Sunday, August 21, 2011

Past and present

It was one of those remarks that pull you up short when you are teaching a class. A few years ago, I was coming up with the usual liberal stuff about deprivation, anti-social behaviour and the criminal justice system, when a student sat back in her chair with a look of disgust on her face and said, "It’s all right for you, you don’t have to live next door to the little bastards".

I think that this gives a clue as to why some of the most potent condemnation of the riots has come from people sharing the same background as the rioters, something that Christopher Hitchens noted as part of his reflections on the perennial violence of British society.

Rioting in Britain is not a novelty, the product of some new social disease.  Riots have been a feature of British society for centuries.  Frequently, they were the way people defended and extended their rights. Industrial relations were often carried out through riot. Workers were known to demolish employers' houses until their demands were met and machine breaking was not just a feature of the Luddite rebellion. Food riots were endemic as were rural riots against enclosure, turnpikes and, during the Swing riots of the 1830s, the introduction of the threshing machine. Workhouses were burnt down in protests against the Poor Laws. And politics was always a riotous affair.  Whilst my leftist soul looks on these with sympathy, we have to remember that  'King and Country' mobs were as prominent as radical ones, as were anti-Irish disturbances and, going way back to 1190, a wave of anti-Semitic pogroms culminated in the appalling massacre of the Jewish population of York in Clifford's Tower.  Our attitude towards riots should reflect precisely who was doing the rioting and for what reason.

It is difficult to pin down the latest wave of disturbances. The proximate cause of the rioting in Tottenham was very different to what took place in, for instance, Salford. The riots were limited to a few cities and towns, appear to have been short-lived and were carried out by relatively small numbers of people. Motivations for participation were different, ranging from excitement and opportunism to anger and alienation. But there was also something taking place that was unpleasant and disturbing.  The result was that, rather than uniting communities in protest, they divided them, with large numbers of working class people expressing disgust.

Part of the hostility was down to a continuing generational conflict, part a moral revulsion at the destruction and, let's not forget them, the murders that accompanied the rioting and looting, although there is more to it than that. And this is where the views of my student comes in.

For anyone living on what are euphemistically known as 'problem estates', this wasn't a riot; it was a breakout group. Sporadic arson (accompanied by attacks on fire-fighters), joy riding, burglary and the sort of systematic bullying and intimidation that can even drive people to suicide are some of the everyday difficulties people face that can make their lives misery. It is a part of the backdrop to poverty. The same people who attacked property in town centres were, or were assumed to be, often the same ones who make the struggles of poverty so much worse. Hard experience had already bred antipathy.

In addition, there is evidence of some heavy violence in places with a history of gun crime and drug wars. And that is not all, if there has been an overt political agenda, in some places it seems to have been set by the far right. Riots are not arbitrary affairs; their targets are rarely random. Asian businesses have been consistently picked out wherever rioting took place, gay communities have been under attack too. (The gay village in Manchester was safe though. It was well aware of the threat and set up its own defence group to see off any potential attackers.  Seriously, you would not want to mess with these guys.) In Salford, the police have fingered the far right as one of the main instigators of the attacks on the Precinct.

This rings true to me. I worked with many students emerging from troubled backgrounds who were directed towards adult education after problems with the police, drink and drugs, or gang related activity. This was a time when the social services and probation officers were under less pressure and more sympathetic to offenders. I met some fascinating and very able people, but the stories they told about what they were leaving behind made my flesh creep. And politically they had invariably come from the far right.

So, the working class sense of disgust is hardly surprising and I cannot shake off a sense of unease about these events. They strike me as troubling actions by troubled people. However, I have no sympathy at all with the indignation of the conservative right.

What a complete load of steaming ordure is flowing out of the orifice of the conservative press, even more from the office of the Prime Minister. All the old tropes, 'break down of community', 'decline of moral order', 'decay of civilisation', 'single parents' - no, 'single mothers', never forget that this argument is heavily gendered, decrying feckless women lacking the firm smack of the masculine discipline that features heavily in their fantasies. There have been endless streams of the stuff, lubricated by the laxative of moral indignation, all accompanied by the foetid stench of class hatred.

And this isn't new either; every generation has indulged in the same dreary guff. The Economist's Bagehot blog got there before me in using Geoffrey Pearson's marvellous book, Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears, a mainstay of my reading lists for years (and now shamefully out of print). It is a great post and worth reading in full.

There is nothing as unedifying as the spectacle of an establishment in full moral panic. In a chapter in his book, Customs in Common, E P Thompson wrote of the macabre theatre that was the Eighteenth Century riot, a masque of performance and ritual. Thompson was not just writing about the actions of rioters, he included in this notion of theatre the grim and bloody reaction of the courts. Little seems to have changed.

Today the punishments may not be as draconian, but the use of the law as an exercise in humiliation is still with us. And now the dust is settling, the first detailed reviews of convictions and the courts are showing an unsurprising pattern. Much harsher sentences are being handed out (with, thankfully, some successful appeals and acquittals beginning to follow) and, of course, they show that the majority of rioters were poor, unemployed and from 'deprived' areas.

And so we are left with the unmistakable correlation of deprivation and disaffection - a disaffection that can produce violence, much of it self-destructive, just as it harbours outrage at that violence within the same community. This is even more so in a society that parades its inequalities, rewards its failures with grotesquely huge pay-offs and is suffused with the sort of suburban self-satisfaction that is nurtured by well-rewarded mediocrity. If you strip out opportunity and hope, then people will create their own alternatives with the materials that they have to hand and the results, as this astonishing piece about Argentinian football shows, are not always pretty.

1 comment:

modernity said...

Excellent post.