By Nigel Young
Rioting in English cities can be written off as the same mindless looting and burning that spread in US cities such as Los Angeles in the past. (I’m reminded of the 1965 Watts riots.) But then as now, context is everything. In a simplistic analysis, a feral elite has bred a “feral” urban mob in a classic, centuries-old repetition of patterns of social discontent, bubbling to the surface in a sudden expression of blind undirected rage. The young, the jobless and the marginal, in particular, sense at least their displacement and invisibility. This accompanies the final clashing of all the fresh expectations of the Blair years. Amidst urban blight, torpor and a cultural disintegration, largely ignored by a web of introverted ruling circles, the inevitable has finally happened. However a-political the response on the streets, a cynical and demonstrably corrupt governing class–whilst pursuing pointless and costly enterprises abroad–has finally had a dose of the reality it had long created but ignored. Surrounded by a consumerist media, and the material lust of a publicized minority, mass looting is a depressingly predictable and materialist reaction.
The recent evidence of the Murdoch affair of a venal political elite, corrupt officials and police–in league with a predatory media–all served to underline the ethical vacuum into which these events intrude. Politicians, police and bankers can still moralise and walk away from the issues the riots raise. But the widening gap between rich and poor, and an unmanaged cultural dislocation, has accompanied a collapse of social values, that these elites have connived and perilously ignored. It was in a vacuum occupied only by private greed, careerism and public cant about individual enterprise. The promised land of the 1980s and 1990s has proved, for younger generations, a never-never land of increasing debt, unemployment and family breakdown. Rampant alcoholism and delinquency were the warning signs of alienation. Blairism had continued the dangerous Thatcherite mood: carelessness about public service, a corporate lack of responsibility further undermined the credibility of any common civic goals, or fairness as a social principle.
Overpaid footballers (soccer stars) may look glum as their home neighbourhoods burn and their matches are cancelled, but the price of their individual, symbolic success has been public disaster. The timing of the riots was unpredictable, but their inevitability was clear. No political group has gained from the situation, not even the anti-immigrant far-right. All three main British parties appear complicit. If there is renewal, it appears in a cross-party and extra-parliamentary movement for reform, standing outside the institutions, to try to deal with the causes of a social malaise that lies far deeper than the riots. The crisis was the occasion for looting and burning, not the cause; it affects far more of the millions silently discontent than the rioters represent. Three decades of social vandalism by governing elites will take vision, education, civil and political will of massive proportions to repair – and an independent media, and a new politics to sustain it. The brooms that swept the riot-torn streets of Brixton may well have to sweep through all the major British institutions and corporations before this crisis is halted.
A deep wound in the social body has produced this fever. The cry of pain, not just of the young, dispossessed, is the political alarm.
As Colgate University’s Cooley Professor of Peace Studies, Nigel Young held the first endorsed Peace Studies Chair in North America. He was also a co-founder of the UK’s first Peace Studies Department at the University of Bradford (1973) and has authored, co-authored, and edited many works in the field. He is Editor in Chief of The Oxford International Encyclopedia of Peace.