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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

How to create a criminal underclass

This is a pretty rapid response to the mass outbreak of criminal looting which has occurred in England. I have shoved my conclusion up front.

My conclusion is there is a direct link to the kettling of student protests earlier this year./ late last year. In particular the cutting of the Education Maintenance Allowance was a kick in the teeth to the students and their families who saw education as a way out of inner city gang/ drug  culture. The cuts have also alienated middle class community workers, teachers, social workers etc who support the aspirations of such 'respectable' working class students and families. 

By kettling/ criminalising legitimate protest, the seeds were sown for a nihilistic outbreak of illegitimate  and genuinely criminal protest through mass looting. The mass media coverage of the student protests also informed thousands of young ( and not so young) people about police riot control tactics and how to evade them.

The brightest and the best/ hard working / aspirational  of young people were treated like criminal scum a few months ago. Now the kettle has boiled over.

1. The initial spark was the breakdown in police/ community communications in Tottenham over the death of Mark Duggan on Thursday 4 August. Duggan was shot dead by the police in circumstances which are not yet clear. The problem seems to have been that the Independent Police Complaints Commission are in charge of the investigation -so the police cannot comment on or discuss what happened. But the IPPCC have been involved in several high profile cases recently and are seen as a toothless body.

On Friday 5 August There was a peaceful protest outside Tottenham police station, but after five hours an attempt was made to disperse the crowd. This went wrong and turned into an angry/ violent confrontation. Usually such events are contained by the police within the immediate area. This did not happen.

2. Why did a minor riot turn into a mass frenzy of looting across London and other parts of England?

In ordinary riots, most of the rioters energy is taken up by attempts to attack the police - the police act as the focus for the rioters anger and aggression. Looting often occurs around the edges of such riots as people who are not interested in fight the police take advantage of the situation to steal what ever they can from nearby shops.

What has happened this time is that a large number of people have jumped straight to the looting. Rather than confront the police, they evade them, jumping straight to any unprotected shops. As soon as the police arrive, they move off somewhere else. In some cases, which is the most worrying/ frightening part, the shops are set on fire.

This pattern of looting with out rioting is new. It is more like what can happen after a natural disaster or a prolonged power blackout than any form of the ’political’ rioting. It is a breakdown of social order on large scale. It is not just a few criminals taking advantage of a temporary situation. Thousands of people have been involved.

3. Why now?

For ’law and order’ to have broken down so swiftly and across such a wide area (not just in inner city areas) there must be some underlying/ structural problem. Even if, as many say, a ‘criminal underclass’ are responsible, why has the behaviour of this underclass suddenly changed? If it is not the work of a criminal underclass, then why have so many ‘ordinary’ people suddenly taken to crime on such a large scale?

My suggestion is that the situation has been building up for a long time. The neo-liberal economic policies which Tory and Labour governments have pursued for the past 30 years have created unequal society. So long as the economy was growing, there was always the hope that individuals could escape (relative) poverty -through education for example. Under Labour, although they did not challenge neo-liberalism, they did make sure that some wealth, through public spending, trickled down to poorer sections of society.

Then came the 2008 economic crisis and the belief that public spending had to be cut. The Conservative/ Lib Dem coalition have pursued this policy vigorously. For the actual ‘criminal underclass’ (Marx’s lumpen proletariat ) such changes are irrelevant. But for the respectable working class and the lower middle class, it suddenly seemed like a door closing on their future. Wage cuts and unemployment loomed.

So long as this group felt they had some stake in the future, their positive values and aspirations offered an alternative to the nihilistic despair of the ‘criminal underclass’. They held in check and contained social disorder in their communities. An image is of control rods in a nuclear reactor.

For this huge outbreak of looting to take place, the respectable working class and lower middle class did not themselves have to do anything - they just had to stop caring, stop trying to keep a lid on things, stop trying to pretend at least some young people in their communities had a future.

A sign of the trouble to come came with the student protests earlier this year/ late last year. In particular the loss of the Education Maintenance Allowance. For motivated but poor school kids and students, this was a life line, a potential escape route from the world of the ‘criminal underclass’.

The heavy handed response to the student protests did not just affect those directly involved. It ‘sent a message’ to parents, teachers, social workers, community workers etc. The message was ‘We don’t care about your aspirations, your hard work, your attempts to help young people escape a life of crime’…

For thirty years the possibility for a better, a different life was a safety valve, releasing just enough pressure to prevent the riots of 1981 returning. By kettling the student protests, by treating the protestors as rioters and criminals, the police and government closed off that safety valve. They treated ordinary young people like ‘scum’ .

Now the lid has blown off the kettle.


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