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On the Riots and the Need for a New Commons

Over the coming weeks and months, a deluge of blogs, articles and essays will attempt to make sense of the most widespread social unrest Britain has seen in recent memory. Undoubtedly, a period of collective reflection will be vital if we’re to have any hope of healing the deep social wounds that lie behind the riots. But if this reflection is to lead to anything productive – to anything like positive social change – it’ll require us to take our ruminations beyond our laptops and breakfast tables and turn them into concerted social action outside of our comfort zones. Those of us who have the time, space and means to ponder these events at some kind of social distance have a responsibility to ask how our lives have contributed to the state of affairs we find before us. Because that social distance is at the heart of the problems we face.

The ‘us’ I’m addressing here are the people with whom I most associate: the liberal middle-classes. There is a reality that we are loath to accept: we are part of the problem. As much as many of us like to think that we’re sympathetic to the plight of those caught in the poverty trap of neoliberal Britain, we have become past masters at expressing dismay at social problems whilst simultaneously insulating ourselves from them. Emblematic of this was Philip Hensher’s exhortation to carry on doing “what we do best – just carry on talking”. But talking is no longer enough. Our segregated lives and our refusal to take responsibility for what should be shared communities have contributed, beneath our radars, to the social implosion we’re witnessing before us.

The reaction to the riots has thus far trodden an entirely predictable line, and the establishment is doing exactly what we would expect of it: condemning, moralizing, pouting, flexing its muscles. A clear line has been drawn between Them and Us: the mindless criminals and the law-abiding citizens (LACs). We must be protected from them, and our establishment will reassert its sovereignty over us by doing so. David Cameron, admitting that there is something fundamentally wrong, went so far as to describe the rioters as “sick”. Rioting and looting is thus recast as medical pathology, with the establishment ready to administer shock treatment: already, the faces of hooded teenagers are being published by the police as #shopalooter hashtags abound on Twitter.

The “feral rats”, police chiefs have made it clear, will be dragged from their holes and placed, we assume, in holes where they cannot reach us. Those who lashed out at an establishment that either ignores or vilifies them will have all their resentments confirmed tenfold. You do not belong here.

The concurrent rejection of cause or context in much of the media exemplifies a retreat into a moralism that wilfully hides from rational interrogation. Concerned newsreaders, journalists and talking heads repeatedly ask, “Why are these people doing this?” only to recoil in horror at anything that might give off even a whiff of explanation. The caricatured moralism of our agenda-setters should come as no surprise. Yet decrying it from a safe distance as we sympathetically psychologize the looters is to exacerbate our malaise.

To unconsciously retreat from the terrifying intelligibility of the Real – from the prospect that somehow, somewhere, there may be something convicting in all of this – is to continually reproduce the social distance we have a responsibility to traverse. Moralism is our last line of defence.

Undoubtedly, the apparently amoral currents within the riots – the assaults on local shops, the burning of people’s homes, the attacks on individuals – present a problem for those of us who identify and sympathize with the legitimate rage of those left clinging to the wreckage of Britain’s social contract. But the point at which the actions of the rioters seem the least intelligible – the point at which there appears to be no moral or political message, only a celebration of fucking shit up and getting away with it – is precisely where our analytical and empathetic labour is most needed. For it is there that the essence of this social distance is to be found. As The Disorder of Things blog surmised:

“It is the deliberate, obscene transgression, the planned aggression, the fearless Fuck You, and above all, its enjoyment. It is the last bit which is the most indigestible and ugly, and therefore roundly ignored or bracketed, but also the most important in terms of what it means as a political statement: in short, we are not like you, we do not fear you, we have no stake in this place, we will take what we want, and we will enjoy it.”

Riots, in all their rage, confusion and contradiction, constitute momentary expressions of a violent social disorder: they are not exceptions to the norm but rather vessels that contain its prevailing social processes, condensed and crystallized into events of apparent extremity. The rioters resist the structural violence of late capitalism and reproduce it at the same time; as they lash out at a system they know is shafting them, they carry its logic with them. The stolen trainers, plasma screens and ipads signify both a moment of transformative resistance and a continuing subordination in a system which tells them, day after day, that conspicuous consumption is the mark of achievement and success. To ‘us’ it seems crass and grasping. But it is precisely because we enjoy material affluence and security with such casual abandon that we can pretend to ourselves that we have transcended the allure of limitless consumption.

Plainly, the reverse is true. We live, in essence, segregated lives. As much as middle-class Londoners like to believe that they live in a multicultural and mixed city, most of us actually share precious little with those who face un- and underemployment, dependence on shrinking and strained public services and police harassment. Even those of us who live in ex-council properties do not, in truth, share much beyond the spaces we temporarily inhabit. In most cases we will move on and out, send our children to private schools or quiet comprehensives outside of the city and reproduce the distance over and over again.

If we want to live in a society in which everyone feels they have a stake, we have to find a way of getting beyond the social othering that renders our ‘communities’ largely notional. Undisputedly, political struggle is vital if we are to challenge the gross inequities and that are foisted upon more and more people in our society. We should strive for political and economic systems – for social relationships – that are genuinely equitable and inclusive. But without a real community base underpinning it, any political movement will remain similarly notional, relying on moral impetus rather than lasting community structures that could genuinely offer an alternative. Thirty years of neoliberalism has eroded our capacity to generate social movements with an enduring social grounding.

Of course, there are plenty of LACs who are not middle-class. But since I am a middle-class LAC, I direct my challenge at people like me. The challenge I pose is for us to figure out a way of leaving the Them and Us behind. This cannot be achieved through rhetoric and abstraction, but instead through the cultivation of real social relationships in shared social institutions. It means sending our children to state schools in our localities and valuing them as hubs that generate shared experiences and shared meanings. It means relocating our hobbies and interests to our local communities so that we practice them with a wide strata of society rather than merely with people ‘like us’ – instead of joining the expensive city-centre gym next to our offices, why not join our local leisure centre or sports team? It means reconsidering the value of high-paying jobs that drain our energies and detach us from the experiences of those around us. It means taking the time to think about where the institutional cross-sections lie and putting ourselves in those spaces, becoming the mixed community we claim to believe in. And it means, most of all, going through the awkward and unsettling process of crossing those divides with only our shared humanity as a guide.

I’m not advocating a hollow Big Society voluntarism that seeks to parasitically use our energies to fill the social chasms carved open by late capitalism. Nor am I urging us to ‘help’ or ‘save’ the poor, or to colonize impoverished communities with our lifestyles and values. Instead, I’m challenging us to help and save ourselves – all of us – by building a new commons based on lives that intersect and mutually support one another. If a liberatory politics comes out of this, so much the better. It should be a natural corollary.

At one level, we are divided from the day we are born. And we become steadily more divided as we pass through life, accumulating prejudices and fears along the way as our social and cultural segregation erects boundaries in our minds. But at a deeper level, beneath these constructed divides, there is, and has only ever been, one us. The power of symbolisation that structures our minds is potent enough to make us believe we are separate from others. But we are not, and never have been. The urgent task that lies before us is to build communities and lives that reflect this greater truth.

Matt Wilde is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Anthropology, London School of Economics and Political Science. He can be reached at m.w.wilde@lse.ac.uk    

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