These riots show the cost of consumption

If affluence is our marker of social power, it is no surprise that the high street is at the heart o

In a 1965 essay, The Nature of War, British anthropologist Professor Sir Edmund Leach argued:

Every society must bring the aggressive instincts of its individual members under control. This can never be achieved simply by outright repression or by moral precepts, but only by sublimation, that is by providing legitimate outlets for dangerous feelings.

Different cultures -- traditional and modern -- achieve this in different ways of course. However, in market economies there can be little doubt that such sublimation is achieved mainly by consumption. It is the great driver of human endeavour and aspiration. Indeed, in an advanced economy like the UK, consumption makes up around two thirds of all economic activity.

But as anthropologists would point out, the sort of consumption most readers of this blog will be familiar with -- the simple and complex decision-making involved in the purchase of particular types of goods and services -- is far from universal. It therefore cannot be explained simply as a "natural" aspect of human behaviour by the sort of "rational choice" theory beloved by economists.

Instead, it is necessary to dig deeper and ask why certain categories of goods and services available in our society are valued differentially by different groups of people.

Yesterday and today, UK political leaders have been keen to point out that the looting of shops in London and other UK cities has little if any connection with the shooting by the Metropolitan Police's Operation Trident team last week of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black man from the Tottenham area of North London.

But are they right? I am not so sure. Whatever the truth of the matter, politicians are certainly wrong to fall back on a variety of explanatory clichés, like "mindless acts of violence and destruction" and "mindless criminality" carried out by "mindless thugs". Mindlessness would create randomness, but the events unfolding are far from being random.

Instead, I would argue that what we are witnessing is a significant symbolic statement about the way power -- the power of life and death exercised by police officers as well as the power to consume -- is arranged in British society.

There is a further point. Given the accusations of "mindlessness", it has been interesting to monitor the behaviour of the mainly young people -- predominantly male, but also female -- involved in the social disorder that has affected London and other major cities in England. One intriguing aspect of events has been the selection of targets by young people involved in the disturbances, which have mainly affected so-called "inner-city" areas.

There have been some odd choices -- last night on BBC TV, for example, I saw that a small shop selling items for children's parties had been ransacked in one part of London -- but by and large the focus has been on breaking into major electrical retailers like Currys and Dixons, mobile phone chains like Carphone Warehouse, supermarkets including Tesco, jewellers, and top-of-the- range "casual" and sports clothing stores.

This is why most of disorder has occurred either in high streets, shopping malls or out-of-town retail park locations. Put simply, these young people, most of whom I would guess live on the margins -- that is they do not come from comfortable middle-class homes -- wanted to access physical products which typically have high financial and symbolic value either within their primary peer group or because they can be sold on to others.

But they also wanted something more: the sort of social power -- even temporarily -- that is normally only exercised by affluent Britons equipped with nice houses, nice cars and credit cards.

The other interesting feature is that most of the violence has been directed by the rioters at the police, but not -- apart from one unlucky victim who was shot in Croydon last night and died in hospital today -- so far at ordinary groups or individuals. This may change as social tensions around race and ethnicity surface but at the moment these scenarios seem unlikely given the multi-ethnic make-up of those participating in the disorder.

But given the fact that property theft is a prototypical criminal offence in a Western-type economy, where affluence forms the bedrock of the dominant culture, it is little wonder that British Prime Minister David Cameron and Mayor of London Boris Johnson have cut short their holidays or that Parliament is to be recalled on Thursday. The political class and many other ordinary citizens evidently feel that the very fabric of society is under threat. Where now for the big society?

Dr Sean Carey is research fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM), Roehampton University.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage