Thatcher’s children, in the ruling classes and society, made this inevitable
August 23, 2011 2 Comments
No one ever believed the tremendous social dismay of the Thatcher years would re-appear in modern Great Britain. The seed was however sewn in an incredibly divisive country: feigning inclusiveness, economic stability, and understanding domestic politics, the gap grew wider in the face of the economic crash. Whoever you believe is to blame, there is no denying that London had rarely seen scenes of such a widespread, contagious, and seemingly uncontainable violence. In the very recent aftermath of very traumatic events for a country that always thought the Irish were its biggest problem, here is a breakdown the social barriers of race divisions, class war, and utter lack of social cohesion. A fantastic piece by Josh Kitto.
“In the vacuum created, necessary questions about the politics of inequality and of state and individual violence will be inevitable even for the right”
The riots in Tottenham were at first confusing, but could be explained by the shooting of Mark Duggan. As looting spread across London, it became a mood of fear, partly for my safety, but also for the willingness of left-leaning people to call for martial law. I worried whether I was going politically insane: was it irrational to call for calm and understanding? Tariq Jahan, whose son was killed in a possibly racist incident in Birmingham (many on the far-right saw it as an opportunity for racist violence) has set the tone and calmed the rhetoric. It’s hard to know whether this is a huge opportunity for the right or the progressive left. Within a week, the political consensus had shifted rightwards, condemning the damn kids with their music. There is now a reaction against said shift as accused rioters’ families are evicted from homes, and as TV historians say black people need to ‘talk white’. But in the vacuum created, necessary questions about the politics of inequality and of state and individual violence will be inevitable even for the right.
One revealing aspect of the riots is how they seem both normal and a deviation from British riots before. Conservatives’ greatest trick is to pretend that everything that has come before is and was always acceptable. A right-wing talking point has been that at least the riots of the 1980’s were political and not about “pure criminality”. But during the 1981 riots, there were immediate calls for troops and rubber bullets, as now. Margaret Thatcher cited a lack of morality and her colleagues cited parental irresponsibility, as now. However, some things are new, namely the Thatcherite culture of 2011. The looting was the hedonism of Oxford Street Christmas sales with petrol bombs. Every adult generation is cynical about young people. St Paul essentially talks about “Kids today” to the Corinthians. But this time it is not youth who are optimistic, having no reason to be. It forms a perfect mix for the looting with the faux optimism of adults who thought it vital to own two homes in recent years. Ironically, David Willetts, the minister in charge of cuts to young people, picked up on this inter-generational conflict; if the young are selfish, then it is their parents who taught them. Thatcher’s children bequeathed Thatcher’s grandchildren. 45-65 year olds own over half of British wealth, but under-45s just over a tenth. Credit cards holding up middle-class wealth and spending was made to be something good, sexy. And we’re surprised young people have taken to these values.
“There was something natural to the events, operating partially as a response to, but also within the parameters of, a politics of violence”
What is also noteworthy is how the rioters were operating within the rules of a politics of violence. The violence was political even if working without a manifesto. Even if the mostly young rioters are oblivious to the world of politics, that world has operated in rules of violence and set the tone for society. During the Iraq war, even the anti-war left followed these rules by saying that a major reason why we should not intervene was that Iraq required a strongman leader. Arguments advocating peaceful solutions had an undercurrent of violence and control. This doesn’t account for why the riots happened, but possibly how it happened. There was something natural to the events, operating partially as a response to, but also within the parameters of, a politics of violence. But even if the causes of the riots in the last fortnight mirrored previous unrest, the way they were carried out is not totally parallel. Looting has always followed riots, as many will take advantage of a breakdown in order (similar to brokers when there is market unrest). Many get caught up in these acts, such as those now possessing stolen goods rather than actually looting. However, the smashing into shops showed a “You are what you buy” culture requiring universal enfranchisement, acquiring goods by any means. Attempts to restrict social networking, as if riots had not occurred Pre-Zuckerberg, ignore that advertisers for example are more effective messengers for the looting. Though it may be relativist to say so, what is the consensus morality that says the riots and looting are incomparably more immoral than the 1,000 richest people in Britain increasing their wealth by over a third in the current recession? Why is it not then relativism in much of the right-wing media to look at the root causes of Anders Breivik’s actions? These events, though reoccurring, don’t just happen for no reason. Criminality alone would imply these events could have happened at any time or in any place, not just poor areas in a devastating recession.
Ed Miliband’s call for a commission into the events sets out a subtle, but important difference with the Prime Minister. Mr Cameron knows that such commissions are unsettling, both in analysing the short-term spark of the riots and long-term issues that made unrest inevitable. Even Thatcher-appointed inquiries could not escape warnings on racism and deprivation. President Johnson ignoring the Kerner Commission allowed deprivation and racism to fester, which were long term causes of the 1992 LA riots for example. Similarly, ignoring the Ritchie Report of 2001 perhaps allowed similar problems to spark this unrest in Britain. Segregated schools are more than different buildings for rich and poor kids. They’re also about the segregation of aspirations, only allowed for the richer kids. Some issues of school segregation are about resources, where teachers find it difficult in poorer schools to give all 30 children in a class sufficient attention. However, there are broader questions; school segregation effectively unravels a community. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett found inThe Spirit Level that community trust breaks down in highly unequal settings because people are more likely to trust ‘people like them’. In the Nordic countries, it was found that over 60% of people thought most people could be trusted, while this was under 30% in the more unequal Britain. It was not surprising that middle-class liberals called for martial law, having been encouraged to view the “underclass” with terror. Another element in terms of school segregation was their findings attributed to Karla Hoff and Priyanka Pandey: when testing hundreds of Indian boys in their puzzle-solving ability, the low-caste boys did slightly better when their backgrounds were unannounced. However, when backgrounds were announced, the low-caste boys’ results dropped significantly, while the results of the high-caste boys slightly improved. Similar experiments had similar results in the US. When it is said that poorer young people have not been disciplined, there is an element of truth: they have been controlled, their backgrounds pronounced by segregating them from middle-class kids. Resultant decisions to ignore them become a means of control. Discipline does not mean blind loyalty to authority, which children should be encouraged to question. The kids segregated from society are not disciplined precisely because they and their interests are considered worthless. They’re not encouraged to pursue their interests with hard work or questions that can make figures like teachers uncomfortable. One cross-party idea is for ‘early intervention’. There are interesting recommendations to tackle social exclusion.  They’re presented though to a government that is slashing Sure Start, a form of early intervention which Lancet showed was helping poorer children to do better in 5 out of 14 outcomes than children who had not received the service.
“The self-segregation by the rich is a clear personal and political statement of cementing their position, making it impenetrable.”
Segregation of schools and neighbourhoods and poor standards in either, is the perfect petri dish for state or individual violence. Gated communities are a rare American category: an export. They’re also a perfect symbol for the right-wing shift in debate. The self-segregation by the rich is a clear personal and political statement of cementing their position, making it impenetrable. The fear for many rich people is not just for their possessions, but also their status. Council homes are an inverted equivalent, designed to be segregated but with none of gated communities’ physical or political security. Thatcher’s right-to-buy policy for council homes was a subtly perverse privatisation. Council homes were not replaced, and tenants became poorer when the housing safety net was made perpetually more ghettoised. Pouring money into estates has been a parody of a housing bubble, using minor redistributions from an unsustainable neo-liberal system. Breaking up the notion of the estate, and building homes for more mixed neighbourhoods, may be a more effective way of addressing inequality at its roots. The closest government comes to integrating neighbourhoods, is encouraging the rich to move into expensive flats alongside the crumbling estates of the poor, namely in Hackney. In this context, even corner shops can be seen with banks as something ‘other’ to express anger towards, the target normally whatever ‘other’ is nearest. It’s also in this context where evicting the families of rioters from council homes is a form of the gentrification government has promoted over a safety net, for years.
An average of 54 applicants for every job is not isolated to Tottenham. But if the political, media or policing establishment acknowledged Tottenham, it was with a mind-set of battle and occupation, not jobs programmes. In occupation, the occupied have little to lose, no future prospects to be ruined. Riots were no surprise to people in those communities. They were of no surprise to police leaders, the Bank of England head, the Archbishop of Canterbury or Nick Clegg in a previous political life, all warning of mass unrest. Austerity cuts cause a greater risk of rioting, and of a particular event like Duggan’s death to spark explosive anger, even if convenient to believe otherwise. The rioters were articulating the failures of a whole generation to integrate them into a societal fabric, even if unaware of doing so. What communal structures exist to integrate people from the affected areas? The unions have long collapsed, making working people’s condition irrelevant. The left is now more comfortable with academic settings than mobilising these areas. Youth clubs and schools are collapsing as the social safety net becomes increasingly tattered. It could explain cynically looting consumer goods, namely having an upper hand in the streets for possibly the first and last time. Gangs thrive on the lack of communal structure and identity, not simply a ‘lack of rules’. ‘Territoriality’ has become important in places where industry has collapsed.
“Working-class people could once withdraw their labour in order to express collective consciousness. Thatcher withdrew them from labour, from mainstream society.”
Poverty as an academic term cannot fully explain the events. However, around 40% of the suspects were from the 10% poorest areas in Britain. Deprivation, and the sense of injustice related to that, was a bigger component in the riots than others. We’re encouraged to isolate the poor, to remove them from mainstream consciousness. Working-class people could once withdraw their labour in order to express collective consciousness. Thatcher withdrew them from labour, from mainstream society. It made them unnecessary to power and ignorable. It became easier to mock and deride; shows will present benefit cheats as the worst in society and without a hint of irony will then follow this with a show where second home ownership is the best of society. Establishment voices talk about the poor as ‘irresponsible’, though they’re often forced to be more responsible than most. There was a truth to what one young man said in Tottenham, where nearly half of children are in poverty, to NBC: “You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?” Poverty is perpetuated by violence and control, and vice versa. Poverty is often a condition of criminals, but also their victims. Poverty, by design, makes the victims more vulnerable to state and individual violence. It thus feels futile to condone or condemn riots that were made inevitable. We can only condemn the context which led to it. Those who cynically looted are as much a product of this context as those who actively resisted it or passively ignored it. Individual agency allows one not to riot and loot. But agency and responsibility is also tied to individual identity. Poverty in limiting one’s opportunities also limits individual identity. Personal and collective responsibility is strongest with a strong sense of identity and belonging. It is thus hard to find the morality in a system where the top 10% of London have 273 times the wealth of the bottom 10%, even if not having worked 273 times as hard. Such inequality indicts the top, but the immorality of the system spreads far beyond the top, indicting us all. It can explain why areas like Ealing erupted, when the high street presents prosperity, but the hidden edges contain deprivation and unemployment. Inequality is more revealing because it shows how the order tears itself part. Thus, owning a Blackberry is not a statement of impoverishment, but then phone ownership is a means of survival and also aspiration in many third world countries, so why not inner-city Britain?. It is those who have more paths to prosperity than phone ownership who can buy 300k one-bedroom flats next to crumbling estates. Inequality matters because it makes social ills worse for the rich and poor. It shatters consensus interpretations of moral codes and other means of identification, ironically when identities become polarised. That’s why the government policies were an important medium-term cause, not directly, but a statement of not caring about these areas or their interests. Little surprise then that a Wall Street Journal poll recently revealed millionaires feel massively insecure about the lack of prosperity for the non-millionaire folk, with 94% expecting unrest on the streets.
“The police increasingly have a political agenda, becoming less accountable when using relationships with media and politicians”
If we consider the police though, they are institutionally hampering efforts to tackle crime by politically, as well as professionally, separating themselves from those who seek rehabilitative methods. The police increasingly have a political agenda, becoming less accountable when using relationships with media and politicians to protect an independent agenda. The IPCC initially misleading the public over Duggan’s death is part of this. Police “spin” on a story is increasingly important. The recent hearings into the hacking scandal revealed the Met has 45 press officers, 10 of whom had worked at News International. It reveals their role in that scandal, but also their increasing political role. The media help to promote the narrow police agenda on crime. There are issues of access, with the police having long fed stories to particular reporters. Both often use the same talking points for ‘lock-‘em-up’ arguments. Former Met Commissioner Ian Blair talked about “feral children” in speeches for example. Duggan’s death echoes the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, where Menezes was smeared, the details of his killing lied about, namely the idea he was running away from the police. The lies around the death of Duggan were unnecessary if the interest was solely security and not political positioning. It was needless to inform the media before Duggan’s family. It is no surprise that this explosion of violence happened in an area where there have been numerous deaths under police custody. One reggae artist apparently killed himself with a knife when arrested by the police in his home, an account that few believe. Paul Lewis, an on the ground journalist in the riots said he was surprised how many people in the affected communities knew of, and loathed, the IPCC. These communities feel attacked, not just unprotected, by the police.
“The inability of the police to meet with those protesting Duggan’s death felt partly incompetent”
Police brutality was given de facto legitimacy when media was willing to ignore the root causes of crime beyond a screaming headline. But there has also been an element of the police proving their position, of making people subservient to them. The inability of the police to meet with those protesting Duggan’s death felt partly incompetent, partly about trying to prove that the meeting was unnecessary and could keep them waiting. The police have rather taken to winding up protestors to prove they are in control. When I was ‘kettled’ in the student protests, people were repeatedly given the wrong directions in which to leave by police for example. The McPherson and Scarman reports forced the police to act upon more egregious attitudes of racism. Other reports and recommendations were ignored, such as stopping disproportionate use of restraint against black men, leaving time bombs for an event like Duggan’s death. Hundreds of black men have died in custody since the 1970’s. The police have improved, but a lack of accountability with only one officer having ever been convicted for a death in custody, has further strained the police relationship with black people. Stop and search has been the most controversial practise in this strained relationship. The McPherson recommendation of logging the race of those stopped was a way of lessening the burden of black people feeling constantly surveyed. This became undermined under legislation where the police no longer needed reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to stop and search. On the guise of ‘counter-terrorism’, hundreds of thousands have been stopped. Only 2 have been charged with terror offences, but non-whites are 26 times more likely to be stopped. While the last fortnight showed a Britain more comfortable with non-white people than 3 decades ago, less visceral racism since the 1980’s has not extinguished systemic racism, especially in the criminal justice system. There is little sense that this can be extinguished soon either. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, i.e. in promoting accountability. The PM wants elected police commissioners, but what might work better is electing police on a more local level, given legitimacy by the ‘beat’ they’re working on. It could democratically open up the police to more non-white officers, but also the concerns of non-white civilians.
“the experiences of marginalised children are “not one occasional attack on dignity” but a “repeated humiliation, being continuously dispossessed in a society rich with possession.”
The root causes are necessary to look at because they often reveal far deeper societal pathologies. British care homes might as well be joined with prisons. Half of those in German care go on to higher education, but those in British care are more likely to go to prison than to university, committing nearly 20 times more crime than their German counterparts. Britain’s care system holds up a distorted mirror to the politics of violence in Britain, namely Haringey where the riots started, infamous for child abuse scandals. Camila Batmangelidjh, who runs Kid’s Company, is the most prominent exception to the system’s failures, caring for often malnourished children in London. She is not surprised that children dismissed as ‘feral’ are ‘attacking their own community’: she says the experiences of marginalised children are “not one occasional attack on dignity” but a “repeated humiliation, being continuously dispossessed in a society rich with possession. Young, intelligent citizens of the ghetto seek an explanation for why they are at the receiving end of bleak Britain, condemned to a darkness where their humanity is not even valued enough to be helped.” Tolstoy asserted that governments are those who do violence to the rest of us. Whether this is accurate, prisons are a breeding ground for an individual violence that echoes a politics of violence, and another national disgrace. Wandsworth prison was recently heavily criticised. Substandard conditions have contributed to 11 deaths in custody, 4 of them suicides, between 2010 and February 2011, in a prison population of over 1,600. 14 UK prisons have a 70% reconviction rate or above. Such structures of cyclical violence will not be solved by adding looters to it, like those jailed for stealing a bottle of water. But policies designed to stop these cycles of violence are often seen as unpalatable. Goldsmiths University have helped around 300 one time functionally illiterate prisoners to obtain degrees. Even with reoffending rates in the single digits, such programmes cannot stray from a mainstream politics of violence.
In a similar way to US foreign policy creating ‘blowback’, excessive police tactics heightens the risk of violence, made almost inevitable in the mainstream politics of violence. The tactic of ‘kettling’ for example, confining peaceful protestors in a small space with violent protestors, only increases the chance of violent responses. The HMIC inquiry into Ian Tomlinson’s death found it was problematic, recommending police facilitate protest rather than criminalise it. The ‘lock-‘em-up’ agenda though is more about the relative position of the police than a security approach. The picture though is nuanced, as though short term ‘tough’ measures are popular, the British public don’t show unquestioning loyalty to the police for long, particularly if they have covered up more information surrounding Duggan’s death. Looking at how protests are handled is vital in understanding the psychology of riots. ‘Tough’ short-term measures, like using water cannons and rubber bullets, have smashed up the lives of people in Northern Ireland with greater ease than the barriers fuelling violence. A conflict mediation model emerging in Chicago, led by groups like CeaseFire, attempts to understand riots like diseases in how they spread, using mediation and listening to potential rioters in order to prevent explosions of violence. Conflict mediation has been incredibly important in keeping fragile relationships between police and vulnerable communities stable. This was acknowledged after the riots in1981/5. Police worked with community leaders and groups to help legitimise the police. Refusing to do so after Duggan’s death seems both arrogant and stupid. The same can be said of governmental policies that in effect deny the existence of communities. The ‘Big Society’ in practise is little different to the ‘No Society’ of Thatcher. Interestingly, poor Scottish and Welsh communities have been unaffected by the riots. Identity and a collective voice are stronger in those communities though. They have local leaders who can articulate their frustrations. London was lacking such a voice in the initial days, though Ken Livingstone did the best job of doing so. Perhaps other forms of local democracy are necessary, not just accountable police, community mediation and community grassroots groups.
“In the context of this (drug) war though, these areas become occupied territories, rather than areas with real police work or reconstruction required by the damage of war”
The destructive dog-eat-dog world of gangs ironically provides stability absent in other parts of people’s environments. It is also about the wealth provided by local monopolies on the drug trade. The war on drugs creates both organised state and individual violence, particularly in dying areas like those affected by the riots. In the context of this war though, these areas become occupied territories, rather than areas with real police work or reconstruction required by the damage of war. The Ministry of Justice has found most reoffenders are homeless and/or jobless, or have been through the care system and abuse in other structures. Gang members are more likely to have suffered the latter indignities. But ‘reformed’ individuals with a criminal record can also find it near impossible to access employment or housing after background checks. Without the stability of a job and home, “criminality” is an easier, more stable option. The paradox is that what ultimately destroys those removed from society is what seems to be the only available, stable course. If we don’t acknowledge them as members of society, becoming a criminal is more likely for numerous reasons. One reform could be for one’s criminal record to be cleared if rehabilitated. This is nowhere near a total solution, but even tweaks in the law and government policy can help to start break these cycles of violence.
“One youth worker told the Guardian that gangs are an obvious option when youth clubs and community spaces are shut down”
Some of the problem was not networks of gangs as suspected by media though, but simply bored kids. Breaking up the year into shorter terms and holidays, with a 5-term year as schools in Nottingham are piloting, can be one way of capping, or limiting events like this. Youth clubs are not a magic way of stopping crime, but shutting out hormonal teenagers from one of a few available spaces for them, isn’t the best preventative measure against riots. It isn’t just a seasonal problem though as removing financial incentives for sixth-form colleges will mean less attendance and more hormonal teenagers, again not the best preventative measure. It isn’t a seasonal problem when hacking apart the career advice service, Connexions. But it is a perfect circle of young people not in employment, education, or training. One youth worker told the Guardian that gangs are an obvious option when youth clubs and community spaces are shut down because the protection of the older gang members is “the only childcare anyone can afford”. Teenage kicks have their part in the events too. Another youth worker told the Guardian when he confronted assembled kids in Liverpool, most went away feeling stupid with themselves. Far easier to blame single mothers though, to say the problem is that rioters lack guidance from their fathers, while then proposing all women seeking child support from men pay a flat fee to the Child Support Agency of £100.
Any real commission of inquiry cannot just consider reductionist issues around these communities or law and order specifically. These causes are vital in diagnosing the riots, whether short-term, like the death of Duggan, the medium-term of a downward-spiralling economy, or much longer-term deprivation of so many communities. But determining these symptoms is not enough. It’s not enough to remedy the problems when they arrive, but rather finding out how to stop them arising in the first place. It’s not enough for example to be concerned that overcrowded prisons after the riots will lead to prison revolts, but instead to ask broader questions about the role of prisons and punishment. Such a commission should perhaps be like a jury, calling up ordinary people from affected areas who don’t proclaim themselves experts. That there are so many possible and probable reasons for the riots means experts from specific fields may not be enough. It is also a damning indictment of a society that ignored these dying areas, requiring more than the establishment figures who helped contribute to these areas’ deaths. It has to be a conversation that includes even the rioters even if cathartic to only condemn. While the focus should be on evaluating issues around law enforcement and social injustice, a whole societal shift is required, asking questions like what ownership means to us as a society. Galbraith argued collective consciousness and conscience is a better protector from reactionary shifts than the law. The US reaction to the 1960’s/70’s riots provide a lesson to us: Reaganomics flowed as much in new mistrust in welfare offices and housing departments as it did in political discourse. This societal shift had damaging consequences, with whole communities becoming collateral damage in a political turn to the right. The same sense of fear cannot have a similar monopoly on society and discourse if we are to stop such riots from happening again.
Josh Kitto is studying history and political science at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, United Kingdom. He has been featured on independant media outlets such as Citizen Radio talking and discussing the student protests on the tuition hikes in 2012. An avid Howard Zinn reader and an admirer of Amy Goodman, his motto is, “Go where the silence is”. You can read his blog at Confessions of an autistic boy.