The London Riots (Redux)

UK riots

A few posts ago, I presented one scholar’s view of the cause of the riots in the UK. Several readers commented that the author, Zigmund Bauman, took a narrow stance, coming from his own theories that argue that we are in a state of “liquid modernity.” By this he means that individuals have been cut loose from the “modern” institutions that anchored social stability. Rapid change inhibits the formation of new stable institutions leaving individuals bereft of solidfying relationships. The result is that individuals must take on different roles on short notice. They cannot count on the institutions of either the public or private sector to provide the security that characterized the period of post-war prosperity. Uncertainty about the future becomes a normal part of living. Here are a few paragraphs describing his model taken from Bauman’s book, Liquid Modernity.

Indeed, no mould was broken without being replaced with another; people were let out from their old cages only to be admonished and censured in case they failed to relocate themselves, through their own, dedicated and continuous, truly life-long efforts, in the ready-made niches of the new order: in the classes, the frames which (as uncompromisingly as the already dissolved estates) encapsulated the totality of life conditions and life prospects and determined the range of realistic life projects and life strategies. The task confronting free individuals was to use their new freedom to find the appropriate niche and to settle there through conformity: by faithfully following the rules and modes of conduct identified as right and proper for the location.

It is such patterns, codes and rules to which one could conform, which one could select as stable orientation points and by which one could subsequently let oneself be guided, that are nowadays in increasingly short supply. It does not mean that our contemporaries are guided solely by their own imagination and resolve and are free to construct their mode of life from scratch and at will, or that they are no longer dependent on society for the building materials and design blueprints. But it does mean that we are presently moving from the era of pre-allocated ‘reference groups’ into the epoch of ‘universal comparison’, in which the destination of individual self-constructing labours is endemically and incurably underdetermined, is not given in advance, and tends to undergo numerous and profound changes before such labours reach their only genuine end: that is, the end of the individual's life.

I see no issues with this part of Bauman’s philosophy. It seems to me that it describes very accurately what has been happening in the US and the UK. The financial collapse destroyed much trust and confidence in the economic system as the engine of livelihood. High levels of unemployment that followed deaden one’s expectations of finding a steady source of income. The political system in the US is anything but stable. The loudest voices coming from Washington are mostly about tearing down what have been institutions that supported social stability.

There’s nothing in this model that would explain the rage that ignited the riots. It leaves all of us wandering about carrying a heavy load of existential anxiety, a state far from flourishing. Bauman steps out of his base to attribute the anger to the inequality that forces the poorer segments of society to face their rootlessness and failures to acquire the only objects that constitutes success in such rootlessness: consumer goods. Consumption is the measure of one’s worth. Wealth is measured by the level and scope of the consumption it can produce. It is easy, as the commenters said, to jump from his sociological base to argue that inequality in the means to live a fluid life with its material trappings might lead to physical violence.

This explanation takes on more weight when proposed in a report by a major British brokerage firm, Tullett Prebon, with a stance quite to the opposite end of the political spectrum. The report, “I buy, therefore I am--The economic meaning of the riots,” summarizes the reasons:

The consumerist ethos, in which a materialist vision is both pedalled and, for the vast majority, simultaneously ruled out by exclusion, has extremely damaging consequences, both social and economic.

The report goes on the argue that these riots are not just a one-off event, but have profound implications for the British economy.

Britain needs to change its ethos, recast its role models, encourage saving, channel private investment into the creation rather than the inflation of assets, and switch public spending from consumption to investment within a focus on house-building, infrastructure and technology

Sounds familiar. We have had a financial collapse, but no riots yet to bring forth such statements from Wall Street. The popular sentiments heard in the media are quite in the opposite direction. The inclusion of “ethos” bears further discussion. The liquid state of the culture is exacerbated by the growing inequality which is real in terms of wealth or income but is magnified by what the report called the “You can’t have it” massage which runs alongside the many messages that say you have to own it.

For today’s young generation, the message pushed at them by big corporates and the media alike is unmistakable - “you are what you own.” The direct promotion of products and services is nothing new, of course, other than in its relentlessly growing scale. The more insidious dimension of the promotion of consumerism lies in its largely successful endeavour to capture lifestyle perceptions. Celebrities, be they sports stars, musicians, actors or the legions of D-list “celebs”, are linked to conspicuous consumption. “You”, young people are told, “ought to live like this”.

The second, flatly contradictory message is that “you can’t have it”. For the average young person, celebrity-style conspicuous consumption is tantalisingly but almost entirely out of reach.

For the overwhelming majority, the likelihood of becoming a sports, music or media star is so low as, for all intents and purposes, not to exist at all. Even an exceptionally talented young footballer has a virtually zero chance of matching the success of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. This, in itself, isn’t new. Britain was full of wannabe Alan Shearers in the 1990s, of would-be Allan Clarkes in the 1970s, and of schoolboy Nat Lofthouses in the 1950s.

It seems likely that we will see something like this in the US soon. Inequality is higher here that in the UK. We are likely, I believe, to see the “liquidity” of life become greater due to the continuing move toward undoing what institutions that provided stability, fueled by concerns that we have overreached in the past. Opposition to the consumerist ethos is weak, in spite of growth of sustainability as a public concern. This statement from the report is equally true here in the US.

Opponents of the consumerist message are puny beside the might of the advertising and marketing industries, the main advocates of alternatives being organised religions whose influence in countries like Britain is now extremely limited. Advertising is almost impossible to avoid. The typical internet user is subjected to at least one hundred advertisements per hour, and even those who confine their television exposure to public service broadcasters such as the BBC are not immune, as anyone who watched the sponsorship-drenched 2010 World Cup will attest.

The takeaway for me is the focus on “ethos,” as the basic problem. I translate the use of this word as a reference to the underlying cultural values that drive both our and the British societies. The combination of current policies that drive inequality and the “liquid” state of modernity of Bauman or similar descriptions found in the work of other prominent sociologist, for example, Claude Offe or Ulrich Beck, is toxic and unstable. The Tullett Prebon argues that a thorough reexamination of the institutions that have created the current malaise is urgent. The authors see the riots a wake-up call. They are optimistic that if such a reexamination is done “a policy phoenix can rise from the ashes.”

I do not expect such a re-examination to occur here any time soon. The Congressional blue-ribbon panel convened to deal with some of these issues has far too narrow a charge. As noted, the opposition to the hollow consumerist ethos is pitifully weak compared to the forces of the status quo. The bully pulpit of the president has lacked sermons with a tone of urgency and a call to recognize the growing possibility that we are approaching some tipping point that would send us into terra incognita, further than ever from the sustainability that would calm our collective angst.

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David M. Carter said:

As intellectual stimulating as Bauman's philosophy might be, again I think it contends with symptoms and glosses over the fact that the power elite have finally reached the point at which the masses are angy as hell and won't take it anymore. Indeed, average citizens have been inculcated into the manufactured manifestation of consumerism. It has been a highly effective cultural phenomenon promulgated by the corporate and political elite, even if, perhaps, somewhat by luck. But that does not diminish the simple truth that humans will not allow the few to hold such sway over the many for very long. The time has come, I'm afraid.

Sustainability (as you define it), I hope, will be a shining beacon for those who have been used and abused by the current system to the point of "liquid modernity". Properly defined and elaborated (and we're not quite there), it can promise a different path - one that leaves conspicuous consumption and the market-driven economy behind.

Regarding the Tullett Prebon report, although it finally unveils the debauchery of consumerism, it envisions a future driven by free markets, economic growth, and "investment". As all sentient beings know, this is ridiculous.

John said:

This comment was provided by Ed Byrne.

I know you regularly write topics on consumption/consumerism (and did so on Friday) and also scan newspaper articles to provide source material/(inspiration?). In this context, I’m not sure how aware you are of the sporadic though damaging riots that erupted throughout England last week, largely by a 'mindless' underclass in the wake of the shooting dead by police of a man. They resulted in at least four deaths of innocent people, who were protecting their properties from the mobs which generally just looted stores for high value goods, with little overt political reasons/reasoning other than because they could do this and to show the (perceived enemy, the) police that they could it.

It seems that most people who rioted did so because they had no real stake in society, they had nothing to lose and didn't care for their fellow humans. This surely represents a general failure of governance and politics. The overall context was general disillusionment with govt. cuts as a result of a state deficit, brought on by overspending in a consumer driven binge of the past couple of decades; both at government and personal levels; debt is ubiquitous as people and governments have fully bought into a credo that says 'I can have what I want when I want it - on credit'. Thus when the breaks are ultimately called on this unsustainable construct -as they have been globally over the past four years in a slow car crash of the global economy - which has yet to fully play out - people find it hard to accept, and if you are at the bottom rung of society with nothing to lose; looting and rioting becomes an option given any reasonable spark or tipping point. This is particularly the case when some selective debts are written off (in the financial sectors) by taxpayers, while ordinary citizens are forced to pay - thus creating more anger, more societal inequality and more conditions to vent this anger indiscriminately. The out workings may reveal themselves in different way in different countries, due to the complexity of human societies, including in simplistic actions and simplistic reactive 'solutions' by people and governments.

The main thing that debt and chronic consumerism does is steal from future generations - economically, socially and ecologically, as we buy (and hence manufacture) cars and other stuff on credit that we don't have and which wouldn't be built otherwise, in order to fuel the myth of 'sustainable (economic) growth'.

At any rate, here is a thoughtful article that appeared in an Irish newspaper yesterday which links the riots to the cancer of consumerism (particularly at the end of the article).
One feels it could happen anywhere, though the manifestations may be different..

Thanks also on your previous refs on complexity. I’ve read them and also have come across some great work from Edgar Morin (e.g. ‘On complexity’ – 2007 (English version)) as well as others such as the recently deceased Paul Cilliers, as well as of course Stuart Kuaffman and Gordon Kaufman. It seems that there is a lack of recognition by the scientific/academic community of what Morin calls ‘general complexity’ (see ‘look inside’ article in and the same sort of paradigmatic shift is required if we are to move to a better comprehension of both complexity and (hence) sustainability. It’s something I hope to work on academically.

Jamie Saunders said:

Interesting also to look at the landscape - 'geography' - and timescape around this, especially for instance, to root this is particular places, communities and 'times'. Local Agenda 21 recognised the power of the 'local'; where you live, your 'family', peers, neighbours, sense of place, 'quality of life', aspirations and prospects all wrap into this as well. Some places did not 'flare up', some may yet... but the local in the global - glocal ? - ought to be factored in... in pursuit of 'sustainability-minded', flourishing communities...