Positivity and the Olympic ‘Feel-Good Factor’

I love people. An odd statement, I know, and one that some (most?!) who know me would immediately scoff at. I can be very scathing about aspects of people (and aspects of myself.)  Yet this love and this disdain both stem from the same strong belief that each one of us has enormous potential – to think, to act, to create, to empathise, to live lives which always aspire to something that bit greater than what we are. That is why I’m a socialist. I have an unshakeable belief that people are fundamentally ‘good’ – that people want the best not only for themselves, but for each other – and that co-operation is both a way to achieve this and, in itself, the peak expression of human dignity and endeavour. I believe passionately that as a society we should work to maximise the opportunities available to everyone, whatever their background, so that they may understand and begin to realise their potential.

Talk of opportunities and background is, of course, everywhere at the moment. Team GB exceeded all expectations at the Olympics and discussion has turned to how to foster future opportunities for potential Olympians. Yet this seemingly innocuous subject is the terrain for a clash of visions of Britain. On the one hand you have those, like the Prime Minister or the Daily Mail journalist on BBC News this morning, who are fixating on the individual efforts of the athletes involved. The journalist spoke of the hard work and ambition of the athletes, contrasting their efforts with those chasing ‘quick’ success on ‘X Factor’. As I’ve previously noted, this narrative has also been used as a strong contrast to the riots last year, the differing paths of an Olympic athlete and a looter being reduced to rational, individual choices. It’s a clearly neoliberal interpretation, focusing on atomised individuals who achieve almost entirely due to their own determination. It’s easy to understand why those with Conservative leanings would favour this idea.

The second, somewhat quieter vision emphasises the fundamental importance of state spending on sport, the combined efforts of many and the opportunities afforded as a result. A perfect example of this appears in today’s Guardian and it uses this foundation to argue that the post-Olympic glow is the ideal time to make the case for a social democratic Britain.

It’s clear, then, that many will lay claim to the so-called ‘feel-good factor’ generated by the Olympics. Yet once the athletes have packed up and gone home, what exactly is this factor? Reams have already been written about the ‘positive nationalism’ which the Games have allowed; about the British being unembarrassed about pride once more. Much has been made of the success of some non-white athletes – immigrants to the country, even. The Games, we are told, has presented us with the face of a modern, open and happy country. However as the Games closed, a poll presented as proof of this happiness found that a majority of Britons agreed with the statement that “More often than not immigrants … do not bring anything positive, and the likes of the Olympic-winning athletes are an exception”. 68% disagreed that the Olympics would make them ‘more positive or less worried’ about immigration. Fascinatingly, 68% also agreed that “modern Britain is stronger as a country of many cultures”. How this fits with a disdain for immigration is difficult to comprehend but, nonetheless, it shows that questions are raised immediately as you look behind the gloss of the Olympic cheer. Nationalistic pride by definition must exclude people – can it ever truly be ‘positive’? The abundance of articles about the ethnic origins of some Team GB athletes raised many concerns. Aside from the patronising co-opting of someone’s race as a weapon with which to attack ‘racists’, there were implicit  ideas about ‘deserving’ immigrants who achieve gold and, by extension, ‘undeserving’ immigrants – the kind you read about in the Daily Mail, in fact.

Of course, this wasn’t the intention of the vast majority. They simply felt enormous pride that ‘their’ athletes had done well. Yet the refusal to countenance any political connotations, inevitably presented as ‘negative’, seems to me to already be a strong feature of aforementioned ‘feel-good factor’. Affirmations of the power of ‘positive thinking’ have been everywhere, with people determining to ‘stay positive’ and ‘avoid negativity’. The problem with this is that ‘positive thinking’ is almost always apolitical and being apolitical is inherently a reactionary political position. Understanding the power structures of society, understanding the class privilege which led to the over-representation of private schooled athletes in Team GB, understanding the racial privilege which led many to feel they should turn non-white athletes into liberal totems, understanding the competing ideologies at the heart of even simple discussions about supporting athletes – none of these can ever be unremittingly ‘positive’ as they involve confronting a society which is divided and in many ways flawed. They involve bringing Bad Feeling into the warm glow of an apolitical ‘togetherness’. This was perfectly illustrated by last night’s deeply flawed ‘The Riots: In Their Own Words’ documentary on BBC 2. Barely had the ink dried on the slew of newspaper editorials celebrating the ‘new Britain’ before many were taking to social media to once again spit bile at the ‘feral rats’ and ‘animals’ who rioted and looted last year. Of course many did awful, inexcusable things during those days but in what sense is reducing someone to the level of a beast in any way ‘positive’? Wouldn’t the ‘positive’ attitude be to try and put ourselves in their shoes and begin to try and comprehend why they felt they could, should, do these things? To also try and understand that which allows a human being to be killed and the killers to go free, as has happened with Mark Duggan (amongst others)? It is ‘positive’ to ignore this?

Most people who do speak about this do not do so because they want to be agents of doom. They don’t do it because they’re naive do-gooders or because they want to be different. They do so because of their love and respect for people; their belief that the United Kingdom can be a place where the potential of a former looter is understood as much as that of a Royal and where, crucially, it is afforded real and lasting opportunities. Understanding the deep inequalities and injustices which persist in our society may not fit nicely into a ‘feel-good factor’ but, ultimately, the desire for change which stems from that is far more ‘positive’ than a shallow nationalism.

‘We Are All In This Together’

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.

In this age of austerity, riots and the Olympics, you might think that those who have most to lose are those already at the bottom. Areas such as Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Lewisham remain amongst the most deprived in Europe. A report issued by the Campaign to End Child Poverty in January of this year claimed that over 50% of the children in Tower Hamlets live in poverty. The areas suffer disproportionately from crime, have rates of home ownership well-below the average for the country and have a higher than average % of their populations claiming benefits. Many believe that the coalition’s austerity drive will make these problems worse (and in fact we are already seeing it doing so).

However, it’s also a fact that London is one of the most unequal cities in the world and these areas are not exempt from this. It is still breathtaking, however, that Dazed & Confused currently has a cover questioning ‘Is East London Dead?’ and a website stating:

With the arrival of the Olympics in east London, the world’s attention has turned to the creative heartland of the capital. What does this mean for the artists, designers, musicians and publishers making their mark here, who face rising rents and an endlessly increasing variety of artisanal coffee? Dazed & Confused surveys those living and working in its own back yard, and asks ‘Is East London Dead?

It truly reads like something from the nightmares of Nathan Barley. Forget the poverty, the crime, the kids who took to the streets to smash up their neighbourhoods – the area just might not be happening anymore! There are too many coffee shops! Note the first comment, where a guy observes that people will ‘move on’ and begins the discussion of ‘where is next’. There is a staggering lack of awareness that for many of their neighbours, there is no ‘next’. They can’t just up and move on. It’s horribly close to the attitudes which were so frequently expressed by ‘trendy people with good jobs’ about the riots last year.

Now, I must confess, I haven’t read the article within. Perhaps Dazed & Confused tackles this. Perhaps it acknowledges that its launch was part of a period of intense gentrification in Shoreditch where ‘creatives’ moved in, rents went up and many of the long-standing residents were forced to move out. Perhaps it recognises that articles in magazines such as Dazed & Confused pushing places like Dalston as the new cool hubs and that people flocking to an area because it’s seen as ‘cool’ and/or ‘creative’ play a massive part in gentrification. Perhaps it understands the massive inequalities that exist in the area and that the transformation of pockets of East London into desirable hang-outs for ‘creatives’ does not solve poverty but merely displaces it. There might be pieces about Broadway Market and London Fields being smack-bang in the middle of hugely deprived areas with gang problems and all that goes with them. Perhaps there’s also an appreciation of the history of an area like Broadway Market and an understanding of the resentment many long-term residents feel when its development as a trendy, creative hub leads to long-standing shopowners being forced out in favour of bars, restaurants and art bookshops.

Perhaps it does all of these things – I would hope so, because the alternative would suggest arrogance and entitlement of sickening proportions. Some self-awareness regarding the privileges many of us have (hell, even in being able to choose to move to a specific area in the first place) would go a long way. As would an understanding that the fashion/art world does not exist in a depoliticised bubble, with the ability choose at will whether to engage with the world around it. Just as it has played a leading role in the gentrification it now complains about, it is inextricably involved in the capitalist system which lies at the root of such phenomena. Creatives are not outside of class and being priced out of areas is not something that has suddenly started with the arrival of the truly rich and the Olympics.

It’s with a perverse amusement that I link to a piece which both anticipates and annihilates Dazed & Confused’s stance, a whole 8 years early . It is about the gentrification of Shoreditch in the 90s, which Dazed & Confused was undoubtedly a part of. It’s a brilliant piece which goes into the phenomenon far better than I could, so I won’t do it the disservice of paraphrasing it. Suffice to say, you should read it. I present one single excerpt in conclusion:

Each wave of colonisers plays out the contradictions of their particular claim to space, taking sides against the next phase of gentrification in which they nevertheless conspire. The nightclub owners print huge posters declaring the area a ‘nighttime economy’ and warning potential residents not to expect ‘living on the edge’ to take place in silence. Hipsters in Brooklyn wear ‘Defend Williamsburg’ t-shirts, a slogan accompanied by a picture of an AK47 and no consciousness whatsoever of the violence of primitive accumulation in which they are always already mired up to their armpits. Acting out fantasies of radical chic and social toxicity, the shocktroops of gentrification have been much taked, in the last ten years, with images of guerilla warfare, an unconscious, aristocratic reflection of concurrent neoliberal ‘military urbanism’ in more intensively looted cities from Palestine to Iraq to Haiti. Gentrification’s vanguard are at their most depoliticised when at their most radically chic (what Simon Pope described in the late ‘90s as the Prada Meinhof), and almost seems to dream the preconditions for this low-level urban civil war through their hypertrophied ‘fashion sense’.

Dazed and Confused is worried about gentrification


I read ‘Anti-Gay’ in February this year. It was around the time Gaga released ‘Born this Way’ and the ‘gay community’ seemed to collectively suspend all critical faculties. Only a couple of weeks later, Johann Hari wrote his awful, racist lies about ‘Muslim homophobia’ in Tower Hamlets and the piece went viral, shared by countless educated people who should have known better. That piece and the reaction to it (from Hari, from his colleagues, from his readers) proved to be the catalyst for a serious appraisal of my own beliefs and approaches towards the media, identity politics and wider politics.

It took in ‘gay activists’ in Tower Hamlets, Caitlin Moran, Johann Hari, Patrick Strudwick and Sunny Hundal (repeatedly – exactly a year ago I actually followed Johann, Patrick and Sunny. I would sometimes engage in harmless banter with them. It was only when I criticised them that they turned (quite insanely) nasty and this response proved to be quite typical of their peers like Caitlin and Grace Dent. An honourable mention to Eva Wiseman, who somehow tracked down a criticism I made of one of her articles (I didn’t send it to her) and responded in very good humour) and the John Snow “kiss-ins”. The Hari scandal, by complete coincidence, unfolded only weeks after my own disillusionment with him and the response to that further informed my self-criticism. It led me to be depressed at the ironic cynicism which passes as ‘writing’ for so many prominent figures in the media (and the ironic responses they receive). 

The response by many of my peers to the London riots only added to the sense that I had been living in a cosy bubble for many years, not really questioning anything around me but instead being happy to have my opinions reflected back at me. My disgust with identity politics led to a re-focusing on class and in increasing disdain for the petty politics of Labour vs Tory (something which, again, I have been frequently guilty of). I have been bored to death by the tedious and irrelevant chattering about Ed Miliband being replaced by someone more presentable. It seems that ‘Labour’ or ‘Tory’ have in many quarters become just another form of ‘identity’, signifying something while meaning nothing. My thinking of late has been around trying to form a coherent narrative relating class to many of the above issues and why identity politics inevitably reaches a cul-de-sac that inevitably ends up serving the powerful and diverting from the real problems.

I’ve come in for a lot of flack while thinking through all this stuff. Of course I know that I can seem smug, vitriolic, aggressive in my writing but really I think many of the responses I have received are more to do with the things I’m questioning and how the person relates to them than with anything relating to me. I don’t claim to know any great ‘truth’ or to be ‘correct’ but I think it’s fair to say that my politics and my approach to politics has completely altered this year, more so than it has done probably since university over a decade ago. A decade seems like a long enough time to coast along without seriously having my beliefs challenged. That is the fundamental thing – whomever else has been a part of this, it’s my own thinking and beliefs that I have ultimately been criticising. I feel much better for it and feel excited about what 2012 will bring – in terms of what I will learn and also what I can do to help fight the battles I believe are important.

Edit- and in the spirit of continuing to learn, if anyone has any recommendations for future reading please comment below and let me know.

The Masses Against the Classes

As I have briefly touched on before, I am continually amazed by how many of my peers completely ignore or are completely ignorant of class. For my generation (and those that have followed) it is de rigueur to ascribe certain qualities of your personality or certain external events in your life to different aspects of your identity. Decades of misinformation (and downright propaganda) from our media (and larger culture) have rendered class invisible, a perceived irrelevance. It is not to be mentioned in polite company and speaking about it passionately and intelligently instantly marks you out as, at best, a naive relic (while it is not often verbalised, it’s clear that, at worse, mentioning class sees you painted as hopelessly bitter.) Even much of ‘the left’ will respond to its mention by trotting out that ever more meaningless insult, ‘Trot’.

Cultural theory, largely removed from any economic realm, is what’s fashionable these days. I use the phrase ‘fashionable’ deliberately as it is a grim irony that the worlds of media, marketing and fashion have been at the forefront of capitalist society’s efforts to strip the economic from the political and replace it with a post-modern sense that all is vanity. To speak to someone who works in these fields is typically to find someone who staggeringly believes that their work is beyond politics and their success is entirely down to their own qualities. Indeed, these industries thrive on pushing the notion that anyone can make it if they try. That we are the Kings and Queens of our own fates and our success or failure depends entirely on our personal efforts. There is, of course, absolutely no place for class in this narrative. No place for power, even for politics itself. Contact with the outside world will express itself as a series of fringe identity issues, for example ‘compassionate consumerism’ wherein ineffectual hand-wringing about sweatshops identifies you as someone who cares.

Mention of a ‘class war’ is, then, completely beyond the pale. It is no exaggeration that proposing this possibility generally results in your instant dismissal as a crazy person. A class war suggests one class using its power to protect or advance its position at the expense of another and how could this be in a world free of class?

Yet if we are to accept that class isn’t real we need different explanations as to why so much of our society is intrinsically linked to income (which plays a huge, but not solitary, role in class). As the first column linked to above indicates, educational attainment is still closely linked to class. This follows through into professional jobs, our legal system, our government, all areas where the higher income brackets are hopelessly over-represented. Lower income families account for a hugely out-of-proportion number of those in prison. A recent report linked the UK riots with deprivation. Obviously I am rattling through and simplifying here but the blunt links are there and undeniable. Social mobility is at a standstill and for every person who, against the odds, ‘escapes’ from their background there are countless more who do not, who cannot, who don’t even begin to think that they can.

So yes, I believe that class is real and, in a country where inequality is reaching levels worse than it has ever been it is more relevant than ever. Labour’s record on inequality wasn’t great by any means but, on the whole, it decreased poverty even while failing to tackle the rich becoming ever richer and ever more disconnected from society. Today we have a government which is actively redistributing wealth away from the poor to pay for more PFI (an expensive means of moving wealth from taxpayers into concentrated, private hands), ‘free schools’ and further subsidies for banks and businesses which are steadfastly failing to play their part in the coalition fantasy of the private sector rushing to the aid of the economy (after the state bailouts which prevented worldwide depression, you’d think they’d return the favour). This comes in seven days where the government announced its plans to tackle youth unemployment and the housing bubble by subsidising low wage employers and hawkish landlords. The Treasury’s own figures anticipate today’s policies pushing 100,000 further children into poverty. Unemployment is predicted to rise above the dreaded figure of 3 million, not seen since the dark days of Thatcher. Poverty in general is predicted to rise by millions in the next decade.

As you can see in this chart, a swift analysis of today’s measures saw the top income decile being affected most. However, this was largely due to Labour’s 50p tax rate which the government has several times indicated it wishes to scrap. Remove this from the picture and the changes are completely regressive, with the poorest being hit hardest (and, in any case, clearly a decline in net income of 1.5% affects the poorest far more than a decline of 2% affects the richest). Note that the curve rises upwards from the poorest so that the middle-classes are the least ‘hit’. This is classic class politics. The token gesture of hitting the richest by a few more fractions of a percentile enables the government to trumpet that everyone is ‘in it together’. Hitting the middle-class least protects their vote; even more so if the blame for it can be diverted to those who are being hit hardest. So it was that the government announced a headline benefits rise of over 5%. Cue many outraged comments that the feckless were being ‘rewarded’ for doing nothing while workers were being penalised. Of course the reality is that both groups are worse-off and those on benefits are hit harder in other ways, but many people won’t look beyond the headlines to realise this and their anger is directed away from those in power.

All of this is done under the guise of reducing a ‘deficit’ that was caused by a mendacious and greedy financial sector with the help of cowardly politicians (and anyone who still believes the lie that it was due to public spending should read this and this). Yet these people continue to accumulate wealth while public sector workers are given real term double-digit pay cuts and the government ‘consults’ on destroying further employment rights (the UK already suffers some of the worst employment rights in Europe). And the deficit is getting bigger! The political manipulation on display is breathtaking. 

You can see it too in the pensions dispute. The government’s own report anticipated public sector pension costs peaking around 2026 and then declining. Even at its peak, the cost never hits 2% of GDP. There has already been significant reform of public sector pensions over the past 15 years which has reduced their cost. Yet the government pushes the myth of an out-of-control pension bill and an intransigent, greedy public sector determined to hold onto unfair, outdated arrangements. Again, they play ordinary workers off against each other – rather than ask why their own pensions are so derisory, private sector workers are led to believe that dinner ladies are looking forward to living it up at their expense. It’s a myth that falls apart very quickly but in the face of a media largely owned by billionaire oligarchs, it is one that is rarely challenged. No wonder when, as I’ve noted above, our society is so geared towards the supremacy of individual effort? The guy in marketing earning £30,000 a year, he earned it. If a nurse is seeing her pay cut in real terms it’s probably her fault for not finding another job, right?

It is difficult not to believe that we are seeing a class war. The government refuses to countenance a Tobin tax or anything other than mild reform of the financial sector. The interests of those who caused, and benefited from, the financial crisis continue to be protected. Today has been the clearest indicator yet that the government is not only failing the majority of the country but actively attacking them and their interests, all under the guise of tackling a deficit that they are actually increasing.

Tomorrow sees the biggest strike in the UK in several generations. Everyone who cares about this country, who believes that it should be a fairer place with a sense of justice, should support it. We need to recognise our common enemy, neatly encapsulated in recent months in the term ‘the 1%’. This government is ensuring that your class, and your children’s class, will matter more than ever when it comes to dictating their lives. We need to recognise this, which means accepting the reality of class and the logic of class interests. It means accepting that there is such a thing as society and it plays a part in where we all end up in our lives. It means accepting that our individual effort only goes so far and our common destiny is far more important. This is the only way we can begin to even move towards a world where class truly does not matter.

We always should be wary of polls but this one is terrifying. It paints a society incapable of rising above fear and prejudice, bent on retribution and eager to throw thousands on the scrapheap to satisfy their fury.

Most terrifying of all: despite the economy juddering to a halt, despite unemployment continuing to rise and hitting women and the young hardest, despite the pain being placed on the shoulders of those least able to bear it while the wealthy continue business as usual, despite the continued capital strike by our banks, despite phone-hacking bringing the stench of corruption deep into Downing Street, despite a Prime Ministe and a London Mayor who had to be dragged back kicking and screaming to confront the burning cities…Conservative support is holding up, and is higher than Labour’s.

I am truly scared for our country.

British public supports harsher sentences over riots

If looting was to break out again in Manchester tonight would I join in? As much as I need a microwave and fancy some new trainers, no I would not. Is this because I am a morally superior person to the (mostly) kids that have been rioting? No. It is because violence and criminal damage against buildings is not part of my social reality. The idea is totally abnormal to me. Violence has no strategically rational role in my life.  The question to address then is under what circumstances does violence enter a person’s social reality?

English riots: rejecting a moral debate – the rationality of violence

Riot Disagreements

Having a little exchange elsewhere which I want to share here as I keep seeing same things being put forward. In short, the status was about how “grammar school pupils, 11 year olds and teaching assistants”  weren’t ‘dispossessed’ and it was actually about having ‘morals‘ and a ‘conscience’. My dashed off response:

The UK has some of the worst child poverty rates in the developed word, and inequality is at an all-time high meaning that relative poverty is huge. Some of the worst of this child poverty is in places like Tottenham, Hackney, Brixton, Salford, West Bromwich etc. That includes 11 year olds and grammar school pupils. Despite evidence that grammar schools fail to take in poor pupils and may in fact contribute to wider poverty (and most of the top state schools are grammar schools, reflecting their make-up) there are still around 4% of grammar school pupils who live in poverty. I’d bet good money that the % of grammar school pupils who’ve taken part in this is less than 4%.

Absolutely everyone who measures these things thinks child poverty is increasing *right now* due to this government. Interestingly, the majority (some 60%) of children in poverty live in working homes (ie, one or both of their parents have a job) which suggests the problem there is not laziness, immorality or a benefit culture but low pay. And speaking of low pay, many teaching assistants earn as little as £11,000 working *full-time* while in London it’s not unusual for them to earn £7, which is the ‘London living wage’ which allows a basic standard of life. Incidentally, in the past year this government has abolished the body which set teaching assistant pay, cut teaching assistant training and cut their jobs.

However, absolutely no one would or should claim that there haven’t been opportunists and that there are problems of education and ‘morality’. However, setting aside the many issues tied up with poverty and social deprivation, where is this moral lead to come from? The MPs who stole from us all and, far from being punished, get to become Prime Minister (Cameron took out a £350,000 loan backed by taxpayers and claimed £21,000 in mortgage payments for it in a single year – despite being a millionaire)? The media who hack phones, bribe those in power and lie about it repeatedly? The police who allow themselves to be bribed and kill innocent people without ever facing any consequences? ‘Morality’ and ‘personal responsibility’ in our society comes very far behind greed and looking out for yourself and this is hardly something confined to the underclass.


First things first – I don’t condone any of the rioting, looting, arson, muggings and general thuggery whatsoever. I think it’s frightening, horrible and hugely counter-productive. I hope that those involved are held responsible for their actions. I feel I have to put this because any attempt to move beyond stock responses to all of this seems to be jumped upon by crazies who accuse you of ‘siding’ with the rioters and being pleased that families are being burned out of their homes.

There are, of course, already thousands of responses to these riots out there. What I think is pretty irrelevant. However I’ve felt such despair in the past few days that I feel the need to articulate it, to get it out there so that I can move on.

The reason for this despair are the reactions to these events I’ve seen and keep seeing, particularly those from people who self-identify as ‘lefties’ and/or ‘liberals’. Card-carrying Labour members. Socialists. People who routinely condemn the reactionary rubbish found in the Daily Mail or The Telegraph. People who, only two weeks ago, were applauding the ‘measured’ Norwegian response to the massacre there and contrasting the commitment to ‘more democracy’ with the reactionary responses they imagined you’d see in Britain.

It has, to put it mildly, been eye-opening. Beliefs, if they mean anything at all, surely must be beliefs that we hold even when it is difficult to do so, when it seems that we are in a tiny minority and when there is a rush towards easy certainties. The speed with which educated, ‘liberal’ people have abandoned any semblance of reason and resorted to the language of the far-right has truly frightened me and makes me worried for what is to come after these riots are over.

Firstly, there has been an unthinking prostration before the police. People who, only last week, were at the very least suspicious of the Mark Duggan affair are now fully-fledged cheerleaders for the police, shouting down anyone who dares to question them. Let’s remember that the spark for this was the police shooting a young father and the suspicion which immediately followed this. Eyewitnesses immediately questioned the version of events put forward by ‘police sources’ and, it seems already, they were right to do so. Trust in the police is utterly destroyed in many of these communities. The IPCC swiftly moving in did absolutely nothing to placate matters – the same IPCC who, after all, immediately accepted the police’s version of events in the Tomlinson killing and only had to accept that it was false when video footage of the attack emerged. The relationship between the police and these communities is clearly hugely problematic and is playing a huge role in all of this. Yet with quite grim inevitablity, people responded to two evenings of riots by demanding a more authoritarian response from the police. I’ve seen countless demands for the police to ‘crack some skulls’, to ‘shoot the bastards’. Cuddly, giggly liberal icons like Caitlin Moran were asking for the army to move in. There was, it seems, absolutely no effort to attempt to understand the relationship between the rioters and the authorities, the effect that more brutality would have on the situation (and that is the paramount thing – I wasn’t worried about this response because of a hand-wringing concern for the people rioting, but because I genuinely believed it would make things worse).

It has since emerged that the police were ordered to “stand and observe” initially. We didn’t need the army, tanks, bullets or cannons. We needed an effective police presence. The reasons ‘police sources’ have given for this initial, ineffectual approach? That the MET felt ‘inhibited’ because of the response to the death of Ian Tomlinson and the kettling at the student demos earlier this year. It really defies belief – after riots sparked off by the police shooting a man and then (it now seems) deliberately misleading people about the circumstances, the police imply that they haven’t been able to effectively respond because people make too much fuss when they kill innocent people and imprison innocent kids. If we applaud this, if we play this zero sum game and agree with the police that it’s either their way or chaos, our society is fucked.

In short, it’s perfectly possible to want an effective response from the police, to believe that there are many brave police officers out there, without completely suspending your critical faculties.

The second hugely depressing response, one which seems almost ubiquitous, is the dehumanising of the rioters and the belief that they are all rational individual agents. There is an illogical tension here – on the one hand these people are portrayed as ‘mindless’, ‘feral’, ‘idiots’ and ‘scum’ who lack any intelligence whatsoever; on the other, they are individuals who have rationally chosen their actions and are only rioting so that they can get ‘trainers and free TVs’. You can see the hatred dripping from the screen when people write and speak it. People who seem to believe that, across the country, people have decided that now would be a good chance to get some free things. People who happen to overwhelmingly come from areas with similar economic and social backgrounds, with similar problems, with similar demographics. Clips of rioters speaking have been passed around in order that we can all laugh at how inarticulate they are, assure ourselves that they are all subhuman morons who deserve nothing but brutalising.

Make no mistake – it’s clear that the riots have moved very far from the Duggan situation. It’s clear that hardened criminals are taking advantage of them. It’s clear that many of the people involved have absolutely no political intent in what they’re doing. Accepting that is very different from saying that this is not political. From saying that there are reasons why these people even feel that they can/should engage in this behaviour while the rest of us assert that we would never do it. Others have written about this background far better than I could so I won’t go into detail, but suffice to say that when people demand that the rioters get a job, when they wonder where their parents are, when they ask why they are attacking shops, when they (as one man did on BBC news on Monday evening) express shock that this is happening in an area of ‘trendy people with good jobs’ – these are political issues and looking at each of them seriously goes some way to beginning to understand why this is happening.

The latter point regarding the ‘trendy people with good jobs’ is one very relevant to the responses I’ve seen as I think many of the left-leaning people whose reactions have provoked despair would probably fall into this category. I’ve lived in Hackney for 5 years now and I initially moved here because, quite simply, it was the cheapest place I could find. It wasn’t horrible or intimidating by any means but even then, people expressed jokey surprise that I would move to an area just beside the ‘Murder Mile’. In the years since I’ve seen the ‘gentrification’ of Hackney progress further and further, with more and more young professionals moving to previously ignored areas such as Clapton. Clearly this gentrification brings many benefits. However, it has also further fractured communities. We move into these areas and they become ‘ours’. The gangs, drugs and general ‘underclass’ who are not carried along with us become enemies on the doorstep. We exist alongside them uneasily, ignoring their existence until it becomes impossible to do so. The most striking, shocking example of this was the shooting on London Fields last year in broad daylight. London Fields is, of course, now a cliche associated with hipsters and ‘yummy mummies’ but it is smack bang in the middle of an area where privilege and ‘community’ exists alongside huge deprivation, unemployment and crime. I think we’re all guilty of blinding ourselves to this and of selecting which ‘community’ we’re a part of. It’s completely understandable and it’s difficult not to feel impotent and scared when you look at the problems around but, if we’re to move forward from this in any meaningful sense, I think this is a valuable lesson to learn.

I think nowhere is this disconnect better illustrated than in one particular response I saw to the riots on Monday, when someone living in a gated block of flats high above the streets was whipping themselves (and others) into a frenzy over the prospect of riots coming to Hackney. Updates fizzled with excitement and offers of shelter from people outwith the area were rebuffed as they did not want to ‘miss’ their ‘first ever riot’. This isn’t ‘community’. This is glee at the prospect of witnessing the ‘other’ tear themselves apart for your pleasure. Inevitably, this response turned to expressions of ‘disgust’ when the clips of the inarticulate ‘scum’ began circulating and they said that rioting was ‘fun’.

I was scared on Monday. The rioting seemed to get ever closer and my boyfriend was in a car driving around London attempting to get home (in a small glimmer of positivity from all this, he was taken in and helped by some people we know who have my eternal gratitude). I completely understand the fear and the gut responses this provokes. If civilisation is to mean anything, if we truly believe deep down in the fundamental good of people, if we hold hope that each and every person deserves the chance to improve themselves, we have to resist that fear. We have to think about our responses, think about the communities we live in and the role we play. We have to think about why this has happened and try to learn from it in order to ensure it never happens again. Because, unfortunately, as long as inequality advances unchecked, materialism is valued above education and the underclass are seen as uncivilised monsters just waiting to ‘kick off’ at the first opportunity, this is going to happen again.