Having just got back to Britain from New York, via Spain, I was like most Londoners surprised and shocked at the recent spate of looting and destruction. Much has been said about dispossession and disenfranchisement -- however it seems that a couple of key considerations need to be understood.
Firstly, there has been an estrangement between generations. Simply put, where once ideas that bonded groups together, values and a sense of meaning around aspirations and belief in certain ideas and disdain for others, in the past twenty years Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone phenomenon of disintegrating social groups has cast a shadow over society.
More than this however, has been the patronizing and unhinging treatment of young people and adults by those who govern British society. By this I refer to a continued interference by the State in to private affairs -- the double whammy obsession with "hoodies" as being a problem and of ASBO's (Anti Social Behaviour Orders) alongside a psycho-therapeutic interventionist attitude that has helped separate relationships between adults and the younger generation.
From teachers at school being stripped of authority and the ability to discipline, to the leaders in society being embarrassed about what, if anything they stand for and parents being continually badgered about how they parent by bureaucrats who advocate therapy above discipline and love from family members, what we are witnessing is a new generation where some members are firmly detached from their elders.
Alongside this though, curfews and police harassment of young kids meant that increasingly they have been referred to as somehow entirely different and distinct from the rest of society. It is not about color, it is certainly about class, however it speaks more broadly to a society that is rudderless and whose leadership cannot give any sense of a lead through ideas and inspiration.
The ridiculous notion peddled by some nostalgic Lefties that this somehow represents an "uprising" of some sort is plain stupid. Stealing sneakers, cell phones and electrical goods while nihilistically giggling as buildings burn down has nothing to do with wanting a better world for ordinary people. Indeed, what we have seen is some kids (and we should not overstate the numbers, in many ways it is incredible that a few hundred kids could have the police so disorientated) opportunistically looting and destroying because they have seen they could get away with it.
Demonising young people in the past has now resulted in adults and youth being somewhat alienated from one another. That is a direct result of New Labour before and a continuation by the new Cameron-Clegg government. A campaign for "Respect" and obsessing about "self esteem" without any anchoring in values, what morality means and how it is constituted, the expectations of society upon the individual and group results in a self obsessed attitude.
Crossing London in areas I am very familiar with, from Hackney and Tottenham, to Enfield and Tower Hamlets, I have been struck by a few things. A lot of people have come out to defend their areas in the absence of police presence. Some of this has been positive, with various groups from Turkish Kurds, Bengalis, Sikhs and white locals all working together. Of course however it too is not about transforming the problems in society in to an alternative. Rather it is about filling a void left by the establishment and state.
With the spread of the riots across the UK, we have seen some copycat looting. What is incredible is how a few hundred kids have had the police dazed and confused. Much of this is to do with the transition from conflictual policing to consensual policing over the past two decades and the absence of any real threat or challenge since the smashing of working class opposition at the end of the Eighties.
I am someone who argues repeatedly that real change, historically, only ever comes about from ordinary people taking to the streets and demanding it. This however is a million miles from anything like that. The craven and irresponsible behavior is symptomatic of the wider collapse of authority and meaning in society. From what it means to be a democracy to the importance of culture and civilization all of these ideas are troubled and the people who run society are embarrassed by what they represent.
People are quite rightly asking questions and looking for answers. The thing is, this erratic and spontaneous outburst in and of itself is more a symptom of these broader issues. In order to tackle them, we have to have a wide debate in society -- about who we are, the importance of values and what morality should represent, the importance of right and wrong (no, its not all relative, big mistake) and what it takes to become an adult in the world and why that is better than being a child. Until we can tackle these thorny issues head on, we may see more of the same. No troops on the street, rubber bullets or water cannons will change that fact. For that we need the armory of incisive ideas and difficult discussion.