The British chattering classes can’t make up their minds about what triggered the furious urban rioting in recent days. They are swaying between two different theories. Some put it down to the fact that the rioters aren’t very well off, with sympathetic hacks arguing that ‘high poverty and large unemployment [are] the reason why people are taking to the streets.’ Others claim it is the culture of consumption that tempted urban youth to smash up shops and grab whatever they could. Apparently the rioters are aping the bankers and other cash-rich sections of society, their antics a ‘crude attempt to mimic the conspicuous consumption exercised by the affluent,’ according to the New Statesman.
In other words, the riots were caused either by the fact that urban Brits don’t have enough or that they want too much; either by their poverty or by their greed. Both these theories are spectacularly wrong. The first, the notion that being poor automatically leads to becoming a looter, overlooks the fact that there have always been sections of society with little money and few opportunities, but they didn’t respond to their predicament by burning down the local pizza restaurant. The poverty-causes-rioting argument is patronising and fatalistic, depicting urban youth as automatons who are incapable of making moral choices and who instead stagger like zombies towards episodic lashing-out.
And the claim that the culture of consumption triggered the laptop looting and tracksuit thefts is wrongheaded, too. Reading some commentators, you could be forgiven for thinking that Thatcher – evil, handbag-waving Thatcher – was still exerting a deleterious influence over British youth. The riots are a result of ‘decades of individualism, competition and state-encouraged selfishness,’ says one commentator. Another writes about ‘the greed of the disenfranchised,’ who have been ‘taught that consumerism is a recreational right.’ From this point of view, the riots are a more violent version of the capitalist culture of ‘keeping up with the Joneses,’ with everyone apparently under constant pressure to surround themselves with more and more stuff and luxuries and mod-cons.
This second theory is even more ridiculous than the first. It was not any Thatcherite cult of consumerism and dog-eat-dog individualism that nurtured these riots. Rather it was its opposite, the arguments of the influential anti-Thatcherite sections of the political and media elite, that helped create the conditions for the violence we have seen in English cities in recent days. It was their promotion of welfare dependency, their post-Thatcher demonisation of apparently outdated ideas such as self-sufficiency and material aspiration, that helped raise a generation so entangled in the welfare ‘safety net’ that they effectively unlearned ideals like social solidarity and community bonding.
The most shocking thing about these riots is the lack of care the rioters have shown towards their own neighbourhoods, as well as their sense of entitlement to all the stuff in shops. These attitudes are a product not of poverty or the culture of consumption but of institutionalised welfarism, which both weakens community bonds by making individuals dependent on the state rather than on each other, and gives communities the idea that their needs should and will be met by others rather than them having to exercise any social wherewithal or go-getting aspiration. These are welfare-state riots – and it is a bit rich for those commentators who have been at the forefront of promoting insidious, patronising and spirit-killing welfarism in recent years to lay the blame for the riots at the doors of poverty or material desire.