We’ve had it with you politicians,
You bloody rich kids never listen.
There’s no such thing as broken Britain,
We’re just bloody broke in Britain.
What needs fixing is the system (Plan B, ‘Ill Manors’, 2012).
The trouble began on the 4th of August 2011 after Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black man and an alleged gang member, was shot dead by police in the North London Borough of Tottenham. Over the next five nights thousands of young people joined in with the rioting, arson and looting that spread across London and out to the business and shopping districts of Birmingham, Nottingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Salford.
Even before the fires were out and the streets cleansed, the rioters and the public were warned that the proffering and receiving of “economic and sociological justifications” would be as revolting as the riotous acts themselves. As Seumas Milne commented in The Guardian, “When […] Ken Livingstone linked the riots to the impact of public spending cuts, it was almost as if he'd torched a building himself”.
The message peddled by politicians and ‘expert’ pundits was that the riots were not ‘political’ but a consequence of what the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, termed the “chaos and dysfunctionality” of the ‘underclass’. Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke endorsed this view: “Our feral underclass is too big, has been growing, and needs to be diminished”.
Even the The Independent Working Class Association (IWCA) claimed that the rioters were not “alienated working class youth” but “lumpen elements” that “represent a grouping that is quite separate from, and actively hostile to, the interests and well-being of the working class proper”. “Even for Marx”, one IWCA member commented, “for whom all history is the history of class struggle, the lumpen-underclass was worthy of contempt, not compassion”.
As Nigel Carter noted in OurKingdom in November 2011, “We should be keenly aware of the implications of a shift in public language which via word substitution - for instance changing ‘social exclusion’ to ‘underclass’ - contributes to popular consent for particular neoliberal policy decisions”. One year later we can begin to see how the representation of the riots as the riots of the underclass has been exploited by the Coalition Government to elicit consent for the shift from a protective welfare to penal ‘workfare’ regimes.
Among early responses to the riots were calls for rioters to be forced into work, for the removal of welfare support and social housing, not only from those who had participated in the riots but their families. On August 11th 2011, a government e-petition calling for rioters to lose welfare benefits hit 100,000 signatures and made British history as the first of such petitions to be considered for debate in parliament.
Subsequently the Government has accelerated its £5 billion ‘Work Programme’ in which young people in receipt of benefits are forced to work without pay in the voluntary or private sector, in order to retain meagre entitlements (see http://www.boycottworkfare.org). Among the private contractors paid millions to deliver workfare schemes are the odious global securities companies G4S and SERCO who are spreading their “tentacles far and wide in the UK”. By June 2012, in an ‘exclusive’ Mail on Sunday interview titled “Cameron to axe housing benefits for feckless under 25s as he declares war on welfare culture” a further round of cuts and reforms was touted.
Have we learnt anything from the riots about disenfranchised young people in ‘austerity Britain’? Some answers can be found in the Guardian/LSE report, Reading the Riots: Investigating England’s Summer of Disorder which estimates that 75 per cent of those who rioted were under 24, about half were in full-time education either school or college/university, and of the rest a considerable minority were unemployed. One in five young people in Britain between the ages of 16 and 24 are currently defined as NEETs (not in education, employment, or training). This means that for about one million young people the idea of a future in which they might actively participate in the social and economic life of the nation is becoming more uncertain by the day.
Reading the Riots reveals that many of rioters understood their actions as a response to the closure of youth centres and services, the slashing of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, the tripling of University fees as well as rising youth unemployment. One rioter explained:
“I literally went there to say, ‘All right then, well, everyone’s getting free stuff, I’m joining in’, like, ’cos, it’s fucking my area. These fucking shops, like, I’ve given them a hundred CVs … not one job. That’s why I left my house.”
Yet Cameron, in his first response to the riots, had already concluded that “these riots were not about poverty” but rather “about behaviour”, immorality and a culture of feckless parenting. Many ‘experts’ agreed. Historian Andrew Roberts claimed, “[t]he violence in England’s streets is no working-class insurrection but the uprising of the non-working, anti-working, would-do-anything-sooner-than-work class”.
Assertions that welfare support causes worklessness are grounded in the myth that full employment is achievable in a ‘free market economy’. In fact unemployment and labour insecurity is designed by neoliberal economic and social policies. For the political classes to argue that work is the solution to riots disavows their own responsibility for the vertiginous inequalities, deprivation and anxiety that a lack of secure jobs has created.
“All I can tell you is that me, myself and the group I was in, none of us have got jobs, yeah? I been out of work now coming up two years … and it’s just like a depression, man, that you sink into … I felt like I needed to be there as well to just say ‘Look, this is what’s gonna happen if there's no jobs offered to us out there’”.
Pundits claimed that widespread looting set these riots apart from previous episodes of civil unrest and that participants were selfish opportunists. But the rioters explained their behaviour as an expression of “how they felt they were treated compared with others”.
The musician Plan B observes, “If you ask how we became a society where young people think it’s OK to rob and loot, I respond how did we get to a society that cares more about shops and businesses than the lives of young people?”
The riots erupted on our streets after the global banking collapse, the exposure of MPs’ excessive and routinely fraudulent expenses claims, and public outrage at the obscenely colossal salaries and bonus payments available to workers in the finance industry. Few thoughtful responses to the riots can fail to consider the disparity between the punishments meted out to rioters in the courts and the rewards reaped by financiers who have looted the economy.
So why do so many continue to accept the mantra that there is no alternative to austerity policies which make the poorest pay for corporate greed? One answer is that, to a dangerous degree, the media elites have collaborated with the narrative of the underclass scripted by the political elites.
The language of ‘the underclass’ is designed to persuade us that inequality is a consequence of young people’s poor choices rather than an effect of neoliberal social and economic policies. If we want to fight neoliberalism — to defend society — we might begin by unpicking the stigmatizing language that conceals and entrenches inequalities.