The media has been abuzz with cries of "opportunistic criminality" and "mindless thuggery". Pundits have lined up to denounce the rioting one by one as totally dissimilar to what happened in the 80s - when the people on the streets were protesting, when they had a political point to make. Now we've just got "scumbags" and "feral rats" seizing a lack of order to get themselves a free new pair of trainers and a plasma screen TV.
But that is just too simple.
Britain is one of the most unequal societies in the Western world. We may tell ourselves it is not so and endlessly repeat that (in?)famous line of Tony Blair's: "we're all middle-class now". Nonetheless, it just isn't the case. With the rise of Margaret Thatcher came the domination of neo-liberal dogma. The 80s saw a counter-revolution in British society. Suddenly, material wealth was the only source of happiness, money was king and greed was good. Thatcherism set out to transform us all into property-owning worshippers of the almighty free market. But not everyone can become middle-class. Some people are left behind.
The legacy of the political experiment of the 80s is the British underclass. Thatcherism, through the destruction of industry and the shackling of the unions, ensured the "respectable working class" became antiquity. Left over from this assault was a whole swathe of British society who hadn't crawled their way up the social ladder and we're told it was their fault as they were lazy, feckless and unambitious. The underclass has not only been abandoned by the mainstream, they have been stigmatised and derided by it. They have been told they live the way they live out of choice, not because of a deeply unjust system of privilege. They have been dismissed, labelled as "benefit scroungers", "work-shy scum" and "chavs". All the time, the middle-classes have taken over the worlds of politics and the media. And thus the underclass does not have a voice in Parliament and is criticised in newspapers by journalists who haven't the foggiest idea what life for them is actually like. Members of the underclass live their lives in poor, run-down areas and come from usually dysfunctional families. Many end up criminals. Some turn to alcohol and drugs because, after all, they must pass the time somehow and substance abuse has the happy effect of allowing you to forget the hell you must endure day-in, day-out. We seem to have gone backwards. Britain has never seemed so socially segregated.
And so, when a riot breaks out in Tottenham, people elsewhere see it happening and think to themselves, "Why the fuck don't we do the same?" So they do. And it happens again. It is a domino effect. The people rioting have nothing to lose, they have no hope for the future, they do not feel part of a country, let alone a community. Smashing things up is a venting of years of anger and disaffection and despair. Stealing and vandalising gives them a thrill, and it gets them noticed by a world that has constantly shot them down. They steal clothes and electronic items because we live in a society obsessed with rampant consumerism, where having the latest this and newest that is the gateway to eternal bliss. And then people are surprised when these young kids on the streets, who haven't had anything like the education enjoyed by the middle-classes, can't articulate a political theory. What do you expect them to say, that they're mobilising against the bourgeoisie and overthrowing capitalism? There is no grand political ideal uniting this rioting. This rioting is just a desperate expression of hopelessness.
The populist, right-wing reaction to these riots has been truly sickening. Scores of people have called for the use of plastic bullets and water canons, both of which can cause severe injury and even death. In addition, more police brutality has been proffered as a possible solution. It is beyond me how anyone can possibly think that fighting violence with even more drastic violence would work. It should register in any logical mind that deploying the army to "crush the bastards" will only lead to a fierce backlash from the rioters, resulting in more burnt cars and destroyed high streets. And calling those on the streets "scumbags" and "rats" will also only perpetuate the problem. It is language and treatment like that that has got us where we are now.
The rioting is horrific and awful and I want it to stop. We all want it stop. It is wrecking lives and causing so much pain. But we cannot ignore the fact that the events of this week are indicative of a much wider malaise. The rioting is a symptom of our society, our broken society. A symptom of a breathtakingly unequal society, a society segregated between us and them; the middle-classes and what is regarded as the feckless, feral and even sub-human underclass. Will the terror of the past few days jolt the political establishment awake? I highly doubt it. Already we are witnessing an assault on the working-class by the coalition - through the swingeing cuts to public services, tuition fees, the scrapping of EMA, the closure of libraies and so much more. All the while, bankers pocket multi-million bonuses, businesses are allowed to dodge their taxes and the elite try desperately to preserve the free market capitalist system which appears increasingly to be collapsing in on itself. What's really needed is change and a re-assessment of our present culture. If we fail to address once and for all the profound problems at the heart of our society, then I fear we will see repeats of this week's events in the very near future.
Some must-read pieces on the UK riots:
Lauire Penny: Panic on the streets of London
Zoe Williams: The UK riots: the psychology of looting
Camila Batmanghelidjh: Caring costs – but so do riots
Mary Riddell: London riots - the underclass lashes out
Nina Power: There is a context to London's riots that can't be ignored
Claudia Webbe: Tottenham's violence was wrong. Now police need to show justice is being done
Seumas Milne: These riots reflect a society run on greed and looting