I live in a relatively peaceful suburb of south London, in the heart of a huge allotment, secure in the knowledge that – if there is rioting – it will not come near here.
So it was a genuine shock, as I walked through the park to the station this morning, to find clothes hangers and plastic bags and the other detritus of looting, and then an abandoned car rammed into the side of the local mobile phone shop.
It made me all the more aware that we don’t understand what is happening, still less do we have a coherent narrative of the riots.
The idea that the violent disorder was primarily about anger with the police went out of the window when the mobs began burning and looting people’s homes. No doubt somebody will suggest that this is about alienation in the face of the spending cuts – as if the mob would resist burning down libraries or children’s centres along with anything else.
No, but the official explanation – “sheer criminality” – while it is certainly true, does not seem quite adequate.
Two things strike me.
One is the faint folk memory of the Gordon Riots in 1780, when racist anti-Catholic mobs went on an orgy of burning and looting across London, culminating in the release of prisoners from Newgate and the destruction of the gaol.
It includes the picture of members of the mob drinking themselves to death in a burning distillery, brought alive so dramatically by Charles Dickens in his novel Barnaby Rudge.
Two centuries on, and we still have not progressed beyond sheer greed and appetite of the mobs at work over the last few nights, the fear of which lies at the heart of the motivation of so many British governments.
Second, the focus on shops gives these events a completely different atmosphere to the inner city riots a generation ago. These are not riots of rage, they are riots of greed. They are also perhaps a symptom of the way that retailing has been allowed to dominate economic policy for the past two decades or more.
But it is worse than that. We have developed a political dialogue which is no less terrified of the mob than it was in the 1780s, but has shifted from Marie Antoninette’s famous dictum about cake to the more modern ‘let them yearn for tat’.
We have a political system divided between ‘let them work for tat’ (the right) and ‘let them buy tat’ (the left). The result is a deep and valueless materialism that allows hundreds of young people across London to go on violent and thieving rampages simply because they can get away with it.
We have a school system dedicated to encouraging people to work for still more expensive tat. We have houses filled with tat. We have conversations dominated by tat and a culture that encourages us to yearn still more strongly for it – and little else.
There is a sense in which those terrifying television pictures of burning pictures are a vision of the spiritual and mental poverty that our materialist economics threatens to spread everywhere. It is the internal contradiction that, in the end, makes it impossible.
This is the issue which will dominate the century ahead, it seems to me. But our political debate is now so impoverished that we barely have the political language to stitch together an alternative.
I hope we try. I for one hereby dedicate myself to finding that new language.
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