Listen to the silence. The enormity of what happened across England last week has been slowly buried under acres of commentary and analysis of why it happened. But what did happen? What happened was the slow simmering, everyday brutality of life on the streets of our cities and large towns exploding and bringing us to the edge of the complete breakdown of civil order. As mobs steamed their way up high streets smashing and looting they gave clarity to the fear, casual violence and nihilism that has become a part of the fabric of our everyday life. This is England. Look at the destruction, feel the fear; this is what we have made of our country. The problem belongs to all of us, and no amount of retributive justice will solve it.
England has a long history of rioting during periods of economic distress. The events have elements in common with this history and others unique to modern consumer society. They would include: adolescent, exhilarating excitement; rage against the police; the summer holidays; the historical social predicament of unoccupied young men; an over-inflated sense of entitlement to have what one wants; parts of a younger generation detached from the moral norms and obligations of adult society; the experience of poverty, despair and hopelessness; and a deep sense of “I don’t care”. Above all the events combined the nihilism of the dispossessed and the narcissism of the consumer. Why have you done this? “Because we can”.
Society in the big cities lacks neighbourly solidarity and adults are frightened of the young. Fear of crime is fear of youth. Watch Jo Frost on TV, a lot of parents are anxious about saying “no” to their own children. Market choice targeted at children is a direct challenge to the kinds of parental intuition and authority that creates the emotional boundaries in which children flourish. Adult society has abandoned young people in areas of our cities to a street culture of casual mugging, knives and at the extreme, guns. It has abandoned a small minority to an anomic existence of hopeless parenting, no jobs or rubbish jobs.
A small number are disconnected from family, social norms and adult authority. They are the dangerous ones. They have their own gang culture for mutual aid and their chief value is money. They will use violence to avoid the mortification of shame. The dangers of this nihilistic gang culture have been repeatedly voiced, particularly by black community workers, but they have been ignored by wider society.
The influence of this small core ripples out to terrorise and draw in a wider circle of young people in deprived areas who themselves hover between the social abyss and some sort of decent life. And the ripples extend further outward to other young people who are attracted to the glamour and excitement of the gangsta life. These concentric circles of fear and seduction, uninterrupted by adult and governmental authority, found a common activity and were a core around which swirled larger numbers of voyeurs and thrill seekers.
And as communities reeled under the impact of the violence they were impotent to respond. The police do not have the integration into localcommunities to ensure order. They are a state imposed force. Absolutely necessary yes, but without connections to forms of organised community authority, limited in what they can achieve. Where was the community out on the streets after night fall? Where were the civic leaders rallying the citizenship to bring their children and young people to order? Only in ethnic groups where there were strong family ties and kinship systems and often faith based networks did order prevail – amongst Muslims in Birmingham, the Hassidic Jewish community in Stamford Hill, the Turkish and Kurdish communities in east London. They came out onto the streets and ensured peace and safety.
And this brings us to the lamentable failure of our political class which is disconnected from the life of the people. The Tories were out of their depth. Cameron and Johnson are both revealed in all their mediocrity. They know nothing about the society they live in. Cameron’s pro-social politics lie in tatters as he defends the neo-liberal status quo with bigger, more aggressive state intervention. The people who have talked the most sense are the community workers who work the street and their message is not one that Labour has always wanted to hear – it is about the breakdown of family life, the loss of social structures of authority, the absence of boundaries and discipline. It is a conservative message, but it is not a Tory one. It is half the issue in hand. The other half is the way the social and economic relations of capitalism, if left unchecked, destroys traditions and social authority and produces consumer narcissism and nihilistic cultures of violence. It is about the crushing effect of poverty and parents who have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet with no time for the children and no childcare. And as neuroscience is proving, it is about the emotional destruction of people’s lives caused by childhood abuse, trauma and deprivation.
Labour has to own the conservative part of the story. The right cannot be allowed to bury the causes by framing the events as simply about moral decline and law and order. Labour has to be conservative in its defence of relational life, in its belief in the integrity of family life and in institutions that promote the common good. It must be for reciprocity – do not do to others what you would not want done to yourself. It has to be willing to make judgements about people’s behaviour. And it has to be radical as well as conservative. This means a longer term strategy to end the neo-liberal hegemony and create an ethical economy whose primary purpose is jobs and a common prosperity. Decent jobs on a living wage up and down the country to give people hope and to rebuild our society. It means building community organisation and deepening and expanding democracy and so enabling people to find their voice and take power and responsibility,including the disaffected. They too must sit at the common table.