It’s been fascinating listening as the debates in the media on the recent riots have taken shape. BBC Radio 4 asked whether politics could rise to the challenge of civil disorder, thievery, gang infused mayhem and murder that plagued some of our cities last week.
Short-term point scoring felt ill-judged as the political left and right tried to make capital: The political right banged on about broken Britain, bad parenting, lack of responsibility and talked of revenge and retribution. The political left banged on about the impact of multiple deprivation, social exclusion, lack of opportunity, poor education, and talked of the impact of a “Me-Too” society.
I was left wondering whether there are some deeper issues at stake, a loss of what I call the connective threads of values and community. Over the past few years there’s been a pervasive atmosphere of criminality, lack of discipline and broken boundaries at all levels of society. Some high ranking Police Chiefs are accused of taking ‘bungs’, Members of Parliament submitting fraudulent expenses claims, media moguls condoning phone hacking, massive mis-selling of payment protection in the financial services sector (and before that, the sub-prime mortgage crisis and asset-backed (in)securities).
So if the “wanting something for nothing ethic” has infected our ‘establishment’ including some MPs et al, is it any wonder that what seems like a creeping nihilism affects some individuals at the so-called lower levels of our society.
Western economies are based on an economic premise of continual growth. The generally accepted route to all happiness, self-respect and self-actualization is more focused on the acquisition of “more stuff” rather than on the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake, and traditional vocational skills. This combined with the destruction of the traditional apprentice system and the refocusing the UK economy from manufacturing to services in the late ‘90s, has left swathes of young people without a hope of meaningful leadership, without the acquisition of job-ready vocational skills, and without a sense of pride that accompanies on-the-job camaraderie. And now the near wholesale withdrawal of state funding to our English universities and the decline in sectors with on the job vocational training is leaving swathes behind who can’t even make it to a check-out job… with or without a university degree.
There is no “broken society”. There are many more decent folks in poor and disadvantaged communities than not, but some individuals are clearly taking advantage to feature in their own real-life-real-time “Grand Theft Auto” game. As my friend Jez commented from Wolverhampton: “The kids I saw tonight [included] girly Beatlemania glee, James Dean posing, primary kids on bikes, large lads after a laptop, a few learning disabled followers, and some truly nasty hoodlums…”
Doubtless many gang members and wayward children are consuming hours a day of invidious video / computer games and hate-filled rap music. It all helps to build a nihilistic drip-drip backdrop of lack of boundaries, violence and mayhem. As one onlooker commented: “it was like being in an Apocalypse movie, except better!”
A key issue for all those caught up in the mayhem and murder is access to the kind of parenting, education, community resources and moral framework that ensures they recognise the difference between a violent computer game and the real thing.