Sunday, 21 August 2011 21:26

Looting

The British riots have come and gone for the moment, and at last the politicians and the media have tired of punditry and explanationism and blame assignment. Finally now that the punitive sentencing process has gone into well publicized overdrive we get the one statistic they dared not release in the immediate aftermath of the event and which I’ve eagerly awaited, - an estimate of the numbers involved.

Scotland Yard puts it at 30,000. One must balance that figure against the natural tendency of the police to want to both understate the extent of a breakdown of the law and order they get paid to maintain and perhaps a tendency to overstate it in the face of proposed police spending cuts. Nevertheless in the context of several thousand arrests it sounds like a reasonable lower estimate. I had guessed about 50,000, although I saw nothing of it directly whilst on holiday in Wales.

Compared to the poll tax riot which seems to have involved about 250,000 this seems like peanuts, yet its effect seems to have disturbed the national psyche far more, and I think it has done so because of the lack any easily understandable political motive for the riots.

However, as someone once said of the French Revolution, ‘there’s nothing more political than the price of a loaf of bread’, and to pretend that anything that happens in society lacks a political dimension or a power relationship of some sort seems naïve.

I suspect that a great many people fairly well understand the causes of these riots but keep the guilty secret to themselves because they would personally rather remain enmeshed in the problem rather than consider the alternatives.

The crisis in the financial systems and the riots share a common cause, the failure of the policy of economic growth and consumerism.

Yes, I have just committed the ultimate blasphemy, I don’t think our society should strive for more economic growth or more consumption, despite what just about all politicians say.

The majority of people now have about twice as much stuff as they had 40 years ago, yet they seem no happier or more content at all, in fact one could argue that the relentless pursuit of ever more consumables has led to a drop in the quality of life. Some sociologists argue that quality of life peaked in the UK around the mid seventies.

For the last few decades we have imported debt and manufactures and labor from abroad to maintain a growth in consumerism. This has had the grim effects of creating an unsustainable debt mountain, an unwanted underclass of unskilled people with no work in basic manufacturing, and arguably a far less cohesive society riven by multicultural, multi-identity, and wealth ghetto-isation. What does it mean to be British these days? It seems to mean having a long and glorious past which we are increasingly taught to feel ashamed of; and no vision for the future beyond an even larger TV screen, at an ever cheaper price. Most of the people who stole televisions had access to at least one already; they merely obeyed social norms in obtaining another as cheaply as possible. The underclass may have started the riots but the middle classes seem to have joined in the looting, the rich have already got richer these last few decades by more subtle forms of looting.

The solution seems simple, cease striving for growth, stop working for consumables we don’t really need, put our own people back to work making the stuff we do need even if that makes it a bit more expensive. Share out what we do have a bit more equitably, and concentrate more on quality of life and leisure pursuits.

Hopefully this will also lead to less looting of this planet’s rapidly diminishing resources.

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