Riots, Revolutions and Big Societies


The current London riots serve to raise the question of whether David Cameron’s policy of the Big Society has failed. One of the difficulties in addressing this question is the lack of clarity as to what the Big Society has actually entailed.  A brief glance at the difference between the youth-led Cairo protests and the youth-led London riots is instructive in indicating what is at stake.

Before the success of the Egyptian revolution, the British and American governments justified Mubarak’s dictatorship on the grounds that he was maintaining law and order. However, when I was living in Cairo in 2009 and 2010, the view from the streets was that Mubarak’s government, far from ensuring stability, promoted chaos. In fact, it was a sort of Big Society situation. The elites had withdrawn into their wealthy bubbles and padded enclaves leaving the people to cope with the socio-economic problems they faced as best they could. And, when capitalism fails as a ‘trickle down’ of wealth, what you get instead is a ‘trickle down’ of corruption and forms of lawlessness.

Take the famously anarchic state of Cairo’s traffic. Given the lack of investment in public transport and given the dire lack of jobs, the labor force of taxi drivers was allowed to grow unchecked. The resulting crazy congestion on the streets made traffic lights irrelevant in a free for all of each driver for himself, making getting about on a daily basis a strain at best and often dangerous, as traffic accidents proved.

In 2010, Khaled Al Khamissi, writer of the best-selling novel Taxi, quipped to me that the Egyptian people would not be so against dictatorship if it actually worked: meaning if strong leadership brought with it effective and efficient governance. In certain respects, Mubarak’s government was bereft of a will-to-govern as such, and, as has often been noticed, it is governments that are chaotically weak in terms of governance that come to rely on violent and forceful measures as their ‘policy’ in the absence of other policies.

The demonstrations in Cairo were not anarchy as chaos, but, in part, a protest at the chaos of the shrug-shouldered irresponsibility of Mubarak’s approach to government: leaving Egyptians to sort out the results of government indifference and ineptitude even if this meant resorting to lawless improvisations. If the Egyptian revolution was ‘anarchic’ in the political sense, it was in terms of it being a grass-roots movement rather than authority-directed. Rehab Bassam communicated as much to me in an interview in Cairo in April 2010, as follows:

“Putting aside ElBaradei and the President and all that—I feel that people are changing and that this is the most important thing. I don’t think that one person will come along and set everyone free because this will be too easy and we will not really have deserved it, but now I feel with the accumulation of all these things taking place, we are starting slowly to realize what we’ve been missing and what we need. And we are starting to ask for it. This is a very good start, and I’m very optimistic. I feel the opportunities of the last couple of years …and that in a short time there’ll be change for the better.”

What blogging and Facebook enabled the youth in Egypt to understand was that if you have to do things for yourself, you can really do so in a constructive way. The spirit of this needs to be understood as a case of DIY Democracy rather than DIY Capitalism.

The London rioters, unlike the Cairo demonstrators, are themselves not seen to be confronting government irresponsibility but seen to be the perpetrators of chaos. While they are not articulating questions of democracy and justice, their actions still imply a certain take on the Big Society.  Given that the message of the Big Society is one of self help (curiously quite nineteenth century), the behavior of the young rioters has been quite literally to help themselves.

It’s even quite funny, looked at in a certain way, if it were not so destructive and self-destructive. These kids are, for sure, helping themselves, practicing a parodic form of DIY Capitalism. It is as if, seeing how the rich help themselves, how the bankers bail themselves out at the expense of the not well off, how politicians crook their expense claims, and so on, they have invented their own form of opportunistic self-enrichment. Unlike in the Egyptian case, there is no trust in the potential for the democratic redress of inequities.

The Big Society jargon and hype has been advanced to an extent, it could be argued, as means of attempting to disguise or displace the fact that the government lacks the policies to offset the effects of its draconian cuts. While the Big Society presents itself as advancing ‘social responsibility’ (the public being given the go ahead to sort out the economic mess they are left in themselves) without ‘state control’ (or state responsibility), the experience is one of increased state irresponsibility with increased social control: debt, among other things, is certainly experienced as such.

So, the question is: does the cynicism of the young rioters reveal a ‘trickle down’ of government cynicism?

What does seem to be the case in the London context is a lack of an ability to confront the difference between DIY Capitalism and DIY Democracy. And this is not only on the part of the young rioters. Cameron put forward the Big Society idea explicitly to restore the public trust in politics, but without seeming to appreciate that this won’t work if you can’t distinguish between the capitalist promotion of autonomy and the democratic promotion of autonomy. Could this be the blindspot that left the government unprepared for both the Arab Spring and the riots?

We await to see what policies will be adopted in response to the London riots in the lead up to the Olympics. In March 2010, I helped to stage a hip hop show in Cairo by UK rapper Dizraeli and Canadian rapper Baba Brinkman called The Rebel Cell.  The play is a futuristic work set at the time of the 2012 London Olympics. It depicts a London in which a heavily repressive crack down on civil liberties has taken place out of an inability to distinguish between serious security threats and youthful rebelliousness at the economic failures of society. In the discussion session after the play, members of the Cairo audience said: we really identify with this play; it is just like this in Egypt.

Caroline Rooney is a RCUK Global Uncertainties research fellow. She can be reached at C.R.Rooney@kent.ac.uk

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