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Why Consumer Culture Must Shoulder Some Blame for the Riots

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It is now a year since widespread civil unrest in major UK cities cost five lives and an estimated £1billion to police and clear up. Despite the feel-good factor surrounding the Olympics, the same tensions and divisions in British life remain and in terms of the underlying causes, little has changed. The fact remains that the riots could easily happen again. That we have not witnessed any similar disruption this summer may be one fortunate consequence of the appalling weather, which, up until last week at least, has kept people in doors and out of trouble.

News footage of one riot looks pretty much the same as any other and the images of smoke-drenched inner city locations, masked rioters fighting police, burning shops and wrecked cars would certainly have been eerily familiar to anyone old enough to remember the disturbances of 1981. But scratch beneath the surface and you'll quickly find that the troubles of last summer are very different to unrest of the past.

At their heart, the riots of the 1980s were predominantly about needs - jobs, education, opportunities, policing - the riots of 2011 were mostly about wants - TVs, sportswear, mobile phones, excitement.

Wanting things is nothing new, but today our entire economy is based on want, not need. Commerce has colonised almost every area of our lives. Whether it's something as noble as watching the Olympic beach volleyball or as prosaic as taking a leak in a public toilet, our waking hours are dominated by attempts to attract our attention and engage us. It seems impossible to undertake any activity at all without a word from our sponsor, who invariably promises that they alone can satisfy a specific, unsatisfactory hole in our lifestyle.

A result of this relentless barrage of information has been to subtly changed the reason we want 'stuff': not because it satisfies a need - for things like shelter, communication, a bed, or water - but because it satisfies a want -for things like a second home in the Algarve, a Samsung Galaxy, a Tempur mattress or a bottle of Evian.

Unlike needs, wants are not permanent. Rather than providing us with satisfaction obtaining Product A simply leads us to want something else - Service B perhaps. This is because whatever choice you make means that you will suffer an inconvenience. If you decide to buy a Audi, you're missing out on a Mercedes or a BMW; if you have the ice cream, you'll be missing out on the cake.

No matter how trivial these dilemmas appear, there will be somebody willing to take advantage of the opportunity to provide a solution - why not have cake and ice cream? These in turn lead to further consequences - worries about putting on weight or an unhealthy diet - and in turn, further opportunities to provide another solution - low fat cake and ice cream.

Five years ago, a phone with a camera in it seemed like a neat idea. Today your phone has two cameras. Next time you upgrade it might be to one with a HD camera.

There is no benefit is too small and no inconvenience too minor to be packaged together as a compelling proposition. When Bill Johnson, the CEO of Heinz, announces the launch of a new product - Instant Beans on Toast - that is going to take the hassle out of making what is surely one of the world's simplest recipes and argues, without irony, that its introduction is the response to an identifiable market need, then we should begin to realise that any inconvenience at all in our lives is really too much.

This is all well and good if you've got the money to pay for everything now, but just because you haven't, it doesn't mean you want these things any less. Like the riots, this recession feels very different to those of the past. Certainly GDP is much higher than it was in the 1970s and 80s, which is in itself a good thing, but the gap between rich and poor has never been greater.

I believe that the riots were, in part at least, a consequence of keeping people in a permanently dissatisfied state and persuading them that their lives will be improved by owning something they haven't got, can't afford and almost certainly don't need. Should it come as a surprise that given the opportunity to get their hands on these consumer desirables for free, people from all backgrounds, ages and walks of life thought nothing of resorting to criminal activity in order to do so?

Morally reprehensible? Certainly. But is it just the looters who are in the wrong?

We might take some comfort from the fact that, by their nature, these items will not have kept their new owners satisfied for long. But given a similar opportunity, is it unreasonable to assume that the same behaviour will occur again?

While consumption remains society's primary aspiration it will always be a question of when and not if we will see riots taking place in the future.


Steve McKevitt is author of Everything Now published by Route Publishing, priced £8.99.