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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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.