Thursday, 11 August 2011

Britain's riots - looting the truth

The spectre of riots, theft and burning buildings across English cities is the latest indication of what happens when large sections of the population are abandoned to the profit-driven imperatives of capitalist society. 

As England's streets erupt in violence, the language of condemnation has its own destructive intent, a looting of the truth by politicians and an accomplice media. 

They’re all just “criminal thugs”, cry government ministers, “feral rats”, says one angry London shop owner.  And many will readily agree watching the pictures of rampaging mobs seemingly intent on nothing but wanton destruction and personal gain.

Yet, in a society where accomplishment gets measured by consumer acquisition, is it any wonder that such people, impoverished or not, seize the opportunity to smash and grab?

David Cameron points to "pockets of our society that are not just broken but, frankly, sick."  There needs to be "personal responsibility" he and others claim.  But where is the political responsibility for the breakdown of that society?  Is it just coincidence that the riots happened in mainly poor areas where unemployment is highest and black people suffer the greatest harassment from police? 

And what of the many additional millions, mass sections of society, who suffer more passively from the effects of austerity and poverty while the rich become ever-richer.  How did all that breakdown occur?  Did it happen independently of decades-old neoliberal policies and political subservience to them? Many people in our society are, indeed, sick, suffering from the daily pressures and effects of a sick, profit-driven system. 

Public denunciation of the rioters is understandable.  People are living in fear of escalating violence.  Besides the fallout from the police killing of Mark Duggan in London, the further tragic deaths of three men in Birmingham has raised the prospect of new inter-ethnic conflict, while pumped-up vigilantes and assorted forces of the right seek to exploit the situation on the streets.

Responding to standard media cues, people reach for easy explanations, dismissing, like the Daily Mail, the 'heresy' of blaming any part of the violence on cuts, raging unemployment or other social deprivation. It's the same old abrogating calls for the “greedy, criminal thugs” to be locked up.   

Try offering an alternative view to that in mainstream company.  Try saying that while you don’t condone the violence (any violence) you also have some understanding of why it’s happening.

Try airing that kind of measured analysis on the BBC and you may, like the noted black community figure Darcus Howe, get castigated and insulted as a criminal accessory to the violence.  

BBC 'balance', it seems, doesn't like people saying that the riots were both expected and the consequence of more malign forces.   

And don’t expect any media analogies either on the financial looting of the public purse, or similar condemnation of the feral bankers who, in business suits rather than hoodies, have caused such economic crisis and social dislocation.

Much is being made by media liberals of the seemingly ‘non-political’ nature of the riots – they’re motivated, it's claimed, by plain “greed” rather than, as in the Middle East and Europe, the desire for democracy and economic justice.

Yet, isn’t the very prevalence of that “greed” an indictment of the corporate-seducing system in itself, a system which idealises fast-track consumer gratification and ultra-competitiveness?   

Why is that core issue – and the media’s own key part in it - almost never up for discussion?  

Newsnight may permit ‘earnest liberals’ space to speculate on the motivations of rioting youth.   Yet, rarely are we allowed similar exchanges on the destructive motivations of our political leaders and their corporate friends who conspire in mass bank bailouts and continued executive bonuses while millions live in fear of redundancy, eviction and apprehension over how to feed their kids.  

That’s the real greed; the insatiable greed of an elite few, rather than the opportunistic grabbing of a laptop or trainers from a high street store.
The psychology of market resentment is also apparent here.  Look, many onlookers say, how easy it is for them just to walk into looted shops and take a plasma TV while we struggle to pay for such things.  Again, it’s an illustration of the consumer ‘values’ and competitive priorities we’re encouraged to internalise.    

The related political-media buzz-word is “lawlessness”, a much-repeated synonym, again with selective applications.   Thus, while a whole assembly of young people, whether aggrieved at police provocation or just street opportunists, are lumped and demonised as 'outlaws', the lawless action of high financiers and political warmongers is treated as ‘errant’ behaviour.
Again, this is not to condone the violence and destruction. (It’s somehow symptomatic of the dominant media narrative that one feels further compelled to make that caveat.)  Many pictures do tell a disturbing story of by-standing victims and despair, such as the dramatic image of a woman leaping from her fire-engulfed flat and the young, injured Malaysian student apparently being assisted by rioting youths while others ransack his backpack.   

Yet, can the responsibility for such social chaos and lack of compassion be simply attributed to a relatively small number of rioters?  Shouldn’t these pictures invite serious examination in our media about why young people resort to such actions. 

Why are those particular images constantly highlighted and replayed by the media?  Most simply, because it helps stamp the big headline label "criminality" on such actions, permitting avoidance of any political responsibility. 

Again, Cameron condemns the "disgusting sight" of the robbed student, warning that "things...are badly wrong in our society."  Many will agree.  Yet, no media outlet seems willing to link Cameron with the disgusting sights that he's helped create, both in the home society or abroad.   

Masking the lines of criminality between the rioters and our corporate-political vandals serves a double propaganda function in hiding the elite’s own culpable actions while encouraging the public to turn ruthlessly on the ‘feral’ youth.  It’s a classic example of how the blame narrative works as a default line media reaction.  

Mass social exclusion, another jobless generation and, most particularly, an encouraged culture of rampant greed has brought even greater levels of hopelessness, alienation, resentment, dislocation and the inevitable turn to violence. 

Might there, at some rare, searching moment, come a real questioning of the actual greed society, its corporate sponsors, its political protectors and its media managers?   


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