Urban riots: the imagery of cognitive dissonance

The riots which started in North London, and astonished everyone by spreading so quickly through the city and round the country, have produced massive cognitive dissonance throughout the media—mainstream and social—for which they provide a new and highly polysemic symbol for accumulating fears of social disintegration. The flood of photos and videos join a gallery of images of social breakdown from disparate causes, some natural, some social—from hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis to solitary deranged gunmen on the rampage—which have this in common, that they all suggest appalling consequences in store for a world spinning out of control—without the fantasised redemptive ending of the disaster movie.

The riots also occurred against the background of a renewal of global financial crisis, which is widely comprehended, whether clearly or dimly, as a major agent of social degeneration. The relation between urban riots and financial markets is analogical—while feral kids pillage the neighbourhoods, feral financiers find their plunder in national debts. But the analogy only goes so far. On the streets of rioting English cities, the police arrived late and appeared under-prepared. Unable to stop the roving gangs, they nevertheless managed to make hundreds of arrests. But who is to police the bankers and speculators when presidents and prime ministers are too scared to call their bluff?

Images of the riots spilled out of every media orifice available. All are metonymic—singular moments standing in for the bigger event they belong to. What was the defining image of the week, wondered Mehdi Hasan in the New Statesman. ‘A terrified woman jumping out of a burning building? A 140-year-old furniture shop in Croydon that managed to survive the Blitz, engulfed in flames? An injured, bleeding teenager having his rucksack emptied by a passing group of feral youths?’ Or was it, he wondered, a misjudged PR picture of the absent Prime Minister on holiday in Italy?

Images can connote things they don’t picture (and cannot picture—have you ever seen a picture of the shadow banking system?). In Canary Wharf, however, they had a grandstand view of the real thing. As a Reuters report wryly observed, traders, wealth managers and analysts in the skyscrapers could see billowing smoke below them in several directions as buildings were torched across the city. The riots, said Reuters, are perceived in the financial markets to undermine the official model of ‘sustainable austerity’, raising questions about spending cuts and widening inequality. If only. Remember when Lehmans collapsed in 2008 and the media excitedly told us that neoliberalism was over?

Some people say it isn’t the spending cuts, which they claim have hardly yet begun to bite. Yet there were signs (just as there were before 2008) for those who could see or sense them. A few reports over preceding days warned of growing tensions in the locality. In a video on the Guardian, teenagers talk of the aggravating effects of Haringey council closing 8 of its 13 youth clubs—nowhere to go, nothing to do, boredom fuelling violence between gangs on the streets, and yes, the likelihood of riots. Indeed go back to April 2010, when the general election in Britain played out to the tune of violent clashes on the streets of Athens—not riots, but the first demonstrations against austerity measures in Greece. Back then, none other than the future deputy prime minister, before realising which side his bread was buttered on, warned of a ‘serious risk of rioting in the streets’ if the Tories tried to ‘slash and burn public services’. The pairing of austerity/riots has been shadowing the coalition since the moment it took office. It surfaced last November when students invaded the Conservative Party offices in Millbank.

The truth, of course, is that while cuts contribute to local misery, the huge social alienation which sent gangs of youths out looting and burning has been building up over many years, especially among black youths who suffer the highest proportion of both unemployment and cotidian police stop-and-search. The withdrawal of educational maintenance adds to the sense of hopelessness, of being ejected from the community. And then, as Nina Power reminds us, there’s the large number of deaths in police custody (at least 333 since 1998) for which not a single police officer has been convicted. The immediate provocation in Tottenham was the police killing of a local man, Mark Duggan—and their totally inept handling of the situation. But the rioters were of different ethnicities, and several commentators cite the arguments of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their indispensable book The Spirit Level, that inequality is socially corrosive, and the more so, the more unequal the society. It turns out, according to the gen, that London is the most unequal city not only in Britain but in Europe.

Many can only see the mayhem shown on TV, exaggerated by constant repetition, as a sign of ‘mindless criminality’, a charge mindlessly repeated in the torrent of moralising that poured out on Twitter (e.g. #londonriots), and then reiterated by the returning Prime Minister. It makes a difference who says it though. In the social media it comes across as another form of expression of social frustration and impotence from another social sector also stoked up on resentment. When repeated by politicians, however, it becomes an utterance of deliberate denial, which disavows the effects of neoliberal policies pursued by successive governments over three decades. Isn’t this what existentialist philosophers used to call bad faith?

Moralisation over criminality is fuelled in part by the chosen targets of the looting, some of it random but much of it comprising mobiles, trainers, consumer electronics. On television, a right wing pundit calls it ‘shopping with violence’. Several commentators invert this reading and see the looting as a carnivalesque parody of consumerism—several rioters captured by TV news cameras cheerfully told what fun they were having. Here is Seamus Milne in the Guardian under the headline ‘These riots reflect a society run on greed and looting’:

While bankers have publicly looted the country’s wealth and got away with it, it’s not hard to see why those who are locked out of the gravy train might think they were entitled to help themselves to a mobile phone.

The rioters made the connection themselves. ‘The politicians say that we loot and rob, they are the original gangsters,’ one told a reporter. Another explained to the BBC: ‘We’re showing the rich people we can do what we want.’ As the doyen of sociologists Zygmunt Bauman puts it, ‘These are not hunger or bread riots. These are riots of defective and disqualified consumers.’

The images are also seen as metonyms for the wider social dysfunctionality which is normally invisible, unheard, suppressed. A quote from Martin Luther King circulates on the social media: ‘A riot is the language of the unheard.’ In other words, a symptom, a displacement of political unrest, which happens when people find their political voice denied them. ‘This week’s riots’ says a letter in the Guardian, ‘were very much political, but conducted by people without the articulacy to speak their cause.’ A friend re-tweets: ‘The riots are political if only negatively: they are a symptom of a failure of politics.’

The moralists hate this argument with special venom, but not everyone on the right has been insensitive to the signs. Both the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail have recently published pieces about the crisis of capitalism, no less. ‘Democratic politics,’ writes Charles Moore in The Telegraph, ‘which purports to enrich the many, is actually in the pocket of those bankers, media barons and other moguls who run and own everything.’ Dominic Sandbrook, writing in the Mail, says that ‘with bankers still pocketing gigantic bonuses and Europe swept by a wave of austerity, even the Right are beginning to wonder whether the system is intolerably loaded in favour of rich metropolitan elites’. He quotes a Tory MP who suggests that ‘the free market all too often turns out not to be a free market at all, but a corporatist racket for the few’.

For Peter Oborne, the link between the riots and the state of global finance is mediated through the domestic elite. The criminality in our streets, he says,

cannot be dissociated from the moral disintegration in the highest ranks of modern British society…It has become acceptable for our politicians to lie and to cheat… the sad young men and women, without hope or aspiration, who have caused such mayhem and chaos over the past few days…have this defence: they are just following the example set by senior and respected figures in society.

Others point the finger directly at government leaders, whom they accuse of hypocrisy. None of Cameron’s second chances here. Another item circulating in the social media quotes Boris Johnson on the Bullingdon Club: ‘We got drunk, trashed the Ritz & then went down Piccadilly to loot a few items from Fortnums’. (Maybe this is a spoof, I don’t know, but it’s certainly apt.) A television interviewer reminded Nick Clegg that he’d committed an act of arson as a teenager.

A colleague from my own university sees the riots as ‘a significant symbolic statement about the way power…is arranged in British society’—both the power to consume, and the power of life and death exercised by police officers. If affluence is our marker of social power, writes Sean Carey, then it can be no surprise if the high street is the target of the riots. Young people living on the margins ‘wanted to access physical products which typically have high financial and symbolic value either within their primary peer group or because they can be sold on to others’.

Mobile phones are valued because they’re already an indispensable instrument even in marginalised sectors of the population (which is not only true in North London but also over much of Africa). Much was made of the fact that they were used to organise the looting, with instant messaging calling people hither and thither. (In which case, can it be called mindless after all?) Again this stokes the fury of the moralists because it makes it look like the looting was premeditated, and probably carried out by already existing gangs. For the boss of the gang in power in Westminster to suggest a clampdown on social networking to stop people inciting violence online was not only the most knee-jerk of reactions, but was also quickly rebuffed by the police, now that they themselves have started using social media. Meanwhile, people in the affected neighbourhoods began using the social media to organise their own collective clean-up responses. There is much more to be said on the impracticality and questionable legality of suspending the networks, but the suggestion clearly shows the politicians’ panic, and the way they perceive the social media as a threat because they lie beyond control.

But loss of control is also exactly what a crisis of capitalism means. All the balancing and self-correcting mechanisms that neoliberal economists attribute to the free market no longer function even remotely the way they’re supposed to (if they ever did). The crisis this time, we’re told, is political, due to the indecision of political leaders here, or their argy-bargy there, but this is a half truth. Sure the politicians haven’t got what it takes to face down finance capital, but the financial market is deaf and blind to its own contradictions. If you keep re-selling unpayable debt, it doesn’t stop you losing money. As Paul Mason succinctly explained, ‘The banks collapsed because they had huge amounts of bad debt, and when they collapsed, the system collapsed, because nobody knew who was carrying how much bad debt.’* If the credit agencies (which previously gave these debts the highest ratings, and said everything was hunky-dory when it wasn’t) now go about downgrading countries which they deem to constitute a credit risk, this only increases national debts which are already unsustainable, thereby intensifying the crisis. Someone, it seems, has to lose—and the dealers in Canary Wharf who think so are not wrong about the unsustainability of ‘sustainable austerity’.

A few brave politicians admit that inequality on many fronts is the underlying cause, but who draws the obvious conclusion? If alienation, deprivation and criminality, both individual and collective, are worsened by growing inequality, then all those policies that contribute to these results must be halted and reversed.  In other words: Stop the Cuts! Redistribute Wealth!

* In Chronicle of Protest










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