Conservatives in power, vicious cuts applied to the welfare state while regressive taxes increase, police violence perpetrated against the poor against a background of declining legitimacy. Yes, the parallels between 2011 and 1981 are irresistibly suggestive of a political explanation for the British summer riots.
The triggers in 1981 were ‘heavy handed’ and often racist policing reflecting long running policing policies that systematically targeted young black men whose experience of state authority would likely have been unremittingly negative. This combined with racial tensions between communities and with the deep-set inequalities of urban life where whole areas were devoid of opportunities for meaningful work. There were instances of looting and arson but the prominent images of Brixton, Toxteth and so on is the violent clashes with police. At times small numbers of police found themselves surrounded by angry youths with improvised weapons. More often, lines of police in riot gear would tackle large groups of rioters head-on. Battles would last hours and the aim, it would seem, was primarily to hit back at the police while the usual power relationship had been reversed.
This summer, after the first night of anger at the police shooting of Mark Duggan, people’s purpose on the streets seemed to be different. Rather than directing violence at police, such confrontations were often avoided as the fast moving and, at times, well organised crowds descended like bargain hunters on high street stores. Rather than an opportunity to settle scores with authorities, this looked like a rush to get free stuff, as was sometimes evident on various communications on social networks and in media interviews after the events[Guardian, Telegraph]. This difference in the character of the riots is suggestive of a different explanation for why they occurred. As Zygmunt Bauman was quick to argue ‘these are not hunger or bread riots. These are riots of defective and disqualified consumers.’
Bauman’s contributions to the sociology of contemporary capitalism have drawn out the implications of a shift in the way in which people create and understand their own identities, which in turn frame their understandings of the world around them, their decisions about action and their identification of friends, allies, and opponents. Whereas once most people understood their identities in terms of religion, nation, social position or vocation in the present we can talk about a multitude of consumer-based identities. This analysis is understood best by clever marketer, who consciously try to create brands for products that carry a heavy load of meaning. As a result, a large portion of the value of global corporations is attributed to their brands (see Interbrand for current values.) The value of a consumer object becomes detached from either the cost of production or the utility that product has, but instead is tied to what it signals about us both to ourselves and to those who see use engaged in conspicuous consumption. Apple iThing brand construction is a little stroke of genius in this regard – I’d be very surprised if Apple marketers didn’t come up with a list of things that the now ubiquitous ‘i’ could stand for that included identity. If we’d had the ‘myPod’ we’d have an everyday description of ownership of a thing, but by using the active, verbal form of the pronoun ‘i’ we get a much deeper signal that ‘I do Apple products’, such that ownership of the product also says something much more meaningful about the consumer , perhaps that they see themselves as technologically savvy lovers of design and aesthetics, willing to pay a high premium for apparent quality (and therefore relatively wealthy), keen on music, smart, intelligent.
So, what’s the problem with people using objects of consumption to build an identity? Intrinsically, perhaps nothing, but this trend has to be understood in relation to two realities of contemporary capitalism: first that we are inescapably bombarded with advertising so that claims that certain products are required for certain aspects of identity are familiar to people from early childhood; second that many are excluded from participation in this make-believe world of music players, cars or deodorants with sex appeal. The unemployed and the underemployed are Bauman’s ‘defective consumers’, stoked with the desire for identity-confirming objects by a lifetime of marketing but unable to grasp them by legal means. The impact of consumerism on the poor is just to make their experience of inequality much sharper; their lack of opportunity for income or credit robs them also of the primary social tools for self-expression.
This argument needs to be tempered though, and shouldn’t be reduced to the idea that these riots were simply about consumerist greed. Owen Jones made some useful observations at an RSA talk (audio here) including plenty of quotes from people involved in rioting who were directly complaining about police behaviour or about the lack of opportunity for work. Just because, to my mediated view of things, the riots didn’t look like a well targeted kick at the police, doesn’t mean that that wasn’t exactly what was intended. As Jones points out, we’re actually looking at a series of riots and each one contained many motivations. For some it may have simply been hedonistic bravado, for others free stuff and for others still a battle with police. Whatever the mix of motivations, a broader explanation for episodes of collective willingness to transcend the normal rules are demanded. As in the early 1980s, deep material inequalities and an abiding hopelessness in the face of more restrictions on opportunity and shrinking safeguards for even a basic standard of living seem to be clear precursors, generating anger and resentment on a huge scale.
So, while this casual comparison of riots is suggestive of an explanation for differences in the form of the riots, with this higher emphasis on iLooting an outgrowth of wild consumerism, perhaps the traditional explanation for the existence of the riots in the first place – an austere state exacerbating deep social and economic inequalities – remains intact.