Tuesday 9 August 2011

Let them yearn for tat

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.


robert lewis said...

Sense at last ...

Thembi Mutch said...

This chimes very much with what I have been thinking about David- it's pithy and concise.... I do think however that our economic inequalities are very real: and if you and the folk who actaully understand and can speak the language of social investment and venture capital could connect more with those on say, my LSE alumni blog (and talk some sense into these narrow minded oafs...) it would be great. My worry is that a focus to heavily on the material/greedy end of things doesn't give us practical avenues for change. What we're seeeing is that people only have a voice, and political agency, when they buy, steal, or consume, and that speaks volumes about how we 'do' political power. Thanks for this blog- it's great. Thembi

Dave Howard said...

Brilliantly written.
The economic realties are real - but only because the economy depends on the dependency on more... tat!!

Affluena is a sickness,

Joe from Reading said...

I would like to see an analysis of just who has been rioting. Would it be possible to get a breakdown of those arrested by age, sex, education, social class, ethnic group, etc. so that some real facts can be used as a basis for comment and discussion? So far stereotypes from both left and right seem to be all that is on offer.

In terms of what we do in the long run to avoid further outbreaks of such disorder and damage, could we convene an independent commission of inquiry? Perhaps nef could organise it.

Dirk Advocado said...

I think this touches on what we are really suffering from...poverty.

These actions stem not from material poverty, but spiritual poverty. The common beliefs that help us to understand right from wrong; that are enforced by people in power so that children and young adults know actions have consequences; that prevent rampant greed governing our business decisions and legislation; that tells us that we reach out a hand to our fellow man in need, not bludgeon him for his worldly goods.

Let's see if we can find some real leaders who can stand up and communicate, act and improve our situation. The government has got one thing right... we need to stop spending money we haven't got; have they the imagination, daring and courage to start mending the reasons for this? Have we?

Anonymous said...

@Joe from Reading - I would like to see data about the rioters too. After seeing some of the interviews with them it struck me that some where trying to talk about financial matters e.g. mortgages and failing. Is the data retention directive in use? Can we look at what information these kids where consuming online?

David Boyle said...

I quite agree about the spiritual poverty point. Thembi, I think you;re right about inequality. I suppose the point I am trying to make is that one of the weapons in the class war has been to control the underclass by the most vacuous kind of materialism. That is then a symptom of the inequality. I don't get the impression so far that the looters who are being tried are short of 'stuff' themselves, but they are more desperate for it - and perhaps more in debt for it.

Lemsip said...

Well said. I have a flat full of tat most of which I didn't buy myself but was dumped on me by people with shopping addictions in the form of unwanted presents and decluttering. I'd rather keep a worn out iron that still works than buy a new one because the former will last longer as built in obsolescence is increasing all the time with goods breaking down earlier and earlier.