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9 August 2011

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

By Sean Carey

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.

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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.