While the Australian media has been remarkably quiet on the issue, focusing instead on the supposedly impending economic apocalypse, a peek at a map of London superimposed with the locations of all the riots and their spread tells a story worth hearing. The riots are everywhere, they’re dangerous for ordinary people, and they’re being astoundingly badly handled by the Police.
There are a couple of different narratives for why these riots have broken out. One narrative is that these people are demanding a revolution in response to their lack of opportunities, employment prospects and affluence. The other narrative is that this is just senseless chav violence, completely opportunistic behaviour with no particular endgame other than a stolen TV and the spectacle of a burning car.
I suspect a little of both is true. The guises of revolution, in which the rioters purported to revolt in the name of the police shooting of Mark Duggan, ended a long time ago. People with no association to the man originally killed and no solidarity in protesting against police violence and overreach are ransacking the streets. These rioters aren’t revolutionaries; they aren’t heroes, they’re not even trying to be.
They’re not stealing from the rich; they’re looting the convenience stores owned by their neighbours, pick pocketing the backpacks of fellow rioters, and burning down buildings with no political associations whatsoever.
It’s an uncomfortable truth to express the view that the values these young people have come to see as normal are toxic. But we must face the reality that these rioters exist in a social environment in which it is acceptable to destroy and pillage the property of others for no other reason than to ‘show the cops we do what we want’. To put a romantic revolutionary gloss on their actions is to import far too much weight to their attitudes. They’re essentially self-interested.
That said, there is undeniably a class element to what is going on. The rioters are largely people from a marginalised background, and while this doesn’t excuse their behaviour it certainly helps to explain it. Marginalised young people are often failed in a variety of ways by their families, communities and the government. The rioters are a product of their upbringing and the values taught therein, a product of the rise of neo-liberal spending cuts to community services which improve opportunities and divert young people from crime, and a product of an education system which is often irrelevant and poorly equipped to handle students from a disadvantaged background. To put it another way: whilst the London Riots may well just be senseless Chav violence, upper and middle class people don’t become Chavs.
On the macro level, it is often said countries with McDonalds don’t go to war with one another – they have too much economic development to lose by fighting with one another. On the micro level, the same can be said. These people are brought up in circumstances of having nothing to lose by being involved in crime, because they already have nothing, and are constantly told by society that they are nothing. Perhaps in the eyes of some, that they have nothing is their (and/or their parent’s) own fault. But the neo-liberal ‘solution’ which leaves the burden of social inequality and marginalisation completely upon those who suffer from its consequences, in light of the London Riots, has been a failure.