We all own the violence

This is a simple truth and it has been misdiagnosed all week.

The real violence we are seeing this week is the violence of a "feral" capitalism.

For all the stoved-in windows, the torched cars, the looted shops and the bloodied hands, the rioters this week are not simple "criminals". For all the apoplexy of the Daily Mail they are not "feral teenagers", or even animals for that matter. They have delivered but they do not own the violence on our streets. We all own their violence because we are all buy in to the system that provokes it.

This is a simple truth and it has been misdiagnosed all week. The Prime Minister revealed how out of date his school of Tory physick is when he described the violence as the property of "sick pockets" of society, as if in some Victorian morality play still, starring the pauper and the prostitute. Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman also overlooked the underlying pathology in their rush to be seen inspecting the symptoms welting up across our streets.

Even the liberal media have erred in their prescriptions, acknowledging that the violence has its causes but insisting it is mindless in the act. Insisting, that is to say, that it is the precise opposite of their own metropolitan sophistication.

It may well be true that those terrorising the streets have been acting on impulse, and their actions may well be abhorrent. But we are not advised to push the looters away like this. Certainly not before we understand who they really are and what they thought they were doing (assuming that many of them weren't simply in the wrong place at the wrong time), as Paul Bagguley has pointed out:

Young men in this age range [18-24] are more likely to be on the streets in the places and times at which riots take place as they are more likely to be unemployed, and not to have family commitments or other urgent demands on their time.

The point is, if we have seen a thousand acts of crime these last few days, then we have seen also the reflection of a thousand forms of injustice and a thousand forms of neglect, cutting across lines of age, race and gender albeit with certain trends. Tory vilifications and liberal "told you so" retrospectives do little to help us understand this.

Of course, as Martin Kettle and Aditya Chakraborrty both pointed out in the Guardian yesterday it is easier to seek explanation through the blinkers of what we want or expect to see (a racist police force, a negligent political class, a broken and unhappy Britain). And as Mehdi Hasan points out, this will continue to be the norm, even as evidence to confound such stereotypes emerges from the courts.

But what if instead of looking for what we wanted to see we looked for what we didn't? What if we looked for ourselves among the nameless faces of the street? We may then notice that the fact we are so spoiled for choice as to possible reasons for the riots is easily the most damning thing of all and easily indicts us all.

The geographer David Harvey has to date been one of the few to actually stick his neck out and say this. The looters, he says, "are only doing what everyone else is doing, though in a different way - more blatantly and visibly in the streets." Harvey points to a moral equivalence between the looters at work on the streets and those whose looting simply takes more acceptable forms, the better to eat you my dear. We are all looters at heart, Harvey says and we are all pushed to be feral in our way. The system encourages us to be so:

Feral politicians cheat on their expenses, feral bankers plunder the public purse for all its worth, CEOs, hedge fund operators and private equity geniuses loot the world of wealth, telephone and credit card companies load mysterious charges on everyone's bills, shopkeepers price gouge, and, at the drop of a hat swindlers and scam artists get to practice three-card monte right up into the highest echelons of the corporate and political world.

This will of course be too clear-cut for some and smack of a single cause itself. But the structural violence of capitalism (be it widening forms of inequality or deteriorating conditions for work) and the physical violence of the street needs to be taken seriously if there is to be another Scarman-type report. And any such report needs to not simply remind us again of the end-stage factors of social privations, personal resentments and collective distrust that we know blights communities in our cities. It needs to ask how the wider forces of social order and political economy create this mixture in the first place.

It must look beyond the usual suspects to ascertain, for example, whether the relationship between the premeditated breaking of the law by the rich and the opportunistic breaking of the law by the poor is of a casual or a causal nature. It should go so far as to consider too the government's handling of the response, since we have been here several times before now. In short it should shine a light on the system itself rather than merely the symptoms.

Which means, in essence, that it could do worse than to bear in mind the wider point Harvey is making: that when capitalism is allowed to run fast and loose and 'feral', and when only the rich get to decide the rules of the game, then such eruptions on our streets become no less predictable an outcome than the fact that the FTSE 100 opens each morning at eight. It should dare to bear in mind that the more predatory forms of capitalism do not a community make.

Simon Reid-Henry is a lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London.

Getty
Show Hide image

Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.