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 The Prime Minister revealed how out of date his school of Tory physick is when he described the violence as the property of "sick pockets" of society, as if in some Victorian morality play still,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.

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Here's what Theresa May could say to save the Brexit talks

The best option would be to invent a time machine, but unfortunately that's not on the table. 

One of my favourite types of joke is the logical impossibility: a statement that seems plausible but, on closer examination, is simply impossible and contradictory. “If you break both legs, don’t come running to me” is one. The most famous concerns a hapless tourist popping into a pub to ask for directions to London, or Manchester, or Belfast or wherever. “Well,” the barman replies, “I wouldn’t have started from here.”

That’s the trouble, too, with assessing what the government should do next in its approach to the Brexit talks: I wouldn’t have started from here.

I wouldn’t have started from a transient Leave campaign that offered a series of promises that can’t be reconciled with one another, but that’s the nature of a referendum in which the government isn’t supporting the change proposition. It’s always in the interest of the change proposition to be at best flexible and at worst outright disregarding of the truth.

Britain would be better off if it were leaving the European Union after a vote in which a pro-Brexit government had already had to prepare a white paper and an exit strategy before seeking popular consent. Now the government is tasked with negotiating the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union with a mandate that is contradictory and unclear. (Take immigration. It’s clear that a majority of people who voted to leave want control over Britain’s borders. But it’s also clear that a minority did not and if you take that minority away, there’s no majority for a Leave vote.

Does that then mean that the “democratic” option is a Brexit that prioritises minimising economic harm at the cost of continuing free movement of people? That option might command more support than the 52 per cent that Leave got but it also runs roughshod over the concerns that really drove Britain’s Leave vote.

You wouldn’t, having had a referendum in inauspicious circumstances, have a government that neglected to make a big and genuinely generous offer on the rights of the three million citizens of the European Union currently living in the United Kingdom.

In fact the government would have immediately done all it could to show that it wanted to approach exit in a constructive and co-operative manner. Why? Because the more difficult it looks like the departing nation is going to be, the greater the incentive the remaining nations of the European Union have to insist that you leave via Article 50. Why? Because the Article 50 process is designed to reduce the leverage of the departing state through its strict timetable. Its architect, British diplomat John Kerr, envisaged it being used after an increasingly authoritarian state on the bloc’s eastern periphery found its voting rights suspended and quit “in high dudgeon”.

The strict timeframe also hurts the European Union, as it increases the chances of an unsatisfactory or incomplete deal. The only incentive to use it is if the departing nation is going to behave in a unconstructive way.

Then if you were going to have to exit via the Article 50 process, you’d wait until the elections in France and Germany were over, and restructure Whitehall and the rest of the British state so it was fit to face the challenges of Brexit. And you wouldn’t behave so shabbily towards the heads of the devolved administrations that Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP and Carwyn Jones of the Welsh Labour Party have not become political allies.

So having neglected to do all of that, it’s hard to say: here’s what Theresa May should say in Florence, short of inventing time travel and starting the whole process again from scratch.

What she could do, though, is show flexibility on the question of British contributions to the European budget after we leave, and present a serious solution to the problem of how you ensure that the rights of three million EU citizens living in Britain have a legal backdrop that can’t simply be unpicked by 325 MPs in the House of Commons, and show some engagement in the question of what happens to the Irish border after Brexit.

There are solutions to all of these problems – but the trouble is that all of them are unacceptable to at least part of the Conservative Party. A reminder that, as far as the trouble with Brexit goes, Theresa May is the name of the monster – not the doctor. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.