Shopocalypse Now: British riots and consumerism

Police

Peaceful protests were ignored, casualties of a corrupt and alienated society. Is it any wonder violence and theft have taken their place? Image: bixentro via Flickr.

So it’s come to this. Outside, sirens doppler back and forth every few minutes. My street is one of the quiet ones. The looting is restricted to areas with high street brands.

The irony here is so thick it could cure anemia. London is overrun by looters, smashing in windows, tearing open shutters and making off into the night with armfuls of tracksuit bottoms, DVD players and flat screen TVs. The streets are strewn with hangers.

The purported flashpoint of this widespread disorder? The shooting of a young man in Tottenham, North London, named Mark Duggan. He was shot by the police in what can generously be described as an opaque incident involving an exchange of fire that may or may not have involved the police accidentally shooting each other and blaming it on him.

Duggan who? I want Burberry!

The people smashing into sports shops and electronics stores probably don’t even know Duggan’s name. They’re too busy, in the words of this girl, “getting [their] taxes back.”

With Duggan’s death fresh enough to be bandied about as a cause, the rioting could be somehow explained as a form of protest, an eruption of vitriol from the disaffected youth inhabiting the poorer districts of this city, struggling to find a role in society that won’t involve performing oral sex on abandoned railway platforms, or stacking shelves at Tesco.

How is this anti-establishment sentiment made manifest? By what can only be described as violent shopping.

Rampaging through the communities they grew up in, rioters take out their frustration over unemployment and boredom on the shops and businesses that provide jobs in their area. They smash-and-grab the luxury items which are supposedly the fruit of all the social climbing, work and effort 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’re not inhuman, not confused, not wrong. They are us, except they’re doing it here and with no sense of irony. Protest 2.0, London-style.

Dancin’ by the Nile, the ladies love his style (Hugo Boss Tut)

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 forcibly dragged there during a field trip (if their school still had the budget or even a subject that included things found in a museum). While there, they glumly trudged the halls, dully looking over the dusty artifacts. After all, with a smartphone that has wi-fi and full color interactive gaming, with Twitter, Facebook, Bebo, Myspace, Blackberry Messenger and YouTube, how the hell is a museum supposed to compete?

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 math 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?

These people have been marketed to since birth, where at once they were dehumanized into an object. They’ve been intellectually and spiritually groped in a manner as insidious as the tactics of the most hungry-eyed pedophile. Their sense of self, their very existence, has been mediated by the economy into which they’ve been prepped for entry.

From personalized 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 of co-opted dissent.

They’ve been raised as consumers, not citizens.

Would you sell your story to Rolling Stone?

Consumers have gadgets. Consumers have the respect of business and government because their jealously guarded (and coveted) money is the closest thing they’ll ever possess promising the keys to the kingdom. Even the university education that their parents received for free or for a mere £1000 a year, will now cost £9000 a year. That is if they can get into a university with what little useful knowledge the state provides in exchange 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. They protest against their lack of spending power, their lack of high definition TV, the meddlesome need of government to extract taxation from them for services from which (if they reach their dotage) they’ll never benefit. They’re the purest incarnation of our free market—consumer ideology. They’re competing against the law for the best results a consumer can ever hope for—something for nothing.

And they’re winning.

While pundits are onscreen in the coming weeks with the mandatory hand-wringing, and while Parliament debates the inevitable emergency police powers which will bring water cannons and maybe even rubber bullets onto the streets of London, these consumers will be at home watching it all on their new televisions, comfortably toasty in their new tracksuits. They’ll re-absorb the narrative of their activity through the mediated world we created for them, a world which still contains no genuine sense of community, of productive work, of social justice, fairness or equality. But it is reality TV.

Oh Maggie, what have you done?

Our government decries the violence on the streets of Brixton, Tottenham, Lewisham, Camden, Woolwich, Croydon and Birmingham while levying taxes for wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

Our deputy mayor is disgusted by the looting of electronics from Curry’s—electronics that have been made for slave wages in a Chinese factory rife with worker suicide and abuse. But don’t worry about the particulars because that kind of manufacturing throughput is more “efficient” (read cheap) than producing things ourselves using well-compensated labor. And you can get it right here at Curry’s!

How dare they smash their way into a Tesco supermarket and steal food. Yet Tesco itself runs an approximate £2 billion profit margin annually while purposefully opening up “express” shops next to successful neighborhood grocery stores, driving them out of business with tactics designed to bypass local objections? Isn’t this just the “free market?”

How can these hooligans set pubs on fire? How malicious is that? Those pubs sell beer from upstanding brands who buy barley from countries wracked by famine while our government bleats about food aid.

Whence cometh such cannibalism? Where indeed could these misguided looting fools have gotten their ideas?

Did evil thoughts filter into their minds by osmosis? Are they possessed by the Devil? Or did they grow up in single-parent homes on sink estates, surrounded by the remains that “wealth creation” leaves behind, dreaming of a way out?

Did the debt-ridden financial system of this country drive both their parents into working long shifts with irregular hours to suit a 24-hour culture, leaving their children in the hands of everyone’s favorite babysitter and pacifier, the television? When Mummy’s hours were cut by Tesco after they put in self-checkout machines, did Mummy have to take a second job to make up the wages she lost?

However did these young people acquire such a bizarre combination of hatred and brand loyalty?

How indeed.

While we were talking I saw you nodding out

As for where this unexpected outpouring of violence came from, the establishment need only cast an eye over the recent past. Dissenters in this country have tried every possible way of reclaiming power.

We marched against the invasion of Iraq in our millions. Yet it happened anyway, against our will.

We marched, petitioned and protested against war, against spending cuts, against privatization, against crony capitalism, against bank bailouts, against globalization, 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 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.

That truncheon thing

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.

No colors anymore I want them to turn black

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.

If the individuals in a given society can be considered as parts of an over-arching holistic consciousness expressing itself above the level of personal human awareness, then the collective id of Great Britain just had a serious outburst.

It has been said that violence is the sign language of the inarticulate. If that is true, as I believe it to be, then how much more pronounced are the violent linguistics of the forcibly muted? This violence turned inward towards the ranks from which it swelled is akin to the self-hatred of the alcoholic, beating himself up about being a drunk instead of laying off the sauce.

By what metric can we judge the behavior of these people once the nature of our society is taken into account? What transgression can we hang on them which does not originate with our own behavior, denial or neglect? Having no sense of community? Having no moral compass? Wanting what they haven’t earned? Taking what does not belong to them? Exploiting the weakness of others through violence? Opportunism? Gluttony? Ignorance? Hypocrisy? Madness? Where can we draw a line that distinguishes their actions here from our collective behavior as a society both here and in countless, far-flung places?

Whatever the conscious motives or underlying machinations, the metaphor of these riots is the real message, a message which we ignore or underplay at our peril.

–Mike Freedman, Transition Voice

Postscript: The word “shopocalypse” was coined by my friend George Arton and, in keeping with recent events, I looted it mercilessly. Shout-out to The West Londoner for keeping the news feed going all night.

Cross posted from Critical Press

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Comments

  1. says

    Amen Brother Freedman,

    This dissolving element of society is part and parcel of commercialism. What’s worse than robbing a shop? Knowingly buying the stolen goods from the burglar.

    These are toys, wants, trophies, yet we lust after them as if they were bread, meat, wine (which I am sure were also stolen).

    When the commercials are 15% louder than the programs you tune in for on your £500 tellies, and your £65 a month cable package, what is the real priority of that particular medium? Not entertainment that’s for sure.

  2. says

    Excellent insight into an alienated culture that has been brought up on trash TV and consumerism, that feels it has missed out on the “British dream – a dream that is three-bedroomed, with fancy car, and flat-screen TV. A sad situation that, as you say, will not be tackled at its roots.

    • says

      I’d like to think that with time the repetition of increasingly frenetic symptoms will lead people to look deeper towards the root. However, I think there is an equal tendency towards retrenchment and hardening of sympathies as currently exhibited in the British media.

  3. says

    My God, that was absolutely brilliant. I don’t think I’ve read anything like it!
    I thank you for saying what I suspect many people would say if they had the skills.

    sincerely,
    pamela

  4. says

    It´s so refreshing to read a balanced article that doesn´t attempt to provide a knee-jerk solution, instead looking deeper at the root cause issues. I accept my part in all this, my own social responsibility and believe the only way out for us all is through personal transformation. The days of finger-pointing at other people and holding them responsible for the decline of society are over.

  5. Florian says

    Mike,

    this is the most brilliant and eye opening piece I have come across in a long while.
    This should be printed and handed out on the streets, delivered to people’s doorsteps and e-mailboxes.
    Of course, the response we will be seeing will not acknowledge any of this – but your analysis is spot on.

  6. Auntiegrav says

    “Where can we draw a line that distinguishes their actions here from our collective behavior as a society both here and in countless, far-flung places?”

    First, don’t try. There is no distinction between humans and the rest of the living world. The ego doesn’t want to hear this, and humans don’t want to hear that their ego is not important.

    Only our actions matter, and what we are actually doing is taking more than we give to our own future.

    The distinction of morality in the universe is just this: Do the actions of any species (individual actions are always representative of the species, never separated in the long run) provide more usefulness to the future of their own circumstances than they consume in resources?
    This is what determines whether a species goes extinct or survives. Human usefulness to the environment has a long history, but that history seems to end when we created the major monotheistic religions (and other means..mostly involving ownership) to tell ourselves we are more important than the myriad other species (and people) which share our DNA (for the most part). The anger and frustration of many lies mostly in their disconnect from being useful to their own future or the future of their offspring. We have created a world where perpetual growth of monetary fantasies and useless behaviors is the norm.
    If that doesn’t make you go insane and lash out at this hallucinating system of failed systems, you’re probably already there.

    • says

      Tonfas were up 15,000% last time I checked. Worth noting though that there has been a huge, positive community response here at the grassroots level – people who have never met are shoulder-to-shoulder sweeping up and helping the clean-up operation. It seems that there are people here as interested in coming together to fix things as the rioters were interested in destroying and stealing them. Going back to the concept of society as a group organism, this balance makes sense to me at the social level to the same extent that the riots made sense to me on the individual level.

  7. Christine Edney says

    I think the reason by the riots are a combination of everything already said. There is no one answer. It’s not necessarily about living in poverty (I know many families living in poverty that would never do something like this), it’s not necessarily about being unemployed (the first rioter to be prosecuted is a Primary School teacher!), it’s not necessarily about Government issues and agenda, it’s not necessarily about being raised in a violent or irresponsible family, it’s not necessarily about consumerism, it’s not necessarily about being part of a ‘black gang culture’, it’s not necessarily about living in deprived areas, with no soul. It’s about ALL of it coming together and being given an opportunity to release anger about ALL of it.

  8. Jules says

    Politicians……..Expenses
    Press……………….Corrupt
    Police……………….Corrupt,Thugs
    Bankers………………@£!$***’ers
    So let’s not any of us act too surprised by recent events!
    Excellent essay.

  9. Garaidh Robasdan says

    The police said that the killing of 29 year old Mark Duggan in Tottenham on Thursday 4th August 2011 was extremely regrettable. Following the aftermath of the riot that took place on the evening of Saturday 6th August, Lynne Featherstone MP stated that disregard to property would not be tolerated. This implies that property precedes sentient life. The ethics have been reversed, surely it should be the damage to property was extremely regrettable and the total disregard for a humans life will not be tolerated!

    • says

      Garaidh, although I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of the manner in which our collective morals have been skewed towards material/property rights, I have to say that the wording makes sense to me in a non-controversial sense. “Regrettable” applies to the killing of Mark Duggan because it has already happened and cannot be repeated, i.e. they cannot shoot Mark Duggan again. “Will not be tolerated” applies appropriately to the destruction of property because at the time of the statement the destruction of property was an ongoing process and therefore could hopefully be prevented from recurring by strongly opposing it. So I wouldn’t read too much into this particular example, even though I agree with your conclusion.

      • Garaidh Robasdan says

        Thank you for taking the time to reply. I was probably a bit hasty and emotionally charged at the time of commenting. Although you have shown the premises used to support the conclusion to be inadequate, I am glad you still agree. However, I will need to find some stronger premises to form a convincing argument if I am to expand on this. I have only recently decided to attempt to write articles and have just finished my first one. The above comment was a possible basis for my next article so your criticism is greatly appreciated.

  10. says

    Wow.. Such a lovely read first thing in the morning .. Bang on… Also it’s not just these roiters grabbing the gear, but we have also seen our leaders, MPs, police, bankers, journalist’s, legal departments, sportsmen taking huge back handers.. It’s a period of everyone for themselves and greed .. We all need to look at our selfs and wealth.. And that’s not money wealth , that’s wealth of being..

  11. says

    Not sure i agree their are elements of truth but fundamentally, a cosy middle class journalist has no more of an idea as to why this happened than i do….BUT i did work in a comprehensive school for a few years in lewisham and have some idea!! Life is full of unfairs for the collectives, however, it does not condone this type of behaviour. England has turned soft and needs to regain some boundaries, ethics and morals so that people can begin to live as a community of differences again. Not as separate entities of the globalist, environmentalist, the capitalist, the list of “ists” is endless. The sub communities of today have caused greater fragmentations!! Yes supposed educated people of lawyers or bankers etc do get paid ridiculous money for doin sometimes bad jobs. and other people do get paid not much and work twice as hard and get paid very little. The consumeristic nation need to be educated the simple truths that maggie thatcher failed to encourage – lots of money does not = happiness.

    And the simple truth is “this is not acceptable”!! However, i do believe that a lot of good will come out of this riot if the ordinary, hardworking people of england continue to fight for what they believe in. Which is national service, and definate consequences for their behaviour. The blame can b put on television, popular culture, everywhere and anywhere else except it needs to be placed on the moral standings of the individual and when other people get harmed or intimated it is simply not right.

    • says

      Freddie, I’ve lived in England my whole life and I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who favours bringing back National Service (for the non-Brits here, that’s what the British called conscription).

      As for me being a “cosy middle class journalist”, I don’t think having a less desperate life than the rioters disqualifies me from examining our culture and how the individuals involved have been influenced by it at a very basic level.

  12. Tom Rogan says

    “Should we shout, should we scream? What happened to the post war dream?” I think we are witnessing the first stages of The Final Cut. Excellent article!

  13. Beat says

    Dear Mike

    The article you wrote just hits the nail right on the head. Loved your dry sense of humor narrating it all. Well I am not from the UK, but from peaceful money laundering Switzerland, perhaps the worst assistant to legal crime on the globe. Here the looting is done by the banks. Three years ago UBS laid off thousands of people, to get money from the Government, only to raise the salaries by 30% over the next two years driving the bank again into trouble. Now we have the sorrowful faces of the capitalist money launderers declare with grave faces another layoff of hundreds of people. With growing greed the respect for anything reduces, as you aptly described in your article. Outsourcing to eastern markets to increase the margin has become the normal way of doing business over the last 3 decades. Laying off jobs means to take away self respect from people and now the world faces the results. I have been working for nearly 2 decades in India and have seen the society fall into 2 layers, the haves and the have nots. The gadgeteers and the poor. Just now the gadgeteers are still hungry and are able to control the have nots, but even there it will change. Hopefully we will end up in a more mature and wise humanity.

    Looking forward to more of your voice and words.
    best regards from Switzerland, Beat

    • says

      Thanks for your response, Beat. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Writing this brought out some other ideas about this topic which I’ll be exploring in another article soon.

  14. The sociologist says

    The most touching and connected account of the uk riots I’ve read.
    Please write more- it is so important we broaden the debate and don’t just get stuck on blame towards one group of society nor one simple solution.
    If people are alienated as Durkheim a leading thinker at the time said over 100 years ago- we lack meaning in our lives and our behaviour will play this out- I fear the direction is not going to change – bloggs like this with comments are oh so important to raise consciousness about this important debate- please write more
    100 years ago

  15. MikeM says

    Wow. What meandering, amateurish demagoguery. The entire piece appears to favor evoking emotional response over coherence (even the anti-material dialectic is malformed). Where there is some faint glimmer of reasoning we are treated to a whopper of inductive, non-sequitur (and several others) failure. The linking of “they” with “we” later conflates and co-joins the rioters with peace protestors. Yeah, I can see the common cause there. Not.

    As for incongruity, one example should suffice. In one paragraph the rioters are probably ignorant of the trigger, in another it’s all because they’re not ‘being heard’. Are they dumb and impetuous or motivated and purposeful? Oh well, it doesn’t matter. In the final paragraph we’re told the message is metaphor any way.

    “By what metric can we judge the behavior of these people once the nature of our society is taken into account?” Oh what a perilous mode of forgiveness this is. Established, so it apparently is, that one “society” is better than another – since we are convicting one. Surely following this we can write off the excesses of the French Revolution or any other peasant uprising, “popular” upheaval or righteous cause, right? It necessarily follows that ‘bad society’ acquits the rioters of Kristallnacht, does it not? There is a long list of examples from history that would sorely test this rank and subjective apologia. Either there is a constant principle here to be applied or there is nothing. Still, I have no doubt that Freedman has that better society up his sleeve and will happily flash the Utopian tarot if one asks – or doesn’t ask.

    Granted, peak oil is here, we’re not ready and the powers-that-be suck. But why make excuses for the very people who will, in a hard crash, murder you for a can of beans? It would make more sense to forgive that future murderer because hunger we all and immediately understand as a radical motivator. Certainly it has an imperative logic that concocted and nonsensical social theories cannot fabricate without substituting heartstrings and Heaven’s Harps.

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