The game of social dysfunction

After a second night of – relative – calm, it looks as if, thankfully, the orgy of rioting, looting and destruction that has swept England since last Saturday is finally over. In the aftermath of England worst civil disobedience in generations, it’s time to look for answers. Or to play the blame game – a game that, in fact, pundits and the public have been playing since Tottenham started burning last weekend. A lack of complete information has never been any barrier to humanity’s ability to jump to conclusions where events like this are concerned, even more so for those of us that live in the country that was collectively terrified for four nights.

So who is getting the blame? After all, there’s always “some bastard who is presumably responsible”, isn’t there? Blame, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and accordingly everyone’s view of the responsibility for events is being filtered through the prism of their own politics, views and prejudices. Thus the left blamed the right, for having caused so much social deprivation with their emphasis on capitalism, big business, public spending cuts and an ever widening social divide. The right blamed the left, for decades of indiscipline, political correctness, excessive tolerance and an ‘entitlement culture’ based on benefit receipt that was easier than working. Oh, and the EDL, with predictable stupidity, blamed the blacks.

The consumer culture was responsible, in which aggressive advertising and corporate hype raised to an almost religious fervour the desirability of trendy materialistic items to those who increasingly couldn’t afford them. The spoiled nature of today’s youth, brought up on a welfare state to believe they were entitled to something for nothing, was responsible. A lack of proper parenting was responsible. The moral corruption of the nation’s leaders was responsible. Police racism was responsible. The failing economy, widening the divide between an increasing army of poor and a shrinking minority of ultra-rich, was responsible. A lack of discipline in schools was responsible. Rap music, with its glorification of sexism, homophobia, drugs and illegally obtained material items, was responsible. Twitter was responsible. Facebook was responsible. And so ad infinitum, each seeking to boil down an incredibly disparate set of circumstances that happened to come together to cause chaos into one nice, simple soundbite, so that we can do something easy and say, “there, we’ve sorted that, it’ll never happen again”.

“Criminality, pure and simple,” was the Prime Minister’s oft-repeated, scolding refrain. The former Eton prefect was presumably forgetting his own teenage trouble with cannabis and later well-documented hooliganism with Oxford University’s toffs-only drinking society, the Bullingdon Club. Criminality it was, pure and simple it certainly was not. The truth is, you can’t boil this down to one nice, simple explanation where those you don’t like get the blame. I think there are elements of all the causes listed above that have contributed, and that most people, left and right, have a point to make and some responsibility to be shouldered.

Of course, the information is still incomplete, and it may never be possible to provide proper explanations, but using the events to justify your own political prejudices is never a good idea. Particularly if you’re the EDL. In the emergency session of Parliament called yesterday, David Cameron sought, predictably, to shift the blame onto “the last government” who by his reckoning appear to have been responsible for every social ill from the sacking of Rome to the First World War. Ed Milliband, equally predictably, pointed out that it had happened during a Conservative-led government, and their savage social injustice must have caused it. Neither seemed willing to look too deep into the causes, and with good reason – beneath the usual tired rhetoric, both had a point. What we’ve seen over the last week is the huge simmering melting pot of this country’s social problems finally boiling over, and it’s been a long time coming. Or to put it another way, in the Buckaroo game of England’s social dysfunction, successive governments have piled on more and more bedrolls and crates, and the current one has just had the misfortune of putting on the last stick of dynamite that finally makes the mule kick.

So how did we get from a peaceful protest over a dubious police killing to jaw dropping footage of England’s greatest cities in flames as though the Luftwaffe had made a return visit in search of trainers and plasma TVs? Racism definitely played its part, though even that isn’t as simple as many would like to claim. There are definitely some very dubious circumstances surrounding the Metropolitan Police’s shooting of Mark Duggan last Thursday (can it be only a week ago? It seems like a lifetime). From the, as usual, limited information available, it looks like the Met reacted with totally disproportionate force, and shot a man who wasn’t offering the kind of threat that would justify this. But equally, it’s been shown that Duggan did have a gun – it was a blank-firing pistol that had been adapted to fire live rounds. The problem being that he hadn’t actually used it – it was the police that did all the shooting. Duggan, at least on the face of it, was no angel. But shooting him in the head may have been overreacting.

Some, initially, took this as evidence that the inherent racism in the Met condemned by the 1981 Scarman Report was still very much around. And they very possibly have a point, though it’s always a mistake to paint every policeman with the same colours (so to speak). There are numerous accounts of the police’s tendency to stop and search young black men far, far more frequently than any other ethnic group, even at the expense of going after other, non-black criminals who are more obviously doing wrong – my friend Chris Lancaster, a teacher in Hackney, has attested to this point with firsthand tales. But is this still the “jungle bunny, darkie, send them back to their own country” racism of the 70s and 80s, or are we looking at something more complex?

England may be far more racially sensitive than it was in those dark days, but that doesn’t mean we’ve reached any golden age of equal treatment and opportunity for all ethnicities. As a general rule, criminals have always tended to come from the poorer sections of society. Also as a general rule, even now, most of the country’s black youth have also been locked into the poorer sections of society – particularly in London, where the descendants of the Caribbean immigrants of the 50s have never managed to escape the poverty trap no matter how hard their parents worked. So it’s not hard to see the flawed chain of ‘logic’ that could lead even a non-white supremacist policeman to be prejudiced. Criminals are poor. Black youths are poor. Therefore black youths must be criminals.

But there’s an even bigger racial issue here than any kind of prejudice inherent in the police, which is the question of WHY social class can be defined by race. In a land where racism apparently has been made so much less of a problem, why are there still some races unable to escape the poverty trap? Actual racists, of whom there are still a depressing amount, would say that it’s because of black culture, entitlement, rap music, etc. Even more depressingly, they may have a point – the culture of many young black men in poor backgrounds has shaped itself into something wilfully antisocial. Obviously that’s not true of all, but enough to be noticeable, particularly for the mainstream media who focus on this minority at the expense of the rest of the black community. But that misses the point that an antisocial culture has developed because of injustice, prejudice and poverty, which in turn reinforces those things in a depressing zero sum game. It’s easy to blame rap music for causing social ills, but remember that rap music was spawned by those very social ills in the first place, and has nihilistically drifted away from its original message of political outrage and injustice to resignedly boasting, glorifying women with big butts and telling us how many guns and expensive things the rappers own. But if you see your ancestors working hard and still living in poverty, and your only hope of financial advancement is crime, it’s easy to see how that can be tempting.

None of which excuses or justifies such behaviour of course, and it’s equally true to say that plenty of people from such a background study hard, work hard, and are fine members of society. And equally, there are still plenty of honourable people in the black community who have a justifiable sense of outrage at the position they STILL find themselves in purely because of their race. Of course, the racists take this as proof of their obvious superiority – if blacks are as good as us, they argue, there wouldn’t be such a disproportionately high number of black people in poverty. This, quite frankly, is bollocks. The reason there are so many black people among England’s poor is, quite simply, that there are still racists. It’s clear that not enough has been done to address the problem of integrating Britain’s varied ethnicities. A ‘quota’ system of positive discrimination in employment is not the answer – how patronising is it to know you’ve got a job purely on the basis of your race rather than your ability? The answer, surely, is in education, in bringing all people up to respect each other as equal – not just in the classroom, but everywhere in society. Many good people are still struggling to achieve just that. But plainly it’s not working, and new racists are being brought up to hate all the time. Look at the average age of an EDL member – we’re mostly talking under 30. If young people are still being taught by those around them that some races are more equal than others, there’s plainly still a very big problem.

So it was hardly surprising that, when a group of perfectly well-intentioned people accompanied Mark Duggan’s family to Tottenham police station on Saturday to demand some answers and were met with indifference and contempt, something bad was going to happen. And something bad did, as – reportedly – a teenage girl was pushed to the ground by a policeman, for reasons that are still unclear. Angry, people started throwing things. And lo and behold, another race riot was born on the streets of London, not so far from where similar riots had spring up in the 80s.

And at that point, it’s fair to say it really was a race riot – those same issues that sparked the 80s riots had, with a depressing inevitability, flared into violence again. Depressed, but not entirely surprised, I only watched the news with half an eye that night – it was a familiar narrative, and I had the nihilistic view that again, nothing would change.

But I was wrong. Things did change – for the worse. With any riot, there’s always an extra momentum built up by mob mentality, and by those who opportunistically latch onto it for their own ends – to cause trouble, to start a fight, and always, to steal things and break things. So it was that Saturday, but the scale was unprecedented. As the night wore on, it became clear that, however it had started, this was about more than Mark Duggan and police racism now. It had become rioting, destruction and looting for its own sake, with no point to make whatsoever. Shops were looted, cars and buildings set on fire, and any message that might have been given was entirely lost.

As night followed night, it became clear that this was now ALL about the looting, the fighting and the destruction. It was like the end of Quatermass and the Pit, with apparently ordinary people drawn mindlessly into the wanton indulgence of theft and vandalism. The communities being ransacked were their own backyards – they were, to use a phrase I first heard in a Stephen King novel, “shitting where they eat”.

At this point, any easy analysis of the causes was impossible. The film and CCTV footage, and the news photos, showed a much more disparate group in terms of age, gender and ethnicity than anyone had expected. Of course, people see what they want to see – to racists, 90% of them were black, to liberals, 90% of them were socially deprived, to conservatives, 90% of them were from broken homes and living on benefits. As we’re seeing now that the mindwarping amount of them arrested is beginning to filter through the courts, it’s not that straightforward.

A breakdown of the demographics involved is not yet forthcoming, so I’m guilty of speculation myself here. But of those looters who’ve already gone through the courts, we’re seeing that plenty of them actually had jobs, in some cases quite well-paid ones. So they weren’t all on benefits. Plenty of them were in higher education – so they weren’t all stupid. Plenty of them were women – so they weren’t all men. Plenty of them were white – so it wasn’t all about racism. And while a very high proportion were teenage or younger, there were plenty of people in their 30s and even their 40s, so it wasn’t a failure exclusively confined to a new ‘feral’ generation.

So what caused such a disparate bunch to turn into the terrifying mobs of roving thieves we saw over the last week? With so many different kinds of people involved, it was obviously more than one thing. The trouble is that all the causes feed into each other, so identifying motives – or solutions – is not easy.

“It’s the madness of a consumer society, where we’re all told to buy things we can’t afford,” cried many liberals, myself included. That this had a part to play was obvious; in the words of one teenage girl interviewed on the news, they wanted “some free stuff”. And after all, the main activity of the disorder was theft. More than ever, we live in a society where we’re defined as people by the things we own. You’re in a lower social class if you don’t have the right brand of trainers, or the very latest model of iPhone. Equally obviously, these things are getting harder and harder for ordinary people to afford, even as they’re artificially made more desirable by advertising and social pressure. “Tear it all down!” cried a communist friend of mine, clearly failing to appreciate that Karl Marx would hardly have been proud of a proletariat whose sole motive was the acquisition of material things.

“It’s the recession and the Coalition cuts,” we also cried. There’s an aspect of that too, for some. Whatever you think about the Coalition’s economic policies, it’s undeniable that the social divide between rich and poor is wider than ever before. The diminishing tiny group of the wealthy get wealthier and wealthier, while the increasingly populous poor get poorer. All this in the middle of a global recession in which those perceived to have caused it – the investment banks – have been bailed out by taxpayer’s money and continue to pay themselves conspicuously obscene bonuses while governments, held to ransom by threats of corporate relocation, can do nothing but look on impotently. “We’re just taking stuff back from the rich,” commented one looter as she walked away carrying her pointless new hoard. As cries of political rage go, it was pretty inarticulate, and smacked of excuse-making at that, but it summed up the increasing anger the population are rightly feeling about the increasingly divisive economic inequality the world over.

“It’s the voice of the voiceless,” was another cry I heard as a justification for this being the only kind of revolutionary expression an inarticulate ill-educated underclass could manage. That’s as may be, but they were hardly sticking it to their oppressors; Chipping Norton and the West End went unmolested. In fact, the looters’ targets were depressingly unambitious. I mean, JD Sports? Footlocker? Miss Selfridge? As consumers, their looting choices were decidedly low-rent. That may have just been down to opportunism; Armani and Gucci don’t have too many outlets in Hackney. Still, it’s telling that the REALLY exclusive stuff wasn’t hunted for – these were the dream things of decidedly ordinary people, and even these for many were out of their reach.

But not for all. As has been pointed out, many of those doing the robbing already had some of the things they were nicking. Some, like the teenage girl whose parents own a mansion, could clearly have afforded to but them anyway. So why would people want to loot things that they already had, didn’t need, or could afford to buy? The right wingers would have us believe that it’s because of a spoiled “entitlement culture” where the Welfare State has given the population the impression that they can get something for nothing, and this was a logical extension. And you know what? I think they had a point. But only the beginnings of one. We DO live in a culture where we expect to be able to get “free stuff” without having to work for it. State benefits have to shoulder some of the blame for that; even in the 90s, when I was on benefits, I found that there were occasions when it was better for me financially to stay on benefits than get a job. Not that this is any reason for the Welfare State to be dismantled, as the right wing would immediately insist. The benefit system is certainly ripe for overhaul, though whether the current government’s plan for it will work is questionable. But that’s only part of the “entitlement culture”. After all, if benefits payments are higher than potential wages, isn’t there also a problem with the wages? For years, employees rights have been eroded to such an extent, and corporate privileges extended by so much, that wages haven’t risen in real terms since 2003. I’d say the private sector has something to answer for in making joblessness a more attractive state than working for a pittance to enrich a minority.

If Labour have given the country a too-generous benefit system though, that’s as nothing compared to the economic dreams the Conservatives fostered in the 80s. Thatcher’s dream of a classless society where everyone gets rich (except the poor, who don’t matter) led to decades of easy credit possessions. Credit which, in the middle of a financial crisis, is no longer available. Why, people may be asking, could our parents get free stuff and we can’t? Oh wait, there’s an easier way…

Not to mention (and this is admittedly being filtered through MY prejudices) the inane “celebrity” culture that’s arisen over the last decade or so. How many young people, asked what they’d like to be, will these days simply say, “a celebrity”? Fame used to be earned by talent, hard work, and yes, sometimes luck. Now a lifetime of glitzy parties, appearances in Heat magazine and a line of workout DVDs is perceived to be guaranteed simply by dint of appearing on TV shows that require an unpaid public simply to turn up and gurn onscreen for a few minutes a week. Big Brother, The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent et al have fostered this culture, and we are, in part, reaping the rewards of it. If young people’s biggest dream is to be accorded the trappings of fame without doing anything to deserve it, these have surely played their part. When young girls say that their dearest aspiration is to be a footballer’s wife, that’s a dispiriting state for future generations to be in. Fame without work has become so ingrained in our culture, it’s easy to understand how people might think they can get – and deserve – something for nothing.

“They’re taking away my EMA,” one looter stated, “so this is, like, me getting stuff back.” A decreasing amount of educational opportunities, whether real or perceived, is undoubtedly stoking the fire of social unrest, particularly in poorer areas. Having said that, this was a claim it was hard to take seriously in a lot of cases. It later transpired that many of those looting were already in Higher Education. And it was noticeable that, if the looters were so concerned about their education, they conspicuously left Waterstone’s untouched.

Nevertheless, to some the Educational Maintenance Allowance, innovation though it is, has been a genuine lifeline. Some criticise it as, effectively, paying to keep kids in education and therefore off the unemployment register. But for some, it does enable them to go to college without having to support their family with a part time job. Its loss has been felt in many communities; but I still think in these cases that it’s been more a factor in the erosion of morale than an actual contributor. Books seem to hold far less attraction for the looters than Nikes.

“These people have no community spirit!” was the clarion call of many conservatives. And they’re right there, too. When people are destroying, looting, and burning down the places where they live, when lack of concern for your fellow human beings leads to robbing an injured man’s backpack under the guise of helping him, it’s clear that large swathes of the looters had absolutely no investment in their community, or indeed humanity in general. I doubt this applies to everyone who was out there, but it’s true of a hell of a lot of them. How we get people like that to accept the idea that “no man is an island” is a knotty problem, particularly when everywhere they turn, they see so-called ‘pillars of the community’ acting out of selfish self-interest. It’s hard to have much faith in a community when you see that community’s elected representatives defrauding those who pay their wages to get themselves a new duckpond. Or a moat. Or even a flatscreen TV like those that proved so popular to the looters. And when those selfsame representatives, and their enforcers in the police, have been caught out accepting favours, hospitality and money from a vast media empire intent on making more money out of invading the privacy of grieving families, that’s hardly likely to foster a sense of community either.

“These looters have no fear of the consequences because the police have been stripped of all power to act!” Another one that is, in some ways, true. The perception fostered since the 70s by movies like Dirty Harry (which, incidentally, is intended to condemn the behaviour of its title character rather than glorify it) is that the police’s hands are so tied by the ‘human rights’ of criminals that the criminals can act with total impunity. In some ways, this isn’t far from the truth; but the police themselves have to shoulder some of the blame here. I hasten to add at this point that the vast majority of police officers are decent people who actually want to fairly preserve law and order. However, the decades of scandals in which the British police have been embroiled by an admittedly diminishing proportion of their number have left them trepidatious of taking any direct action for fear of reprisals from the public. Even now, there are still problems with this. The death of Ian Tomlinson last year, and the public outcry over the outrageous kettling of student protestors, have left senior police officers fearful to take bold action when faced with these situations. Not to mention the fact that the Met in particular is currently leaderless after its two most senior officers had to resign over their roles in the phone hacking scandal.

“What are they going to do anyway?” snorted one looter. “Put me in prison? They’re full! Give me an ASBO?” And he was right. It’s hard to see how Big Dave can honour his press conference promises of cramming the 1500 and rising looters already arrested into a prison system that’s already creaking at the seams. ASBOs, an asinine Labour invention, have done nothing to curb people’s contempt for the punitive system either. How have we ended up with so many criminals that an impressively large prison system isn’t big enough for them? Well, there is the well-known fact that the prison system does little in the way of rehabilitation; for a first-timer, a spell in jail with some hardened criminals will just result in him or her being released as a better-skilled criminal. This is not to say that criminals shouldn’t go to prison – but equally something must be done to reform a system where, when they come out, they’re more likely than not to simply go back to crime, get caught, and go back in.

To briefly bang a drum I’ve banged before, if you want to do something about the number of criminals, you might want to look at reforming the drug prohibition laws. How much crime, including that on sinkhole estates like Hackney’s Pembury, is built on the backbone of drug dealing? How much untaxed profit is floating about that the government could use to reduce the deficit? And all because, since 1971, we’ve followed the head in the sand approach of the US in saying that it’s somehow the state’s business to regulate what people put in their bodies for recreation. Pretty much all drug-related crime stems from the fact that drugs are illegal; if they were available for properly regulated sale, anyone who wanted to use them could do so without having to harm anyone but themselves.

I’m not saying that recreational intoxication is in any way a desirable state for people; but the rest of us don’t seem to have a problem with getting pissed every weekend, which is at least as physically harmful and antisocial. Legalise drugs and properly regulate their sale according to the health harms they pose, and you’d free up an inordinate amount of prison space, government money and police time – not to mention breaking the back of organised crime by removing its most profitable endeavour. And how many teenage ‘gangstas’ would idolise drug dealers if the drug dealer was just the bloke in Boots? Since people are getting and using the drugs anyway, a rational debate on this subject is long overdue. Sadly, however reasonable politicians may seem on this subject while in opposition, once in power none of them dare risk opening the political Pandora’s box of the subject. But now more than ever, it would be a debate worth having.

“Where were the parents?” was another cry. “They’re all from broken homes, with no male role model and a mother having more and more kids to sponge off the State!” This is a tough one. A stable home environment may well be better for children, though it’s hard to tell yet how many of the looting youngsters were from single parent families. But to espouse that any family which doesn’t include a parent of either sex is a dangerous path – not just from a gay perspective, but because it reinforces the already pernicious idea that single mothers are some kind of blight on society. Well, I’m the product of a single mother household, as are many of my friends, gay and straight, and I like to think most of us turned out all right – certainly none of us were out looting.

But it is true to say that there’s a real problem with some children having as little respect for their parents as they do for their teachers. Traditionally, teenagers especially have always rebelled against authority figures; the police being, in fact, the biggest target here. And the conservatives may have something in saying that it’s hard to respect and obey an authority figure who demonstrably has no power over you. Should parents, teachers, police officers and the like be allowed to give kids a thick ear if they’re misbehaving? The liberal in me says no, but it’s hard to deny that when these things were allowed, the young did have more respect for authority. I hope I’m wrong on this one, because I hate the idea of getting more right wing as I get older. But it’s increasingly seeming to me that authority figures with their hands so tied end up having no authority at all. At the very least, I think perhaps a debate on what kind of consequences can ethically be meted out to give youth some kind of discipline is in order. A rational, evidence-based one though, rather than a reactionary, knee-jerk, Daily Mail/Mary Whitehouse approach.

If this seems like a very, very long laundry list of problems, well, that’s because these are the little plastic pieces overloading the Buckaroo game that is England’s social fabric. Note, NOT the UK – Scotland, which has many of the same problems, saw no such unrest, and in fact neither did quite a few parts England. There was no looting in Newcastle, or Truro, both of which are subject to so many of these issues. One of the other questions we need to ask is why these particular parts of England and not others? Despite Big Dave’s reticence, I genuinely think the biggest waves of social disorder in decades deserve a proper, considered inquiry.

That inquiry will need to take everything listed above into account, and properly weigh up the evidence and statistics when they are finally available. Basically, what I’ve just done is try and list almost very major social dysfunction in the country – no small task, and for that reason I haven’t even got started on the topics of what we do now; how we clear up and how we stop this from happening again. Another post will follow on that later, with, hopefully more concrete information to back it up. For now though, it’s fair to say that the terror that’s gripped us all for the last week has been down to an overloaded combination of all of this.

However, if it can be boiled down to one, singular issue, it is this. Stripped of ethical, legal, political and emotional considerations, human civilisation is based on one very fragile social contract. Probably its best known summation is from Christianity: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. In other words, purely pragmatically, we condemn murder because we don’t want to be murdered. We don’t steal because we don’t want to be stolen from. And for the better part of the last week, that social contract was held in limbo by enough of the English population to paralyse the country. If that contract is now back on, it’s in no small part due to the fact that we were reminded of it on the news in an admirably dignified appeal by Tariq Jahan, whose son Haroon was killed in the Birmingham chaos. He’d lost his son, he told us. If nobody else wanted to lose theirs, they should calm down and go home. And for a wonder, they did. Now we need to ask some very searching questions.