So the London riots are old news now. We've had our thinkpieces in the New Statesman and The Spectator, trying to explain why they happened. David Cameron has jammed them into his tired old 'broken Britain' narrative, commenters on the Telegraph website have chalked it up to multiculturalism, sharia law, 'migrants out to get what they can', 'Muslim agitators' and so on and so forth. We're told Britain is in the midst of 'moral collapse'. Plus, of course, good old-fashioned racism is back again; not that it ever went away, but seemingly now you don't even need to use the 'I'm not racist but' get-out. At least the honesty is refreshing; people who used to be so deeply concerned for the maintenance of Britain's liberal values can just come right out and say that they're not much enamoured of the darkies. Even Tudor historians have been getting in on the act, with David Starkey going on Newsnight in the aftermath to explain that the rioting was fueled by white kids having 'become black', as evidenced by their setting things on fire and speaking in a 'wholly false Jamaican patois'.
Starkey's been justly pilloried for all this, of course. Academics who study Jamaican Creole have taken him to task. Some genius has recut his appearance into this. But, to use another excuse so beloved of racist fuckwits, he's just saying what a lot of people are thinking. Of course, the people that are thinking that are, charitably, misled. Uncharitably, they're mendacious cunts eager to dive into the aftermath of a catastrophe, in order to use it as a stick with which to beat anyone who doesn't agree with their reactionary, bigoted view of race relations in modern Britain. The troubling thing is, though, that both Starkey and the fuckwits talking about 'the underclass' have the shadow of a point, even if they themselves fail to see it. He describes the rioting as acquisitive 'shopping with violence', but then spins off into his deranged views on race. It doesn't strike me as wholly accurate to treat the riots and the looting as exactly the same phenomenon, but evidently widespread looting did happen; some of it opportunistic, some of it organised on some level. But the only people who seem to be asking why are all too eager to blame it on race.
Call me an old Marxist (because I am - still got my old party card and everything), but the one thing that doesn't seem to be featuring in any of these endless thinkpieces is class. Oh, you'll hear about 'the underclass', but always as the pejorative it sounds like. When it's not being used as a stalking horse for 'black people', 'the underclass' carries a very Victorian connotation. The wicked poor, collapsing Britain's morals. No-one seems to be noting, for instance, that the vast majority of the people who have, and will, suffer most from these riots are more likely to be poor, more likely to be ethnic minorities, more likely to speak an English that Starkey considers a patois. What do you suppose is going to happen to all the small businesses in Tottenham that got looted? I said as much in my original writeup, but the riots, more than anything else, have been self-destructive. The communities in which they started were the biggest victims; between the tension, the cost, and the government now having free rein to make cuts that will affect them disproportionately, the gap between rich and poor is only going to get wider.
In any case, I'll make a stab at answering the question. Why did a significant number of people in that situation think looting was acceptable? Why is this kind of acquisitive, thoughtless, selfish behaviour happening? Well, my answer is because we live in a society that is, in large part, acquisitive, thoughtless, and selfish. This isn't to excuse looting - you as an individual have a conscience, you have a sense of right and wrong, and you can't blame all your actions on society - but our culture has a habit of making virtues out of these qualities. The kids who were rioting - and by and large they were kids, from the early teens to the mid twenties - have grown up in a Britain where greed and corruption on a truly massive scale have been excused, even condoned, on a routine basis. Rampant consumerism, globalisation, and Margaret Thatcher's idea of there being 'no such thing as society' - these things have shaped the world in which those kids grew up. And with class lines and the gap between rich and poor drawn as starkly as they are, the message being sent is this: everyone is out for themselves. Look at all these wonderful things. Your worth is tied irrevocably to the things you own. Acquire things, even if you can't afford them. And then having told them this, the class system snaps them back like a rubber band and says, 'No. You cannot have these things. You can't have these things because you are shiftless and workshy, and probably wear a tracksuit and don't speak proper.'
I don't think there's a moral collapse in Britain. And I don't think a selfish society is the sole, or even necessarily the biggest, reason for the looting. I don't know how many of the looters could have articulated it, or would have thought of it consciously. After all, if it was class warfare, Mayfair would've been on fire instead of Tottenham. But it must breed an immense frustration, being force-fed this diet of acquisition. Whether it's on TV, on the web, in print, whatever, there is a whole world of people with high cheekbones and good skin, a world that you cannot afford to join. You will not live like the people on your television. Maybe you can pull yourself up, but it will be hard, and miserable, and you will still have only a fraction of the wealth that people who were born with it have. I put it to you (and David Starkey) that it is not the working class of London whose language is false. I say that the language of materialism is false. Size zero models, airbrushed to someone's idea of perfection. A level of luxury attained by a fraction of the population, on every channel. You will never hear someone with a patois reading the ten o'clock news. And because of that, people with voices like mine, and David Cameron's, have a monopoly on the sound of truth and objectivity.
That goes on until our voices are the only ones you hear. And then we have the gall to say that the reason you're probably a violent lout is because you speak funny, but if you try really hard and get educated you could talk almost like one of us! If it were me on the receiving end of all that, I'd want to set things on fire too. High cheekbones and good skin are functions of power, Vicky Pollard is a vicious piece of class warfare, and people who get uptight about 'correct' English piss me the fuck off. An ting.