If Britain is to learn from the events of last week argues sociologist and union activist lecturer, Dr Martin O'Donnell, then "The social and economic direction we’ve been going in since the 1980s has got to be abandoned."

Since last Tuesday a lot has been said about the reasons for the riots with numerous commentators choosing the most simple explanations. The most common being ‘criminality’. Which, aside from anything else, is not causation. This is an easy and lazy explanation which is used to distract from the real failings of political leaders to create genuine social cohesion and genuine economic opportunity. Those who have attempted to explore the complex social and economic causes have been dismissed as making excuses for criminality. Rather than excuses this piece attempts to untangle the deep-rooted social causes.


The reality is that events unfolded for differing reasons in different areas. Whilst the focus in Clapham and Ealing was looting, the focus in Nottingham was the police with five separate police stations being attacked but almost no shops. In Tottenham the violence was motivated by the police reaction to a peaceful protest over the, as yet unexplained, police shooting of Mark Duggan. The causative factors at play in each area are also manifold, ranging from policing, marginalisation, inequality, gang culture, status frustration, rampant consumerism, issues of masculinity (99% of those arrested were male) and wider societal factors such as individualism, materialism and the virtual disappearance of social mobility.


For many who work in public sector professions such as youth workers, social workers, police officers and teachers, the existence of a disaffected youth embracing subcultural values such as hostility to authority and rejection of education is something we’ve been aware of for years. For many youngsters this rejection of mainstream values manifests itself in displays of masculine dominance, violence and thrill seeking which involve experimenting with alcohol, with drugs and with sex. The thrill seeking and immediate gratification that was on display during the riots is something that those of us who work with many inner city youngsters are all too familiar with.


The feeling that amongst those at the bottom of society’s structure that they’re the forgotten failures is also exacerbated by a media dominated by the middle classes. TV schedules seem to be full of shows in which middle class people have their homes made over or conduct cooking in their expensive kitchens or buy and sell antiques or buy properties abroad. Current affairs programmes are dominated by journalists and politicians discussing the political issues that seem to matter to them such as interest rates, share values and the more sensational crimes. When do they discuss the casualisation of labour, job insecurity and the deterioration of the public housing stock? Small wonder that turnout in elections is consistently lowest in the poorest constituencies. The poorest in society are simply ignored and forgotten. They are a problem; a problem that no one in power wants to tackle until it literally blows up in these displays of violence. Martin Luther King accurately pointed out that ‘the riot is the voice of the unheard’. When the media do look at the poorest in society they are often simply demonised and displayed like something from a freak show as in the Trisha Goddard Show or the Jeremy Kyle Show. Labelling and stigmatising those who have ‘under-achieved’, as Howard Becker, Stan Cohen and others have repeatedly proven, often only backfires as the label is embraced e.g. chavs, hoodies, white trash and the, thankfully now abolished, ASBOs which often just became badges of honour.


What the media is also doing, which adds to the desire for immediate gratification as witnessed in the looting during the riots, is acquiescing in the retail corporations’ deliberate plan to create an acquisitive culture. Every newspaper, every commercial channel and, of course, the internet is filled with advertising. We are endlessly encouraged to spend, to purchase and to simply have the right brand or the latest gadget. Is it really so surprising that so many youngsters headed to the stores that hold the very goods their tempted with every day. American criminologist Robert Merton argued over eighty years ago that when too much emphasis is placed on a goal and not enough on the legitimate means of attaining it, then the risk is increased of individuals trying to achieve the goal by deviant or criminal means. We were warned of the dangers of this rampant consumerism with the ‘Ikea riot’ of 2007 which took place in none other than Edmonton, scene of one of last Monday’s riots. Our identities are often defined not by what we are but by what we have and what we have and own is restricted by our economic ability to consume. In the aftermath of the riots, Zygmunt Bauman (Britain’s most respected sociologist) identified this as the single most important problem “so grows the wrath, humiliation, spite and grudge aroused by not having them – as well as the urge to destroy what you can’t have. Looting shops and setting them on fire derive from the same impulsion and gratify the same longing.”


The wider structural problems with Britain’s society also have to be included to gain a fuller understanding of the riots. The growing middle class which dominates society has been convincing itself and tries to convince all sections of society that it’s position is theirs on merit. Meritocracy is a myth. We are seeing less social mobility today than at any time in the post-war period. As a result of the promotion of individualistic culture, the myth has been created that a person’s socio-economic position is entirely the result of their individual effort. The reality is that the economic structure needs a class of low paid manual labour and below that a pool of workless labour to keep wages down. The individual effort argument must conclude that, if everybody made the effort, we could all be lawyers, teachers, business consultants and journalists. But then who would fill their supermarket shelves, serve their drinks, manufacture their convenient foods and clean their offices? Hence the introduction of tuition fees and student loans; we can’t have too many graduates thinking they can enter the middle classes. The system must produce educational failures. It has to legitimise differential educational attainment in order to justify and provide this army of low paid, low skilled service sector workers.


Below the working class is that large body of workless poor. Described by the Right as the underclass and identified by many as having provided so many of the inner city rioters. The creation of this class, about which so much has been written describing their dependency culture, their deviant values and their lack of any stake in society, is also the result of the socio-economic structure. In the 1960s Harold Wilson talked of the ‘white heat of technology’ ushering in the ‘leisure age’. But rather than ushering the age of leisure it ushered in the age of unemployment. Rather than technology reducing hours of work it simply reduced the numbers a company had to employ. Shareholders love the news of redundancies. It does wonders for share values. And so hundreds of thousands sit and claim benefits with little hope of work. They watch others get richer and richer, they watch footballers being paid thousands a week, they read of bankers being paid enormous bonuses, they read of journalists paying the police for stories that invade the privacy of the most vulnerable and they read of politicians with their snouts in the trough as exposed by the MPs expenses scandal. Yet those same politicians and journalists condemn this forgotten class as ‘scroungers’. No wonder there’s simmering resentment.


Mainstream, middle class dominated, discourse tries not to blame the market for this. Instead the media contrive to blame the individual claiming benefits rather than the economy that cannot offer that individual gainful employment. Britain has simply learned to live with mass unemployment and has done so for so long that it seems normal. In the 1960s unemployment was not even an issue; it ran into thousands. When it hit one million in January 1972 there was uproar with demonstrations outside Parliament. But since that date unemployment has not once dipped below a million and has averaged out at almost two million. It’s now accepted as normal. It’s explained away as the result of lazy, work-shy individuals greedily claiming those ‘lavish’ benefits. But for some reason these people didn’t exist in the 1950s or 60s; they just seemed to suddenly appear in about 1981. This misguided individualist explanation is then used to explain the rioting as individual choice. The most profoundly consequential choice was that taken by those who chose to abandon the goal of full employment and abandon generation after generation to a wasted workless life.


These socio-economic inequalities are the root cause of the social malaise that resulted in the inner city riots. When Camila Batmanghelidjh asked on the BBC’s Question Time following the riots, “Why doesn’t Sweden have this problem? Why doesn’t Norway have this problem?” former Met Chief Brian Paddick replied “because there’s a more egalitarian society there”. There followed a stony silence. There is mounting evidence that every criteria for assessing a country’s social stability such as educational achievement, crime rates, levels of mental health, numbers of prisoners, levels of life expectancy and social mobility; is better in countries that have the smallest gap between their richest and their poorest. Those countries whose social structure stretches from the super rich down to a dispossessed underclass, such as Britain and the US have by far the worst social problems. By contrast, Japan is one of the most economically equal of all the developed countries; it has an exceptionally low crime rate, minimal drug use and high social mobility. And yet foreign journalists talked of their astonishment at the lack of looting following the earthquake of March 2011. It wasn’t astonishing to those who were aware of the impact of economic equality on a country’s social cohesion.


There has been a lot of moralising since the riots. The suffering that people whose businesses have been ruined and whose homes and premises have been destroyed will be immense. But to get the wider picture into perspective, the suffering that is resulting from the bank bail out of 2008 will be further reaching, far more widespread and will be felt for perhaps a generation or more. Those that are responsible have not been castigated, denounced or punished in anything like the way the rioters have. While a looter was given six months in prison for stealing bottled water (itself an iconic symbol of the consumer age) those who led Northern Rock, HBOS, Lloyds TSB and RBS into a disaster that has cost us £billions are pensioned off and the bonus culture continues. Over £7billion has been paid out in bank bonuses over the last year alone. Meanwhile the UK’s richest thousand people saw their total wealth increase from £256.2billion in 2009 to £395.8billion this year. This amounts to a 54.5% increase in just two years and that’s according to the Sunday Times rich list this year. There’s a rapacious culture at the top. Small wonder such rapacious behaviour was witnessed during the rioting.


If we as a society want to avoid a repeat of the horrors of the rioting and looting that took place across this country, then the social and economic direction we’ve been going in since the 1980s has got to be abandoned. Putting hundreds if not thousands more in prison will not resolve this country’s deep-rooted social problems. Neither will bringing in Bill Bratton or any other so-called ‘super cop’ to oversee increased repression in the inner cities. Beginning now to redistribute this country’s vast wealth via progressive taxation, investing in training and jobs, restoring the EMA, reversing the tuition fee increases, re-creating the opportunity for real social mobility and re-building a genuine sense of community will.


14 August 2011