed Conspicuous Consumption is placed out of reach either by lack of educational or employment opportunities, economic depression etc.. and yet the cultural drive to consumption, perpetuated by the advertising, marketing and media industries persists, the inevitable  dissonance which follows always has the potential to turn violent.

Unfortunately, all that this seems to have achieved is to provide the reactionary Right with precisely the excuse they need to further step up surveillance, militarization of urban space and retrenchment of civil liberties.  The worrying trending of #sendinthearmy over the last couple of days is, likewise indicative of this.









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