Youth Riots: England, August 2011 – A Reaction

Shops are bursting with retail goods which lie outside the range of many people’s purses. Advertising dominates our urban landscapes selling a lifestyle which the majority cannot afford. The culture of consumerism infiltrates all aspects of our life and we are even portrayed as “consumers” of welfare, educational and other public services. Value is measured not in terms of utility, necessity or social benefit but in terms of money, exchange and profit. The needs of the ‘markets’ shape the limits and priorities of public finance with the role of publically accountable bodies in determining socially necessary spending markedly diminished. The language of capital dominates our social and political worlds and the sustenance of the current financial system is considered paramount and ranks well above a consideration of the maintenance of social and community well-being. This is the world as it has been shaped by neo-liberalism and the economic and political forces which it musters. This is the system and ways of thinking in which we bring up our children today and to which we are all expected to adapt in our working lives and old age.

The lionisation of the ‘market’ and its values in the UK has intensified since the government of coalition was formed just two years ago and we are told, echoing the words of Margaret Thatcher three decades ago, that there is no alternative; that to organise the economy and society any differently, to ignore the needs of the ‘market’, would bring with it unknown misery. As a result the known miseries arising from the withdrawal of welfare, rising unemployment, diminishing wages and pensions, the degradation of public services and an increasing precariousness in life and loss of future life-chances must be currently endured. Two years ago Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, took the opportunity presented by the 2010 UK national election to underline these priorities, using a Bank of England quarterly press conference to announce to the assembled gathering that he backed the Conservative Party’s line on austerity and that a slowing of consumer demand and tight controls on wages were necessary to avoid the risk of an adverse market reaction. King readily acknowledged later that year, however, that ‘the young unemployed have had their future blighted’ and later in 2011 expressed surprise that there had not been more public anger over the scale of the crisis and its consequences.

In August 2011 of course anger did erupt on the streets of many cities and towns in England. Initially sparked in Tottenham by the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan and the subsequent atrocious treatment of Mark’s family, his friends and community demanded answers to their questions. Five nights later the violence ceased and around 3000 young people have been subsequently brought before the courts and their lives blighted by criminal records and time in custody. Subsequent research by individuals and organisations such as the National Centre for Social Research, the London School of Economics and the Communities and Victims Panel hurriedly set up in the wake of the spectacular events on England’s streets, have shown that the violence was a consequence of strain and alienation felt in many areas of the lives of those involved. Many of the grievances aired by those participating revolve around a lack of consideration of young people’s need for education, training and employment, degrading treatment meted out to them by representatives of the state such as the police and a feeling that their lives and opinions are considered to be without value and worth. Added to these concerns were the more emotional reactions – the feelings of excitement and power articulated by many participating which transformed their mundane, everyday reality for a short time when they actually controlled the streets, felt a sense of power normally denied them and found an opportunity to get hold of the products and symbols of consumerism which define individuals in present-day Britain.

We should not be surprised that such anger and frustration bubbled to the surface. The old post-war consensus is in tatters, ripped apart by neo-liberal logics. The social contract which offered a considerate state building public services, affordable homes, health-care, supporting people in gaining education and training, creating the right environment to maximise employment and offering a safety-net to those who fall, has been steadily replaced by an individualising rhetoric which denigrates collective responses to crisis and exhorts the individual to ‘pull up their socks’ and find their own solutions. While the welfare arm of the state is being fundamentally eroded however, it has strengthened its use of control and force to regulate behaviour of groups perceived as problematic. Given opportunities, justice and respect most people will toe the line and a consensus will be reached in which the rule of law is largely accepted and trusted. Denied these fundamental requirements of social democracy, however, there will be a reaction. Oftentimes this reaction will take socially accepted forms, but without a social glue binding us together, indeed when the very conditions which destroy such bonds are promoted as natural and normal, the state should not be surprised that other reactions occur which are less palatable to its taste.

*The ideas expressed in this column are solely the opinions of the author and not necessarily of the Dialogue Society

Karen Evans

Karen Evans

Senior Lecturer at the School of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology, University of Liverpool

Dr Karen Evans is Senior Lecturer at the School of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology at the University of Liverpool. Her work has focused, although not exclusively, on communities in excluded neighbourhoods and their responses to marginalisation and deprivation.

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