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Shopocalypse Now: British riots and consumerism

Police

Peaceful protests were ignored, casualties of a corrupt and alienated society. Is it any wonder violence and theft have taken their place? Image: bixentro via Flickr.

So it’s come to this. Outside, sirens doppler back and forth every few minutes. My street is one of the quiet ones. The looting is restricted to areas with high street brands.

The irony here is so thick it could cure anemia. London is overrun by looters, smashing in windows, tearing open shutters and making off into the night with armfuls of tracksuit bottoms, DVD players and flat screen TVs. The streets are strewn with hangers.

The purported flashpoint of this widespread disorder? The shooting of a young man in Tottenham, North London, named Mark Duggan. He was shot by the police in what can generously be described as an opaque incident involving an exchange of fire that may or may not have involved the police accidentally shooting each other and blaming it on him.

Duggan who? I want Burberry!

The people smashing into sports shops and electronics stores probably don’t even know Duggan’s name. They’re too busy, in the words of this girl, “getting [their] taxes back.”

With Duggan’s death fresh enough to be bandied about as a cause, the rioting could be somehow explained as a form of protest, an eruption of vitriol from the disaffected youth inhabiting the poorer districts of this city, struggling to find a role in society that won’t involve performing oral sex on abandoned railway platforms, or stacking shelves at Tesco.

How is this anti-establishment sentiment made manifest? By what can only be described as violent shopping.

Rampaging through the communities they grew up in, rioters take out their frustration over unemployment and boredom on the shops and businesses that provide jobs in their area. They smash-and-grab the luxury items which are supposedly the fruit of all the social climbing, work and effort society enshrines. Their generation’s grand gesture of disobedience is straight-up Western-style consumer-capitalism, pure and uncut, direct from the amygdala. Take whatever you can get your hands on for yourself and trash the commons with impunity.

They’re not inhuman, not confused, not wrong. They are us, except they’re doing it here and with no sense of irony. Protest 2.0, London-style.

Dancin’ by the Nile, the ladies love his style (Hugo Boss Tut)

In Cairo, during the uprising, it was the Egyptian youth who linked arms to protect the Museum of Antiquities, the cultural heritage of their long and respected history.

Here in London, if any of these kids have been to a museum, it was after being forcibly dragged there during a field trip (if their school still had the budget or even a subject that included things found in a museum). While there, they glumly trudged the halls, dully looking over the dusty artifacts. After all, with a smartphone that has wi-fi and full color interactive gaming, with Twitter, Facebook, Bebo, Myspace, Blackberry Messenger and YouTube, how the hell is a museum supposed to compete?

Anything they were taught was only on the syllabus because of its utility in the “knowledge economy.” Who needs to know history or facts when there’s Wikipedia? Who needs math when there’s a calculator? Who needs handwriting and spelling when there’s Microsoft Office and spell check? Who needs music or art classes when there’s no demand in the marketplace for those skills? Or should I say skillz?

These people have been marketed to since birth, where at once they were dehumanized into an object. They’ve been intellectually and spiritually groped in a manner as insidious as the tactics of the most hungry-eyed pedophile. Their sense of self, their very existence, has been mediated by the economy into which they’ve been prepped for entry.

From personalized ringtones to Celebrity Big Brother, every possible act of engagement or empowerment has been a commercial transaction for them. Every sub-culture becomes an economic sector of co-opted dissent.

They’ve been raised as consumers, not citizens.

Would you sell your story to Rolling Stone?

Consumers have gadgets. Consumers have the respect of business and government because their jealously guarded (and coveted) money is the closest thing they’ll ever possess promising the keys to the kingdom. Even the university education that their parents received for free or for a mere £1000 a year, will now cost £9000 a year. That is if they can get into a university with what little useful knowledge the state provides in exchange for their parents’ taxes. After all, don’t we need competition to deliver the best results to the consumer?

Given the opportunity to take to the streets, they come out in force as consumers, not citizens. They protest against their lack of spending power, their lack of high definition TV, the meddlesome need of government to extract taxation from them for services from which (if they reach their dotage) they’ll never benefit. They’re the purest incarnation of our free market—consumer ideology. They’re competing against the law for the best results a consumer can ever hope for—something for nothing.

And they’re winning.

While pundits are onscreen in the coming weeks with the mandatory hand-wringing, and while Parliament debates the inevitable emergency police powers which will bring water cannons and maybe even rubber bullets onto the streets of London, these consumers will be at home watching it all on their new televisions, comfortably toasty in their new tracksuits. They’ll re-absorb the narrative of their activity through the mediated world we created for them, a world which still contains no genuine sense of community, of productive work, of social justice, fairness or equality. But it is reality TV.

Oh Maggie, what have you done?

Our government decries the violence on the streets of Brixton, Tottenham, Lewisham, Camden, Woolwich, Croydon and Birmingham while levying taxes for wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

Our deputy mayor is disgusted by the looting of electronics from Curry’s—electronics that have been made for slave wages in a Chinese factory rife with worker suicide and abuse. But don’t worry about the particulars because that kind of manufacturing throughput is more “efficient” (read cheap) than producing things ourselves using well-compensated labor. And you can get it right here at Curry’s!

How dare they smash their way into a Tesco supermarket and steal food. Yet Tesco itself runs an approximate £2 billion profit margin annually while purposefully opening up “express” shops next to successful neighborhood grocery stores, driving them out of business with tactics designed to bypass local objections? Isn’t this just the “free market?”

How can these hooligans set pubs on fire? How malicious is that? Those pubs sell beer from upstanding brands who buy barley from countries wracked by famine while our government bleats about food aid.

Whence cometh such cannibalism? Where indeed could these misguided looting fools have gotten their ideas?

Did evil thoughts filter into their minds by osmosis? Are they possessed by the Devil? Or did they grow up in single-parent homes on sink estates, surrounded by the remains that “wealth creation” leaves behind, dreaming of a way out?

Did the debt-ridden financial system of this country drive both their parents into working long shifts with irregular hours to suit a 24-hour culture, leaving their children in the hands of everyone’s favorite babysitter and pacifier, the television? When Mummy’s hours were cut by Tesco after they put in self-checkout machines, did Mummy have to take a second job to make up the wages she lost?

However did these young people acquire such a bizarre combination of hatred and brand loyalty?

How indeed.

While we were talking I saw you nodding out

As for where this unexpected outpouring of violence came from, the establishment need only cast an eye over the recent past. Dissenters in this country have tried every possible way of reclaiming power.

We marched against the invasion of Iraq in our millions. Yet it happened anyway, against our will.

We marched, petitioned and protested against war, against spending cuts, against privatization, against crony capitalism, against bank bailouts, against globalization, against corporate tax cuts, against job losses, against pretty much everything we wanted stopped.

Did it change a damn thing? Did it stop our government from doing whatever they wanted? Hell no. We even voted against all the major parties in the last election and ended up getting two of them in power instead of none.

In response to the latest raft of austerity measures, students came out and protested for a cause, en masse. It got messy, but hey, nothing like this. Response? Jowly outrage and zero engagement with the demands of the vox populi.

So now, after every avenue has been explored by the public consciousness of this country in an effort to make itself heard, it has come to this.

That truncheon thing

Every one of these thieving magpies on the streets of London tonight is carrying with them a piece of our collective humanity. The frustration at not being listened to, which is even worse than not being heard. The anger at a system that functions in isolation, unaccountable, unresponsive and fundamentally undemocratic. The loneliness of having no community, of families working ceaselessly to meet their obligations as the rising tide drowns everyone without a yacht.

The cognitive dissonance of having a millionaire Prime Minister tell us we’re all in it together before flying off to an arms fair in the Arab Emirates as a sales rep for UK Plc, only to now come home early from his family holiday to decry violence.

This is simply the newest manifestation of a festering sore as old as the hills, as untended as a gangrenous limb. There will be other manifestations, make no mistake.

No colors anymore I want them to turn black

If the response of the power structure is to entrench itself, to bring in draconian public order measures and to ignore the underlying root of the problem, this will happen again, only worse and worse as time goes on.

If the individuals in a given society can be considered as parts of an over-arching holistic consciousness expressing itself above the level of personal human awareness, then the collective id of Great Britain just had a serious outburst.

It has been said that violence is the sign language of the inarticulate. If that is true, as I believe it to be, then how much more pronounced are the violent linguistics of the forcibly muted? This violence turned inward towards the ranks from which it swelled is akin to the self-hatred of the alcoholic, beating himself up about being a drunk instead of laying off the sauce.

By what metric can we judge the behavior of these people once the nature of our society is taken into account? What transgression can we hang on them which does not originate with our own behavior, denial or neglect? Having no sense of community? Having no moral compass? Wanting what they haven’t earned? Taking what does not belong to them? Exploiting the weakness of others through violence? Opportunism? Gluttony? Ignorance? Hypocrisy? Madness? Where can we draw a line that distinguishes their actions here from our collective behavior as a society both here and in countless, far-flung places?

Whatever the conscious motives or underlying machinations, the metaphor of these riots is the real message, a message which we ignore or underplay at our peril.

–Mike Freedman, Transition Voice

Postscript: The word “shopocalypse” was coined by my friend George Arton and, in keeping with recent events, I looted it mercilessly. Shout-out to The West Londoner for keeping the news feed going all night.

Cross posted from Critical Press

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