Reading The UK Riots: 5 Books That Told Us What Was Coming
“The suburbs dream of violence. Asleep in their drowsy villas, sheltered by benevolent shopping malls, they wait patiently for the nightmares that will wake them into a more passionate world.”
– J G Ballard, Kingdom Come (2006)
Many people seem to be struggling to comprehend the UK riots. They gaze at trite aphorisms on Twitter and Facebook, listen to clumsy, inappropriate and leading questions from news reporters, frown at the exasperated cries of shop keepers and wince at the hollow and image-conscious scripts of politicians. None of these sources are providing clear, decisive or useful answers. The message is lost in the medium.
Perhaps we should turn to books instead. There have been many warnings in literature by writers and thinkers who have been aware of, and to some extent predicted, the likelihood of the events of the past few days. On reading these books, the riots are less of a surprise, as all the ingredients that have coalesced to become an insurrection have clearly been fermenting in policy and society for decades.
J G Ballard – “Kingdom Come” (Penguin Books, 2006)
Ballard was a tireless observer of society and behaviour. He wrote 18 novels and many short stories in response to contemporary culture. Towards the end of his life he became pre-occupied with the underlying collusion between consumerism and fascism. He argued that consumerism creates an insatiable demand that can ultimately only be satisfied by violence. This novel perfectly illustrates how an alienated class can be whipped into a wild frenzy by the relentless advertising and promotion of unattainable consumer products. The novel ends with a local community invading, looting and destroying their only ‘cathedral’, a shopping mall. If all we have to offer today’s young people are relentless instructions to buy consumer goods without providing the means to do so, perhaps the outcome is inevitable.
Owen Jones – “Chavs: The Demonization Of The Working Class” (Verso, 2011)
In recent times, the working class backbone of British society has switched from being referred to as ‘The Salt of the Earth’ to ‘The Scum of the Earth’. An obscene transformation, but one that can be attributed to Capitalism’s ongoing need to suppress many in order to elevate a few.
Some hideous language and knee-jerk grandstanding has emerged over the past few days. Words such as “Scum” and “Vermin” and “Thugs” are bandied around by people who should know better, who have let panic and fear consume them. These contemptuous terms are facile and reactionary get-out clauses that only serve to divide people even further while self-appointed “good, ordinary, hard-working” folk scramble to disassociate themselves from an imaginary Other.
It is precisely this separatist attitude towards youth and the working class that led us to the riots. The middle and political classes dwell in a privileged delusion of their own making. Their cosy, privatised world is designed to exclude others. They oscillate between blissful ignorance and tormented imaginings of an abstract and non-existent threat, believing the working class are ghouls and vampires that jeopardise everything they hold dear.
For every ‘successful’ person in our neo-liberal Western Society, there are ten others that fail. This is an absolute requirement of Capitalism. To live an increasingly comfortable life, you must, consciously or inadvertently, subjugate ten others. You can go on pretending the people who play supporting roles in your utopian pantomime do not matter, but eventually you may be forced to recognise that they are integral. Exclude, marginalise and objectify for long enough and eventually they will let you know. And it will be violent, because they have no other means, because you took the means away.
The rioters are not mindless, not vermin and obviously not aliens from another planet. The era of selfish individualism that has carried society from The Enlightenment to the present day has profound limits and requires much closer scrutiny. We need to realise that we are not self-made heroes or masters of our own making, but that our identities are created, validated and supported entirely by other people. Turn against the rioting youths, and you undermine yourself, and the values you have forced them to inherit and respond to.
The Invisible Committee – The Coming Insurrection (Semiotexte / MIT Press, 2009)
The events of the past week may have left Parisian activist collective The Invisible Committee feeling validated. Their provocative book; part manifesto, part societal analysis and part call to arms; is tellingly called “The Coming Insurrection”. It was written in the wake of the 2005 Parisian riots and focuses on increased social division and exclusion in Europe. In today’s context, it is essentially a handbook to the 21st Century. Glenn Beck from Fox News claimed it was “the most evil thing I’ve ever read”. You couldn’t ask for a more glowing recommendation.
Slavoj Zizek – Living In The End Times (Verso, 2010)
The idea of an imminent apocalypse or reckoning is as old as civilisation itself, yet our constant unease at the state of the world and the economy implies that the End Times are no longer an abstract event on the horizon, but something that is already upon us which we have chosen to ignore.
This remarkable and very important book identifies the four horsemen of our apocalypse. The four things that will be our undoing due to their fundamental incompatibility with our societal and political ideology are The Environment, Economic (and Social) Division, Bio-genetics and Intellectual Property. It was the second of these which rode into town this week. What these four have in common is that they will affect everyone indiscriminately, regardless of wealth or position. They can only be addressed by the global collaboration of citizens and governments. The existing dominant system of Western Capitalism is not only completely unable to deal with these threats, but it denies their existence while encouraging and accelerating their effects. All the big headlines and news stories of the future will be based around these four single issues. Unequipped and unwilling as we are to tackle them, they will bring about our destruction.
The West cannot even countenance the mention of these four issues, having spent 30 years crushing and discrediting anything that hints at Communism. Yet the only way through is by collective collaboration. Capitalism won in 1989, with Fukayama’s End Of History. Now there are no alternatives to Capitalism, everyone is in it. However, China is just putting the finishing touches to a superior and more efficient version, Capitalism 2.0: Capitalism with no human rights. Their dynamic use of slavery and violent oppression, as we recall from the Greeks and the Romans, will create a highly streamlined system, which will soon surpass Europe and the US. Looking at the recent downgrade of the US, it already has.
Zizek makes our predicament and ill-preparedness abundantly clear. Young people are more aware and ready to address world problems which the older generation are happy to ignore. With retirement in sight, the policy makers don’t care. What message does it give out when global corporations are devastating the world in front of our eyes, taking money and wrecking lives with no-one to stop them? The parallel to the riots is obvious. If the young people on the streets are “mindless thugs” then what are the corporations?
Tony Judt – Ill Fares The Land: A Treatise On Our Present Discontents (Penguin Books, 2010)
“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, where wealth accumulates, and men decay” – Oliver Goldsmith
This short, accessible and informative book by the historian and political philosopher Tony Judt explains how we have spent the past thirty years making a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest. He states that our only remaining sense of shared purpose is that we are all, collectively, just looking out for ourselves. We have forgotten, or worse, we have been un-taught, how to think about the life we live together. In doing so, we have become post-ethical. The social contract that defined post-war life in Europe and America and the assumed guarantees of security, stability and fairness is gone, and more worryingly, it isn’t even spoken about anymore.
The government, both Tory and Labour, has spent the last 30 years on its knees, fellating the Economy. They are disloyal and adulterous, cheating on real politics. Any thoughts of the joy that comes from a loving, meaningful relationship, from understanding the other people involved, are completely irrelevant to their subservient and compromised positions.
As we all know from our selfish and privatised personal lives, if you ignore the one you are supposed to love, mistreat them, exploit them, carry on like they don’t exist, eventually they will bite back. At first you will be shocked by such a response, you will blame them, and shout about punishment and aggressive retribution. But this is not a lasting solution. The real way to resolve it is to examine your attitudes and correct your own behaviour. It’s simple and lazy to externalise problems, to blame mystical external forces beyond your control. To single people out as scapegoats so you don’t have to shoulder any responsibility. The rioting kids are the sons and daughters of advanced Capitalism, which everyone is now a part of. It’s harder and much more complex to face up to ourselves and what we have become, but it is the only honest, long term solution.
Unless we undergo a revolutionary ideological shift in our divisive and fearful attitude towards people as ‘others’, the violence on the streets will not only persist, but worsen. Demonizing children or their parents and dispensing sharp punishments only buys into the short-term, quick fix mentality that pervades politics, banking and media, and erodes the fabric of society. Capitalism has won, and it is destroying us.
The unfortunate and forgotten kids have inherited the ideology of unchecked and unpunished greed. Long-term and all inclusive thinking and planning is the only solution, not only to the riots, but to the economy, social division and the imminent disruption from the threats posed to every level of society illustrated in the books above.
It’s not the kids that need to wake up and be disciplined, it’s those in possession of power.
August 11th 2011