The middle class should leave rioting to the professionals

Couldn't the riots have been influenced by, well, the riots?

Something else has been bugging me. About the riots. Or more specifically, our attempt to find rhyme or reason for them.

We seem to have left no sociological or psychological rock unturned. Poverty and social alienation. Poor parenting and educational support. Cuts to everything from EMA to police numbers. Oh, and the bankers. Mustn't forget those dastardly bankers.

But something's been missing. For a while, I couldn't quite put my finger on it. And then, in a flash of inspiration, it came to me.

Couldn't the riots have been influenced by, well, the riots?

We had some. We definitely had some. I distinctly remember. They started with Conservative Central Office getting smashed up, and a couple of police officers nearly being decapitated with a fire extinguisher. Then, if memory serves me right, half the West End got trashed. Not once, but twice. First by the students, then by a mob of anarchist fellow travellers trying to ride the coattails of the TUC rally.

Yet, for some reason we -- and by we, I'm using my traditional lazy short-hand for the left -- don't seem to have mentioned this. John Harris didn't mention it in last Thursday's Guardian, when he pointed the finger squarely at greedy MPs. John Pilger chose to overlook it when he blamed just about everyone but the rioters, here at the Statesman. No. The left has decided to scurry by, looking for more ideologically acceptable excuses. Sorry, causes.

Let's return to the group every right-minded person knows were the true instigators of this month's disorder. The bankers.

If you accept, as I do, that greed and an arrogant assumption of a right to material gain at any price were at a minimum a subliminal cause of the looting and mayhem. And you further accept the bankers, at least generically, are poster boys for that greed and arrogance, then I think the link between their excess and the excess on our streets is a legitimate one.

But if we believe the rioters were spurred on by the image of those in positions of wealth and influence flouting the rules to the detriment of society, surely we must extend that principle to people like Charlie Gilmour and his fellow undergraduates, who not only flouted the rules but physically indulged in rioting themselves. If the sight of a millionaire in red braces pushing a button in a City dealing room is supposed to incite a young inner city teenager to put a brick through a shop window, what effect is that sight of a millionaire in a Keffiyeh putting a brick through a window themselves supposed to have? To judge from the silence of the liberal left, none.

Let's cast the net a bit wider. What about the direct action movements, like UK Uncut? When middle class youngsters lawlessly occupy shops, and are feted for their "brilliant protests" that can "unite us all", we conveniently assume our inner city youth will instinctively know where to draw the line. And for some reason we also assume that whilst a banker engaged in legal activity at his desk can be the spur for a looter, a protestor illegally entering Fortnum's and spraying graffiti on the wall cannot.

This blame game can be fun. Especially when we get to write our own rules, and pretend we're the only side that's playing.

Just ask Jonnie Marbles. Self-styled crusader for truth, justice and the pie-pushers' way. Jonnie, if you recall, decided the rule of law wasn't for him. He had grievances, and a sense of injustice. He needed to fight the power; to take it to the man. So he took it the man, and assaulted an 80 year-old pensioner. He didn't care about the police. He didn't care that his actions would be broadcast on live public television. No balaclava for Jonnie. Jonnie laughs in the face of authority. Taunts it. Flans it. And what's more, he's got himself some much needed street cred. Just read this excerpt from his 'prison blog':

We both break into grins and the familiar dance of how, why and handshakes plays out. I give him the short answer first, then the long one. Five minutes later Beebop, my newest lag friend, is getting me to sign his copy of The Sun.

Eat your heart out, Oscar Wilde.

Is Jonnie Marbles directly to blame for the riots? Of course not. No more than Charlie Gilmour, or Edward Woollard.

But if we seek to go beyond direct to subliminal causes -- apparently all the rage -- then why are they no more or less to blame than Fred the Shred? Because our search for answers is not a search for answers at all. It is a desperate scramble to clean up the house before our parents get home.

Before 6 August, disorder in our streets was fashionable. It was raw and exciting. Empowering.

So long as it remained the preserve of the middle class. The students. The anarchists. The gentleman insurgents.

Then the big boys turned up. Bad boys. Boys who aren't content to sit listening to Asian Dub Foundation while huddled around burning copies of the Socialist Worker, sharing solidarity with the Arab Spring.

Middle class Britain has been having fun with its own unique brand of direct action. But this month the fun stopped. Ed Miliband is right. We do need to look at "irresponsibility" in all its forms.

And perhaps from now on the rioting should be left to the professionals.

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From Netflix to rented homes, why are we less interested in ownership?

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences.

In 2008 the anthropologist Daniel Miller published a book based on an intimate study of 30 households on a single street in south London. The Comfort of Things ­explored the different kinds of relationships people have with what they own.

Miller described a retired couple’s house, cluttered with furniture, framed photographs and knick-knacks accumulated over decades. Down the road, a self-employed man called Malcolm had rented a flat. Malcolm preferred a spartan existence: he kept his belongings in storage, the better to travel at short notice, and conducted as much as possible of his life online. His home was his email address. His central material possession was his laptop.

Today, we are living more like the laptop warrior than the retired couple. Increasingly, our possessions are stored in the cloud or on a distant server. Just as we had grown accustomed to the idea of owning music in the form of data, we are now getting used to not owning it at all. In television, too, we stream instead of buy the latest drama series; when people use the term “box set” they are rarely referring to a box of discs on a shelf in the living room. Everything solid is melting into wifi.

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences. The proliferation of mobile apps enables us to source or supply whatever we want, for short periods, more easily than ever before. The “sharing economy” is not about sharing, however. I encourage my three-year-old daughter to share her toys with her little brother; I don’t suggest that she charge him an hourly fee for doing so. A better name for it is the Paygo (pay-as-you-go) economy.

The Paygo economy combines two intertwined phenomena: the rise of renting and the decline of stuff. If you are in your twenties and unburdened by wealth you may already have accepted that you will always be in hock to a landlord. If you are in the market for a car, you will probably be thinking about leasing it, or joining a car club, or waiting until Google makes car ownership obsolete. There are even apps that allow you to rent a dog rather than take on the responsibility of owning one.

A world in which we own less and rent more is not necessarily one in which consumers are empowered. You never really own the electronic versions of a book or a film – you can’t lend them to a friend or sell them on – because the publisher retains its rights over them. Even our photos aren’t ours any longer: they are owned by corporations that scrape them for data that can be sold. In a recent article, the Financial Times journalist Izabella Kaminska argued that “ownership of nothing and the rental of everything represents . . . the return of an authoritarian and feudalistic society”.

The Paygo economy is changing our relationships with each other and with ourselves. Possessions form part of what the marketing academic Russell Belk calls “the extended self”. In Daniel Miller’s book, he describes how objects, however trivial, can embody relationships. Each household’s collection of stuff – tacky souvenirs, CDs we borrowed and never gave back – forms a constellation of personal significance. Post-materialism does not equate with spiritual enrichment. “Usually the closer our relationships with objects,” Miller writes, “the closer our relationships are with people.”

Human beings have a deep-seated tendency to imbue physical items with the ­essence of their owner. Hence the market for rock-star memorabilia: an old guitar that has been played by John Lennon is more valuable, and more revered, than a new replica that has not.

We apply this intuition even to money, the units of which are, by definition, interchangeable. Psychologists who study “essentialism” have found that people are less likely to recommend that stolen or lost cash be returned when it has subsequently been deposited in a bank account, as opposed to remaining in paper notes.

When things evaporate, so does ­meaning. A fetish for owning things connects to a yearning to retain a distinct identity in the face of change. Japan has been economically stagnant for decades and, as a result (and perhaps a cause), has preserved a set of idiosyncratic social norms, at odds with the rest of the developed world. One of these is a strong preference for owning music in a physical form: 85 per cent of the music bought in this technologically advanced society is on CD or vinyl. Japan is also the last developed country to rely on fax machines. A fax, unlike an email or the past, is something you can hold on to.

One way of framing the central arguments of British politics is that they are about the rights of owners versus renters – and not just in the sense of home ownership. Long-standing Labour members believe they own the party, and are outraged both by Momentum clicktivists and £3 voters. What appals many who voted Leave in the EU referendum is the thought that migrants can, in effect, rent a livelihood from the UK, treating the country as a giant Airbnb host. They want to know if this is still their country, or if they are now merely tenants of it.

Most younger voters chose Remain, but relatively few of them voted. That was a function of their lack of home ownership as much as age: millennials who rent are nearly half as likely to vote in elections as their peers who have managed to get on to the property ladder. This is partly a product of the mundane business of spending enough time in one place to get on the electoral roll, but it nonetheless suggests that renters form weaker bonds with the society in which they live.

For centuries, what we own has been an important way of placing ourselves in relation to those around us. The 18th-century curiosity cabinet was a collection of objects used to display the erudition and refinement of its owner. In the 20th century, houses became showcases. Your curtains, your car and your choice of decor said who you were or wanted to be. This was the era of what Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption”. In the Paygo economy, we will have fewer things of our own to ­display, as our possessions dematerialise and we rent more of what we need.

Despite all this, human nature has not changed: we are still apes with status anxiety, endlessly preoccupied by our position in any given hierarchy, eager for ways to convey our aspirations and allegiances. So we find other ways to signal. Rather than deploy what we own to say who we are, we use our photo streams and status updates to show it, even going so far as to arrange our meals and holidays with the aim of generating impressive on-brand content.

The vacuum of meaning opened up by the disappearance of stuff may even have increased the stridency of our political debate. One way I can let people know who I am is by loudly asserting my membership of a political tribe.

If I can’t show off my possessions, I will show off my beliefs.

Ian Leslie is the author of “Curious: the Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It” (Quercus)

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times