Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The Emasculated and Infantilised Strike Back

“I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables - slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We’re the middle children of history man, with no purpose or place. We have no Great War, no great depression. Our great war’s a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires and, movie gods and rock stars – but we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off” Fight Club
The fact that Fight Club is over 15 years old is startling.  It was eerily prophetic - and not just in this quote.  Two points, you could argue, from the quote above are now inaccurate though.  
  1. Our generation already has its own "great war" - the continual war on terror and 
  2. We are entering our "great depression", that of the wake of the global banking crisis.
But the war on terror is not "real" in that it does not directly affect that many of our citizens (compared to WW2 for example).  There is no "excitement" no conscription or blitz spirit.  It just drags on, being used to excuse the erosion of civil liberties. 

Indeed we are living in a neo-liberal consumer society though: proven by the looting of trainers.  That's all these people have left to aspire to.  And the system is broken, we all know that.  The banks have collapsed but so unthinkable is it that capitalism might fail, the state intervenes to ensure it's business as usual.  Bankers still get their unlimited bonuses - someone else will have to pay. 

We are living in an emasculated society where Dads are demonised (see Fathers for Justice) and all men are treated as potential sex offenders.  Traditional "masculine" industries have gone.  As you'll see below, young men in particular, and young people in general, are treated like children.  It is this kind of nanny state approach that makes people act like children and makes young men violent.  

Croydon Clean Up Brigade
Croydon Clean Up Brigade2
I went into Croydon this morning to take photographs of the aftermath of last night's riots - which spread across the Capital and, now,  the country.  I've spent the day talking to people on the street and watching the news footage as well as reading articles online and through Twitter etc.  One thing that strikes me is that everyone wants to know "why" (as if the youth are asking for something and if only we could give it to them they'd stop).  When anyone tries to explain underlying reasons they are quickly shot down as "not good enough" and the rhetoric returns to "it's all just mindless opportunism and criminality" (as if the two things are mutually exclusive).  What people can't grasp is that it is mindless opportunism but this doesn't mean there aren't reasons for this.  No, it's not a coordinated political uprising.  It's a load of people who are fed up, bored, and have got nothing to lose.  Yes, they are having fun (they're having the times of their lives).  They can't believe that they're getting away with it, no one is stopping them and this makes them feel empowered.  The other thing that I hear repeatedly is a patronising infantilisation of these people, who are usually referred to as "kids".  There are repeated cries of "what are the parents thinking....why have they let them out, they should be at home".  The Met has called for parents to check on their children and keep them in tonight but at the same time they have admitted that 80% of those in custody are in their twenties.  And those in their teens? Should we be referring to them as children?

Last night I saw Ken Livingstone give the best explanation of the rioter's motives.  He came under attack from the BBC reporter who interrupted to ask something like "but isn't it just criminality and looting, plain and simple?" to which Ken replied something like "of course it is, but why is it happening now?".  He went on to remind us that for the first time since WW2 we have a generation with worse prospects than their parents.  These youths, he says, are are criminals, yes, but they are disaffected, they feel that no one at the top of society (government) cares about them or speaks for them.  They have no prospect of a job, cannot provide for a wife and family, half the students in college don't know if they will be there next year because EMA has been cut.  That's why there is the fearlessness, they don't care, they have nothing to lose, they don't have a stake in society.  Not everyone takes to looting though Ken points out that the rioters account for less than one tenth of one percent of the Capital's youths.  It's not a political statement - it's anger and it's disaffection. You can hear the interview here.  

Of course Ken could have gone further.  He could have cited cuts to youth clubs and services.  He could have mentioned that Londoners, on average (unless helped financially by their parents) cannot expect to buy a house until they are 37, and young people now spend half their income on rent.  Ed Howker and Shiv Malik sum this up in their book "Jilted Generation: how Britain bankrupted its youth", in which they discuss what sort of a deal this young generation has got as compared to previous generations - taking into account opportunities, income, and cost of living.  To sumarise, they find conditions have worsened for young people:  
  • 25% of young people are still living with their parents - long into their twenties, this affects their ability to form relationships, men who live with their parents are more likely to become violent, 
  • There are 1.7 million families on the Council Housing waiting list (these are not old people), governments deal with this by giving them money to rent privately, which helps prop up landlords instead of building more Council Houses.  
  • This generation cannot have a university education unless they're prepared to take on huge debt (£9K per annum in fees but the total cost, including loss of earning could top £100K).  Even if they do get a degree they can look forward to a "competitive" job market where they may have to work in low value McJobs and undertake unpaid interships until they are "allowed" to get a proper, adult job.  
  • At the same time the government pays winter fuel payment to over 65s - 80% of whom don't need it.  If this was means tested the savings could pay for student tuition fees.  But they don't do that - young people aren't allowed to vote you see.  
  • Any help young people get is based on their parents' income.  This is, in itself an infantilising act as an 18 year old - capable of voting, joining the army, paying taxes, etc is still treated as a child.  
  • The government say that tuition fees have to increase because more people are going to university, but if more people use the NHS or the roads or any other public service what happens? The public pay more, through taxation.  This logic only affects our generation.  
  • 1.5million young people unemployed (1 in 5) and they are unemployed for a significant amount of time.  If this continues we will have a lost generation.  
  • Young people's careers start much later (after Uni, interships and unemployment) thus infantilising us further. 

Hear Malik and Howker discuss the book here

Yet this isn't a good enough "explanation" for many pundits or Joe Public.  I've still heard calls for water cannon, rubber bullets and "send them to Afghanistan".  How about treating them like adults, giving them opportunities and responsibilities?  "Sending them to Afghanistan" would, however, have a positive outcome: it would enable "them" to experience "the real", something beyond the everyday malaise that they experience - something akin to what is being experienced now.  It would be one opportunity, but there should be more for this generation to choose from, not be pushed into as some sort of punitive measure - punitive for what? These people didn't cause the banking crisis, they probably didn't vote Tory (if they were old enough to vote in the last election).  In fact, hang on a minute, who did vote to bail out the banks and pay the price through public sector cuts and the systematic dismantling of our Higher Education system? Certainly the Tory voters were not a majority and those who voted Lib Dem, who have been utterly betrayed. This government has no control of the streets and no mandate to govern.  I call for a general election now and hope that a new coalition wins - a coalition of the left - because Labour won't help these people, Labour won't restore free Higher Education or punish the banks.  We need a new politics where the Greens and the Communists can affect Labour and the Liberals to pull them away from a centre-ground consensus that a neo-liberal, free-market society based on continually increasing consumption is the only way.  That only Capital, not culture, matters.  We have seen the beginning of troubles - stemming from the banking crisis or credit crunch - but capitalist consumerism will only send us head-on into an apocalyptic scenario of global warming and a rising global population fighting over depleting resources.  The system needs to change, the question is a) has the revolution already started and b) do the left have the answers to fix the mess?


  1. Good material there mate, just be a little careful with big brother, he hates smart chaps.

    One thing missing on a local/national level which would get him all worked up: Is it just a mere coincidence that all of this has come to be just after the recent News of the World saga? Besides, what other way would there be to justify the future use of rubber ammunition and the like against people?

    On an international scale of affairs: I f invoking a Communist agenda, we should be aware of its internationalist implications. So, how does this "rioting" link to the so-called Spanish and Jasmine revolutions, the Greek protests and so many other symptoms of social unrest accross Europe (UK included), the Mediterranean regions and beyond? Could the UK ever have a similar organised opposition to its corporate-State lock? Why is it always "rioting" there in the UK rather than building credible alternatives to the actually existing state of affairs?

    You mention the premonitory words of Fight Club. But since when has all of this been going on for? It ain't new, is it?

    Not that I need answers. I much prefer questions.

    pd. Great pics!

  2. Interesting post. The main danger with the media (mainstream and social) analysis of all this is that it's very tricky to talk about the riots without falling into the set commonplaces that are all too predictably being thrown up ("It's the cuts!" "It's multiculturalism!" "It's immigration!" etc. etc.). Not to say some of them aren't true, but more that this is clearly a complex network of issues going on. This is why Cameron was so wrong to say "It's simple": it's not simple, it's violent ambiguity, which is paradoxical, because someone smashing your shop window in should be very simple indeed; but as your post here suggests, it really isn't.

    There are some old and recurrent issues here, clearly, as well as some newer ones (e.g. the whole question of how "organised" the riots are, and the role of digital social networks in them). For example: people calling for water cannons seem to miss the point that these are very mobile groups of looters, not a cohesive protest group that will conveniently stand together in a large group in a main high street, where water cannon is effective.

    I agree with the infantalising point. But perhaps what's missing here is a note on how the whole notion of what a 'child' has been effectively deified by many in the past fifteen or twenty years. But it's really difficult to make that point without sounding like some nostalgic twat.