A while ago Murat and I noticed a Transatlantic difference about monsters.
The US, we concluded after a multi-week Netflix scarefest, seems obsessed with vampires (Twilight, True Blood, Fright Night, etc.), while the UK seems more obsessed with zombies (28 Days, Shawn of the Dead, etc.). All of which suggested to me that what we Yanks fear most is sex, and what the Brits fear most is civil unruliness. But, well, that's not exactly my point here.Rather, I thought of this disparity again when listening to and reading comments on what drove the looting hordes of youth in the UK to smash windows and take what they clearly hadn't exchanged cash for. Phrases like "scum," "copycat cretins," "pure criminality" etc. kept cropping up. The common thread being terms suggesting people who had started off as human but ended up mindlessly evil and violent. Something more like, well, a zombie.
Even worse than the popular diagnoses were proposed solutions like this:
Don't pander to them. Use police snatch squads, grab them, and if they are not born in the UK then deport them. If they are then off they go to join the british army in Afganistan to be used as IED detectors and dummy targets, to be fair that is all they are worth to any society!To my ear, this comment approaches Cameron et al.'s eviction solution in tone if not severity. Moreover, putting people already willing to break into shops out on the streets (and therefore even more on the fringe of society and desperate) doesn't exactly sound like a recipe for ending looting to me, but...
I understand full well that the looting made no sense to the average (meaning, employed) London adult. And in that way, the head shaking understandably led to "us" versus "them" declarations. They are animals. They are worthless scum. What else could they be? I would never do that.
More accurately, though, the looters are...there's no escaping it...products of their culture.
Not only were many observers quick to point out that children of immigrants were few and far between among the rioters (meaning that the looters were mostly children of British parents, despite the mainly xenophobic proposals for reparation), but as Mike notes in a truly staggering analysis over at Critical Press [h/t ondine], children are very, very receptive...they will learn what society teaches them:
Rampaging through the communities they grew up in, they take out their frustration at a lack of occupation or engagement on the shops and businesses that provide employment in their area, they smash-and-grab the luxury items which are supposedly the fruit of all the social climbing, work and effort our society enshrines. Their generation’s grand gesture of disobedience is straight-up Western-style consumer-capitalism, pure and uncut, direct from the amygdala. Take whatever you can get your hands on for yourself and trash the commons with impunity. They are not inhuman, they are not confused, they are not wrong – they’re us, except they’re doing it here and with no sense of irony. Protest 2.0, London-style.
In Cairo, during the uprising, it was the Egyptian youth who linked arms to protect the Museum of Antiquities, the cultural heritage of their long and respected history. Here in London, if any of these kids have been to a museum, it was after being dragged there by force during a field trip (if their school still had the budget or in fact a subject which included things you’d find in a museum). While there, they glumly trudged the halls, occasionally looking over the dusty artefacts of the past with dull eyes. After all, with a smartphone that has wi-fi and full colour interactive gaming, with Twitter, with Facebook, with Bebo, Myspace, Blackberry Messenger and YouTube, how the hell is a museum supposed to hold a young person’s attention unless they’ve been taught to respect and cherish a slow offering up of knowledge and beauty directly proportionate to the attention one pays? These people have been marketed at since birth. They have been groomed in a manner more insidious than the tactics of the most hungry-eyed paedophile. Their sense of self, their very existence, has been mediated by the economy into which they have been prepped for entry.
From personalised ringtones to Celebrity Big Brother, every possible act of engagement or empowerment has been a commercial transaction for them. Every sub-culture becomes an economic sector. Anything they were taught was only on the syllabus because of its utility in the “knowledge economy”. Who needs to know history or facts when there’s Wikipedia? Who needs maths when there’s a calculator? Who needs handwriting and spelling when there’s Microsoft Office and spell check? Who needs music or art classes when there’s no demand in the marketplace for those skills? Or should I say skillz?
They have been raised as consumers, not as citizens. Consumers have gadgets. Consumers have the respect of business and government because their jealously guarded (and coveted) money is the closest thing they will ever possess to the keys to the kingdom. Even the university education which their parents received for free or for £1000 a year will now cost them £9000 a year if they can get into a university with what little useful knowledge the state allows them to have for their parents’ taxes. After all, don’t we need competition to deliver the best results to the consumer?
Given the opportunity to take to the streets, they come out in force as consumers, not citizens. Their protest is against their lack of spending power, their lack of a flatscreen television, the meddlesome need of government to extract taxation from them for services from which (if they reach their dotage) they will never benefit. They are the purest incarnation of our free market, consumer ideology. They are competing against the law for the best results a consumer can ever hope for, which is something for nothing. And they are winning. [all emphasis mine]
Indeed, the notion that what really fueled the rioters was an unbalanced consumerist culture was echoed in an article by Zoe Williams over at The Guardian:
Between these poles ["a generation with a false sense of entitlement, created by the victim culture fostered, and overall leniency displayed, by the criminal justice system" vs. "a natural human response to the brutality of poverty"] is a more pragmatic reading: this is what happens when people don't have anything, when they have their noses constantly rubbed in stuff they can't afford, and they have no reason ever to believe that they will be able to afford it. [Alex] Hiller [a marketing and consumer expert at Nottingham Business School], takes up this idea: "Consumer society relies on your ability to participate in it. So what we recognise as a consumer now was born out of shorter hours, higher wages and the availability of credit. If you're dealing with a lot of people who don't have the last two, that contract doesn't work. They seem to be targeting the stores selling goods they would normally consume. So perhaps they're rebelling against the system that denies its bounty to them because they can't afford it."
Things they have been programmed their entire lives to want, that is.
In his wildly popular book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten," Robert Fulghum makes a compelling argument that good citizenship is the only thing really required to make democracy run well and, in general, a person a productive (presumably happy) member of society. Good citizens make for good neighbors, good soldiers, good politicians, good parents, etc., etc. If you internalize some simple tenets--that it's "good to share," "good to clean up your own mess," "good to put things back as you found them," "good to play fair,"and it's "bad to steal," "bad to hit people," "bad to hurt other people," etc. --you'll get along so much better with everyone else your entire life.
But when society's emphasis shifts from raising good citizens to instead raising good consumers, it can't be much of a surprise that good citizenship is a victim of that transition. But beyond that, trying to follow the "good citizen" path and adhering to the "best practices" for affecting change has been a bit of a joke as of late. As Mike notes, the context for the riots was one in which other means of expressing dissent have fallen on very deaf ears:
The type of goods being looted seems peculiarly relevant: if they were going for bare necessities, I think one might incline towards sympathy. I could be wrong, but I don't get the impression that we're looking at people who are hungry. If they were going for more outlandish luxury, hitting Tiffany's and Gucci, they mighth seem more political, and thereby more respectable. Their achilles heel was in going for things they demonstrably want.
However did these young people acquire such a bizarre combination of hatred and brand loyalty? How indeed.
Many of the conversations I've had here about the London riots have lead to the question: Could the same thing happen here, in the US? Could gangs of disaffected, bored, unemployed teens take to the streets to proclaim their self-worth via the only means they're taught to believe they can prove it exists: wearing the right labels, having the right toys, etc? It's foolish to think that waves of what Mike terms "violent shopping" couldn't happen here.
After all, "shopping" for its own sake is viewed as a good thing in the US. When we average Americans asked our leaders what we could do to help in the aftermath of 9/11, the message we heard was "go shopping." [With all fairness to former President Bush, he never actually said that in those exact terms, but he didn't correct the mis-attribution either]. By the time popular culture got a hold of the message, it had morphed into "shopping is a patriotic duty."
Fortunately, another, more rational meme is rising here, thanks in no small part to the wisdom of the quintessential American success story, one Warren Buffet. Apparently the wealth disparity in the US has become so extreme, it's embarrassing even those benefiting from it:
As for where this unexpected outpouring of violence came from, the establishment need only cast an eye over the recent past. The dissenters in this country has tried every possible way of reclaiming power. We marched against the invasion of Iraq in our millions. We marched, petitioned and protested against war, against spending cuts, against privatisation, against crony capitalism, against bank bailouts, against globalisation, against corporate tax cuts, against job losses, against pretty much everything we wanted stopped. Did it change a damn thing? Did it stop our government from doing whatever the hell they wanted? Hell no. We even voted against all the major parties in the last election and ended up getting two of them in power instead of none.
In response to the latest raft of austerity measures, students came out and protested for a cause, en masse. It got messy, but hey, nothing like this. Response? Jowly outrage and zero engagement with the demands of the vox populi.
So now, after every avenue has been explored by the public consciousness of this country in an effort to make itself heard, it has come to this. Every one of these thieving magpies on the streets of London tonight is carrying with them a piece of our collective humanity. The frustration at not being listened to, which is even worse than not being heard. The anger at a system that functions in isolation, unaccountable, unresponsive and fundamentally undemocratic. The loneliness of having no community, of families working ceaselessly to meet their obligations as the rising tide drowns everyone without a yacht. The cognitive dissonance of having a millionaire Prime Minister tell us we’re all in it together before flying off to an arms fair in the Arab Emirates as a sales rep for UK Plc, only to now come home early from his family holiday to decry violence.
This is simply the newest manifestation of a festering sore as old as the hills, as untended as a gangrenous limb. There will be other manifestations, make no mistake. If the response of the power structure is to entrench itself, to bring in draconian public order measures and to ignore the underlying root of the problem, this will happen again, only worse and worse as time goes on.
Mr. Buffet argues for a more e pluribus unum approach to the economy:
While the poor and middle class fight for us in Afghanistan, and while most Americans struggle to make ends meet, we mega-rich continue to get our extraordinary tax breaks. Some of us are investment managers who earn billions from our daily labors but are allowed to classify our income as “carried interest,” thereby getting a bargain 15 percent tax rate. Others own stock index futures for 10 minutes and have 60 percent of their gain taxed at 15 percent, as if they’d been long-term investors.
These and other blessings are showered upon us by legislators in Washington who feel compelled to protect us, much as if we were spotted owls or some other endangered species. It’s nice to have friends in high places.
The widespread hopeless he sees as the result of the current path will not be good for America, or for business. A bit of shared sacrifice can help stem that from happening.
Good citizenship has its rewards, for everyone.
Twelve members of Congress will soon take on the crucial job of rearranging our country’s finances. They’ve been instructed to devise a plan that reduces the 10-year deficit by at least $1.5 trillion. It’s vital, however, that they achieve far more than that. Americans are rapidly losing faith in the ability of Congress to deal with our country’s fiscal problems. Only action that is immediate, real and very substantial will prevent that doubt from morphing into hopelessness. That feeling can create its own reality.
Job one for the 12 is to pare down some future promises that even a rich America can’t fulfill. Big money must be saved here. The 12 should then turn to the issue of revenues. I would leave rates for 99.7 percent of taxpayers unchanged and continue the current 2-percentage-point reduction in the employee contribution to the payroll tax. This cut helps the poor and the middle class, who need every break they can get.
But for those making more than $1 million — there were 236,883 such households in 2009 — I would raise rates immediately on taxable income in excess of $1 million, including, of course, dividends and capital gains. And for those who make $10 million or more — there were 8,274 in 2009 — I would suggest an additional increase in rate.
My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress. It’s time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice.
Labels: economy, politics