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You do not decide to join the “underclass”, you are made a member.

Katarzyna Falęcka, Political CritiqueWould you say Great Britain is more vulnerable to violent protests than any other European country?

Prof. Philippe Marlière: I do not think that Great Britain has greater vulnerability in terms of cultural or human predisposition, but I do think that what shaped the extent and depth of both the violent and peaceful protests are the socio-economic conditions as well as the political situation. This eruption of violence, the looting and the destruction of property, can be easily condemned, but if one wants to understand why this violence happened in the first place, one should reflect on the bigger picture and take into account various factors.

How did the socio-economic factors influence this outburst of violence?

The current riots share some similarities with those which happened in Brixton in the early 1980s. The Brixton riots also coincided with the implementation of austerity measures by the Thatcher government. The large number of cuts which were carried out in all areas of social services had started to impact on people’s lives, especially on those economically disadvantaged. It was emphatically noted that some of the rioters came from the middle-classes. The large majority nevertheless originated from poor backgrounds. There is a clear correlation between the cuts in public services and the riots. Social workers who know the young rioters best unceasingly try to draw attention to the link between drastic poverty and lack of prospects in the rioters’ lives. One of the government’s main mistakes was the closing down of several youth centres which were the only place these youngsters could socialize and be supervised by social workers. But this is only the short-term explanation. The real problem is the widening gap between the rich and the poor, a general phenomenon across the Western world, but which is more striking in Britain than, say, in France or in Germany.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, Great Britain has been perceived as a very wealthy but also an extremely unequal state. 

Britain has a long history of stark class divides. The country was never a natural home for socialist or republican ideas. British society today remains classist; a place where classes never mingle and where people have an extremely strong sense of their social background. We always celebrate multiculturalism – which works to a certain extent – but which also has its failings. London is the perfect example of a city in which different ethnic groups live parallel lives; there is little interaction between them. You would never have riots in Paris, as it is a predominantly middle class city. In London on the other hand, you often find a social estate at the end of a serene, leafy middle class street. Those “neighbours” never mingle. Things work out rather peacefully in times of economic growth, but may become disastrous in times of recession. And what we now call the “underclass” – even though this term should be removed from the lexicon as it deliberately tends to “de-socialise” and even “de-humanise” a group of people – is different from working class people who on the whole had jobs and were part of a rather homogeneous social group.

Cameron claims that the rioters do not have “proper morals, ethics nor parents”, but omits to analyse the deeper causes of the riots. Do you think the last four days will undermine his position as a leader even more or will he be perceived as a hero who is protecting the British nation?

In Cameron’s view, expressed in Parliament on the 10th August, the riots were “barbaric acts”, acts of “pure criminality”. The increase in the number of policemen – from 6,000 to 16,000 – helped restore order after four days of rioting and looting in the streets of London. This led to a number of arrests. Some of those taken into custody had carried out serious crimes, but some had just stupidly joined in and stolen cheap goods. There is the story of a student coming back from his girlfriend’s flat at night and on his way back home stealing two bottles of water worth £3.50. He was sentenced to 6 months imprisonment. A system of almost random justice is being applied now in order to set an example and reassure a frightened public. Cameron needs to convince his electorate that he is able to control the violence, but nobody is showing any real interest in taking a closer look at the true causes of the violence and why so many people went out to the streets, because then the government would have to acknowledge that its policies have failed segments of the population, and that it has to embark on a dramatic policy change. Cameron and the majority of the press have taken an unsustainable and critical line claiming that what Britain has seen over the past few days was only “sheer criminality”, without taking into account the sociological explanation. It is very tempting to call those involved in the looting “criminals”, fill prison cells and throw away the keys in order never to see them again. Maybe the rioters have neither morals nor ethics. Maybe their parents are unable to tell them to come home. That said, it was striking to note that many of them were looting and destroying property without any apparent fear, as if they had nothing to lose. For some, the fear of going to prison no longer acts as a deterrent. This shows how alienated some of these youngsters have become.

Those who were rioting are living in a consumerist society, being bombarded by advertisements every single day. However, the majority of them are unable to attain the luxurious lifestyle they appear to be so fascinated by. 

It has been alleged that these riots cannot be deemed “political” as there was no consistent ideology which  united the rioters. I disagree with this analysis. There seemed to be no political lead and you would obviously never compare the riots with the student and trade union demonstrations in the spring of 2011. However, the lack of a clearly articulated claim does not mean that the riots were altogether apolitical. I would consider them as protopolitical. This refers to publicactions which denote some kind of political malaise, which express a grievance toward society, but which are not apparently and strictly speaking political. And the reason why they are not blatantly political is that the people who were rioting are completely detached from a number of institutions with which most youngsters are familiar with: good schools and education, proper parenting and stable family units, jobs. It is ironic to note that previous and current governments have been claiming for decades that evidence of personal success was measured by the possession of some the goods and gadgets that youngsters were stealing in looted shops! As we know, the strength of capitalism is in creating new goods and services which nobody needs in the first place, but which capitalists convince us to buy. In consumerist and materialist societies such as ours, if you are unable to acquire them, you are seen by your peers as an outcast, a loser, someone who is no good. In rioting and looting the shops some of the youngsters saw an opportunity to “help themselves” to goods they would otherwise be unable to purchase. The condescending attitude of the middle classes, who criticize the allegedly consumerists attitudes of the rioters, only shows that they know virtually nothing about the socio-economic conditions in which some of their poorer neighbours live in London.

In what other way could the rioters express their grievances? 

These youngsters, most of whom are uneducated and come from completely dispriviliged areas, cannot be expected to launch a new political party or organize a demonstration like middle class students. For them the political establishment and elections are something they do not understand and are not interested in, as they see themselves as outcasts with no stake in society. What they understand is that this world is not for them, this world does not support them. You might of course say: we are in Britain, a wealthy country which supports all its citizens. Maybe. But the British Welfare State has dramatically shrunk over the past thirty years, plus recently Britain has experienced some major political scandals. I have of late read an article saying that Britain is a nation of looters. But there are different kinds of looters. Firstly, the bankers looted astronomical amounts of public money, and got away with it. Then there were the MPs involved in the expenses scandal over a year ago. This looks like a huge irony: some of the parliamentarians now standing up in Westminster and seeking to over-criminalize these youngsters were themselves dishonest about their accounts and billing expenses. Some of them were punished, but most got away with it. The rioters are not politicized in the way a middle-class student might be, but what they understand is that the world out there and especially the political world, is alien to them. I would even go as far as saying it is totally closed to them.

Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative Party leader, claimed that Britain has witnessed the growth of the “underclass”. 

You do not decide to join the “underclass”, you are made a member. Being part of the “underclass” means that you are outside any social forms of representation and structures. It is outrageous to claim that poor people enjoy receiving benefits from the state. People can make choices and try to improve their situation only up to a point. Choice is the luxury of the rich and of the educated. You need to have the right skills to decide between options. In most cases, it is your wealth which enables you to make a choice, the right choice. The “underclass” is a consequence of public policies that have failed, as well as decades of negligence on the part of past and current governments. In a famous BBC interview in 2001, Tony Blair claimed that his government had improved both the living conditions of the poor and of the very rich. When the interviewer pointed to the fact that under his premiership the rich had become unthinkably rich and the poor got only a tiny little bit more money, Blair admitted that this did not matter as everyone had got richer! Since the end of Blair’s government and with current cuts in public spending, the gap has widened even more. Successive governments have created this “underclass”, essentially by embracing neo-liberal policies. Over the last 40 years, governments have relentlessly privatised public services and created the conditions of constant and deeply unfair competition between people. We have now reached the stage of “feral capitalism”, in which the rich are assured of getting ever richer and the poor seem to have no other future other than to get ever poorer. The state is longer there to help those which come from poor backgrounds or are trapped in deprived areas. This is what neo-liberals – in their Thatcherite or Blairite form – call “personal autonomy”. I see it as a return to a cruel and deeply unfair society along the lines of Victorian Britain. Today’s rioters are the new “dangerous classes” of the pre-Welfare State era. A whole new culture is emerging: a culture of no empathy and no sympathy towards those who struggle to survive on a day to day basis. In the meantime, David Cameron should explain to us why it is always in the most unequal countries (USA or UK), that societies experience these extreme forms of public violence and not, say, in Scandinavian countries. To build a more equal society would obviously be the answer – the only possible answer – to the current problem. Alas, I cannot see this ideologically driven government, nor its hopeless Labour opposition, making any serious attempts to address the issue of inequality in the near future.

*Philippe Marlière is Professor in French and European Politics at University College London. His research areas mainly include French socialism, social democratic parties in Europe, French social theory (Bourdieu), and social movements. Prof. Marlière is a contributor to the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/philippemarliere ). He also blogs for Rue89, the main online newspaper in France (http://www.rue89.com/philippe-marliere ).

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Krytyka Polityczna
Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique) is the largest Eastern European liberal network of institutions and activists. It consists of the online daily Dziennik Opinii, a quarterly magazine, publishing house, cultural centres in Warsaw, Łódź, Gdańsk and Cieszyn, activist clubs in a dozen cities in Poland (and also in Kiev and Berlin), as well as a research centre: the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw.