August is supposed to be a dead month, news-wise: 'silly season', the political commentators call it. But with the violence of a teenager throwing a wheelie bin through the window of JJB Sports, that rule has been destroyed. Though they don't have the immediate economic consequences of the banking crisis, I believe the riots will prove to be just as important in re-shaping and re-focusing the cultural and political debate of the next decade.
'The truth is never pure and rarely simple,' according to Oscar Wilde. Criminality, according to David Cameron, is both of those things, although purity isn't the first thing that comes to mind when surveying the footage of wanton pillage surrounding us recently. Now the dust is settling, I'd like to suggest a few causes more persuasive than Cameron's notion of spontaneous wickedness.
Until a couple of months ago, I was a secondary school teacher. My schools were on the whole very pleasant - I'm not remotely scary enough to control kids who nick tellies as a hobby - but all the same, there were some disturbing features about the culture these children were growing up in, which didn't exist when I was at a similar school 15 years before: a wrap-around, 24-hour celebration of material acquisition above all else.
Criticising materialism was until recently the preserve of the bearded acolytes of (supposedly) obsolete ideology like Christianity or Marxism. But Ken Clarke, a leftish Tory, mentioned it in his recent article about the riots. Something which has been obvious for years to those working with young people is now dawning on the mainstream. If we tell young people the only worthwhile measure of achievement is immediate material acquisition, we will create a generation poorly equipped for the real world, and likely to be resentful when they can't share the wealth it seemed to promise.
Perhaps the greatest influence on teenage boys comes from football. In the Eighties, most famous players in English clubs were English. Matches were cheap to attend. A professional footballer's wage was tens, rather than thousands of times the average fan's. There was genuine identification and community between player and fan. Since the formation of the Premier League in 1992 there has been an explosion of wealth in football, with wages consistently outstripping inflation, to the point where the bill is endangering the clubs. This has also led to large increases in ticket price, pricing out many spectators, especially the young. At the same time the proportion of foreign players in English Premiership sides has increased from about 5% to over 60%. Players are idolised more than ever, but the sense of community with the fans almost destroyed, their lifestyle more a taunt than an aspiration.
Big money has swilled around the music scene for longer, but where the highest profile performers - from Billie Holliday, through Bob Dylan, the Punk scene, Live Aid and Billy Bragg - once used their influence to campaign and protest, today's stars are a slick and obedient corporate product. Justin Bieber is apparently the most influential individual in the global media, but does he have a view on social justice? There are some protest groups out there, if you look hard enough, but nobody mainstream to speak up for an alienated generation. Corporate music has far too tight a grip.
Prime-time television tells a similar story. Quizzes, which used to offer quaint token prizes, now make winners very rich. ('A Blankety Blank chequebook and pen' is as evocative of the Eighties as Arthur Scargill's doom-mongering.) Talent shows, where the publicity used to be reward enough, now offer lucrative recording contracts to the wannabes. And comedy and drama series in which entrepreneurs were once loveable rogues like Arthur Daley and Del Boy, have now - whether in Essex or Chelsea - removed the ironic warning from their celebration of conspicuous consumption.
Most damaging of all, though, are the so-called reality business shows, The Apprentice and Dragons' Den, which have come from nowhere to be some of the most popular programmes on TV. Most really innovative entrepreneurs are mild-mannered and geeky (think Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg), whose success comes after years of hard, technical work. Yet these shows cut out the hard thought and study, and present business success as the result of nothing more taxing than a brisk dose of egomania. Though the Den at least uses real-world examples, it still misses out all the graft. Central to both formats is the regular and repeated humiliation of everyday folk by multi-millionaires (as Evan Davis insists on calling the Dragons every three minutes), an apt summary of the state of Britain, 2011.
I honestly think these programmes need a parental guidance warning; maybe a 15 rating, for their delusional distortion of reality. After all, sex and violence both happen in real life, regularly, around the world; has there been, anywhere in the known universe, an Apprentice contestant owning their own internationally successful business? Media-literate adults understand that The Apprentice and Dragons' Den are addictive TV formats rather than faithful depictions of the real business world; in my experience, teenagers don't. The conclusion they draw - as I realised when asked, quite seriously, whether one boy's Oxbridge entrance interview would resemble a session in the boardroom with Lord Sugar - is that shallow, aggressive presentation is always successful, however deficient the concept behind it. This seems to me to be the attitude of bankers, circa 2007. It's something we need to grow out of, fast.
Anyone over 40 can look back fondly to a time when celebrities in sport and entertainment were famous principally for their skill, passion, and idealism. Today it is more often their position in the rich list that provokes interest. Young people do not have that historical perspective. For them, cash equals status; status equals cash.
So, the rioters obviously need to be dealt with. The riots were obviously not a coherent political protest. But is that because, out of the blue, some rotten-to-the-core criminals decided to co-ordinate their thieving; or is it because a generation, alienated from politics and society, denied any realistic chance of a stake in a tottering economy, only knows the language of consumerism in which to cry out?
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