British Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech to the House of Commons in the aftermath of the English riots set the tone for a bizarre crackdown:
Responsibility for crime always lies with the criminal. But crime has a context. And we must not shy away from it.
I have said before that there is a major problem in our society with children growing up not knowing the difference between right and wrong.
This is not about poverty, it’s about culture. A culture that glorifies violence, shows disrespect to authority, and says everything about rights but nothing about responsibilities.
In too many cases, the parents of these children – if they are still around – don’t care where their children are or who they are with; let alone what they are doing.
The potential consequences of neglect and immorality on this scale have been clear for too long, without enough action being taken.
Let’s come back to social theory, Tory style, shortly. But first, let’s survey some of the ‘responses’ to the riots.
What we’ve seen is an orchestrated attempt at the centre of the state to have magistrates ignore sentencing guidelines, resulting in strangely disproportionate sentences like four years for a tasteless drunken Facebook joke, and six months for stealing a bottle of water.
We’ve seen plans to take a huge byte out of Blackberry data, all the better to criminalise texting. We’ve seen murmurings about banning some people from Twitter and Facebook (and on this, see Axel Bruns).
We’ve seen the philosophy of collective punishment come to the fore, with Councils being encouraged to evict the families of rioters from social housing, and cut off their benefits.
We’ve seen what is in effect a lot of dog whistling about “zero tolerance”.
We’ve seen David Cameron racialise crime, at the same time as the media highlights the arrest and sentencing of white kids and black kids with degrees, making all of it seem more like Cameron’s culture of contagion than any other or actual social cause.
And we’ve seen the interpretive battle over the meaning of the disorder won pretty comprehensively by the Tories, with the “sheer criminality” explanation prevailing. That despite the fact that it fails to account for “why here, why now?”.
Ponder, for a moment, the second-most unequal country in Europe. Its prime minister, who failed to win an outright majority, heads a government whose cabinet contains several millionaires, and embarks upon an ideologically driven economic policy against almost all international and professional advice. It has just faced its largest strikes for decades. Its lawmakers were recently found fiddling their mortgages en masse. Its press was caught phone tapping hundreds of private citizens and politicians, with little hindrance from the police.
Meanwhile, members of that police force had killed a bystander at one protest, and were criticised for violence and intimidation at another. Then, they shot a man, wrongly claimed he’d shot at them first, and young people across the country rioted, setting fire to police cars, attacking police stations, looting high streets and retail parks. After that, courts worked through the night; in Manchester, a mother-of-two got five months for accepting a looted pair of shorts from a friend and a young man got six months for pinching a bottle of water. Finally, these young people’s families started to be issued with eviction orders from their social accommodation; a form of housing which said government had already committed itself to dismantling. The prime minister claimed this would help break up criminal gangs.
Put like that, the UK sounds much like what the rest of the world must surely see us as, by now – akin to some post-Soviet Republic about to undergo a “colour revolution'” maybe, or a Mediterranean ex-dictatorship convulsed by civil unrest. Imagine the fundraisers and the Facebook declarations of solidarity were it so.
Now, Guy Rundle discusses social and economic theory, Tory style:
Homo oeconomicus becomes replaced by homo sociologicus?—?an understanding of social life and subjectivity that was once the hallmark of the left becomes a set of tools for the right. Industrial capitalism demanded the management of objects?—?steel from the mills, flowing to factories for cars. Post-industrial capitalism demands the management of subjects?—?it frankly accepts, whether it will admit it or not, that running Western economies in a neo-liberal fashion involves managing large numbers of people who are surplus to requirements?—?hence one talks not of “layabouts” but of “welfare dependency”, not of the “feckless” but of the excluded. Hence the sneaky, piecemeal way in which the Cameron government has introduced cuts?—?as a series of broken promises about what would not be cut, about tuition fees and the like. In adapting the language and techniques of sociology to their cause, they concede a basic and fundamental point to the left,and fight on our terrain.
However, the sociologisation of the Right occurs with one crucial and defining omission?—?it shears off any critical account of the effects of the market, of social inequality, of commodification, consumerism and advertising, and their effects on social life and subjectivity. Indeed, the whole purpose of adapting sociological thinking on the Right is to find tools to compensate for the corrosive effects of the market?—?while rendering those effects invisible. In many cases this is not done consciously?—?it is simply a product of the ideology that is pumped through PPE courses, right-wing think tanks, etc, etc. Thus, the smooth-cheeked Cameroonians emerge knowing that the market may have deleterious effects that must be compensated for in the interests of social management?—?but will not or cannot concede that the core of the system is doing the social, cultural and psychological damage.
Owen Hatherley’s piece, cited twice above, describes a logic to the evictions. They progress an agenda of clearing potentially desirable property of undesirable citizens. That’s something even Boris Johnson has been critical of.
Similarly, the collective punishment aspect of benefit cuts and evictions for the families of rioters is in a straight line from the philosophy that inspires “income management” in Australia, and Noel Pearson-esque community tribunals to decide which parents are worthy of welfare and which are not.
It masquerades as a philosophy of individual responsibility, but its truth is one of collective exclusion and social control.
NB: Comments should be responsive to this post, please. Earlier discussion of the English riots on LP can be found here.