My first thought on reading After the Riots, the newly published UK government report on the riots of 2011, was that it was written by The Onion. It could certainly use as a subheading the title of one of John Cage’s brief essays, ‘How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse)’. One thing the report made absolutely clear to me is that the responses to the riots have already set in place some of the ignition points of the next riots. After the Riots is a terrific exposition on how to completely avoid any mention of The War while at the same speaking incessantly about the bombing.

The authors of the report were all OK’d by the three major UK political parties. In other words, happily approved by David Cameron and Ed Miliband and Nick the Clegg. So that’s alright then. The report identifies several major ‘causes’ of the riots and a list of solutions to nullifying those causes. The causes have been deemed to be: poor parenting, lack of ‘character’ in young people, lack of a job, poor literacy in children and young people, materialism, poor co-ordination of social services. Everybody needs a ‘stake in society’ says the intro to the report. These are the ‘red lines’ the political parties need to sign up to it concludes, and with lines like those I can’t imagine that David Cameron would have the slightest problem ticking them off. Very little mention of the police, the rapacious activities of institutional finance, the devastation of social life under the Thatcher and Blair governments and so forth. Notice there’s quite a lot of mention about what’s wrong with children and their families.

Just by the way, Linton Kwesi Johnson made an observation I haven’t seen elsewhere, that the absence of the police as the riots unfolded was so weird it virtually amounted to a dereliction of duty. It wasn’t as though they didn’t know what to do, it was as if they couldn’t be bothered. It’s a given that the UK police have not bothered to address their institutional levels of racism that were identified ages ago, but perhaps Scotland Yard has actually morphed into something else now, just a Forward Operating Base of News Corp. Fuck the kids on the streets. Let them burn whatever. But how can we get hold of Hugh Grant’s phone number?

When the riots were exploding across the UK like mines being tripped off in a sequence, I was struck by the parallel between the pillaging of public coffers, the burning of public infrastructure by the banks with their neoliberal cheer squad, and the destruction and looting of property in Tottenham. The rioters were predominantly children and young people, and predominantly male. In one way, it can be useful to describe young people who behave in ways that everyone else finds unacceptable as ‘children’, who at least still have some hope. But there’s something about the way we construct gender in there as well, at least in the instance of the riots. Structural violence against men and women takes different shapes. Gender is always a politicised thing. The rioters in the UK were dispossessed boys and young men who had already been handed enough violence to last any of us a shelf full of lifetimes, still clinging on to notions of masculinity that work for rich bullies, but will never work for them.

Violence against women is another issue. Or rather the underside of the same issue. For every dispossessed man there can often be a woman carrying the brunt of that dispossession, as well as inhabiting her own dispossession and state of violation. Just because the dispossessed young women and girls weren’t visible in the riots, doesn’t mean they weren’t there. They were there. But they were invisible. That’s the point. The financial and personal impact of Cameron and Osborne’s austerity measures will be much much greater on women than it will be on men.

The other night I watched the great children’s film Monsters vs. Aliens, a film that reads like a kind of feminist manifesto 101 for young girls. At one point the fanatical general WR Monger says, ‘It was decided that Jane and Joe Public could not handle the truth about monsters, and should focus on more important things, like paying taxes.’ This is something of the premise of the After the Riots report: let’s not talk about the monsters. Let’s talk about how we can get young people paying taxes. And working for big business.

But there’s a lot more to the structural background of the riots of course, critical issues the report addresses by completely failing to mention them. Since looting is a theme, Dave, George & co are keen to condemn in the poor and subsidise in the rich, it’s worth touching on the structure of desire, purchase and sanctioned looting we are encouraged to subscribe to. Since we’re talking about fires and burning let’s go with BBQs. There are BBQs you can find in the chain stores that sell such things that cost five thousand dollars. Hardly anyone in middle suburbia is going to stump up $5k to cook sausages. But the presence of the high-end item amongst the humble two-burner drives up desire. As a sales strategy it means that the punter who comes in on a Saturday morning might just be persuaded to buy something that he can’t quite afford. As a way of selling, that seems fairly pernicious to me. But what is more sinister, a lot crueller and symptomatic of the way that the mundane reality of neoliberalism works is that one is always kept in a state of disappointment, pushed to maintain a perpetual level of dissatisfaction.

On top of this basic dynamic of consumer desire let’s factor in the demonising of young people, a practice in which the British seem to be especially skilled. Then there’s the trashing of social bonds, and the communities and facilities that maintained those bonds. Only the British could dream up ‘lack of character’ as a cause of profound social and psychological dislocation. Smash up a few shops and nick some Reeboks? Really, it’s amazing those kids didn’t storm the House of Lords and start stringing peers up from Tower Bridge!

Except that the Tottenham kids didn’t want massive social change. They just wanted something more basic: the right to have what everyone else has. Because the sign of your true marginalisation, that you have really been utterly forgotten and consigned to complete oblivion, is that the neoliberal marketing machine doesn’t even rate you as worth selling anything too.

After the Riots doesn’t just ignore the structural factors that contributed to the riots but seeks the instrumental solutions so beloved of the Blair government – the ‘evidence-based’ social engineering that seeks to produce a compliant workforce. So many young people are not ‘work ready’ complains the report. They need jobs. Not ‘meaningful work that contributes to social and personal well-being’, but ‘a job.’ Their parents need to up their game too. Where there isn’t a significant adult in a child’s life, a school could provide it. And if children leave schools illiterate, and therefore not work ready, fine the schools. Because the looting in the riots was obviously due to ‘materialism’, corporations should talk more to Government via an ‘independent champion’. Big business also needs to work more closely with young people, and address their twisted attitudes on consumerism by ‘using the company brand to engage and work with them’. This is ‘responsible capitalism’ and is the report’s primary strategy for addressing the vast gap between rich and poor. Every individual needs a ‘stake in business’.

WTF?? doesn’t go anywhere near far enough here. Is it just me, or does this sound like umpteen kinds of stratospheric stupidity? Hello?? Could we even consider for a second that the brutalisation of millions of young people is a perfectly natural by-product of the way successful capitalism works? That the ‘solutions’ proposed by these imbecile suck-ups is to give more power and control to big business, while the public purse continues to pay for expensive clean-ups of that brutalisation (that usually has the happy by-product of humiliating and brutalising people even more)? If hospitals partly exist to clean up after the alchohol and tobacco industries, perhaps our entire social welfare sector now exists to tinker around on the edges of the devastated social landscapes caused by neoliberal, transnational, fuckwitted greed.

The British, in their zany Python-esque way have shown us all a new way forward – and stripped neoliberal capitalism down to its predatory basics. Why even bother trying to clean up? Just plunder everything, even the bits that do the cleaning up. Sell it all off, schools, hospitals, prisons, functions of democratic government, the lot.

Of course that doesn’t make any sense. It’s a system that eats itself. Reading After the Riots creates an identical response. Its reasoning just goes round and round. It makes no sense. Children are the problem. Let’s punish them, then we’ll fix them. And ask big business to do both. I read it and thought, this is completely deranged. In fact it’s so deranged, I can’t possibly have read it. Therefore it can’t exist.

But it does. After the Riots is a detailed blueprint for the continued humiliation of young people constructed by wealthy adults who have stellar skills in this area. Cameron, Miliband and Clegg will love it. They will welcome it, debate it, weep tears over it, make stirring speeches about Children Who Are Our Future, perhaps even be pictured solemnly speaking to a young person. Nick Clegg may wear a hoodie. It’s the icing on the cake of brutalization really. First, we’ll completely trash your community from the bottom up. I mean we’ll really fuck with it. No-one will have any life here for at least a hundred years. Then, our highly punitive privatised justice system will jail you for throwing a joke smoke bomb or chucking a broomstick. Then we let our Blair-ite privatised social welfare programs loose on you. That’ll teach you. Now get some character.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. You leave little way in here for oppositional comment, so some observations:

    Rioters? That’s what those breaking property laws were called (failure of language if there is no other word for a seemingly unsystematised outbreak of social disruption) but a better term is needed.

    I know as little about the so-called riots as I do about Hunger Games (of which I know nothing), yet somehow, because I watched come random television news footage and read a few newspaper columns, I assume I know more.

    I learnt more from a Kudelka cartoon than anything (and you make the same point), where businessmen in suits are shown trashing the city (banks, stock exchange, public spaces etc) while the dialogue is bemoaning juvenile rioters.

    I too was struck by the bizarre, almost surreal, dream-like television news footage of mostly young people standing around doing nothing (as they do in cities and elsewhere).

    Much ado about nothing really, until you start questioning why such events might have happened – beyond the terms of the report you cite.

    Nice work (if you can get it).


    1. Well everybody needs to rant sometimes. But comments oppositional are always welcome.
      I also think that in this instance where the public commentary on the kids who trashed shops is so monolithic, so self-satisfied and so full of faux concern and solemnities that mask a somewhat sinister and schizoid state of mind, that a little tub-thumping outrage is not uncalled for.

  2. “But there’s a lot more to the structural background of the riots of course, critical issues the report addresses by completely failing to mention them. “… so Stephen I’m thinking this post is like a bureaucratic flipside of your previous post on the literary neoliberal novel — both this report, and that type of novel, you are saying want to just focus on individual agency without looking at the bigger structural issues… I downloaded and flicked through the report, and what i found interesting was how poverty gets quite a bit look in, in certain graphs in the report text, yet the recommendations are all very local: better educational initiatives, social services, local job pathways, transparency (more detailed auditing/reporting) and also businesses somehow ‘giving back to the community’ and not marketing their expensive stuff to lower demographics — all this without the question of how one might reduce the gap between rich and poor. Palliative is what I’m thinking. Just helping things out that are otherwise dying, as opposed to curative.

    1. yeah, I think that’s right, that its a flipside etc.
      While the Riots report ostensibly speaks about local solutions that’s just the current social services rhetoric. Its current in Australia. It doesn’t mean doodly squat. The subtext is that localities will be told what they can do locally by those not local, and all within a context of a political paradigm which will remain unchallenged.

  3. Yes, I suppose that was my point – local solutions can thus be deemed to succeed or fail by the ‘people on the ground’ who are supposed to enact them and thus its never the fault of larger-scale dynamics… but it does make me wonder Stephen what you think governments can actually do – because in some of your posts I’ve thought you were saying that governments can’t do jack – don’t operate in the league of what’s important and where caring can happen – but here you’re actually arguing for a caring government, right?…

    1. Governments could do a lot. They have shitloads of our money after all. However they tend to spend most of it on corporate welfare and cleaning up after the devastation caused by big business. There’s no framework in which to do anything useful. Any strategies put in place in the UK based on the Riots report will just create more flashpoints for more riots. blame the victims and completely ignore the systemic causes. There’s zero chance that there can be any other result with this kind of approach.

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