Sweeping Up Glass
“Whatever the apparent cause of any riots may be, the real one is always want of happiness” Tom Paine, Rights of Man.
I watched London consumed by fire on Monday night in the company of Twitter. We shared feelings of fury, impotence and despair in 140 character outbursts. By the time I finally managed to sleep my I no longer recognised myself in my thoughts. I had to slap myself for fear I’d turn into The Daily Mail.
And though I had scant respect for the police’s response to recent democratic protests I had to sympathise with their predicament on Monday. They were outnumbered and out-organised. A tipping point had been reached and it had tipped against them. They looked vulnerable and they were vulnerable defending the lives and property of our fellow citizens, people who had done absolutely nothing to deserve the fear and violence visited upon them.
The cybersphere played its role, amplifying both good and bad. What it took by giving the rioters the means to organise, it gave back. We got #riotcleanup, we got #londonwombles, we got video of the police being cheered, pictures of mobs wielding brooms, serving tea to cops using riot shields as trays, twitter calls for people to provide free food to the emergency services in gratitude for their efforts.
The riots showed us both what it is to belong to a society and what it is not to belong. Not belonging was expressed with a brick, belonging with a broom.
We are, by nature, social. We crave being part of something larger than ourselves and ultimately those instincts will win out.
As Tom Paine also said: ‘Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.’ It’s the failure of society that necessitates the creation of government. The worse society works the more government we’ll get. If society functioned perfectly we wouldn’t need it.
And if there was a defining feature of these riots I’d argue that it wasn’t anger at society but utter indifference to it and detachment from it. This was less a bang on the door demanding to be let in than an attack on something of which the rioters were not a part.
This has been called a protest, but protest began and ended on Saturday night in Tottenham.
It’s been said that this is about an absence of boundaries; boundaries set by family, community and society. I suspect the rioters have boundaries; just not ours.
It’s been said that this is about poverty yet in plenty of the interviews with looters they stressed they could afford to buy the things they were stealing. This is not about protest, boundary setting or absolute poverty. It was about belonging or rather it was about not belonging.
One much remarked upon facet of African society is that people see themselves as having a place, a sense of being part of something bigger than themselves. It’s not about ‘knowing one’s place’ but of having a place; in other words a strong sense of belonging.
Indeed there’s an African proverb: “If the young are not initiated into the village, they will burn it down just to feel its warmth.”
So when people talk about youth clubs closures pushing young people onto the street, it’s about more than that. It’s about whether society values those young people enough to provide them with facilities and about whether those young people feel they’re valued. It doesn’t just affect those who use it; you still get the message about your worth when a place provided for you closes even if you never go. The same goes for EMA. Thus the thread of belonging to society is severed.
Belonging goes a long way to answering the big questions that human beings ask. They’re questions about purpose. They’re the questions like ‘why am I here?’ that used to be answered by faith. They’re the questions that our society is really bad at answering.
Famously Marx declared: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.”
Well I’d suggest that the haves need a sense of purpose and belonging no less than the have-nots and that far from religion being their opium that they try to kill the pain through consumption. The poor try to copy the rich as best they can. Many Marxists see the answers in purely material terms. Well they’ve got it. Consumption is the new religion. The UK will spend £11.58 Billion in advertising this year to promote it. What the rich know that the poor don’t is that it doesn’t work. Wealth is not the same as worth, yet we have come to define worth in terms of wealth.
But our true worth, or real wealth, is derived from our value to others. That’s why more unequal societies are more unhappy – because money divides us one from another and weakens the connections from which we get our value. It’s not a new thought. Half the New Testament is about the power of money to divide. If you’ve an old friend who has become much richer or poorer than you over the years, stop to consider how that’s affected your friendship.
The response from many young people has been to join gangs. They offer protection. They can offer money. I suspect that what they offer most of all is a sense of belonging, purpose and value to others.
David Cameron is wrong. Parts of our society are not broken. They’ve broken away. To make it whole again requires a fundamental change, a wholesale rejection of measuring one another’s worth in material terms to one that values people according to the part they play. That needs nothing less than a revolution – a revolution of mindless love and boundless humanity.
It’ll fry Dave, Nick and George’s little heads. It’ll make everyone else much happier.
Thanks – a thoughtful response.
Oh and thanks to Natalie Bennett for putting that African proverb out into the twitterverse. There’s not much about human nature that our forebears weren’t wise to…
The example of the elites: “Violence, Looting & Not Caring = Power” was well learned by the youth of the revolt. Maybe the middle classes should have been paying more attention & providing a better example.
Excellent article: http://wsws.org/articles/2011/aug2011/riot-a11.shtml