Thursday, August 11, 2011

After the Riots: Big Thieves and Little Thieves

'The big thieves hang the little thieves' - Czech proverb

In the wake of rioting across the country, the newspapers are leading the call for draconian repression of young people in poor areas. Prime Minister David Cameron is only too happy to oblige, knowing that the riots provided him with the perfect excuse to trial measures which will eventually be used against the entire working class. But there are a couple of important things to consider amongst all of this. One is the personal hypocrisy of Cameron and his deputy, Nick Clegg. Another far more important aspect is how the looting by the poor pales in comparison to - and is indeed fuelled by - the looting by the super-rich, which the coalition government was set up to facilitate.

When he left Eton, a young David Cameron went on to the next expected career stop for his social layer - Oxford University. While he was there, he joined the exclusive Bullingdon Club, alongside now London Mayor Boris Johnson. A few years later, Chancellor George Osborne was also a member. The club was infamous for its lavish, wild parties, and membership was reserved for those who were a) male, b) invited because of their social connections and c) could afford to pay for the damages. Yes, at the end of each dinner or booze-up, the 'Bullers' would trash the venue and throw a few hundreds at the staff to clean the place up.

Nick Clegg - whose aristocratic grandmother fled the Russian revolution and whose father was chairman of a bank - had a similarly privileged upbringing, and had a similar appetite for destruction as a youth. Bizarrely, at sixteen he set fire to a collection of rare cacti belonging to a German professor. But his family tree wasn't enough to help him completely escape the long arm of the law - he was given community service. In 2007, he admitted to the BBC that "I did some damage to some plants. I am not proud of it. I think we all have blemishes in our past." He has not been similarly sympathetic to the young rioters of the last week, condemning them as "mindless". This despite his pre-election prediction that there would be riots in the street if the Conservatives slashed and burned public services with a thin mandate.

The more charitable might say that adolescent excess is all water under the bridge, and we should judge leading politicians on more recent actions. Ok then. Well that have all aided an enormous bank robbery for a start. It was a real smash and grab job known euphemistically as the "2009 bank bailout", which saw a trillion handed over to a class of criminals who had just crashed the economy. They have then taken actions which have destroyed the living standards of millions, cutting and gutting public services left, right and centre. As comedian Nathaniel Tapley pointed out in his open letter to David Cameron's parents, they also willfully became entangled in the Murdoch's machinations, happily hobnobbing with many now under criminal investigation, however thorough that might be. Truly, a trial of misery and destruction lies in the wake of the neoliberal elite, not mentioning their terrorist adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Libya.

It seems that when rich people act in a destructive way, the worst name the media will ever call them is "decadent", whereas poor people acting destructively are labelled "sick". But yes, the worst anti-social behaviour witnessed around the country this week was indeed the product of a sick society, presided over by a decadent ruling class.

The other side of the £1 coin...Fortnum & Mason it ain't
If there is a wider lesson here, it should be the fact that the ruthless individualism which characterises the powerful has been transmitted down to the powerless. They have grown up in a world where commodities are worshipped, and dog eat dog is the prescribed method of acquiring them. But The Apprentice and Dragons' Den seem a world away in the crumbling ghettos of the UK, so 'entrepreneurial' skills are instead applied in the 'gangsta' lifestyle bragged about by 50 Cent and the like.

Of course the looters were "opportunistic". But opportunism is a trait which is routinely applauded when an Alan Sugar or a Duncan Bannatyne exhibits it. The looters saw a 'window of opportunity' if you will, and 'took a risk' to grab the bling...or even the essentials, if the raids on Poundland and even charity shops are anything to go by. For many looters, it was less Get Rich Or Die Tryin', and more get by or die tryin'.

In their excellent statement on the riots, North London Solidarity Federation observed that:
"It is no accident that the riots are happening now, as the support nets for Britain's disenfranchised are dragged away and people are left to fall into the abyss, beaten as they fall by the batons of the Metropolitan Police. But there should be no excuses for the burning of homes, the terrorising of working people. Whoever did such things has no cause for support."
Indeed, there is no excuse for inflicting such suffering on fellow working class people. But as communists, we should still make an effort to understand, because the alternative is condemn a whole section of society - like the capitalist media does with its references to "feral kids", "rats" and "wild beasts". Such slanders border on being eugenicist, for if there are no social explanations for their behaviour then it must be biological, and such living and breathing human beings are little better than vermin to be exterminated or caged. In the near future, working people who now call for a fierce crackdown or support Cameron's new repressive, anti-democratic measures may well find themselves on the wrong side of the biggest gang's guns.
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