It’s exactly a year ago since London (and much of England) tore itself apart in mass rioting. I wrote about the riots and the response to them in the immediate aftermath. Much (certainly not all) of the reaction to my piece perfectly illustrated the ‘Bad Feeling’ idea – many didn’t want to consider any deeper social problems but instead preferred the ‘feral scum rationally choosing to steal trainers’ narrative. Anyone diverting from this and suggest society-wide problems which contributed to the riots was portrayed as, at best, hopelessly naive and at worst, a cynical apologist.
It’s with very neat timing that the anniversary of the riots falls smack bang in the middle of the Olympics. It’s inevitable, then, that many have drawn contrasts between the riots and the current ‘Olympic spirit’. The millionaires Boris Johnson and Sebastian Coe speak of the riots presenting a London they don’t recognise. Hilariously, Johnson momentarily raises hopes of more serious consideration by speaking of “a deep social problem which requires lots of solutions’. We should know better. This problem is a ‘culture, I’m afraid, of instant gratification’. Coming from someone who has repeatedly and consistently defended his criminal friends in the financial sector and News Corp, that’s quite a bold statement. Nevertheless, it shows perfectly the various ways in which politicians are trying to exploit the Olympics to their own ends. David Cameron aligned himself with the NHS-loving rhetoric surrounding the Opening Ceremony, fully aware that his government’s reforms have opened the door to its erosion. Now the government speaks of a sporting ‘legacy’ which will prevent future riots – yet the government continues to sell school playing fields and has already slashed spending on all sport under the austerity agenda. It is mendacity of the highest order, far more ‘cynical’ than those who point these hypocrisies out.
The contrasting of London this week with the riots is perhaps the most mendacious gesture yet. Yesterday the Equality Trust released a research digest which pinpointed inequality in the UK as the most widespread contributer to the riots, underlying every issue which the government’s own report identified as causes:
The evidence shows that income inequality negatively affects children and parents, personal resilience and hopes and dreams, and that inequality drives consumerism, that inequality increases violent crime and excessive force by police. Given this, it is clear that if we want to prevent future unrest and foster a positive, shared society, we should be aiming for a less unequal society, with high levels of trust and strong communities.
Yet the government refuses to budge from an ideologically-driven agenda which has driven the country into another recession (the worst since WW2), is hitting the poorest in society hardest and is allowing the wealthiest to further intrench their privilege and wealth. Inequality is soaring – as the Oxfam report puts it, “On current trends, by 2035 this inequality will reach levels last seen in the Victorian era”. While youth unemployment reaches epidemic levels and becomes embedded in the system and soaring debt deters the young from university, the government does nothing but make the right noises with regards to the tax avoidance of their rich friends and the continuing abusive self-interest of the financial sector. Meanwhile, Mark Duggan’s death remains shrouded in half-truths and the message goes out loud and clear that we are not equal before the law.
In short, the social problems which led to the riots have gotten worse in the past year and we are witnessing the creation of a ‘lost generation’ where even long-term graduate unemployment is rising enormously. Yet the government speaks of ‘pride’ and ‘achievement’ as it waves the flag and points to the hard work of Olympic athletes, once again pushing the idea that poverty and unemployment are due to individual defects. They no doubt believe that disability is also an individual failing, hence the brutality of Atos and the DWP. It is with a grim irony that Atos is a sponsor of the Paralympics, clearly hoping to bask in the patriotic glow while it profits from its ill-treatment of some of our most vulnerable citizens.
It’s notable that some of the issues which even the government acknowledged as contributing factors towards the riots are highly relevant to the Olympics. Authoritarian policing has been given a smiley face, with police and the military flooding our streets, preemptively arresting ‘dissidents’ and removing ‘undesirables’ from Olympic areas. Meanwhile the relationship between the Games and consumerism hardly needs further explanation – it has largely become the prime raison d’être behind them. The transformation of London for the benefit of corporate sponsors, from the privatisation of public space and the attempts to control our very language to the initial efforts to make London a tax haven, can hardly be seen as unrelated to kids whose future is being stolen stealing from JD Sports.
I have long been suspicious of this year’s flag-waving and predicted that it would reach hysterical levels during the Olympics. The UK’s (why is it ‘Team GB’ and not ‘Team UK’?!) achievement in the Games has only heightened this. There is, of course, nothing wrong with celebrating athletic achievement but the idea that the success of these individuals is evidence of some wider transformation in our society is risible. Indeed, it’s already been commented on in some quarters that the privately educated are massively over-represented in our medal-winners (a third so far, I believe), just as they are massively over-represented in the upper echelons of our society. If anything our athletes are showing how little our society has changed. Yet the politicians will try and co-opt them, sure as day. David Cameron will continue to give speeches attacking multi-culturalism and governments of all hues will continue repressive immigration and asylum policies while the politicians line up to be seen with the ethnically-diverse athletes. Olympic achievement has this neat effect of nullifying Bad Feeling – and therein lies the danger. You can be sure that the government (and others) will seek to exploit this long after the Olympics have ended – they will make some gesture towards investment in sports and continue to speak of patriotism. Critics of austerity will be contrasted with those who ‘achieve’. Critics of Atos will be painted as opponents of Paralympic athletes. Critics of government policies which are massively increasing poverty and inequality will be pointed towards Olympic ‘regeneration’ and portrayed as grumbling Trots, out of touch with the national mood. More than ever, those who seek to understand the roots of the riots will be attacked, because (we will be told) people can ‘choose’ to become Olympic athletes rather than smash up their neighbourhood. The theme of the Great British Summer has been and continues to be ‘We are all in this together’. The political implications of this have never been more clear.
Edit: This video is well worth watching.