Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Thuggery - From Tahrir Square to Dalston Junction

It's a long way from Tahrir Square (about ten minutes from where I live in Cairo) to Dalston Junction (about ten minutes from where I live in London), and I never imagined that my summer sojourn in Islington would be punctuated by another outbreak of street unrest, only six months later. Egyptian bloggers have commented rather naively on the violent nature of the English 'protests' (and they are protests of a kind, even if misdirected and very poorly articulated). But it's striking how much of the public discourse in England has been equally naive, dominated by the 'law and order' lobby, the instant resort to security solutions on the part of many commentators and the emphasis on culturally determined explanations for what is largely a political problem with economic roots. Most of the people on British television are talking about discipline, immorality, parental responsibility, entitlement, consumerism, dysfunctional families, disrespect for authority and, here and there, 'black culture' (since they clearly can't pin the looting and vandalism solely on people of African origin, some of them are saying that 'black culture' has penetrated other demographic groups, with the subtext that this has undermined some theoretical upright white culture). The few who emphasize the economic roots of anarchic behaviour by the new underclass are often booed off stage. Politicians who dare to make hints in that direction have to tread carefully, for fear that they will be branded as condoning theft and thuggery.
    Prime Minister David Cameron took the 'law and order' line again today. "For me, the root cause of this mindless selfishness is the same thing that I have spoken about for years. It is a complete lack of responsibility in parts of our society, people allowed to feel that the world owes something, that their rights outweigh their responsibilities, and that their actions do not have consequences.. We need to have a clearer code of values and standards that we expect people to live by, and stronger penalties if they cross the line," he said.
    No doubt that will play well to the new gentry of Chipping Norton or the suits in the City, but as a serious analysis, or even as a means to dissuade potential looters from taking advantage of the next opportunity that arises, it is worthless.
    In a sophisticated industrial democracy of the kind Britain claims to be, politicians have a responsibility to set the social and economic parameters that enable parents, schools and employers to bring up, educate and train well-informed and law-abiding citizens who feel they have a stake in their communities and wider society (and ideally the whole world), who are able to contribute and are rewarded fairly for their contributions. If there are thousands of young men roaming the streets without work, without regular incomes, and with no inclination or incentive to improve themselves, then the politicians must share the blame. It may have been the Thatcher government ('there is no such thing as society') or the Blair government, which shared many of Thatcher's emphasis on pleasing the middle classes, but government cannot pass the buck to parents, teachers and social workers. Other governments in Europe have done better, enabling more social mobility and working harder to protect the small minority who, for a variety of reasons, will inevitably not qualify for well-paid employment.
    The looters have not helped their cause, with their offhand comments about 'nicking free stuff', taking their taxes back, 'everyone else was doing it', or sticking it to the Feds. It would be reassuring to hear them voice a coherent analysis of their plight and channel their energies into political activism that might ameliorate their circumstances. But that may be a reflection of British society's failure to encourage political participation at the base. Not enough commentators have said much about the elite's condonement of illegal activity by powerful media corporations, members of parliament with their outrageous expense claims, members of the royal family with their dubious money-making schemes, not to mention the bankers who cost the taxpayers many billions of pounds with their reckless lending practices.
    To go back to Egypt, the elites in both countries have found a useful word to dismiss those who challenge their cosy world - thugs. In both cases it implies thoughtless apolitical violence by an underclass that does not deserve a hearing. Of course, if we are to live in a state of law, looters and thugs must be arrested and punished. But in the long term, unless we work to create a society without large numbers of people living on the edge, we should not be surprised if the streets erupt from time to time.