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Understanding the Riots

Marius Ostrowski on the role of status, morality and purpose in response to last year’s riots

The findings of the enquiries into the riots in early August 2011 paint a picture of systematic disadvantage and ingrained tensions between societal groups. It has proved impossible to pin down any single set of causes of this undercurrent of disquiet, which implies a need for a more complex, systemic approach in assessing the status quo. It is impossible to wholly separate political, economic, and social concerns in analysing the background to the riots, so only a truly cross-cutting account can hope to have the necessary tools to fully capture and interpret the aspects of society from which the riots derive.

Contrary to received wisdom, societal development since 1945 has not eroded the various historical stratifications in Britain—class, racial, geographical, cultural—but rather subsumed them into a more pervasive dimension of status. People are no longer separated by discrete criteria (e.g. age, ethnicity, employment, material wealth), but a combination of biases that exaggerate the advantage of those they favour, and the disadvantage of those who ‘lose out’.

The self-reinforcement of this new status-dimension over time has created an apparent societal ‘system’, where repeated winners become a dominant ‘overclass’, and repeated losers an ‘underclass’, with the majority caught in between. The self-perpetuating effect of this ‘system’ is strongly in evidence in rioters’ disparate “motivating grievances”, and the disproportionate representation of under-25s in the number of those convicted. Complaints about the loss of EMA, rising tuition fees, austerity measures, and police discrimination are indicative of a youth that is increasingly alienated from the entrenched social elite.

Given the persistence of these systemic social ruptures, the strong implication is that, without concrete policy proposals to mitigate the riots’ causes and effects, similar events may take place again, possibly in the near future. It thus becomes all the more urgent to find some way of ensuring social stability, and to do so, narratives about the riots cannot afford to ignore any factors that may have fuelled their severity. Two such factors have, in my view, yet to be accurately taken into account, so I will now explore them briefly.

First, it is inaccurate to attribute to the rioters a nihilistic ‘loss of morality’. Echoing Phillip Blond’s description of the riots as ‘libertarian’, and Maurice Glasman’s criticism of neoliberalism, I see the riots—like the MPs’ expenses scandal or the banking crisis—as extensions of a corrosive materialistic libertinism. The treatment of wealth-accumulation as the yardstick of welfare and satisfaction has not emerged from any moral vacuum, but has been carefully cultivated over several decades by successive ideologies.

This error is one to which ‘right-wing’, conservative, or classical liberal politics, and ‘left-wing’, social-democratic politics, are equally prone. Seeing welfarism as synonymous with resource redistribution by the state implicitly buys into an impoverished view of human motivation—both sides abandon positions critical of the neoliberal perception of human behaviour, and prolong its dominance rather than suggesting alternatives.

To oppose this libertinism, theory and policy must mitigate the losing position of the ‘underclass’ without reinforcing the materialist framework that traps them. Non-material empowerment must retrieve norms which have become lost under neoliberalism, by democratising social institutions, legally protecting bargaining positions (loosely construed), and restoring a relational component to our conception of individual rights.

Second, one of the younger rioters’ overlooked motivations was a crushing mindset of apathy, passivity, and boredom, which saw rioting as a convenient way to escape an existential lack of purpose. Extending the materialist bias gives a view of novelty and change as both end and measure of social progress. The deification of consumption and accumulation, and the transactionalisation of relationships with others through advancing technology, have left a legacy of insatiable desire, and need for permanent activity to meet it.

This criticism is not intended to justify social conservatism ‘on the sly’, since this glorifies immutability to just as damaging an extent. Nevertheless, a small part of the ‘right-wing’ outcry against the purported ‘entitlement culture’ feeding ‘criminal tendencies’ in the ‘underclass’ rings true here. Society must de-emphasise the role of political institutions in satisfying individuals’ desires, and (again) return concepts of relationships to current discussions on rights.

A successful response to the riots, such as the Commission on Youth aims to identify, must return responsibility to individuals from an early age in two ways. Firstly, individuals need the psychological ability to develop their own values, separate from material or transactional criteria. Secondly, individuals need a personal sense of social/individual purpose to guide their existence and activity. In both cases, individuals must relearn how to avoid nihilism about their place in the world, and take charge of themselves to avoid degenerating into physical and intellectual dependency on society.

The public policy response to the riots needs to examine political, social, and economic factors to capture the ‘full range’ of their causes and effects. Moreover, it cannot complacently dismiss the rioters’ behaviour as ‘amoral’, but must urgently propose an alternative to libertine materialism. Finally, it must comprehensively change the attitudes of younger citizens towards their relationship with society, and encourage them to re-engage with the communities of which they are a part.

Comments on: Understanding the Riots

Gravatar Reality 01 May 2012
Leo Tolstoy " Be wary of the scribes - the self proclaimed orthodox. Beware of them because they have stepped into the position of the prophet who announces the will of God to the people. They have, of their own will, taken on themselves the authority to preach,,,,They preach words, but do nothing. And it happens that they only say "Do this and do that", but there is nothing to do because they do not do anything good, ALL THEY DO IS TALK. They tell you what you are not allowed to do. And they themselves do nothing. They only attempt to retain for themselves the authority of the teacher, and in order to do so they attempt to make a display: they get dressed up and make themselves impressive.....And due to this they are like decorated coffins, on the exterior they seem clean, but inside there is something atrocious. ....They were before and are now the enemies of goodness.....You must fear the self proclaimed pastors more than anything else......." Leo Tolstoy The Gospel in Brief

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Detailed Summary

Date Published
26 April 2012

British Civic Life

About The Authors

Marius Ostrowski

Marius Ostrowski is a doctoral student in politics at the University of Oxford, with a thesis on federalism and com...