Like most people, I’m feeling pretty conflicted by the recent riots/disorder/looting/protests (delete according to your political/emotional standpoint) in parts of England. I feel sad for those whose homes, jobs and businesses have been lost, and for the ugly scars damage leaves on our cities. I feel angry that people can torch other people’s homes with seemingly no care.
But I feel more sad and more angry about a system that allows whole generations to grow up feeling alienated, desperate and angy. If ‘society’ (you know, that thing that either doesn’t exist or is big, depending on which Tory party rhetoric you’re listening to this week) doesn’t give a damn about them, then why should they give a damn back? This, of course, is probably simplifying the situation – the truth is no-one knows exactly why so many pockets of disruption occurred and why in those particular areas – it is probably any number of contributing factors – poverty, alienation, gang culture, consumerism, and the whole sense of being part of a ‘happening’. That it was a destructive happening makes no real matter – anyone who remembers being young remembers how easy it is to get swept up in what everyone else is doing – not that all the rioters were young – and we all know the power of collectivity. That power of collectivity, the buzz of being part of a ‘happening’, of working together is why so many people were swept up in counter movements like Operation Cup of Tea, #riotcleanup or recirculating the video of that kickass woman in Hackney. There is power in feeling part of something. Feeling part of something can, even for a moment, cause alienation to cease and people to feel like they have some control – and whether that power is over the police because you can nick an iPad or a bag of basmati rice and no-one will catch you, or whether that power is over your community through cleaning up a mess that was caused – it’s still collective power.
Whatever the real causes of the protests (and we must not sweep under the carpet the issue of the shooting of Mark Duggan – whilst I am not anti-police, the Metropolitan Police, already under scrutiny because of #hackgate and still not trusted that much after the Jean Charles de Menezes fiasco, have some serious issues that need dealing with), they raise important questions – and these important questions are not really whether or not to shut down mobile phone networks or get out water cannons, David Cameron. We have several generations of people who are disaffected – and this is not simply an “underclass” problem. (How despicable that words such as underclass, feral, rats etc have been bandied about with no question by the way). I am disaffected with many things in our society – and chances are so are you.
This is not simply a problem of the Tories, or the coalition, or New Labour (and let’s not romanticise Old Labour either – the 1970s were not exactly a picnic). It is a problem of a social, cultural and political system of obscene privilege. A system where your place in society is largely determined by the place you were born and the family you were born into. Any society that has a substantial private education system, that has huge discrepancies between the incomes of those at the top and those at the bottom, that cuts services that help the young, the elderly, the sick, the poor, that decides the arts, humanities, social sciences, maths and computing are not worth subsidising in education so that they potentially become the preserve of the rich once more, that allows whole generations to live in crumbling estates, give up on education and run amok and allows whole other generations to sip champagne as if it were tap water, avoid paying taxes because of some obscure loopholes and get into positions of power through nepotism and family connections is sick.
But most of us sit in the middle of all this somewhere. Most of us, if we’re honest (and we need to be honest), acknowledge that we quite like nice TVs and trainers and smartphones and if we could afford it, we’d drink champagne a bit more often than at the odd wedding. Most of us wouldn’t want to work in Poundland on minimum wage if there’s any way we don’t have to. Most of us would rather those people that do shitty jobs no-one else wants were paid more handsomely for their efforts, whilst those who sit on their arses atop of big corporations, gambling with our futures and bankrupting nations were, you know, paid less. Or preferably put in jail.
Many of us are unhappy with the levels of inequality in our country, and in countries like ours. We’re not necessarily happy with our political system that requires MPs to live a crazy lifestyle, away from their homes and constituencies for much of the week – even in this age of internet communications, and where they, and the heads of big corporations, can get into power through the privilege of being born in the right place. (I know some ‘make it on their own’ but these are the exception, not the norm. We need a system that allows more exceptional people, from all walks of life, to become influential rather than one where the working-lower middle classes need to be at least 10x as exceptional as their upper-middle-upper class counterparts in order to succeed).
However, we’re British. We’re not that comfortable with huge sweeing change. We like our country – we would just like it to be better. Many of us feel uncomfortable with the kind of violence that tends to accompany revolutions in other countries. We might quite like revolution, but couldn’t it be a bit, well, more polite? Well, if any country can effect a polite revolution it’s ours. I don’t know how we could make it happen, or even if we could make it happen – but I get the feeling a revolution conducted over cups of tea and polite conversation is a far more acceptable idea to most of us than smashing things up – if only because our urge is then to tidy things up again afterwards. So is there anything we can do? We don’t have a constitution, so we can’t look there for ideas – but we have a medium in the internet to discuss these things. The internet may not be the revolutionary paradise it’s been sometimes sold as, but it’s the best we’ve got.
We need to stop allowing politicians to co-opt things that are ours, such as #welovethenhs or #riotcleanup. We need to find a new way. I don’t know what that is, I don’t know if we really can change our political system, scrap (or reform, or pose a significant challenge to) the big three parties, change the wealth distribution in our society or any of these other things, but wouldn’t it be nice to know that we could at least have a proper conversation about these things, that wasn’t strangled by the means of voting for the least evil of a choice of political parties, none of whom we agree with on everything, that wasn’t limited to the odd petition or marches no-one pays attention to. The riots got attention – but they didn’t give people a platform to speak – the rich rise up with fear and try to exert more control while the rest of us scream that making people more angry won’t help matters. So let’s talk about this seriously people. We need a #politerevolution.