The political context is not the cuts agenda or racist policing – it is the welfare state, which, it is now clear, has nurtured a new generation that has absolutely no sense of community spirit or social solidarity. What we have on the streets of London and elsewhere are welfare-state mobs… This is not a political rebellion; it is a mollycoddled mob, a riotous expression of carelessness for one’s own community. And as a left-winger, I refuse to celebrate nihilistic behaviour that has a profoundly negative impact on working people’s lives.
London’s burning: a mob made by the welfare state
Yes, there’s a ‘political context’ to the riots: it is that British youth have been so suckled by the state they have zero sense of community spirit. Many commentators are on a mission to contextualise the riots that have swept parts of urban London and other British cities. ‘It’s very naive to look at these riots without the context’, says one journalist, who says the reason the violence kicked off in the London suburb of Tottenham is because ‘that area is getting 75% cuts [in public services]’. Others have said that the political context for the rioting is youth unemployment or working-class anger at David Cameron’s cuts agenda. ‘There is a context to London’s riots that can’t be ignored’, said a writer for the Guardian, and it is the ‘backdrop of brutal cuts and enforced austerity measures’. The ‘mass unrest’ is a protest against unhinged capitalism, apparently.
These observers are right that there is a political context to the riots. They are right to argue that while the police shooting of young black man Mark Duggan may ostensibly have been the trigger for the street violence, there is a broader context to the disturbances. But they are wrong about what the political context is. Painting these riots as some kind of action replay of historic political streetfights against capitalist bosses or racist cops might allow armchair radicals to get their intellectual rocks off, as they lift their noses from dusty tomes about the Levellers or the Suffragettes and fantasise that a political upheaval of equal worth is now occurring outside their windows. But such shameless projection misses what is new and peculiar and deeply worrying about these riots. The political context is not the cuts agenda or racist policing – it is the welfare state, which, it is now clear, has nurtured a new generation that has absolutely no sense of community spirit or social solidarity.
What we have on the streets of London and elsewhere are welfare-state mobs. The youth who are ‘rising up’ – actually they are simply shattering their own communities – represent a generation that has been more suckled by the state than any generation before it. They live in those urban territories where the sharp-elbowed intrusion of the welfare state over the past 30 years has pushed aside older ideals of self-reliance and community spirit. The march of the welfare state into every aspect of less well-off urban people’s existences, from their financial wellbeing to their childrearing habits and even into their emotional lives, with the rise of therapeutic welfarism designed to ensure that the poor remain ‘mentally fit’, has helped to undermine such things as individual resourcefulness and social bonding. The anti-social youthful rioters look to me like the end product of such an anti-social system of state intervention.
The most striking thing about the rioters is how little they seem to care for their own communities. You don’t have to be a right-winger with helmet hair and a niggling discomfort with black or chavvy yoof (I am the opposite of that) to recognise that this violence is not political, just criminal. It is entertaining to watch the political contortionism of those commentators who claim that the riots are an uprising against the evils of capitalism, as they struggle to explain why the targets thus far have been Foot Locker sports shops, electrical goods shops, takeaway joints and bus-stops, and why the only ‘gains’ made by the rioters have been to get a new pair of trainers or an Apple laptop. In past episodes of rioting, for example during the Brixton race riots of 1981, looting and the destruction of local infrastructure were largely incidental to the broader expression of political anger, byproducts of the main show, which was a clash between a community and the forces of the state. But in these new riots, smashing stuff up is all there is. It is childish nihilism.
Many older members of the urban communities rocked by violence have been shocked by the level of self-destruction exhibited by the rioters. Some shop-owners have got together to defend their property, even beating up rioters who have turned up with iron bars. In one video doing the rounds on social-networking sites, a West Indian woman in her fifties braves the rubble-strewn streets to lecture the rioters: ‘These people worked hard to make their businesses work and you lot wanna go and burn it up. For what?’ On Twitter, the hashtag #riotcleanup is being used by community members to coordinate some post-riot street-cleaning, to make amends for what one elderly Tottenham resident described as ‘the stupid behaviour of the young’.
But it’s more than childish destructiveness motivating the rioters. At a more fundamental level, these are youngsters who are uniquely alienated from the communities they grew up in. Nurtured in large part by the welfare state, financially, physically and educationally, socialised more by the agents of welfarism than by their own neighbours or community representatives, these youth have little moral or emotional attachment to the areas they grew up in. Their rioting reveals, not that Britain is in a time warp back to 1981 or 1985 when there were politically motivated, anti-racist riots against the police, but rather that the tentacle-like spread of the welfare state into every area of people’s lives has utterly zapped old social bonds, the relationship of sharing and solidarity that once existed in working-class communities. In communities that are made dependent upon the state, people are less inclined to depend on each other or on their own social wherewithal. We have a saying in Britain for people who undermine their own living quarters – we call it ‘shitting on your own doorstep’. And this rioting suggests that the welfare state has given rise to a generation perfectly happy to do that.
This is not a political rebellion; it is a mollycoddled mob, a riotous expression of carelessness for one’s own community. And as a left-winger, I refuse to celebrate nihilistic behaviour that has a profoundly negative impact on working people’s lives. Far from being an instance of working-class action, the welfare-state mob has more in common with what Marx described as the lumpenproletariat. Indeed, it is worth recalling Marx’s colourful description in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon of how that French ruler cynically built his power base amongst parts of the bourgeoisie and sections of the lumpenproletariat, so that ‘ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie rubbed shoulders with vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, swindlers, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, brothel-keepers, organ-grinders, ragpickers, knife-grinders, tinkers, beggars… and from this kindred element Boneparte formed the core of his [constituency], where all its members felt the need to benefit themselves at the expense of the labouring nation.’ In very different circumstances, we have something similar today – when the decadent commentariat’s siding with lumpen rioters represents a weird coming together of sections of the bourgeoisie with sections of the underworked and the over-flattered, as the rest of us, ‘the labouring nation’, look on with disdain.
There is one more important part to this story: the reaction of the cops. Their inability to handle the riots effectively reveals the extent to which the British police are far better adapted to consensual policing than conflictual policing. It also demonstrates how far they have been paralysed in our era of the politics of victimhood, where virtually no police activity fails to get followed up by a complaint or a legal case. Their kid-glove approach to the rioters of course only fuels the riots, because as one observer put it, when the rioters ‘see that the police cannot control the situation, [that] leads to a sort of adrenalin-fuelled euphoria’. So this street violence was largely ignited by the excesses of the welfare state and was then intensified by the discombobulation of the police state. In this sense, it reveals something very telling, and quite depressing, about modern Britain.