When it comes to riots, it’s all relative

In his superb memoir Jackdaw Cake, the late Norman Lewis told the story of his upbringing in uttermost north London in the 1920s. His parents were a wacky pair who professed spiritualism and held seances at which ectoplasm was teased out of Lewis père's mouth and made to assume phantasmagorical shapes. More bizarre was the way that, during the interwar period, Enfield advanced across Middlesex in a flying column of cul-de-sacs, armed with telegraph poles, creosoted fences and pebble-dash facades. I grew up in a not-dissimilar suburb, East Finchley, and remember finding Lewis's account almost supernatural - since, even as an adult, I found it hard to believe that the suburbs hadn't been there since time out of mind, so immemorially dull did they seem.

In the space of less than a century, Enfield has gone from greenfield site to brownfield riot territory. When I heard the news,
I pictured Women's Institute members setting fire to privet hedges and chucking Molotov cocktails at leylandii. However,
I soon got a grip: the ebb and flow of gentrification in our cities means that no district escapes the undertow of deprivation, whether material or - gulp! - spiritual.

All the world's a stage

The kind of deprivation that animated these riots seems to have been highly relative: our disaffected youth may now lack after-school clubs, courtesy of the 70 per cent cuts in such services, but they still have BlackBerrys to co-ordinate these acquisitive thrusts against the soft underbelly of late capitalism. These were the riotous goings-on not so much of the alienated (although I have no doubt that they are) as the early adopters.

Having witnessed a fair few riots in my time - some of them, such as the poll tax riots of 1990, beautifully blocked out and scripted - I have no problem in seeing them as street theatrics. So, if the medium is the BlackBerry and the CCTV system, then the message is as much ennui as anomie. The hoodie-clad kicker-in of plate-glass windows may have had Garbo-like incognito but he was still playing for the cameras. In short stories and several novels including his last, Kingdom Come, J G Ballard hypothesised that willed and destructive mayhem might become the only therapy for the mass psychopathology of consumerist society; a malaise that he characterised as - in two words - utter boredom.

Raising the dead

The dominant trait of the crowd is to reduce its myriad individuals to a single, dysfunctional persona. The crowd is stupider than the averaging of its component minds. In a culture in which every consensual sexual act and narcotised state is, in effect, permitted, Ballard would argue that violence becomes the only remaining form of stimulation. I agree with this unreservedly - yet what struck me still more forcibly was the folly of the crowd of politicians and police who attempted to shame them into conformity with the law.

Back from sashaying across Tuscan hillsides, the have-mores returned to call time on the have-less. Having encouraged an economic system that devalues all social capital in favour of pelf, while ramping up the consequent financial inequalities, the so-called political class professes itself astonished by the childish greed that is sanctified by their hallowed free market. Yes, the looters may only be "relatively" deprived - but then, the politicians are only relatively corrupt, the police are only relatively on the take (and relatively prone to shooting unarmed men) and the media
is only relatively likely to invade privacy by whatever means possible. Relative to each other, all four estates are absolutely morally bankrupt.

That brings us full circle: back to Enfield. Spiritualism was a quasi-religion that scintillated in the dying embers of Christian faith in the afterlife. Following the hecatomb of the First World War, the bereaved sought to contact their deceased loved ones through mediums such as Lewis's father. Just as the distraught relatives saw the faces of their fathers, sons and lovers in the fake ectoplasm he extruded, so our finest theorists read the statistical vital signs, desperate for that quickening economic pulse. Spiritualism is no crazier than attempting to resurrect a dead economy by stimulating "demand" among the (relatively) impoverished. Theresa May calls them rioters. I see them as overenthusiastic but misguided shoppers.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?