During the riots in London, as I watched Newsnight hold its panel discussions about the unfolding civil disturbances in London and elsewhere, another heated discussion was taking place a few feet away outside my sitting room window. A dozen teenagers whooped with excitement as they discussed in loud voices the most convenient and shortest route to the action. The choice was between Kentish Town or Camden High Street. The latter, with its wider choice of branded consumer goods retail chains, won (or lost) that day. The panel discussion on Newsnight ended in another inconclusive and routine draw.
The lack of originality, energy and insight in the Newsnight studio couldn't have contrasted more sharply with the war party of young Comanche braves straight out of some rebooted John Wayne movie, with outriders on BMXs, heads flourishing with hoodies, faces painted with scarves and brandishing mobile phones. They seemed the very model of energy, purpose and wired modernity. These "Net Natives", as marketers like to call them, were plugged in to the latest crowd-sourced information direct from the web's super highway.
David Cameron's "Big Society" is set in a fictional country that I'd love to visit sometimes. But the socio-economic configuration that I live next to, could be better described as the "Big Brother Society." Dominated as we are by surveillance cameras (poetically rendered useless by the simplest item of clothing) and an appetite for prurience and solipsism - as promised by the poster that still dominates the end of my road. The new season of the "biggest brother" ever on Channel 5. Watching Big Brother as big brother watches us.
The would-be Lotto millionaires gave themselves away when - as rumour has it - they broke into McDonalds in order to cook dinner during a pause in the riot in Harringay, illustrating the only kind of professional or technical training many of them may have ever had. This is no revolt against the system, rather this is an extremist version of the system. Fast-food fuelled Tahreeries of our own, organised with BlackBerries, plugged into social platforms, who want the freedom to have free stuff.
Comment seems redundant when the most basic descriptions of the event are much more enlightening. This from a Guardian correspondent reporting on the riots earlier this week:
"A series of stand-offs with members of the public began shortly after a large group of police detained two men against the wall of Hackney's Old Town Hall building, now a betting shop..."
We live in a society driven by consumption and ruled by Lotteries. The sign on the furniture store in Kentish town invited shoppers with the promise of "interest-free credit" and "Nothing to pay for six months." These young shoppers had a better idea: nothing to pay now, or ever.
Thankfully race was not a cause, at most it added, no pun intended, colour to the flames. The racial tensions that gave us the riots of 30 years ago are a thing of the past. The panel discussion outside my window was corroborated by images emerging of the riots everywhere showing a cheerfully multi racial crowd.
The home secretary's response - describing the rioters as "opportunistic criminals" - was self-defeating, (pointing as it did to her own cuts to police budgets), useless (as everybody could see that just policing could curtail this) and typically short-sighted (never mind the cause, lets deal with the effect).
If race and criminality miss the point so does "poverty." At least as traditionally understood and discussed by the Left. As Ed Milliband focuses on the "squeezed middle," and even Ken Livingston's complaints about the cuts were so anemic that he seemed to remember, mid-sentence, that his own party subscribes to the same fiscal policies as the government.
Thirty years ago, the riots of the late '70s and early '80s had an ethno/political edge. They shook the establishment (there used to be one) and the establishment responded. The causes of those riots were addressed by spending on social and welfare programs. In effect, purchasing consent from a class of young black men as "community leaders" and "youth workers," giving them a stake in society they previously sought to burn down, and by addressing institutional racism by a set of the ideas of and policies that came to be known collectively as "political correctness." (This is before political correctness was a form of insult.) These programs were lucky enough to be financed by a booming economy that followed. Those young men are now rotund middle-aged men, as alienated from and afraid of war parties outside their windows as I was. The current slump and predicted Japanese-style economic stagnation that lays before us for the next decade means that we can't afford to buy consent this time around.
If the riots were depressing, the shallow moral handwringing and state's response to them has been even more so. The lynch mob daily newspapers invited the courts dealing with the rioters to ignore sentencing guidelines and hand out punitive sentences. "Throw away the book," called the Daily Mail. But isn't that exactly what the condemned are being tried for? Disregarding the rules? In Manchester, a mother of two was given a five-month prison sentence for accepting a looted pair of shorts.
Which brings me to the idea of languages live and dead, which is a theme for this issue. The language of Left and Right has never looked as close to extinction as their futile response to vulture capitalism, as it picks at the flesh of the economy and what's left of the social fabric. How can the Right encourage ruthlessness and efficiency at the boardrooms and deny it to the de-skilled underclass? How can the Left deal with the bottom of the heap devoid of any sense of class solidarity?
Perhaps we could start a Facebook group about the riots. But I don't fancy that call from the police, as Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan - both in their early 20s - recently received. Despite the fact that no-one showed up, these two hapless chaps were sentenced to 4 years in prison for incitement to riot via Facebook.