Monday, 15 August 2011

The wanderer returns to a scene of devastation

To judge from the media coverage, I was returning to a smoking, post-apocalyptic ruin, or - as the BBC's celebrity Tory slaphead Nick Robinson put it - 'a city living in fear'. What do I see? Ok, there are lots of shops boarded up, but most of them were before the riot. The major vandalism that greets me is the economic vandalism of a government which puts its financier friends' interests before those of the citizenry.

Obviously I haven't been back to my flat yet (work first!): if that's looted, I'll join you in the queue for a pitchfork and a copy of the Daily Mail. But in the meantime, let's do a little light thinking.

There's a dead French philosopher called Jean Baudrillard. He liked getting headlines with gnomic pronouncements guaranteed to annoy empiricist Englishmen, but sometimes he made very salient points.

One of these is the notion of potlatch and the gift, which he tripped over during his anthropology/sociology days. Gifts, in most cultures, create obligations. Except of course, for those of my social circle who remain unfamiliar with the concept of buying one's round. Now, if you're permanently placed in the position of recipient with no hope of ever reciprocating, you're in a hard place: shame, resentment and anger are common responses.

We could think of these street rioters as eternal recipients of gifts they neither want nor need, often in the form of ineffectual schemes, politicians of photo-opportunities, or simply the constant presence of wealth, always out of touch: in London or on TV. The response to this 'gift' is fury.

These kids aren't political, but they are - as all mobs are - part of politics, though they lack the language to express it (partly because politics has become a private and self-perpetuating tribe). They've been encouraged to consume even as our leaders have deliberately removed all the opportunities to legally acquire: EMA withdrawn, university access removed, decent wages cut - and at the same time, the rich are becoming obscenely richer, even those who've smashed our economy to pieces in pursuit of private gain.

You know I don't condone the random violence we've seen; but that doesn't mean I can't understand where it's coming from.

One of the most disgusting responses I've seen over the past few days is the plan to throw offenders out of their council houses. A few problems with this:
1. Councils have a legal duty to house the homeless. So they'll just be moved on.
2. Offenders' families are being thrown out too - made homeless because of the actions of someone else.
3. This means that poor criminals are being punished twice. I rent my flat privately, so if I go looting with a lad from a council house, I'll only get half the punishment he does.

This last point is serious: we have a legal system which supposedly hands out impartial punishment. But then, David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson were once part of a gang which operated in the Oxford area, the sole purpose of which was to smash up law-abiding people's property. After they'd had their fun, they'd hand over bundles of banknotes to hush it up. They clearly think there's a difference between 'pure criminality' which requires a crackdown, and 'high-jinks'. I wonder if their victims agree. So does this gentleman.

No comments: