Burning the High Street
An ultimate expression of consumer culture.
Making sense of the riots that have afflicted our cities over the past few days seems to have divided opinion unnecessarily. Many commentators seem to think that the criminality, burglary, arson and violence of the riots are somehow disconnected from problems such as poverty, unemployment and social disenfranchisement. In contrast, many on the left seem to think that the riots are understandable reactions to the Government’s attempts to cut social services; hitting the poor and allowing the super-rich to remain comparatively under-taxed. But these polar positions need not be mutually exclusive and what binds them together is the cult of consumerism. It has long been said that shopping malls are the new cathedrals. This I think is a comparison that has been superseded; instead we are witnessing an ultimate expression of consumer culture, in the same way that war is the ultimate expression of competition, where even the cathedrals themselves are subject to being consumed – if it can not be looted, it will be torched.
For many generations, since the end of the Second World War, the industrialised Western democracies have promoted a type of consumer-led capitalism that consistently advertises the importance of acquisition. Buy-now- pay-later schemes, cheap or free credit, cut price goods and the constant cajoling of expanding media advertising, in which virtually no surface goes unbranded, have all conspired to convince a generation of young people that having stuff is more important that almost anything else. But, in reaction to the riots, our Prime Minister, David Cameron, returns from his holiday in Tuscany to impress us with the Party Line. Cameron says that we are to be in no doubt the Government will do everything necessary; he condemns the “..sickening scenes..”. He says the riots are “criminality pure and simple to be confronted and defeated”, that we need to “Stand together to re-build communities.” that the Government is “…on the side of the law-abiding…” and “…we need more robust police action to confront the thugs…” He went on to say that he was “…determined that justice will be done and people will feel the full force of the law…if they are old enough to commit crime, they are old enough to suffer the consequences of their actions.”
On the face of it, not many would disagree with Cameron – indeed, I find myself having very similar thoughts as I watched the riots unfold on Television. I was thinking we need a curfew, we need water cannon and the army on the streets. But I was also acutely aware of the pure hypocrisy of such a high moral position. For several generations, the ‘Great and the Good’ have been exposed as crooks and charlatans: politicians on the take; prime ministers inventing dossiers and going to war; business people avoiding taxes; banks miss-selling, stealing and gambling billions; newspaper magnates stopping at nothing to gain information and major corporations such as British Aerospace have been allowed to bribe their way to success while the Attorney General closed down investigations in The Public Interest.
In short, the hierarchy is ruled by the most ruthless and aggressive individuals; Eton boys running wild while millions starve to death in the underdeveloped world. Now, this situation might not be new but it is instantly reported and discussed. And while the aggression and violence of others in never an excuse for becoming aggressive and violent oneself, it is hardly surprising that frustrated youth are not going to be told what not to do by a hierarchy that commits worse crimes on a daily basis. Setting fire to cars and buildings and looting shops is truly appalling but very minor in both scale and cost compared to the ‘Shock and Awe’ committed against civilians abroad – and people get medals for that. I’m not surprised by the riots, only thankful they are not more widespread, and until we have some ethical fibre displayed by those at the top, people at the bottom will feel immune to censure.
But the ethical fibre we need is lacking precisely because the power elite maintain their positions by their an emotional, intellectual and financial commitment to consumer capitalism, a system that has the destruction of property and the environment built into its fabric: products with built-in obsolescence and designed not to be able to be easily repaired; products that require constant feeds of energy and resources; products that rely on virtual slave-labour for their manufacture to keep costs down and the labour market powerless – even our money is created by government sponsored private ‘fiat’ via fractional reserve banking: effectively a pyramid scheme that needs constant expansion for its survival. The power elite has invested in this system of consumption so heavily that they can not foresee alternatives even as the financial system that runs along side it crashes and stumbles towards an inevitable demise. The riots we have experienced over the last few days are frightening and unacceptable but I also believe we might be in for a great deal more of the same. As an environmentalist I have, since 1977, been warning of the inherently unsustainable character of consumer capitalism and the limits to systems reliant on exponential growth and now, over 30 years later, we are witnessing the beginning of the end. I wish I was wrong, but fear I am not. Many of the rioters are part of an under educated under-class; they are under-employed and understandably pissed off. And while they display a sociopathic lack of sympathy for their victims, they share much in common with The Great and the Good, the most common trait being that they are prepared to take what they want without reference to the needs of the majority.
For more on these issues and suggestions for alternatives and reforms please see www.sirisuk.org