These riots reveal some unpalatable home truths

Author Hari Kunzru writes on the British riots in an excellent piece for The Guardian‘s Comment is free:

In a society that has abandoned or devalued most forms of mutual assistance in favour of a solipsistic entrepreneurialism, it’s hardly surprising that, faced with the end of the good times, people help themselves. Fear and greed are our ruling passions. That’s true of the kids smashing shop windows to steal trainers. It’s also true of the MPs fiddling their expenses, the police officers taking backhanders, the journalists breaking into phones. Why wouldn’t they? Why wouldn’t any of us? The example has been set by our new masters, the one per cent for whom and by whom we’re governed. The ability of powerful actors in the financial markets to socialise risk while privatising profit appears, to the financial peasantry, indistinguishable from organised crime. No reason for the rest of us to stand on ceremony.

One may object to this rhetoric (bankers = looters) on the grounds that markets have social utility, or that bankers don’t beat up shopkeepers (they don’t have to) and sometimes give to charity. One may also feel that any attempt to understand the rioters’ motivations risks shading into justification. The strongest objection to any argument based on social conditions is the oft-made one about individual responsibility: whatever the prevailing economic or social situation, not everyone chooses to behave in a particular way, whether that’s insider trading or knocking over Evans Cycles. However, it’s hard not to think we’ve made a culture in which the strong and swift are encouraged to feel they bear no responsibility towards the halt and lame. Now, as the wheels fall off the global financial system, fear and greed are free to roam unchecked, without bothering to mask their faces.

The average Briton is a frightened, precarious and lonely little entrepreneur, jealous, not just of the banker living high on the hog, but of the “good immigrants”, the Sikhs and Turks and Bengalis standing shoulder to shoulder outside their shops and mosques and gurdwaras, ready to repel attackers. Strapped for cash and stripped of organic community (leaving aside the question of whether that ever existed), we’re left to clothe ourselves in the rags of class identity and class hatred. The poor hate the rich and the “feds” who enforce their laws. The rich hate the poor, who frighten them.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to see a large number of supposed social liberals revealing their true colours on Monday night, tweeting and bleating for curfews and water cannon and rubber bullets. Early in the evening, watching social media, I was seeing variants of the same joke: “I’m in Chiswick/Hampstead/Dulwich Waitrose and there’s a RIOT! They’ve run out of POLENTA!” The smug sense of disconnection (this is nothing to do with me, or my comfortable middle-class life – it is an affair of the poor, in places I choose not to go) was soon replaced by panic. “WHERE IS THE ARMY?” Screw civil liberties, time to declare martial law. How easy it would be to install fascism in this creaky little country! No need to torch the Reichstag – all you’d have to do would be to burn a few more sports shops.

Click here to read the full piece.

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