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.”

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Mark Lovas
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Mark Lovas

Thanks for saying more, Michael, and thanks for providing links. What you’ve said contained some details I wasn’t getting previously, and gives me food for further thought. I suppose the optimistic thing is a growing awareness that there is a global problem– not merely of injustice, but of increasing injustice; though, as you say, there could be a more active and visible response from the citizens of the U.S.A.

Mark Lovas
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Mark Lovas

Just a quick after-thought: As someone who is not a sociologist or social scientist, but who has spent a bit of time thinking about motivation and desire in the context of Plato studies, or broadly philosophical/ moral psychological contexts, and noticing your complaints about Z. Bauman, I would be curious to know what you regard as respectable research about what really motivates people. My own experience for the past two years after returning( unhappily) to the USA has very much been that whole I crave more friendly relationships with people, that is unattainable in the suburban hell which I currently… Read more »

Mark Lovas
Guest
Mark Lovas

Typing errors above: ‘whple’ should be ‘while’. , ” when’re” should be “whether”

Mark Lovas
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Mark Lovas

I have just looked at the Z.Bauman piece, and it seems to me that if you strip away the fluff, his psychological analysis is demeaning and insulting to the people who are damaging property and rioting. Do they really think that a new TV or whatever will solve their problems? I bet not. But on ZB’s facile account, that would be so. (sorry Michael,perhaps I have seen my way to understanding your original point, but I would put it differently: I do not believe that the rioters ( or anyone else) are (is) quite so stupid and confused as ZB… Read more »

Mark Lovas
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Mark Lovas

Thanks again, Michael, for saying more. While I am not aware of the particular work by Dacher Keltner to which you allude, his approach to the emotions starts with very powerful assumptions which decide what he is looking for. At times, for example, he seems to identify emotions with the facial expressions of emotions. ( He thinks of brief flashes of emotion more than,say, a lifetime of love.) So,if my memory serves me well he is not very sympathetic to a range of views emphasizing thoughts or judgments (appraisals) as an important part of emotion, or perhaps such components do… Read more »

WinstonSmith
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WinstonSmith

Michael, i stumbled into your clearing while listening to Yves Engler and Bianca Mugyenyi book tour presentations for, Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Ecological Decay. i’ve read through 14 pages of your blog’s archive. there is so much i want to comment about–and i have several recommendations for your Hall of Mirrors (deathbycar.info/hall-of-mirrors/), which could just as appropriately be called Hall of Shame–but i’m taking time for a proper muse. for now, to stay on topic, i proffer the following: the latest from Adbusters.org about rioting, Revolution, “consumerism” and Capitalism: http://www.adbusters.org/blogs/blackspot-blog/rioting-revolutionary.html there are… Read more »

Juan
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Juan
Jenny
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Jenny

This commentary also seems to echo “anti consumerist” reasoning for the riots, but also echoes your viewpoint
I must admit, it does read like a flowery Tyler Durden in parts. I just dunno how England’s gonna get out of all this; I assume it’ll be to the jail cells for most of them. Christ, even post riot coming togethers is something of a double edged sword:
http://universityforstrategicoptimism.wordpress.com/2011/08/10/riotcleanup-or-riotwhitewash/

Mark Lovas
Guest
Mark Lovas

My reference to Loic Wacquant was, alas, prescient. Before meeting the so-called US “super cop”, Cameron should read some of Wacquant’s work, as Wacquant summarizes research showing that police methods did not lead to a drop in crime. (e.g., in “Punishing the Poor”)
Or, see “The ‘Scholarly Myths’ of The New Law and Order Doxa”, available onine at
http://sociology.berkeley.edu/faculty/wacquant/wacquant_pdf/SCHOLARLYMYTHLAW&ORDER.pdf

Mark Lovas
Guest
Mark Lovas

My reference to Loic Wacquant was, alas, prescient. Before meeting the so-called US “super cop”, Cameron should read some of Wacquant’s work, as Wacquant summarizes research showing that police methods did not lead to a drop in crime. (e.g., in “Punishing the Poor”)
Or, see “The ‘Scholarly Myths’ of The New Law and Order Doxa”, available onine at
http://sociology.berkeley.edu/faculty/wacquant/wacquant_pdf/SCHOLARLYMYTHLAW&ORDER.pdf

Michael Dawson
Guest

Of course, street crime is good “get a job” theater and also stimulates the economy, so one could ask whether the overclass really wants to lower it.

Mark Lovas
Guest
Mark Lovas

Yes, especially if–unlike depictions in the media–most violent crime is found in the poorer neighborhoods! By the way, I wanted to make a comment (since this is a blog and so a bit less formal) on something I’d said before–or my choice of words. I actually found myself using a Thatcherism–“less well off” instead of “poor”! (I’ve read–perhaps you have too–that during Thatcher’s time in the UK she banned use of the word “poor” in official government reports, insisting that “less well off” be the words used.) A good example if you are trying to illustrate the concept of “euphemism”… Read more »