Brixton’s Fuel: Politics Not “Consumerism”

brixton I mentioned that Billy Bragg has attributed the ongoing British riots in part to “exclusion from consumerist society.” As TCTer Justin points out, sociologist Zygmunt Bauman takes this ridiculous diagnosis much farther, attributing the riots to the “non-shopping” of “defective consumers.”

Here is Bauman’s underlying claim about the nature of contemporary social life and social structure:

It is the level of our shopping activity and the ease with which we dispose of one object of consumption in order to replace it with a “new and improved” one which serves us as the prime measure of our social standing and the score in the life-success competition. To all problems we encounter on the road away from trouble and towards satisfaction we seek solutions in shops.

This confirms what I said in a comment on the prior Billy Bragg post: Those who swallow the “consumer” vocabulary have a license to make up the wildest bullshit. If you doubt that, consider the utter silliness of each of the bolded phrases from this supposedly emininent supposed sociologist. Not one of them is even a half-truth, yet Bauman presents them as if he were revealing the motor of history. Empirical evidence about what actually motivates people? No need for that! We have “consumerist society” incantations, which are true in and of themselves, by mere recitation.

The spread of such gibberish speaks volumes about the sorry state of what passes for a left/realist/progressive survivalist movement these days. As the mainstream media amplify the usual interpretation — verbalized by David Cameron, who attributes the events to “pockets of our society that are not just broken, but are frankly sick” [ed: Cameron is not thinking of capitalists here, despite the rather plain fit of his diagnosis to them] — Bauman simply papers over reality in the name of rote pseudo-explanation.

The fact is that these are not frustrated shoppers who have somehow had their Harrod’s charge plates retracted. These are young and poor and often non-white UK residents who are being forced to pay for the implosion of the Thatcherite supply-side capitalist orgy that is now meeting its own logical end in Britain and around the world, and which has always pissed on the poor and the average. The situation is well understood on the ground:

The welfare state is under a sustained assault. Each day brings news of ever more drastic government plans – privatisation of the health service, destruction of the benefit system, public services cut to pieces.

The politicians say it is because we’re in a financial mess. This is nonsense – public debt is no worse than at many times in the past. The rich are getting richer, the bankers once again paying themselves massive bonuses. Yet the rest of us are expected to give up our essential public services to pay their gambling debts.

The bankers’ crisis continues to cause mass job losses. But while numbers on welfare increase, the government is slashing benefits for the unemployed, sick and disabled, single parents and those on low wages. Anyone out of work is threatened with sanctions and workfare.

To justify this, the government paints benefit claimants as useless scroungers who have to be bullied to get a job.

The Manchester Guardian reports:

The biggest losers, the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) said, are likely to be single people without children, those working more than 30 hours, those not in receipt of housing benefit, and households with savings of more than £16,000.

In other words: mostly young, working class people.

And, as Billy Bragg does note, the slashes are far deeper than mere dole reductions.

Meanwhile, the usual Tory mendacity has been gratuitously throwing salt into these wounds. PM Cameron’s depiction of the rioters as sick residents of mere social “pockets” is hardly a new phenomenon. As Britain’s economy has tanked and structural unemployment climbed, Cameron has all along portrayed the unemployed as shirkers. This, despite the well-known-in-Brixton fact that Cameron himself is about as thoroughly ensconced in inherited British upper class privilege as it is possible to be. As such, he has, of course, never himself done anything but “work” as a Conservative “researcher” and politician, with the usual in-between “gap years” and club outings.

Finally, a socio-political observer I trust deeply is actually in England at this very moment. His report:

I have probably less information than anybody else here about the exciting events elsewhere in Albion — haven’t been following the news reports closely at all. TV is as useless and mendacious here as it is in the States, and overheard conversations equally censorious, wrong-headed, and petty-bourgeois.

In other words, the stiff-lipped British overclass is roughly the same as our Yankee-Confederate one — just as deluded and ideologically high on its own fumes; just as powerful in the realm of communications; just as uninterested in, and thoroughly out of, answers.

Hence, it seems to me that the oppressed youth of Britain are merely taking the rather obvious next step. They are engaging in straightforward politics under the conditions they’ve been placed in.*

If only the youth of America could start making similar attempts to save themselves, and perhaps the rest of us in the bargain.

*Speaking of evidence:

Speaking to Reuters late on Tuesday, looters and other local people in east London pointed to the wealth gap as the underlying cause, also blaming what they saw as police prejudice and a host of recent scandals.

Spending cuts were now hitting the poorest hardest, they said, and after tales of politicians claiming excessive expenses, alleged police corruption and bankers getting rich it was their turn to take what they wanted.

“They set the example,” said one youth after riots in the London district of Hackney. “It’s time to loot.”