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 The Prime Minister revealed how out of date his school of Tory physick is when he described the violence as the property of “sick pockets” of society, as if in some Victorian morality play still,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