The findings that have recently started to emerge from enquiries into the riots that tore through cities across England in early August 2011 paint a picture of systematic disadvantage, ingrained tensions, and radical disjunction between societal groups. Though it has proved impossible to pin down any single unifying cause for this undercurrent of societal disquiet, there is a strong implication that in the absence of concrete policy proposals to mitigate the riots’ causes and effects similar events are likely to take place again — possibly even in the near future.
Though at the moment it is too early to provide much more than a diagnosis of ‘what went wrong’, I believe that the prevailing narratives about the riots have ignored a number of factors which may have added significantly to the riots’ severity. Given the urgency of finding some way to ensure a minimum of stability on which other social and political institutions can be founded, I suggest three brief considerations that ought to be borne in mind when policy responses are eventually formulated (at whichever level of governance).
First, the inability of these enquiries to pin down a particular discrete set of root causes for the riots implies that any assessment of the problems of the status quo must adopt an interlinked, systemic approach. As it has proved impossible to wholly separate political, economic, and social concerns in analysing the background to the riots, only a truly cross-disciplinary account — for instance, one rooted in a sociologically-informed theory of political economy — can hope to have the necessary tools to fully capture and interpret the societal phenomena from which the riots derive.
The various historical dimensions of stratification — class, racial, geographical, cultural — in British society have, far from being eroded by societal development since 1945, been preserved through amalgamation into a more unitary, crude, and yet subtly pervasive overarching dimension of status. The difference between elite and the remainder is not purely based on any single criterion (e.g. ethnicity, type of employment, material wealth), but on a complex combination of biases that exaggerate both the advantage of those the biases favour, and the disadvantage of those who ‘lose out’.
It is the self-replication and perpetuation of these interlinked biases that leads to the creation of a perceived hegemonic societal ‘system’, whereby repeated winners are transformed into a dominant ‘elite’, and repeated losers into an ‘underclass’, with a remaindered majority of those without extreme fortunes caught in between. It is this ‘system’ that is particularly at play in the disparate ‘motivating grievances’ identified by rioters as the causes for their actions. Complaints about the loss of EMA, rising tuition fees, austerity measures, and police discrimination gain added valence from the rioters’ subconscious coded articulations of their own (growing) alienation from a continually victorious political-economic-social elite.
Second, I think it is inaccurate to depict the attitude of the rioters as one of a nihilistic ‘loss of morality’. In part-agreement, part-contrast with Phillip Blond’s description of the riots as ‘libertarian’, and Maurice Glasman’s view of the socially disruptive effects of neoliberalism, I argue that the riots — in a way not unrelated to the MPs’ expenses scandal or the daredevil practices of the financial sector — exemplify a particularly corrosive brand of materialistic libertinism. This attitude, which sees the accumulation of wealth as the source and yardstick of welfare and satisfaction, is not one which has emerged from any societal moral vacuum, but one which has been carefully cultivated through socialisation over several decades by a succession of dominant political-economic ideologies.
Though it is ‘right-wing’, conservative, or classical liberal politics with which this form of capitalism is most associated, it is worth highlighting that this particular error is one to which ‘left-wing’, social-democratic politics is equally prone. The ‘resource turn’ in egalitarian political philosophy, and the prioritisation within practical welfarism of resource redistribution by the nation-state, implicitly buy into the same impoverished view of human motivation — they abandon positions from which they could criticise the neoliberal perception of human behaviour, and serve to perpetuate its dominance rather than providing alternatives to undermine it.
As part of providing a rival morality to the one that motivated rioters who hoped to emulate the success of the libertine elite, I suggest that counter-capitalist theory and policy needs to focus on ways of mitigating the losing position of the ‘underclass’ in a way that does not merely reinforce the materialist framework in which they are currently trapped. A non-material account of empowerment might therefore consider the increased democratisation of societal institutions, the creation of legal protection for bargaining positions (loosely construed), and the development of a conception of individual rights that restores a communal, relational component that has lately been lost to neoliberal atomism.
Third, I believe that a significantly overlooked component of the rioters’ motivation was a basic mindset of apathy, passivity and boredom, which treated rioting as a convenient means to escape the anomie of their existence. One extension of the socially inculcated materialist bias is a certain view of novelty and change as both a telos and measure of social progress: the valorisation of consumption and accumulation, and the acceleration through advancing technology of ever more transactional forms of relating to others, has left a legacy of insatiable desire, and a need for permanent ‘churning’ activity aimed at meeting it.
I do not aim to use this criticism to justify social conservatism or conservationism ‘on the sly’, since this reifies immutability to just as damaging an extent as materialism glorifies innovation. Nevertheless, my consideration echoes to an extent the ‘right-wing’ outcry against the purported ‘entitlement culture’ that fed the ‘criminal tendencies’ of the ‘underclass’. A necessary part of any solution to the current social disjunction is a de-emphasising of the role society plays in individuals’ desires being satisfied, and with it (again) the abandonment of the atomistic, individualistic ethos that characterises current philosophical and practical discourse on rights.
By extension, a significant part of a Big Society-type response to the riots involves returning responsibility to individuals in two very specific (and, as yet, underexplored) ways. (1) Individuals need to rediscover the psychological ability to develop their own subjective valuations of societal phenomena, independently of (external) material or financial/transactional criteria of value. (2) Similarly, individuals need to regain a personal sense of purpose — whether social or individual — to guide their existence and activity. In both cases, individuals must become more proactive in their attempts to avoid a wholly nihilistic interpretation of their own facticity: in other words, individuals have to relearn to take charge of themselves, so as to avoid degenerating into complete physical and intellectual dependency on the society around them.
In conclusion, my three considerations move from the macro to the micro level of analysis: politics, ethics, and ontology. In my view, any successful theoretical or policy solution to the problems that caused the riots will need to examine the interplay between political, social and economic factors to capture the ‘full range’ of their causes and effects. Moreover, we must warn against the analytic complacency of dismissing the rioters’ behaviour as ‘amoral’. The need to find an alternative to materialism is profoundly urgent. And finally, a full solution will need to effect a change in individual attitudes towards their relationship with society, in particular encouraging individuals’ development into independently-thinking proactive members of their communities.
Marius Ostrowski is an MPhil student in political theory at the University of Oxford.
This post originally appeared on his blog, Radical Discourse.