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August 15, 2011

The looters who were looking for freebies were in search of the freedom of the city - the trouble is, they equate freedom with stolen goods: Lilian Pizzichini offers a personal perspective on the riots

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

Foreign commentary on the UK's latest wave of rioting is revealing. The Chinese have pinpointed phone-hacking as a cause of disaffection. Cuts have clearly affected the police, but the scandal has dented their credibility. Social disorder is the outcome. The rioters, on sensing a weakened police force, seized their opportunity.

Social networking has determined the character of these riots in the sense that undercurrents of frustration and rage are tweeted and blogged and thus depersonalized. This makes the violence more random. There is no clear political aim. But what emerges from the chaos is the target: either Footlocker or JD Sports. On a walk through Brixton the morning after that particular uprising, JD Sports was the only property to be burnt out and entirely gutted. On upmarket Portobello Road, the only shop to be seriously vandalized was Office Shoes.

There is some spirit of anarchy in the heart of every English person. We love a free-for-all, a jamboree - a carnival that turns order on its head. The Green Man comes out at night to make mischief. It is not so hard to find something folkloric in these uprisings. Especially in the profile of the looter. Whereas we can clearly identify those behind the ransacking of shoe shops as teenagers, there are disturbing reports of another type of looter. One of the recent defendants to be charged with looting is an adult male who works full time in a primary school between the hours of 8.30am and 3.30pm. He earns £1,000 a month and pays £550 a month in rent. His job title is "learning mentor".

The profile has moved away from the man who was shot by the police. He was black, and had been identified by the police as a prominent gang member. He was armed with a lethal weapon. But the riots his death provoked have nothing to do with race or police brutality. They are more to do with state-sponsored incompetence, commerce and disaffection.

Instead of the hooded stereotype - the football hooligan of yore - police profiling indicates that the looters R US. These are working people, as opposed to out-of-work hooded loafers or ethnic minorities. So, the Sun and the Mirror have had to adjust their scope.

What is ironic is that leading politicians had to cut short their holidays to speechify on this crisis. What is enraging is that the looters (i.e. teachers, care workers, support staff – the people who glue society’s fragmented pieces together for a pitiful wage) could not afford holidays. This is what is at issue, instead of jetting off on our third holiday this summer, we buy / steal / borrow our third pair of Nike trainers.

It wasn't all bad news, either. The clean-up operation the morning after the night before was the flipside of looting. These are "good" citizens cleaning up after the "bad", and in their own way, doing it for themselves. In a sense, when it comes to taking matters into their own hands, they were acting just as the looters did. The latter were, after all, acting in good faith as consumers. They just didn't have access to funds (apart from the millionaire's daughter who has featured on the front page of the Sun). At its heart, isn't looting simply another way to shop without paying? In a fully functioning neoliberal economy the credit market would ensure these entrepreneurial spirits would have access to the status goods they desire, without disrupting their more conservative fellow consumers and the supply chain.

But the conclusion surely has to be that ultimately Capitalism infantilises us. The more we strive to acquire material wealth, the less we take responsibility for ourselves, our families and our communities. We become like the looters, who just want to take stuff and not get caught. Blair's efforts to inject responsibility into Thatcher's go-getters was too late and too lame. The impact for Cameron's Big Society is that it is depending too heavily on people like the learning mentor and other pillars of impoverished communities.

There is one place that remains untouched by looters or legislations: England's artistic communities. There are pockets of innovation in Brixton and Notting Hill that defy the Footlocker mentality. Take a stroll around the 1920s covered market that is Brixton Village and you are transported to a glorious, patchwork vision of the multi-cultural society. Tea shops, Italian coffee bars, Sierra Leonean grocers, artists’ open studios and a fishmonger's nestle side by side in a listed Art Deco framework. It's Agatha Christie meets Jamie Oliver and Malcolm X over a cup of Columbian blend espresso coffee. The reason for its Risorgimento is that the leaseholders let out their spaces on a very low rent. No wonder there's a spark to the market. Innovators and immigrants can set out their stalls.

And Notting Hill? Forget the Cameron clones and the Stella McCartney wannabes, the real heartbeat of innovation resides under the Westway. The Portobello Pop-Up Cinema the other night held a tribute for the man who mugged off Murdoch with a custard pie. Suddenly, his act of vandalism acquires political gravitas. As well as being dragooned by current affairs, the cinema is the hub of a community engaged in preserving what is unique and peculiar to its locality: history and freedom of speech. Just like Brixton Market, the Pop-Up is where artists and historians meet to exchange their findings – it is a live university, where happenings and ideas take shape. Both places exist under the radar. The rioters - well, there's nothing for them there; and shoppers and diners cannot be seen to be consuming under the radar, as it were. If they go to these places, their activities will not be recorded and reviewed in Sunday supplements. And so they have missed the point.

There are few places left in England that have not been reviewed, regulated and accounted for. The result is a bureaucratized, lifeless high street where Connections, an agency that works with local people (doing what, we never find out because there is so much paperwork to get through first) is spelt Connexions. This, one supposes, is an attempt to employ the laxity of street talk and thus be hip. Everywhere is victim to the bureaucrat’s stranglehold or the estate agent’s price tag. There are few places in England that have a sense of freedom or wilderness to them. Every patch of land that has a flower in it is fenced and recorded if not built on.

In a sense, the looters who were looking for freebies were in search of the freedom of the city. The trouble is they are so numbed by the British menu of commercial culture, they equate freedom with stolen goods.

Lilian Pizzichini is the author of, Dead Men's Wages, which won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction, and ofThe Blue Hour: A Portrait of Jean Rhys (2009).


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I don't condone the riots or the looting, but I feel that Lilian has made some very good points in terms of how they might be understood in the context of today's Britain.

Personally, I am appalled the state of the British culture in 2011 - We have been made junkies of a obsessively materialistic, credit based unreality, in which it is increasingly difficult to exist without playing the game. The Emperor's clothes scenario that drives the global money-go-round, (by creating money out of thin air and speculation), has been driven into the everyday lives of ordinary people, to the extent that it one is virtually required to have at least one credit card, to eschew cash and to regularly 'spend' in excess of one's means.

The stockbrokers, the banks, and the supermarkets are making obscene amounts of money by selling us a lie, and getting us deeper and deeper into an addiction from which we cannot escape. This suits governments - The very last thing a democratic government wants is a liberated, empowered electorate! Blair's efforts were 'too late and too lame' and now we have no money to afford equality of any kind.... And a government that can only get plaudits from blind, junkie middle England for getting tough with rioters, when the focus should be on eliminating the chasm between haves and have-nots, not widening it still further. Cameron's Big Society is a waft of smoke intended to hide the neglect-driven collapse of public services; services that still present as an obstacle to the return to good, old fashioned, mediaeval peasant-management, so beloved of the wealthy.

Posted by: Tim C at August 16, 2011 10:24 PM
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