The riots are a catastrophe

tottenham burning.jpgBy Owen Jones / @owenjones84

The riots are a catastrophe. They are a catastrophe for communities traumatised by looting, arson and petrol bombs – in many cases, such as Tottenham and Hackney, among the poorest areas in Britain. “It’s poor people like who suffer because of these riots,” one young woman told me just off Mare Street – where the worst of Monday’s rioting in Hackney took place – her obviously shaken child clutching her leg.

They are a catastrophe for residents of London, Birmingham, Manchester and elsewhere, who feel terrorised in their own cities and even besieged in their own homes. Like all Londoners, I was pretty anxious on Monday as I cycled through Hackney at 10pm. There is a disconcerting feeling that trouble could flare up anywhere, at any time. Normal life still feels suspended.

They are a catastrophe for those who took part in the rioting and looting. I won’t make a habit of quoting David Cameron, but when he told rioters that “you are potentially ruining your own lives, too”, he had a point. There will be irresistible demands for the harshest possible sentences; Westminster council is already threatening to evict tenants involved in the disorder; and those who have taken part in the disturbances – on however big or small a scale – may well pay for the rest of their lives.

But the riots are a political catastrophe, too. The right was already the great beneficiary of the economic crisis. They are now set to emerge strengthened from these riots, too.

This is far from an unpredictable consequence. When riots shook US cities in the 1960s and 1970s, millions of formerly Democratic-voting, white working-class people drifted into the waiting arms of the populist right. It was called ‘backlash’, and it still influences the US political system today.

We are already experiencing our own backlash here. According to one YouGov poll, nine out of ten want to see water cannon deployed; a majority want the army to get involved; and a third want live bullets to be used on rioters. Twitter is buzzing with contempt for “feral youths” and a “lazy underclass”, with lots of violent rhetoric about what should be done to them. Making a link between people on benefits and the riots is widespread.

To even look at possible reasons why a relatively small proportion of people engaged in these acts means to be slapped down as an “apologist”. For many who are now enraged, scared, or both, it is outrageous to suggest that the rioters are anything other than mindless, feral criminals. This is, without doubt, completely understandable. Suggestions that we should look at a wider context to stop this from happening again risk being instantly shouted down: that one in five young people out of work nationally, a figure that is even higher in many of the communities worst affected by the riots; that half of all children growing up in Tottenham, for example, grow up in poverty; that the poorest living alongside the most affluent in boroughs like Hackney, looking at lives they will never have; or to examine the impact of a consumerist society in which to have status is to own things.

None of this is a justification. There was nothing progressive about these riots. The vast majority of people who are poor or unemployed would never dream of taking part in these sorts of acts. The evidence suggests that a decent number got involved for kicks, to brag about it, or simply because “everyone else was doing it”. But I doubt that they would have done so if they felt they had a future that they were putting at risk. We can dehumanise those involved, but we will simply abdicate our responsibility to work out how to avoid this ever happening again.

I didn’t want to get into the detail about possible causes: but I would recommend looking at a couple of pieces about Hackney in the foreign press here and here. But I would say this: we rightly look to address the root causes of all sorts of unpleasant things, like the rise of the far right and terrorism. When we look at how the crisis of affordable housing and the lack of secure jobs are driving support for the BNP, are we really making excuses for Nick Griffin’s racist cabal?

My real fear is that we have just witnessed another crucial stage in the political ascendancy of the right. When asked how he would cure what he described as a “sickness”, one of David Cameron’s key suggestions was “a welfare state that doesn’t reward idleness”. And so begins an attempt to link the actions of a few with benefit claimants as a whole.

It will tap into a huge reservoir of support. You can win the support of all groups of society when you kick benefit claimants: middle-class people who resent their taxes supposedly being wasted on the idle; working-class people who feel they’re scraping by in a low-paid job, and resent those they feel have better living standards without even working (a sentiment ruthlessly exploited by right-wing politicians and journalists); and, as a recent study by BritainThinks revealed, even benefit claimants themselves, who – as members of a stigmatised group – are keen to distinguish themselves from the rest.

The caricature of the idle, feckless benefit recipient is more hated than ever because of the economic crisis. A crisis of the financial sector was turned into a crisis of public spending. A crisis of public spending was, in part, turned into a crisis of welfare expenditure. To justify slashing benefits, it is necessary to demonise those receiving them. From Lehman Brothers to laying into the poor.

Before the riots, that largely meant them being lazy – in a country with half a million jobs vacancies, but 2.5 million unemployed, excluding hundreds of thousands on incapacity benefit the Government wants to push into work. But now the caricature is set to take on much more menacing dimensions.

In my book, I interviewed Labour MP Stephen Pound who put it to me that there were those “who actually fear, physically fear the idea of this great, gold blind-dripping, lumpenproletariat that might one day kick their front door in and eat their au pair.” That is now truer than ever, and the right will manipulate it as far as they can.

The left – in its broadest sense – has to face an alarming reality. The right is now hegemonic on the main political issues of the day: the economy, social issues and law-and-order. As the right taps into a reservoir of anger and resentment in our divided society, it is harder than ever for the left to get a hearing on practically anything. Those who will suffer most will be those who the left exists to represent.

We all desperately hope that the riots will now end, and that the communities that have been traumatised will recover as quickly as is possible. But the political consequences of these catastrophic riots will be with us for a long time to come.

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