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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Boris Johnson is out of control, but Theresa May is too weak to punish him

Her weary “Boris is Boris” remark after his intervention suggests she couldn’t care less.

Only younger Tory MPs asked last weekend: “Why did Boris do it?” Why did he write a 4,000-word essay on his demands for Brexit, just six days before Theresa May would make a definitive speech on the government’s plans? The older ones knew why: he hadn’t been the centre of attention for a while and wanted to remind people of his existence and that he remained in the game. A charitable fringe of pro-Brexit MPs thought he did it because he is a sincere Leaver, motivated by a desire to ensure the democratically expressed will of the British people is discharged. However, theirs was not a view widely shared.

Others thought they could trace the motivation for Johnson’s intervention back to the events of June 2016. “The reputation of Vote Leave at the moment is a pile of shit,” one told me, referring to the campaign whose figurehead Johnson had been. The metaphor became even more pungent: “Going back to the £350m is like a dog returning to his vomit.” The figure, plastered on Vote Leave’s battle bus, was the amount Johnson and his friends claimed would be available post-Brexit to spend weekly on the NHS. It was quickly rubbished, with Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU campaign dismissing it outright. It was a gross, not a net, figure; it included the EU rebate, which ceases to exist when our contributions stop. David Norgrove, head of the UK Statistics Authority, has repudiated the assertion; and there are many other institutions, such as our tertiary education sector, that will lose EU money and expect the government to make it up. That Johnson should mention this fantasy figure in his article has bemused even some of that dwindling band of MPs who still see him as a possible future leader.

Although the piece was in Johnson’s familiar idiom, others detected in it the influence of Vote Leave’s former director, Dominic Cummings. Further evidence came in a bout of aggressive tweeting from Cummings after the pack turned on Johnson. An MP who worked with Vote Leave told me, “Cummings has returned. He is a narcissist. If he can’t get his own way, then he prefers to destroy: that was how he operated all through the campaign.”

Cummings, a former aide to Michael Gove, is like Johnson a publicity addict: both thirst to see their names in the media. He disappeared from view after Gove’s failed leadership bid, when Gove had to promise supporters that Cummings would not work in Downing Street if he won, so toxic was Cummings’s reputation after Vote Leave. Gove was quoted as supporting Johnson’s “vision”, a further sign of Cummings’s involvement. Within 24 hours, Gove’s friends denied that he supported any such thing but then, as Cummings went into action, Gove confirmed his backing for Johnson.

Johnson’s intervention did not grate with everybody. Some Brexiteer Tories, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, felt that after a party debate dominated by ministers favouring a Brexit that looks like continued membership of the EU by other means – notably Philip Hammond – it was time the Foreign Secretary spoke out for something representing a cleaner break. Some also felt that, given his office, he had a right to have a public say on the matter, after months in which May had done her best to ignore him.

Her weary “Boris is Boris” remark after his intervention suggests she couldn’t care less, and suggestions he might resign are unlikely to concern her unduly. His remarks were not against party policy, but MPs trusted by Downing Street were at pains to stress that his views would have no effect on the content of the Prime Minister’s Brexit speech, for there had “never been any chance of Theresa going off-piste”.

Johnson’s intervention was, however, unhelpful to him and to May. Colleagues saw it as the consequence of his having spent the summer steaming with frustration because he had lost ownership of the Brexit issue. He has also, according to friends, developed a thinner skin of late, and feels wounded by frequent attacks on him in the media pointing out his disengagement, his laziness, his ambition and his generally poor impression of a foreign secretary. For so long the goût du choix of many younger colleagues, he now finds they take him no more seriously than most of his older ones do. He once took for granted that in a leadership contest MPs would choose him as one of the two candidates for a plebiscite of the membership; now few think that likely.

Too many colleagues have taken the Telegraph article as further proof of his inability to be a team player, and of his unfitness for higher office – which was why Gove dropped him last year. Referring to Johnson’s time as mayor of London, a colleague says: “He was a good chairman, when he had seven or eight deputy mayors. But he can’t do what a minister is supposed to do, which is to grasp a policy and deliver it.” Another highlights his skewed sense of priorities and the lack of a deft political touch. “Isn’t it astonishing that just as he should be sorting out all consular and diplomatic help for our people in the West Indies after the hurricane, he finds time to write a 4,000-word newspaper article? As usual, it’s not about what’s good for the country. It’s what he thinks is good for him.”

Yet, as Ken Clarke swiftly pointed out, Boris Johnson has shown that however much he annoys May, she is too damaged and vulnerable to sack him. When Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, started mocking him as a “back-seat driver”, May was seen to be presiding over a cabinet whose most senior members were squabbling. Johnson’s self-indulgence also meant that the expectation surrounding May’s Florence speech, already considerable as she struggled to rebuild her credibility and that of her Brexit policy, became even harder to satisfy. 

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left