On Monday night, as the riots spread throughout London, the Home Secretary – freshly returned from her holiday – looked like the proverbial bunny trapped in the headlights of oncoming disaster. She seemed to have lost the facility of coherent speech, repeating again and again the same mantra: the riots were ‘sheer criminality and thuggery’ which are ‘completely unacceptable’, and for which there can be ‘no justification’. The thing is, what is the point of saying this? It is entirely obvious that the riots were acts of wanton criminal damage, and nobody was suggesting that they were in any way ‘acceptable’ or justified. The argument was reprised by the hapless Nick Clegg on his visit to Tottenham when he said, ‘It was needless, opportunist theft and violence – nothing more, nothing less.’ (By the way, there was an almost classic Thick of It moment when he was confronted by one resident who asked if the cuts would mean that this would now happen all over the UK; Clegg, clearly at a loss, responded with a less-than-resounding ‘Um, I don’t think so…’ Wrong, already.)
The trope that is emerging that there is ‘no justification’ for the riots, or that the violence is ‘sheer criminality’ – ‘no more, no less’ – is a ruse designed to close down explanations. Its purpose is to deliver a paradox, namely that the only explanation is there is no explanation. This suits the politicians very well indeed, because it diverts us away from awkward questions about the relationship of these events to the austerity programme; about the growing inequality and lack of opportunity that have built up over three decades of neo-liberal capitalist fundamentalism; about whether the anger being vented on the streets of the capital might not, in fact, be not so far removed from the anger that so many of us continue to feel about the bankers bringing our economy to the brink of collapse and then getting away with it (and being handsomely rewarded for it too) – after all, it is completely patronising to suppose these young men and women on the streets do not share this completely ubiquitous sense of unfairness; about whether, deep beneath the ‘mindless thuggery’ there might not, in fact, be an explanation after all.
And this provides politicians with a perfect alibi: if there is no explanation, there is no need to do anything about it. It is enough merely to look and sound as if you’re doing something about it – something which comes naturally to our postmodern political elite (something which Armando Ianucci knows only too well).
What is most depressing is that this line is not only being parroted by the government, but also by Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition. The official Labour Party line is exactly the same as the government’s, and no wonder because when Ken Livingstone (a maverick if ever there was one) tried to break this particular frame by suggesting there might indeed be deep-seated underlying reasons for what is going on, the BBC newspresenter (Ms Mawhinney – is she related to the old Tory minister?) immediately took him to task for ‘justifying’ criminality. Thus has the media once again become an ideological state apparatus, doing the government’s bidding by closing off perspectives that do not fit the government line (and thus incidentally demonstrating the effectiveness of the ruse). As a consequence, the political elite and the media to which they are symbiotically attached once again have begun creating a hermetically sealed echo chamber in which only a limited and sanctioned discourse is audible. Is it surprising, then, that most people – not just the rioters – feel that the nation’s leaders are so cut off from the rest of us?
And yet, a moment’s reflection surely provokes a million questions. Yes, there is wanton criminal violence – this much is obvious – and the moral codes of acceptable behaviour seem to have thoroughly disintegrated, but if this is only because of feral youths who are (socio)pathologically criminal, why don’t they do this all the time? Why have so many taken to the streets and committed these acts now? What has led them to cast off whatever restraints normally prevent such widespread social disorder at this particular time (and in those particular places – there is no recorded incidence of rioting in Hampstead or Highgate as far as I can tell)?
We need answers to these questions, and explanations to help us understand what happened so we can put it right. A society that hides beneath a thick blanket of moral condemnation and denial is not a society that can heal itself. Let a little light in, please.