Friday, 26 August 2011

Fear is the Path to the Dark Side

Be it fear of the Jew, the Communist, or the terrorists in our midst, fear clouds people’s judgment and drives them to demand that something, anything, must be done to alleviate that fear. Fear is used by politicians in democracies round the world to win votes and indeed by journalists to sell their writings. One could be forgiven for fearing that Britain was on the verge of the apocalypse given the sensationalist media coverage of the August riots, much of which emphasised fear over analysis. Mary Riddell of the Telegraph wrote of how “the capital city of an advanced nation has reverted to a Hobbesian dystopia of chaos and brutality”. However, the looting and the subsequent response to clean up Britain’s shopping districts, both organised through social networking sites, were utterly anathema to Thomas Hobbes’ description of a frightening state of nature of “a war of every man against every man”. Such consideration though is simply less exciting and less likely to sell newspapers.

The “firebombing” of Canning Circus police station in Nottingham was heavily reported. What media outlets didn’t follow up with was the less frightening story that little damage was done, as the photograph above shows, and Nottingham’s city centre was bustling with shoppers the following day. There were, of course, very serious events breaking out across England. However, by reporting all news in sensationalist fashion with few qualifications and less explanation, fear would keep many of us in our homes and away from the “war of every man against every man” purportedly engulfing our “advanced nation”. This is not old news we should forget about. This fear will be re-activated in the campaign for the next UK general election by politicians looking for media-friendly sound-bites. Law and order will most certainly feature.

Of course we should not be surprised by this emphasis on fear over contemplation and the sound-bite over evidence. In one discussion of the causes of the riots, the BBC invited the likes of David Starkey, known for his deliberate courting of controversy and not for his sociological expertise, to give his ‘expert’ view. His explanation was that the “whites have become blacks”. He then responded to the accusation of having no empirical evidence for his claims by saying “these are times when we need plain-speaking”. On the contrary, these are times where we need evidence and considered analysis to help us disentangle the masses of misinformation such as the Independent Police Complaints Commission’s admission that they “may have misled journalists” into believing Mark Duggan fired on police. The News of the World phone hacking scandal has revealed little but that there exists a murky series of relationships between the media, the police, and politicians. Our right to vote may not be under threat but our right to know how we are governed and thus what we are actually voting for is in jeopardy. This is all the more so when frightening sound-bites trump analysis.

David Cameron’s comments that we are walking into a “slow-motion moral collapse” reflects and helps reproduce the panic following such events. Sensationalism produced the emergence of countless “armchair generals”, in the language of Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde. Succumbing to fear over contemplation, these “armchair generals” demanded the use of rubber bullets and water cannons, despite their limited knowledge of why such tactics are deployed. As Hugh Orde told the media, these have been deployed in Northern Ireland, the former for self-defence in life-threatening situations and the latter for dealing with massive, unmoveable crowds. Neither of these were primary features of looting which saw gangs moving swiftly from shop to shop. This didn’t stop David Cameron from very publicly announcing his personal authorisation to use both tactics. This pandered to and reproduced a climate of fear. Neither water cannons nor rubber bullets needed to be used in the end but the political drive to appear to be tough on crime and win votes was fulfilled.

More importantly, David Cameron’s claims of “moral collapse” do not reflect any empirical evidence. The Home Office’s own statistics show how violent crime in England and Wales has been in near steady decline since 1996. Despite the repeated references to youth gone wild on Britain’s streets, the Ministry of Justice reported a 9.6% drop in the number of 10-17 year olds convicted of crime between 1999 and 2009. On the surface, the evidence certainly suggests that David Cameron is exaggerating for political effect. He is using fear of moral collapse to build a reputation of being tough on crime yet this fear stops people from calmly considering the details of what is actually happening. What better way to garner support for a law and order driven agenda at the next general election than an electorate frightened of “rising crime” induced by “moral collapse”?

Many of the frightened electorate have called for harsher sentences for looters and they have got them. Judges have guidelines for minimum and maximum sentencing but they also have discretion within those parameters. Judges have responded to politicians and frightened voters with unusually long sentences as both the BBC and the Guardian have revealed. People involved in the looting are being given harsher sentences for crimes than would ordinarily be the case; 25% harsher according to the statistical analysis of the Guardian. The rule of law and equality before the law are central features of democracy. Yet here we see the application of new and unwritten rules emerging from a climate of fear and “straight-talking” instead of debate and analysis. One wonders how the imprisonment of Thomas Downey of Manchester for 16 months for taking donuts from a Krispy Kreme outlet is justifiable with reference to equality before the law. How can placing Michael Fitzpatrick, 18 in a young offender’s institution for two years and four months for drinking stolen champagne be explained with reference to codified rules of law? They can’t be. Judges in Manchester produced their own recommendations because the guidelines they are required to work under, according to the rule of law, did not cover burglary and looting in mass riots. The sentence of two young men to four years in prison for using facebook to incite a riot that never even happened was not determined according to established legal guidelines because they don’t yet exist. Paul Mendell QC, a former chairman of the Bar Association warned “the idea that the rulebook goes out of the window strikes me as inherently unjust…guidelines are not tramlines…I don’t see why [magistrates] should be told to disregard these”. However, as Communities Minister Eric Pickles told the Guardian “we cannot have people frightened in their beds, frightened in their homes”. Fear then seems enough to justify ruining two men’s lives with little consideration for the implications for two of democracy’s central tenets, the rule of law and equality before it.

The separation of powers, particularly the separation of the executive and the judiciary, are pivotal to a functioning democracy. However, many of the responses of democratically elected leading politicians to the riots have revealed serious weaknesses in their commitment to this political ideal. Menzies Campbell indicated this when he said “politicians should be neither cheering nor booing in the matter of sentencing. It is an important part of our constitutional principles that political influence is not directed at the judicial system”. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister saw fit to do just that by defending or cheering these tough sentences. He said it was good that courts were sending a “tough message”. We can leave to one side our feelings regarding the length of the sentences to ponder why the head of the executive sees fit to comment on and ultimately influence the future behaviour of the supposedly independent judiciary. The function of courts in a democracy is not to “send out tough messages” as the executive defines them but to apply the rule of law. It is only the place of the executive to endorse the decisions of the judiciary in authoritarian states where powers are not separated. David Cameron’s claim that he thinks “it’s right that we should allow the courts to make decisions about sentencing” is unlikely to be upheld if they feel under pressure from the Prime Minister to send out “tough messages” instead of applying rules.

Those who are struck by fear are less likely to ask what is going on and are instead more likely to demand ‘action’ regardless of the consequences. Fear is blinding us to look beyond the immediate and consider the future of a country under a government which can set the rule of law to one side if we are frightened. Fear is indeed the path to the dark side.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Civilising Globalisation?

During his scientific socialist phase Karl Marx predicted the inevitability of capitalism’s demise. He predicted that logic of capital was such that capitalist’s drive for ever-increasing returns would result in a spiralling reduction in wages. The increasing squeeze of capital from workers, who would eventually be unable to purchase the products of their own labour, would result in revolt and the seizure of the means of production. This self-defeating nature of capitalism would lead workers to reorganise the social relations of production such that wealth would be distributed more or less equally. Marx was of course writing about 19th century international capitalism not 21st century global capitalism characterised by the increasingly free flow of goods and services across national borders. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire argued that with the growth of the power of transnational corporations and global financial institutions, power has been taken out of the hands of the state and dispersed. As globalisation decentres power, resistance too is decentred. Today, capitalism’s discontents don’t simply seize government buildings or factories. They destroy McDonald’s, Starbucks, and other powerful symbols of transnational capital. Thanks to globalisation, it no longer makes sense to talk of the ‘1st world’ and ‘3rd world’ as fixed, national, geographical categories. Within the same cities we have pockets of economically prosperous, socially mobile, and aesthetically pleasing districts surrounded by residential areas with stagnating growth, high rates of crime, unemployment, and poor standards of health (Ealing Green/Ealing, Kelvinside/Parkhead, Beverly Hills/South Central). The World Health Organisation’s 2008 report found that in Glasgow, the postcode lottery is such that life expectancy for men living in Calton is as low as 54 years old but for those living in Lenzie, a 15 minute car ride away, life expectancy is 82. There are worlds still far away from what Michael Camdessus, the former director of the IMF, described as the civilising forces of Globalisation.

Recent events across England have led many people ask what is the rioters’ ‘cause’ and indeed many politicians to insist that we do not even ask such questions; it is criminality, end of story. Yet ask we must. It may be that these are rebels without causes for there were no attempts to seize the means of production. But where and what are the means of production today in a globalised economy? Ford makes more money from insuring cars than building and selling them. Pieces of paper which symbolise wealth lead to a greater accumulation of other pieces of paper which symbolise wealth; much more so than actually producing anything in today’s global economy. Wealth is primarily generated through services so seizing factories would be senseless. In the age of globalisation we have seen major protests at every G8 gathering with highly symbolic sites of transnational capital, such as Starbucks and McDonalds, bearing the brunt of the anger. As power becomes globalised and decentred so too has resistance. Today resistance focuses on attacking these global nodes of power, these symbols of transnational capital. What we have seen across England in August 2011 may have started as a response to police brutality but it spiralled rapidly and morphed into something we can’t yet understand. What we saw was different to the transnationally organised protests at G8 meetings. This was not an attempt to seize the means of production or resist the transnationalisation of capital. Through the looting of clothes stores and electrical appliances brands, goods deemed to be of high status or symbolic value, we see attempts to seize the products of capitalism and bathe in the status they bestow. We don’t see a revolution to radically restructure social order. We see attempts of individuals to reposition themselves in more favourable positions within it. The seemingly chaotic mode of resistance reflects the seemingly chaotic mode of power and of social organisation we enjoy today.

One response to this is of course to reject the very possibility of meaning behind these acts, file them under irrational, focus solely on punishment, and get back to business as usual. Another counter-argument is that not all participants are poor or even particularly socially marginalised as the prosecution of primary school teachers and the “millionaire’s daughter” attest. However, the chaotic events and the participation of individuals from various sectors of society cannot conceal that every city affected saw young, angry men who see themselves as disenfranchised take to the streets to steal and destroy high status symbols of consumerism. Are we really surprised that generations who have been encouraged to be selfish and have been told by Margaret Thatcher that “there is no such thing as society” feel little moral responsibility towards people outside of their personal, social network? If there is no such thing as society, then outside of the family and the personal network, there can be no bonds and no restrictions regulating the relationships between human beings other than legal ones. Time and time again we hear interviews with participants saying things like “we’re taking from the rich” or “we’re doing it because the government can’t stop us” (Radio 5 Live, 10/8/11, 13:07). If you tell children you have no responsibility to other people unless you can be legally stopped, then when those restrictions disappear as happened when the police lost control, people will indeed steal, rob, and hurt other people. This selfishness is not a disease of any “underclass” or a “sick” section of society as David Cameron lamented. It is everywhere. Next time you are waiting on a train, notice how half the people around you are waiting to jump in front of you. Or in the supermarket, when people park their trolleys in front of what you want to buy and don’t seem to care that you are standing waiting. These are minor, anecdotal examples but I would argue they reflect a self-centredness that is allowed and encouraged. As long as you can get away with it, anything goes- business is business after all. We normalise and we encourage selfishness into norms of behaviour such that those with power are allowed to be selfish but we call it business or profit maximisation. Most people in the UK will tell you, when bankers steal they are given bonuses and when members of parliament steal they only have to pay half of it back.

David Cameron thankfully acknowledged that this is not simply about all young people in Britain simply being bad. In his terms, many young people live in fear from these supposed ‘bad’ people. But why this sudden admission? What political party has seriously addressed violence and its causes on our streets in the UK? Most young people I know have witnessed assaults on young men by other young men in our city centres whereby police stand on the other side of the road and wave away people’s calls for something to be done. I have visited casualty wards after being the victim of assault and all the medical staff wanted to know was how much I had to drink and then placed me at the back of the queue. This is not because I am marginalised, I am not. Nevertheless, it belies an assumption that as a young male in Britain you will be subject to violence and you are likely to cause it. It’s what young men do. However, as David Cameron admits, this is not just what young men do and often violence is impossible to avoid if one wishes to socialise in Britain’s city centres. One has to ask, why is violence against young men tolerated? It is very telling that when Miss Selfridge’s on Market Street in Manchester is in flames moral outrage is not simply expressed but demanded. However, when young men are assaulted usually by other young men every night in our cities, we hear little outcry. Is it simply that those who are morally outraged don’t see this violence with their own eyes so they leave it be? Are we morally outraged now because it interrupted our selfish desire to go shopping in our city centres and acquire more high status goods from the global economy?

What we become outraged about and choose to label as violence reflects our values. When a young man sets fire to a chain-store we call it violence. These same chain-stores, which most of us buy from, operate in “Export Processing Zones” across the developing world. This strategy is in place to bypass national laws which regulate labour conditions, wages, and indeed safety standards to prevent violence in the workplace. So why do we call it “profit maximisation”? What is ‘violent’ about stealing an ipad but not so when apple uses microchips produced under slave-like conditions in the South of China and which irreparably damage the environment? The important difference is not material, it’s ideological. It’s called socially constructed values. A young man taking a mobile phone from a looted Carphone Warehouse is theft because it is called theft. When Vodafone forego £4.8 Billion in tax payments it’s called the “maximisation of shareholder value” because it was permitted by HMRC. Stealing from apple is theft because it is called theft. However, when Apple bypass the rule of law in order to pay South East Asian workers a low wage it is called “outsourcing”. This is because we encourage people to make lots of money more than we encourage them to consider human rights. Angry young men stealing stereos is theft because it is called theft but when bankers steal, it’s called business because we value banks more than we value young men. This is normalised, permissible, and ‘civilised’ theft but it is still theft. This hypocrisy has produced a widespread, popular perception that there is one law for them and another for us. It de-legitimises the very idea of equality before the law, a central principle of democracy, such that people start to believe there is indeed no such thing as society- you take what you can unless you can be stopped. The chaotic and unpredictable power relations of our so-called global age have no written rules and have produced resistance that is equally chaotic, unpredictable, and without rules. If people wish to see ‘civilised’ resistance they had best work towards ‘civilising’ power.

Monday, 15 August 2011

The End of Community?

Nearly forty years ago Maurice Stein’s classic book The Eclipse of Community stimulated a debate on the meaning of community. This followed from his argument that in contemporary or post-modern times we are witnessing the end of community as we know it. More recently Anders Breivik, the far right, self-proclaimed “Marxist hunter”, guilty of the murder of 69 Norwegians, proclaimed the 1950s as a time of community: “Our homes were safe…public schools were excellent…most men treated women like ladies”. It seems every generation melodramatically and conservatively laments the end of familiar forms of social organisation and ways of life to which they are accustomed. People seem to fear social change and they imbue the idea of community with a comfortable and wholly positive familiarity. However, social anthropologists such as Anthony Cohen, have long told us that while community consists of a sense of belonging and inclusion we think of as positive, it is at the same inherently exclusionary. People who do not live in Birmingham are excluded from the local community of Birmingham, those who don’t attend church are necessarily excluded from church going communities, and non-Europeans are excluded from the European community if indeed there is such a thing.

Reviewing the media response to the August riots across England we hear constant references to community and multiple overlapping uses in the same news story. For example in the one place, we have heard of the Sikh community (religious), the Punjabi community (ethno-linguistic), the Southall community (regional/residential), the British community (national), and the civilised community (ethical). It sounds like we have a lot of community rather than a lack of it. Old and new media alike are littered with references to the response of “the community” with regard to the clean-up of Britain’s streets by ordinary people following the riots. Here, as in general popular usage, community is seen as something inherently positive, inclusionary, and something of which we generally morally approve. However, this conceals that belonging and social bonds are often formed through ways of life which we do not approve of and amongst individuals we may detest. One thing overlooked in popular debates on the riots is that gangs are a type of community: social groups with a sense of belonging, cohered through face-to-face contacts and the use of Blackberry messenger services in this age of global communications. As far back as 1927, sociologist Frederic Thrasher wrote in The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago that gangs were characterised by “meeting face to face, milling movement through space as a unit, conflict, and planning. The result of this collective behaviour is the development of tradition, unreflective internal structure, esprit de corps, solidarity, morale, group awareness, and attachment to a local territory”. Group awareness or belonging, solidarity, and attachment to a local territory are perhaps the fundamental bases of community. The speed by which gangs were able to move from one looting site to another in huge numbers connected through Blackberry exhibited both organisation and solidarity. What appeared to be gangs on Bethnal Green road chanted “Bethnal Green” as they looted Tesco. Residents of Ealing Green recounted in interviews how gangs from other, less leafy parts of Ealing chanted the names of their housing estates as they set fire to local pubs. It’s just that the media don’t feel comfortable calling gangs a community because their behaviour is often illegal, seen as negative, and in conflict with other, more ‘palatable’ forms of community, such as church-goers. One may be uncomfortable with the behaviour of ‘gangs’ but we cannot say these examples do not display a sense of belonging and attachment to where one is from. It displays a pride in one’s ‘roots’ albeit in a very different way from those who chose to sweep the streets of Britain’s city centre shopping districts following the riots.

It would seem a huge impediment to understanding why this happened as it did and when it did if we fail to look at how this sense of belonging emerges, how it brings people together, and why people choose it over other communities. Prior to the riots, Barbara Wilding, chief constable of South Wales police described entrance to these gang communities: “In many of our larger cities, in areas of extreme deprivation…many have experienced family breakdown, and in place of parental and family role models, the gang culture is now established". In other words, people have a need for belonging and when they do not find it at home or are excluded from it elsewhere due to deprivation they will form their own community based on its own rules. Joining a gang and partaking in its communal rituals of violence cannot simply be attributed to bad morals (they are at best a symptom not a cause). It is how some people who have to survive or feel they must succeed in specific social environments fulfil their need for belonging when other outlets are unavailable. It may be reassuring to ‘blame the parents’ such that it absolves oneself of blame but people would be less likely to join a gang if their social environment was such that they were included in communities of a different kind.

In many interviews with local residents of riot-affected areas we heard BBC and Radio 5 live presenters ask “what are the community doing?” as if there is only one community and if one does not adhere to its rules then one is not a member. Exclusion from a sense of community has contributed to getting us into this predicament and this exclusionary language is unlikely to help us out of it. My answer would be that some communities were looting and destroying private property while other communities were cleaning up private property. Many will say this type of focus on language, spending time discussing the meaning of community, is merely academic or beside the point. However, by failing to consider how to define contested concepts we allow the media to do so for us. We don’t always even notice they are using politically loaded definitions as they do not explicitly justify their perspective. This then shapes how we think about these matters because they are not explicit. We all say “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” but how many of us stop to consider the implications of this every time the word “terrorist” is used? The interviewer on Radio 5 live (10/8/11, 12:50) interrupted an interviewee referring to people who participated in the riots as “protestors” to say “don’t call them protesters, they aren’t protesting against anything”. One can argue this is indeed the case but why do we allow supposedly ‘neutral’ interviewers to determine the way ordinary people are allowed or not allowed to describe events and people as they see them? How can we debate if we are not allowed to describe things as we see them? Are we not allowed to even debate what terms we are allowed to use and how we use them? We see a policing of language and drawing of community boundaries through the popular media, which no one complains is academic because it is seen as in favour of the all positive, inclusive community: looters = scum, street-cleaners = community. We heard many a caller and indeed many a volunteer street-sweeper refer to ‘looters’ as ‘scum’ but without intervention or even comment. Now “scum”, defined as “refuse or worthless matter” appears to be the very antithesis of inclusion and membership in community; the refuse we must get rid of. We are allowed to use this term to describe someone stealing a mobile phone from a shop but are we allowed to call executives of Vodafone scum for dodging £4.8 Billion in taxes if we so desired? I doubt it. Yet in my book this was theft of £4.8 Billion from our public services which pales in comparison to the theft of a mobile phone. Some people do indeed call Vodafone executives scum in private but given that we do not hear such references on our airwaves my guess is that we are not allowed to in public debates because they are in positions of power and their theft goes on outside of our vision; they are inside the ‘civilised’ community we are all supposed to be loyal to yet “looters are scum” and must be excluded even if they stole a single mobile phone.

The popular media don’t simply ‘report’ the news, they make the news. By reporting news in a specifically framed way they determine how we are publicly permitted to debate and think about power and violence in Britain. We can see how power works when 16 and 18 year olds are prosecuted and charged for attempting to encourage riots on their facebook pages. Yet at the same time, I lost count of the number of people posting on the same site demanding violence against or even the death of the “looters”. They both incite violence but one is a call from a marginalised community and one is from a powerful one. The law either prosecutes on the basis of codified rules or it shouldn’t prosecute at all. Permitting the promotion of violence against looters but not against private property cannot be justified by reference to verifiable rules. It reflects an ideological commitment to a singular, un-contestable community which, if you are not part of, you are “scum”. One may not like the new forms of community emerging in today’s world but this does not mean we can dismiss them or exclude them without any reasoned debate. Exclusion got us into this mess and this exclusion will make things much worse.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Boris Johnson: We need less rational enquiry and more moral outrage!

Mayor of London, Boris Johnson announced to the assembled crowd in devastated Clapham that he had “heard too much sociological explanation and not enough condemnation”. That is too much “explanation” of the protests, riots, looting, and violence in the wake of the as yet unexplained shooting of Mark Duggan by Metropolitan police officers. This belied an emerging dichotomy in popular media and everyday discourse in England. We are being told that the ‘Right’ are condemning violence, while the ‘Left’ are justifying it. The ‘Right’ want law and order back and they blame the individual and bad parenting for these events. As David Cameron tells us, “this is a moral problem” and it illustrates the “lack of responsibility” shown by individuals. On the other hand, the ‘Left’ in their efforts to find causes for and meaning behind seemingly random and meaningless chaos are being labelled apologists on 'neutral' radio phone ins and the notorious online comments now widely attached to newspaper articles. Presumably the ‘Left’ then includes Emeritus Professor at Leeds university and pre-eminent Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman who claimed that in today’s Britain our identity revolves round the mantra “I shop therefore I am” such that “these are riots of defective and disqualified consumers”. The participants are not starving but many are the disenfranchised in a society where status and prestige are acquired through displays of spending and consumption (Social Europe Journal, 9/8/11). Dr Sean Carey, research fellow at Roehampton University argues that “what we are witnessing is a significant symbolic statement about the way power -- the power of life and death exercised by police officers as well as the power to consume -- is arranged in British society” (New Statesman, 9/8/11). Carey is not claiming that the individuals involved necessarily or consciously seek to make symbolic statements but that the overall patterns of these actions nevertheless do.

In one sense these diverse responses reflect the understanding of human beings by the ‘Right’ and the ‘Left’- atomistic individuals versus social creatures. The ‘Right’ thus need not look far for causes of behaviour because all responsibility lies with the individual. The ‘Left’ on the other hand look for social origins, primarily the socio-economic, in seeking to explain why we do what we do. However, in another sense this can also be framed as a straight-forward categorical error pitting two ideas against one another which are not about the same issue and cannot be compared. Seeking to understand why people do what they do does not amount to condoning it. Otherwise all social scientists are of the ‘left’ and I dread to think what that would say about myself, a student of authoritarian politics and ethnic boundaries in China’s north-west. One can be an existentialist when it comes to morality but still seek to understand why people do what they do. Sociological explanation and moral evaluation are not mutually exclusive. Or as Professor John Brewer put it, sociologists seek to explain social behaviour not explain it away (The Guardian, 12/8/11). If we want to solve problems in our society, and presumably everyone now admits there are many, we have to devote time and resources trying to understand, explain, and address their causes. Moral outrage and calls for retributive punishment are understandable, particularly towards those who destroyed small scale family-run businesses. However, rising passions should be the spark of a rational enquiry not the end. Boris Johnson's outrageous call that he has heard enough "sociological explanation" is tantamount to saying it is wrong to enquire into the causes of these events.

Since the first night of rioting the phrase ‘mindless criminality’ has been heard across the airwaves, in print, and on the street. As have statements such as “this is not political, it’s just pure opportunism”. We certainly have seen a lot of opportunism and criminality in the last few days but we still have to ask why. Why is this happening now? What makes it happen at all? And what can we do so it doesn’t keep happening? The answers won’t come overnight and certainly not in dismissals of further enquiry. Whether we explain social phenomena in terms of atomistic individuals or social groups, or a plethora of other alternatives which will hopefully emerge in the coming days,months, and years, we still have to explore why people do what they do. That is indeed if we are serious about addressing such problems rather than releasing media-friendly sound-bites in a political game to be elected. The answer that “because they are bad people” or “their parents are bad people” is not enough. Why are they bad people and what has made them behave in that way? These events have involved different types of people doing different things for different reasons. This seems evident in the first convictions including a primary school teaching assistant, an undergraduate student, and the “daughter of a millionaire” to quote the tabloids. However, there are patterns already emerging that are highly symbolic- every city affected had their centres of consumerism, their shopping centres attacked by gangs of young men wishing to seize what they understand to be high status goods.

We also have to ask why we are encouraged to immediately and without equivocation condemn the actions of un-convicted individuals. The shooting of Mark Duggan and the nature of the police involvement remain under investigation and as was reiterated on Radio 5 live (10/8/11) whenever the subject was breached, “we can’t talk about that”. Of course this is couched in terms of respect for an ongoing investigation and how we are yet to have the full facts but this respect is not accorded to ordinary people. It belies the hypocrisy and inequality inherent in social relations in Britain today which is certainly not the only problem here but it is a particularly glaring one. Bonuses for bankers, Vodafone’s tax scams, and unaccountable tabloids are all topics which have recently provoked great anger across the UK and all which threaten the legitimacy of the very idea of equality before the law. Is there anyone left who actually thinks that material wealth and political power don’t afford people greater legal rights?

Educated at Eton and Oxford David Cameron will have little if any first-hand experience of the social environment in Britain’s most deprived areas or those where gangs are as much social safety networks as they are a form of ‘criminality’. This in itself is not necessarily a problem but he like all of us ought to listen to those who do live in such areas if we want to understand them. However, our Prime Minister is yet to show that he wants to listen to the big society he claims is his “passion”. He is yet to respond to the claims of inequality and police brutality on our streets. Riots on the scale we have seen reflect deep-rooted problems. If you want them to go away, the carrots of inclusion are as crucial as the sticks of exclusion. So Minister of State for Housing and Local Government Grant Shapps will have to seriously think through the consequences of his proposed plan to evict from social housing any family who had a single member involved. It seems unlikely that making rioters homeless will make them less likely to steal or make Britain safer.

An anonymous 25 year old involved in rioting in Liverpool shows us how the supposedly mindless participants understand the causes behind these events as nothing new. This is despite the political drive to represent these events as something no one could have predicted: "Fuck the police, man. They are not all bad but most of them are. No-one around here has got any liking for the police. Fuck them. Police patrol these streets every night of the week and we only get to riot every few years. They can't come here laying down the law like they do all year round. People are rioting because the riot is finally here" (The Guardian, live feed, 10/8/11). Let us ask those who commit such crimes why they do what they do not because we need to ‘pander’ to their every whim but because their perspectives will help us understand what is happening more than those of people whom have never even been to where they live.