Two things occur to me about the riots in England.
First of all, even though the riots were sparked off by the shooting dead of Mark Duggan by a police officer in Tottenham on Saturday, anyone who thinks they are witnessing a moment of political radicalism that the Left can easily seize is deluded. Secondly, anyone who believes that we can explain the riots without reference to three decades of social and economic policies that have lead to gross inequality is quite frankly a fucking idiot.
Some insurrections lead to the reclamation of territory and the expulsion of unwelcome authorities or colonisers – Free Derry, for instance. Some insurrections storm and take over institutions of power. Others might take over a factory or force a halt to production by the withdrawal of labour — a strike. But these sorts of political acts look quaint and old fashioned when compared to what is happening in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. It seems like thousands of kids have seized the moment to go on an illicit shopping spree, what Zygmut Bauman describes as ‘riots of defective and disqualified consumers’.
We are all consumers now, consumers first and foremost, consumers by right and by duty. The day after the 11/9 outrage George W. Bush, when calling Americans to get over the trauma and go back to normal, found no better words than “go back shopping”. It is the level of our shopping activity and the ease with which we dispose of one object of consumption in order to replace it with a “new and improved” one which serves us as the prime measure of our social standing and the score in the life-success competition. To all problems we encounter on the road away from trouble and towards satisfaction we seek solutions in shops.
The cause of the riots is not substantially the break down of the family, the failure of discipline in schools, an absence of respect for authority, or any of the many other lame-arsed rationales being put forward to support a ‘strong’ and ‘robust’ (read regressive, repressive and right-wing) response to the trouble. The cause of what we are witnessing is clear in its manifestation: people who don’t have much — who don’t enjoy the full benefits and pleasures bestowed by consumer sovereignty and the lifestyle that goes with it — have acquired it by other means.
Consumerism is now so integral to our sense of self-worth that our relative exclusion from that sphere, or even our failure to consume appropriately can be humiliating. This point is made in the journal Crime, Media, Culture by Keith Hayward and Majid Yar (April 2006 vol. 2 no. 1 9-28). They argue that where once the poor were scorned because of their unemployment or their low-paid, low skilled jobs, now the poor are more likely to be despised for their failure as consumers; either they do not consume enough or else they lack ‘good’ taste and aesthetic judgement.
This relationship between consumer goods and the construction of self in late modernity is of great importance. So encompassing is the ethos of consumerism within (late) capitalist society that, for many individuals, self-identity and self-realization can now only be accomplished through material means — money (in the form of commodities) as ‘self laundering’. Thus, identity, as Christopher Lasch (1979) brilliantly pointed out, takes on the form of a ‘consumption-oriented narcissism’. Twenty years after Lasch’s seminal monograph, the full force of his message is only now being felt. In the school playground, the pub or restaurant, the nightclub and on the street corner, products and material possessions are now the primary indices of identity for virtually all strata of society, establishing status but, more importantly, imbuing individuals with a (narcissistic) sense of who they are.
Maybe every society gets the rioters it deserves. If so, then all the UK’s premiers, from Thatcher onwards, are the mid-wives of the riots that have blighted English cities this week. For all of them have embedded the notion that consumerism is the only legitimate expression of sovereignty and identity.