Talking with Granny about the London Riots

This article was originally published in the Autumn newsletter of the London Catholic Worker

After having the inevitable and frustrating conversation with my Granny about the riots – the one where she says,“it wasn’t like this in the 1930s, children did what their parents said”, “why do you want to live in Hackney?” etc, and I can’t argue because she’s my Gran — I needed to write something…
According to my Gran, there used to be lines of starving, emaciated men waiting in queues patiently to find work. Nowadays, the young don’t even want to work. In the old days you would never have gone out if your parents told you to stay in, nowadays kids have no respect. They’re not starving, they’ve got loads of stuff — they’re just greedy, lazy and selfish.
So why the change, what has happened to make us (and she does still include in me in ‘the youth’!) so disrespectful and selfish? And, depending on which media you read/watch, are these rioters disrespectful, selfish thugs who’ve never had it so good? Or are they victims of a era of austerity cuts, unemployment and a Tory government?
My own view is that, yes, they are disrespectful and selfish and do have it good in some ways — they have ‘stuff’ and possibilities of choosing differently — but I can’t conceive of that in isolation from a much wider political and economic context. The Tory government of today, cutting back services that have quietly helped to build a stronger sense of community, and the financial turmoil leading to unemployment are not mutual exclusive from greedy youngsters. All are an inevitable consequence of a society based on liberal capitalism. I’m not saying that people don’t always have a choice in how to behave, what I am saying is that it is impossible for everyone to feel a valued part of society when that society is based on some getting richer at the expense of many more others.
Since my Gran was a youngster, consumerism and a culture of instant gratification have come to dominate our society. We all want more than we’ve got (even if we’re good activists and it might only be for a moment), we all want to have. Some have an awful lot — they get good jobs (at the expense of others), push themselves to the top of their company (at the expense of others), can buy whatever they like and send their kids to university (also sometimes at the expense of others). Society works for them. But others don’t get the jobs, don’t get the promotion, get pushed out of higher education because there would be no worth in it if everyone got in and passed. It doesn’t excuse violence and looting but points towards a motive, voiced by the teenagers involved.
But its not any individuals fault, or just a class thing. Our whole economic system perpetuates (let’s call it what it is) greed and ownership at the expense of others. It made me really angry to see my neighbourhood all smashed up. My local electrical shop was looted in the riots for nothing other than greed. As awful as it is, they’ll get back on their feet. But if a Curry’s and PC World moved in up the road, they’d die a slow death and never recover. Shareholders getting richer at the expense of others, for nothing other than greed. And how may local convenience stores have died a death at the hands of Tesco? And its not simply individuals who suffer. The pursuit of profit inherent in our economy has seen mass pull-out of investment for whole countries when stock market gambling is stacked against them.
And then there’s the violence. State sanctioned violence (i.e. the police) protects the property of the haves. Does that subconsciously mean people think it’s OK to perpetuate violence in order to ‘have’? I don’t know, I hate violence in all it’s forms. Whether it’s looting, looters getting beaten, police getting beaten, armies ‘protecting’ our country… It all simply create further problems.
As the rioters themselves have said, it’s about an expression of agency, or power. For the section of society that functions reasonably, or very well, in our current economic and political set up, we express power day to day and when it is taken away we write, call meetings, march, sit-in and all manner of things. So when those that don’t experience this day-to-day begin to feel a sense of their own agency through extreme ‘fun’, grabbing consumables in a violent and illegal way, it might be an immature adolescent response that isn’t very well analysed but it is an expression of power nonetheless.
A society that is based on accumulation of wealth (greed) and protection of that wealth, or property (power/violence), is going to see ugly manifestations of both at either end of the spectrum. What is needed is not just more investment in deprived communities from the taxes grudgingly paid by the haves, or teaching criminals a lesson — but a whole new way of knitting people together in a social solidarity, that does not base status on productivity or financial remuneration. You all value friends and family over your stuff, right? Same thing, we just have to take that extra leap to put more people before our stuff.
The most obvious, often romanticised yet a reality for some people I know, example is subsistence farming — everyone is necessary and plays a vital role. You live off what you grow and make and share extra with others. There is no point hoarding produce that will go off so sharing becomes easier and greed becomes ridiculous. You’re physically tired at the end of the day and satisfied you’ve played a part. Small farming communities tend to create their own entertainment, another way of valuing members, rather than hyping up ‘better’ people.
So what about the city? Let’s imagine! With no government blue prints, no big economic systems, just small local groups starting to figure it out for themselves. But this isn’t pipe dream, it’s already happening — especially in places like Hackney where gardening projects, lunch clubs, meals, youth arts projects, co-operative cafes, free shops and all sorts promote a sense of investment and pride. There’s still a lot to do (obviously) but if our national focus was not economic growth perhaps we’d see the local community become more of a priority and the sense of solidarity rather then economic gain flourish.
Further Reading

These riots reflect a society run on greed and looting, The Guardian, 10 August, 2011