World | September 22, 2011 at 12:50 pm

A Broken Social Contract?

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London looters raid a bookshop.

On August 6th, while the banking district was serving up £35,000 in cocktails, comfortably paid for by bailout money (the banks still owe UK taxpayers £456.33bn), frustrated and aimless crowds took to the streets, including many of the nearly one half of London’s children living in poverty. The world’s surprise was great when this superrich city became the nest of uncontrolled rioting, looting, and burning reminiscent of Tahrir Square. And yet, the London case should not be dismissed to oddity; instead, we need to understand why it happened and act upon that knowledge. To do this, we first need to understand how London’s “other half” lives, feels, and exists.

Mass frustration can erupt chaotically and without an articulated purpose – however, what purpose concisely unifies thousands of people with different life stories? During the London riots, deeply engrained social exclusion manifested itself rather as a sort of existential crisis, perhaps one of a person in a consumerist world. However, that doesn’t mean that the riots erupted without a deeper cause: some things need to be expressed before they can be felt.

We cannot deny that there are clearly many people who had something to express in August, however they went about it. Jean-Paul Sartre, French existentialist philosopher said that as a first step of manifesting existence, substance does not matter as much as the mere act of expression: “What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards… Man simply is.” The rioters and looters did not define themselves; perhaps they did not even have enough education to do so. Rather, they chaotically manifested their existence in a society that otherwise ignores, excludes, and laughs at them “chavs.”

Still, there were signs present before August, if one only looked. In a short documentary, There’ll Be Riots, filmed in July after the cuts by the coalition government closed 13 youth centers in London Borough of Haringey, interviewed youth who predicted that cuts in services would inevitably lead to more boredom, frustration, trouble and crime amongst London youth. Of course, high joblessness hasn’t helped the other half either. Indeed, by August 2011, UK unemployment had risen by 80,000 to 2.51 million unemployed, youth unemployment to almost 1 million, and those seeking Jobseekers Allowance to 1.58 million.

But while overall youth unemployment wavers around one million, it’s important to note that most of the London rioters came from low-income estates where unemployment is even more rampant. Riot locations mapped with levels of poverty in areas of London bluntly reveal their concentration in less wealthy areas. Tottenham, where many of the biggest riots occurred, is one of London’s poorest areas. Indeed, these statistics reflect the growing trend in the number of Brits who feel they have no real stake in the nation’s future. A young Londoner, when asked by a TV reporter if rioting was the correct way to express his discontent, replied, “Yes, you wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you? Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard [London metropolitan police], more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press.”

But the cuts were at best only an immediate cause of the riots. What should really concern Britons are the underlying, deep-rooted problems facing the country’s other half. With 40 percent of children living in poverty in London, particularly in areas where the riots broke out, it’s not surprising that a great number of crowds on the streets were composed of teenagers and children who had, as many themselves described it, “nothing better to do.” The rhetoric which resonated from Conservative MPs following the riots, condemning the rioting youth as if they were a group of people in whom no one ever had any hope and expected nothing more of is, in this light, truly unhelpful. A nation needs to look itself in the mirror when pre-teens feel they have no greater prospect in life than to loot. If given opportunities to flourish in meaningful ways, these “troubled” youth might well take advantage of them; when given none, they become incredibly frustrated.

Poverty is an enormous issue in itself; but if climbing out of poverty is made almost impossible, poverty becomes ever more problematic. Social mobility has declined in both the UK and United States in recent decades, and in the UK it has reached its lowest point in generations. Many rioters who were interviewed expressed a sense of an inevitable fate of failure, and seemed too powerless to even begin articulating the motives of their participation. For comparison, England’s social mobility levels are now some of the worst in the developed world: parental background has a greater effect on children’s educational achievement in England than either in Germany, Australia, or the United States.

Social immobility, of course, correlates with widening inequality, as young people from less privileged backgrounds struggle to find a bright future in increasingly class-stratified and socially prejudiced societies. Indeed, an OECD study found that up to 50 percent of the economic advantage of fathers is passed on to their sons in Britain. With the current Conservative/Liberal Democrat government tripling university fees, higher education has also become more unattainable for those who, because they are not in the absolute lowest income percentiles, fail to qualify for scholarships.

In 2010, London was indeed deemed one of the developed world’s most unequal cities, with the gap between rich and poor similar to Victorian times. Quite alarmingly, inequality was found widest since the times of slavery. Sheffield University Professor Danny Dorling showed that the richest tenth of Londoners possess an average wealth of £933,563, a figure 273 times greater than the lowest 10 percent, who had an average wealth of only £3,420. However, inequality in Britain is not new: the wealth gap widened most drastically in the 1980s during Margaret Thatcher’s government, by 60 percent between the top and bottom fifths, and has remained stark ever since. Therefore, to blame the Labour Party for today’s inequality seems incongruous; while Labour did indeed fail to remedy inequality during its era, it did not cause it.

To be sure, as the Conservative rebuttal of these stark facts concluded, the rioters weren’t explicitly calling to fix any of these social problems and they weren’t organized around any comprehensive goal. However, this lack of an articulated program, according to philosopher and critical theorist Slavoj Zizek, is in itself the issue we need to look at. The lack of a program tells us that our society is one “which celebrates choice but in which the only available alternative to enforced democratic consensus is blind acting out. Opposition to the system can no longer articulate itself in the form of a realistic alternative, or even as a utopian project, but can only take the shape of a meaningless outburst… [the riots were] blind passages à l’acte, in which violence is an implicit admission of impotence.” In the case of the London riots, this “impotence” was the result of years of a long-standing resentment on the part of the other half of Londoners who are unable to fully participate in the promises of the society due to a lack of educational possibilities, social immobility, and imbedded attitudes enforced over time.

The social contract is broken when a state asks its citizens to obey the law but doesn’t give them equal benefit from fulfilling the duties of law. Coercive law can only be justifiably coerce given that the citizens have stakes in being part of the state’s legal framework; knowing that when they obey the law, the law protects them in return. Protection can of course be defined in different ways. But if the British state has indeed failed its citizens in protecting their rights, given that positive rights include providing the sufficient prerequisites for a fair chance to flourish in life, then, according to a many renowned philosophers, the citizen ceases to be obliged by this law. This is not to say that the social contract has necessarily been broken in Britain – but if it has, the state must provide a more thorough answer to the riots than it has thus far.

The law has indeed been coerced on the rioters. Unlike many in the Conservative Party in full belief claimed, leniency can hardly be the cause of the riots. In reality, Britain has one of the harshest police and legal systems for young people in Europe. Take as an example the case of the 23-year old student was convicted for six months in jail for stealing water bottles worth £3.50 from a shop in Brixton during the riots. Similarly, Prime Minister David Cameron did not show any leniency when he called for water cannons to control rioters, despite the fact that he condemned the same method in the anti-Mubarak riots. Still more, other British MPs suggested recruiting the armed forces and disrupting mobile networks. It is therefore not surprising that the chief inspector of prisons said that the unforgiving response of putting 65 percent of riot defendants (about 1,000 in the immediate aftermath) on remand has already worsened gang culture in prisons and led to incidents such as suicide attempts, especially amongst the young offenders.

In fact, it all initially began with hatred against the police state. The spark of the eventually UK-wide riots was the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old father, whom the police were going to arrest but killed.  It is still unclear whether the police were entitled to shoot or not. While only the initial uprisings were in response to Duggan’s shooting, it did stir up the resentment toward the history of singling out and unfair treatment, especially of black and ethnic minorities, by British police. Ironically, the three people killed during the riots happened to be from one of these ethnic minorities: young Muslim shopkeepers Haroon Jahan, Shazad Ali and Abdul Musavir, were run over by a car while trying to protect their local shops. A commentator posted on Twitter, in sarcastic poignancy, “These damn immigrants coming to England, invigorating local business, protecting our communities, and dying for our sake.”

Nonetheless, the riots quickly became a chaotic manifestation of an array of woes boiling beneath the surface of British society, and in general spanned across geography, age, and race. The whole succession of events lacked definite shape, and looked like a ludicrous tragicomedy with children lighting things on fire and kicking down storefronts, sometimes to steal soccer balls, sometimes just to smash a television into pieces – as some claimed, to metaphorically crush capitalism. “We are talking about nine-year-olds with balaclavas walking up the main shopping street in Manchester as if it was a great night out,” Pat Karney from the Manchester City Council commented. While the riots, the biggest Britain has seen in decades, can be condemned in many ways, the social issues underlying such frustration and anger cannot be ignored – if we truly wish to move on.

Trying to find an explanation, many on the right have also condemned poor parenting and the dearth of morals amongst the lower classes. However, as The Economist notes, it is not new in history to blame the degraded morals and bad upbringing of the underclasses. In fact, the same rhetoric was once used to condemn the disorder of the poor in the 1800s: “Our streets are actually not as safe as they were in the days of our grandfathers. We have slipped back to a state of affairs that would be intolerable even in Naples.” Victorian age attitudes indeed do not seem to be so far behind us, and the debate between the responsibility of the state and that of parents seems to be similarly timeless.

The implications of inequality, unless addressed at their root, will force Britain to pay manifold in the future that which it chooses to ignore today. Extensive research by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, authors of The Spirit Level, shows that unequal societies tend to have more murder, mental illness, obesity, imprisonment, teen births as well as lower levels of trust, social mobility and social cohesion. Inequality divides people by increasing the social distance between groups of people, lifestyles and living standards. The differences are not marginal either: more equal societies usually did twice or eight times as well as the more unequal ones.

Violence is linked to inequality in over 40 studies and is caused by feelings of exclusion from society and being treated like “scum.” Considering this, the deriding remarks concerning rioters are very revealing. For instance, Nottingham judge Tim Devas asked a man who had obstructed police during riots, “Don’t you feel ashamed that you are now counted among the hundreds of yobbos arrested and now considered as scum by the public?” He also called the underage rioters “silly, stupid children.” Among those arrested was even an eleven-year-old girl charged with throwing stones through glass windows.

Also, the breakdown of family and community might well be a cause of the riots. But these phenomena often stem from poverty and inequality, when people try to survive and thrive in a sort of “dog-eat-dog” world. The poor education children receive in schools, where the majority of students often fail, teaches them to expect nothing better of themselves. The meager resources their parents possess to then take care of them outside of school, as well as the derogatory way in which they are viewed while growing up by the rest of society, deemed ‘chavs’ and ‘yobs,’ are crucial to their chances of success and self-esteem later in life.

Inequality also leads to increased status competition and material expectations, which results in more materialist societies, where everyone is trying to catch up with the Joneses. This links in with shop looting and the fact that, as one commentator pointed out, many of the supposedly poor looters seemed to have Blackberries. However, owning a Blackberry in Britain can be equal in money to roughly 20 hours of work at the minimum wage, and so doesn’t imply wealth as much as it implies competition for status. Professor John Pitts, a youth culture expert, said, “They feel they can rationalize it by targeting big corporations. There is a sense that the companies have lots of money while they have very little… Where we used to be defined by what we did, now we are defined by what we buy. These big stores are in the business of tempting [the consumer] and then suddenly these people find they can just walk into the shop and have it all.” People are continuously being called to consume, yet deprived of the means of doing so; therefore, the only means to fulfill this illusory consumer promise without the monetary means becomes, as the chance presents itself, unlawfulness.

Compass, one of UK’s most influential pressure groups, suggested that while we are harsh to judge the rioters, we should not be hypocritical: the same culture of looting reigns in the wider society too. The culture of entitlement and materialism that could be seen during riots can be equally applicable to the British financial industry as it is to those on the streets, demonstrated by the cut-throat short-term profit-driven banking culture that has driven many in the UK into further poverty. On top of this, there was the Murdoch Empire’s recent highly immoral News of the World scandal, which quietly slipped out of the spotlight with the outbreak of the riots.

Even the former director of the IMF, Michel Camdessus, predicted riots while warning in his retirement speech against the harms of inequality: “The widening gaps between rich and poor within nations, and the gulf between the most affluent and most impoverished nations, are morally outrageous, economically wasteful and potentially socially explosive. Now we know that it is not enough to increase the size of the cake; the way it is shared is deeply relevant… poverty will undermine the fabric of societies through confrontation, violence and civil disorder.”

As said, the social contract ceases to be upheld once social exclusion becomes so stark as to have masses of people denied the fruits of the prosperity of that society, while being fed false hope of realistically unattainable freedoms. Sartre also said, “As far as men go, it is not what they are that interests me, but what they can become.” Britain, and London in particular, should carefully examine itself to make sure Britain has indeed moved past the Victorian Ages, that provides real opportunity and real freedom to its people – to see what even these rioting, misbehaving young hoodlums can become. As a friend from Hackney, who didn’t participate in the riots herself, said to me in August, “What most enrages me most is how surprised everyone acts. Because we face this every day: we’re cheated by the system, we get shit education, we don’t go to university, we testify [to] the murder of friends, and we get no protection. And now they wish to implement the law on us.”

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