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 The Prime Minister revealed how out of date his school of Tory physick is when he described the violence as the property of "sick pockets" of society, as if in some Victorian morality play still,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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The boy who lies: what the Daily Prophet can teach us about fake news

The students at Hogwarts are living in an echo chamber of secrets.

They can make objects levitate, conjure up spirit animals and harness the power of invisibility. But perhaps the strangest thing about the witches and wizards of the Harry Potter universe is that despite all their magic, they still rely on old-fashioned print media for their news.

Although the Daily Prophet bills itself as “the wizarding world’s beguiling broadsheet of choice”, the reality is that its readers have no choice at all. Wizards don’t have their own television network – the risk of muggles accidentally tuning in was deemed too high – they don’t generally use the internet, and rival publications are virtually non-existent. (No, Witch Weekly doesn’t count.)

JK Rowling clearly sought to satirise the press in her portrayal of the Prophet, particularly through its poisonous celebrity journalist Rita Skeeter and her tenuous relationship with the truth. And in doing so, the author highlighted a phenomenon that has since become embedded within the muggle political landscape – fake news, and how quickly it can spread.

In the run-up to the recent French presidential election, an Oxford University study found that up to a quarter of related political stories shared on Twitter were fake – or at least passing off “ideologically extreme” opinion as fact.

While they don’t have social media at Hogwarts – probably for the better, despite the countless Instagram opportunities that would come with living in an enchanted castle – made-up stories travel fast by word of mouth (or owl.) The students are so insulated from the outside world, the house system often immersing them in an echo chamber of their peers, they frequently have no way to fact-check rumours and form rational opinions about current events.

When the Ministry of Magic flatly refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned – and uses the Prophet to smear Harry and Dumbledore – most students and their parents have no choice but to believe it. “ALL IS WELL”, the Prophet’s front page proclaims, asking pointedly whether Harry is now “The boy who lies?”

While Harry eventually gets his side of the story published, it’s in The Quibbler – a somewhat niche magazine that’s not exactly light on conspiracy theories – and written by Skeeter. He is telling the truth – but how is anyone to really know, given both the questionable magazine and Skeeter’s track record?

After Voldemort’s followers take over the Ministry, the Prophet stops reporting deaths the Death Eaters are responsible for and starts printing more fake stories – including a claim that muggle-born wizards steal their magical powers from pure-bloods.

In response, Harry and his allies turn to their other meagre sources such as The Quibbler and Potterwatch, an underground pirate radio show that requires a password to listen – useful to some, but not exactly open and accessible journalism.

Rowling is clear that Harry’s celebrity makes it hard for him to fit in at Hogwarts, with fellow students often resenting his special status. Do so many believe the Prophet’s smear campaign because they were unconsciously (or actively) looking forward to his downfall?

We are certainly more likely to believe fake news when it confirms our personal biases, regardless of how intelligently or critically we think we look at the world. Could this explain why, at the start of last week, thousands of social media users gleefully retweeted a Daily Mail front page calling on Theresa May to step down that was blatantly a poorly-edited fake?

The non-stop Hogwarts rumour mill illustrates the damage that a dearth of reliable sources of information can cause to public debate. But at the other end of the scale, the saturation of news on the muggle internet means it can also be hugely challenging to separate fact from fiction.

No one is totally free from bias – even those people or sources whose opinions we share. In this world of alternative facts, it is crucial to remember that all stories are presented in a certain way for a reason – whether that’s to advance a political argument, reaffirm and promote the writer’s own worldview, or stop an inconvenient teenage wizard from interfering with the Ministry of Magic’s plans.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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