Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The revolution will not be televised if they nick all the televisions

(Those who have been following me on Twitter over the past few hours may find some of these observations a little familiar. My only defence is that, in true postmodern spirit, I’m just looting myself.)

A year and a bit ago, there was a period of civil disturbance in Bangkok. I wrote something about it at the time. It’s not helpful – nor is it my place – to divide the participants into goodies and baddies, but I think it’s fair to say that most of the protesters originally came to the city with honestly held grievances. In their view, the democratic process had failed them, after elected governments aligned to Thaksin Shinawatra were forced out of office, first by the army, then by the courts. Non-violent protest degenerated into something nastier, 90 or more people were killed, and much damage was inflicted on the city. But, as far as I’m aware, nobody stole any flat-screen TVs.

Some of the more strident opponents of the protesters argued that if this is how ordinary Thais behaved when they had the merest sniff of democracy, it might be better for the country if it were sealed off from these new-fangled notions for a few years. To his credit, Prime Minister Abhisit rejected such a move, in due course called an election, and was soundly defeated by Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister/proxy. So the protesters got pretty much what they wanted but – crucially – they got it through the ballot box, not through brute force.

Recent events in London and beyond seem to have followed an initial trajectory that’s superficially similar to that of the Bangkok protests, with a peaceful demonstration against a perceived injustice getting out of control. But what happened next was at once less serious (nobody, so far as we know at the moment, is dead) and more reprehensible, as participants quickly ditched all pretence to a political motive and began to loot and burn for its own sake. Condemnation was quickly and rightly forthcoming from all quarters, even if some of the proposed responses (water cannons, troops on the street, martial law, shoot on sight) suggested that some people don’t follow recent events – those in Bangkok, for example – as closely as they might. And some other rumours banging around Twitter, such as the meme that the animals had been released from London Zoo, just prove that some people read too many John Irving books.

The looters in London and Birmingham and Liverpool and elsewhere don’t have the excuse that they were the victims of an anti-democratic fiddle; moreover, they’re considerably wealthier, in material terms, than most of the farmers and labourers who marched under Thaksin’s banner. The electoral system in Britain is far from perfect, but by chance, last year’s election gave an outcome that was closer to the intentions of the voters than many in recent times: as ever, no one party took an overall majority of votes, and unusually, no one party was able to govern unaided. It wasn’t the result I wanted, and maybe it wasn’t what the people lugging flat-screen TVs through smashed shop windows wanted (an analysis of voting behaviour among the hooded opportunists might throw up some surprises, although I suspect not) but it’s what happened.

But just because the looters aren’t noble, selfless freedom fighters, it doesn’t mean their behaviour doesn’t warrant analysis. It was in that spirit that I tweeted:
The looting is an unholy synthesis of welfare dependency and consumer capitalism. Discuss.
...and while some appreciated the contribution, and some agreed, and some didn’t, one or two hinted that such Hegelian chin-stroking is inappropriate right now, that our responses should be practical or emotional, but not intellectual; after all, not that many bookshops were ransacked over the past few nights. It’s pretty sad when the word “understanding” becomes freighted with negative connotations; if you’re trying to understand a criminal, does it really mean that you automatically want to hug him and forgive him and buy him a Wii? Surely it’s quite consistent to want to understand and analyse an act of wrongdoing, and at the same time to sympathise with the victims and punish the wrongdoers and try to prevent the whole fiasco from happening again.

Or should we just say fuck it, and wheel out the water cannons?

PS: Hurrah! Zoe Williams brings Baudrillard to the (street) party!

PPS: And at Prospect, David Goodhart throws a slug of Fukuyama into the punchbowl...


Charles Edward Frith said...

It would be a dullard who couldn't come up with a arms distance analysis from another continent. Critical comments probably don't appreciate that but may well be ignorant of an increasingly interdependent world.

My only criticism is why do we turn a blind eye to the banker bonuses which encouraged the wholesale looting of the economy and set the stage for recent events. It's all connected.

But I repeat myself.

Annie said...

Charles, right, it is all connected. The rich just do it sneakily and legally. And go to great lengths to protect their own property.

Some Tory twat on Newsnight summed it up, almost by accident, for me. He said "They've got nothing left to lose."

(He then backed away from where this conclusion might lead him, to say they are just feral and criminal.)

We should almost start asking why people don't do it more, not why they do it at all. It wasn't just about nicking new trainers. Happy contented people with a stake in the future don't feel the need to smash windows and set cars and buildings on fire.

broken biro said...

But will a single banker be out of pocket as a result of these events? Is it fatcats who had to run from their burning homes?

To quote Stephen Fry from last night: "Greed and looting most hurt small shops and businesses who can least afford it.True of thugs who are bankers or thugs who aren't."

I'm not sure anyone in government will be sitting there right now saying: "Let's make these people happier and they won't do this." Expect more and worse.

Ben H said...

I think "welfare dependency and consumer capitalism" is part of it, but that's been around for years. I think the new factor is the way that the government is signalling its absolute contempt for the young poor.

They are ending the Education Maintenance Allowance, which was having a slight positive effect on grades and attendance, and replacing it with a much more restrictive grant that you can only claim if you're disabled or you live with your parents or you're a carer.

The money that was saved by cutting EMA was cancelled out by a cut on corporation tax. The right-wing excuse is that this is to "stimulate the economy", but corporation tax rates don't actually seem to effect growth. Of course, the need to cut taxes to boost growth didn't stop them putting up VAT that the little people pay.

Poetry24 said...

I'd like to know what sort of world, in their heart of hearts, the looters and arsonists would like to live in. Do they see the burning and destruction as a means to an end, cry for attention, or way of life?

Tim Footman said...

See next post, Charles.

Annie: The finance guys take advantage of others' misfortune (excessive payment protection, foreclosure, asset stripping, etc), and exacerbate it; the looters just take the next logical step and cause the misfortune itself.

BB: If the looting had taken place at around the time Fred the Shred's pay-off deal was in the news, I think the general response might have differed.

I'm wary of the EMA argument, Ben, because you only needed to show up to claim it. Seems intended more to keep young men off the streets, and boost lower NEET figures. Administered better, it could have been great.

Martin: they are 21st-century kids, requiring stuff (trainers, phones, etc) and fame (look at me, I'm on telly). Baudrillard, Debord, Greil Marcus, Naolin Klein... Ach, if only they had looted a few bookshops...