Brendan O’Neill, in The Australian, 10 August 2011, with title “Less political rebellion, more mollycoddled mob” — for blog coomments see http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/opinion/less-political-rebellion-more-mollycoddled-mob/story-e6frg6zo-1226111939883
NY 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 per cent cuts [in public services]”. Others have said the political context for the rioting is youth unemployment or working-class anger at Prime Minister David Cameron’s cuts agenda.“There is a context to London’s riots that can’t be ignored,” says 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. 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 occurring outside their windows. But such shameless projection misses what is new and deeply worrying about these riots. The political context is not the cuts or racist policing, it is the welfare state, which has nurtured a generation that has 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 shattering their own communities represent a generation that has been suckled by the state more than any generation before it. They live in urban territories where the sharp-elbowed intrusion of the welfare state during 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 urban, less well-off people’s existences, from their financial wellbeing to their child-rearing habits and even into their emotional lives, with the rise of therapeutic welfarism designed to ensure that the poor remain “mentally fit”, has undermined individual resourcefulness and social bonding. The antisocial youthful rioters are the end-product of this antisocial system of state intervention.
The most striking thing about the rioters is how little they 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 contortions of commentators who claim the riots are an uprising against the evils of capitalism, as they struggle to explain why the targets have been Foot Locker sports shops and why the only “gains” made by the rioters have been to get a new pair of trainers or an Apple laptop. In the Brixton race riots of 1981, looting and the destruction of local infrastructure were largely incidental to the broader expression of political anger, by-products of the main show, which was a clash between a community and the forces of the state. But in these riots, looting and 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, a West Indian woman in her 50s braves the rubble-strewn streets to lecture the rioters: “These people worked hard to make their businesses work and then you lot wanna go and burn it up. For what?” On Twitter, the hashtag #riotcleanup is being used by community members to co-ordinate some post-riot street-cleaning, to make amends for what one elderly Tottenham resident described as “the stupid behaviour of the young”.
But it is more than childish destructiveness motivating the rioters. These are youngsters who are uniquely alienated from the communities in which they grew up. 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 local representatives, these youth have little moral or emotional attachment to their communities. Their rioting reveals not that Britain is in a time warp in 1981 or 1985 with politically motivated riots against the police, but 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. These riots suggest that the welfare state is giving rise to a generation happy to shit on its own doorstep.
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 adverse affect on working people’s lives. Far from being an instance of working-class action, this welfare-state mob has more in common with what Marx described as the lumpenproletariat. Indeed, it is worth remembering Marx’s colourful description in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon of how that French ruler cynically built his power base among 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, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, brothel-keepers, organ-grinders, ragpickers, knife-grinders, tinkers, beggars and from this kindred element Buonaparte parte 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 where 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 rioting story: the reaction of the cops. Their inability to handle the riots effectively reveals the extent to which the British police are adapted to consensual rather than conflictual policing. It also demonstrates how far they have been paralysed by the politics of victimhood, where virtually every police activity gets followed up by a complaint or a legal case. Their kid-glove approach to the rioters only fuels the riots because, as one observer put it, when the rioters “see that the police cannot control the situation, [that] leads to sort of adrenalin-fuelled euphoria”. So this street violence was largely ignited by the excesses of the welfare state and intensified by the discombobulation of the police state. The riots tell a very interesting story about modernBritain.