Riots of consumerism or a new kind of retail therapy

The riots (called civil unrest by Al-Jazeera) are not “criminality pure and simple” as David Cameron called it. Of course, they are criminal and I have no sympathy for those committing the looting and violence. However, characterizing them just as a crime fails to capture the context.

2011 is the year of social movements, from the Arab spring to mass protests in Southern Europe and lately in Israel and now in the UK. The social movements have their origins in the global economic crisis. They might be triggered by the hopelessness of the poor as in Tunisia, the dim prospects of the shrinking middle classes in Israel, Spain or Greece or the lack of perspective for “youth” in many parts of the UK. Of course, not all types of social movements and types of expression are equally legitimate or understandable, but they have similar origins.

Looting is in many ways the most appropriate expression of a social movement in the UK. British society has struck me as more consumer-oriented than in any country I have lived in (save possibly the US), definitely beating the rest of Europe. Shopping is the fun activity to do on Sundays. If you are feeling down, you go for “retail therapy”. If you are politically active, you do or do not buy some product or from some company. Looting is taking a social trend to the logical conclusion where there are members of a society are less and less citizens and increasingly only consumers.

The second striking feature of British society in contrast to most other European countries is the latent and often open violence and aggressiveness or a particular social group (mostly defined by age and social background), visible on Friday and Saturdays in any given British town or city. The often tense and distinctively unpleasant atmosphere in British high streets as dark falls stands in stark contrast to most European down towns. The violence in recent days of course by far exceed this everyday violence and aggression, but those provide the subtext which made the large-scale violence possible.

The riots and looting have been coupling these two trends, a consumerist violence to express an dissatisfaction of a social group which seems unable to clearly articulate either the exact nature of their disgruntlement or the cause (besides the police, the Conservatives and the state in general), but they are sure angry.

While it is a first step to recognize that an underclass exists in the UK that feels like it has little to loose and is socialized to believe that consumerism (including consumerist violence) is both a means of political expression and outlet for grievances (retail therapy of a different type). What is needed is a broader debate about social cohesion in the UK, how consumerism replaced other forms of social engagement and the manner in which public displays of aggression are more acceptable than elsewhere.

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9 Responses to Riots of consumerism or a new kind of retail therapy

  1. Tanja says:

    And the answer to the last paragraph is definitely not big society. From my experience in Ireland (which follows a similar model): residential ghettos with inadequate infrastructure (or none), class society based on a huge premises of inequality, lack of universal health, schooling, social, etc. systems are just calling for these kinds of actions. To be honest, I experienced a real cultural shock after seeing certain conditions in the island. Orwell for 21st Century.

  2. Florian Bieber says:

    There is a blog in History Today with a similar gist: http://www.historytoday.com/blog/2011/08/riots-and-lessons-history. It also notes that the only shop not looted in Clapham Junction was the Waterstone book store…

  3. Chris Stein says:

    i dont know why i am not seeing more people blaming rampant consumerism for the UK riots… i was looking up “consumerism/UK riots” and found this… a generation brought up, conditioned into materialism on a crazy scale…

  4. Lisa Kor says:

    The rise of lumpen consumers (those, who have nothing to lose but their (gold?) chains and, perhaps, sneakers) is an interesting perspective on the events in UK. It definitely calls for closer attention to changing class structures of the UK (and European) society.

  5. Sy Lazovik says:

    Well, that’s what we get when we feed our children with violent video games and porn… that’s what we get when we take some half-literate criminals off the street, allow them to present their vulgarities on MTV disguised as “art” (I’m talking here about rap “music” and reality shows), reward them with millions of dollars and serve them as idols and models to the millions of children around the world… when we design ridiculous-looking clothes, put a 200$ price tag on it and pass it as a “must have if you want to be accepted by other kids”…or when some of us give absolute liberty to our children and fail to teach them responsibility…
    Go to any given school in France, and ask the children what is the most insulting word they can use to humiliate other kids with? The answer is: “intelo”. It’s an abbreviation of the word “intellectual”. Yes, my dear western parents. Your kids think that it’s a great shame and insult to be called an intellectual, to have a desire to learn or to reed a book. You are not sending your kids to school to learn, but to compete who’s prettier, most handsome, who’s dressed with the most expensive clothes, who has a bigger “bling-bling chain” around his neck, or who’s mobile phone is the latest and most expensive! We are raising future parasites and criminals, not future builders of a better an a more prosperous society.
    The second problem is the uncontrolled migration. Don’t get me wrong here, I don’t want to sound like an extreme-right idiot or a racist. I myself am a foreigner in a western European country, and married to an Asian woman. When I say “uncontrolled”, I above all want to underline the fact that most (if not all) European countries don’t care to make an effort to integrate better those who hail from countries with a different social, religious or cultural background and desire to spend their lives here. Those that find it difficult to integrate should not be allowed to stay. It’s not inhuman, it’s not immoral. It’s a question of logic. When you go to other man’s house – you respect his rules! If you steal or commit any other offence than you have worn out your welcome!
    The greatest part of the migrants in the EU come from the African countries and from North African Arab countries. I understand that most of them have bad experiences with the government and police of their countries of origin, due to the fact that most of these countries are run in a very corrupt and inhuman way. It is very understandable to expect them to hate that kind of a government with all it’s institutions such as the Police or the Judiciary. The problem is that they tend to have the same opinion about the authorities in general, so even when they come to Europe, they hate the European authorities as well. They cannot accept the fact that a Policeman here is not an oppressor, but someone who is ready to jump in a cold river or in the middle of a fire in order to save your life!

    • Sophia OrdoƱez says:

      Well said. I am myself an immigrant to the UK and, while I received a decent public education , I received no information about British law, values, society or culture. The only information I received came from the media (TV, magazines, etc.) which all centered around superficial and consumerist values. I think that societies unwillingness to address these issues under the guise of “political correctness” is harming foreigners as much, if not more than locals. My experience of the education system is that children in the UK (both native and foreign) have little concern for learning skills or getting qualifications, and are instead preoccupied with their personal appearance, buying the latest technology and fashion, and fitting in with their peers. Amazingly, there was even a case during my GCSE year of a girl who failed to turn up to an exam because she was at McDonalds with her boyfriend. I also think that the idolization of music stars, reality TV stars and other celebrities has lead to a decay in values whereby hard work, genuine talent and good morality are outweighed by physical appearance, social status and material possesions. Sure, some of these “artists” are indeed talented, but the praise, awards, wealth and worship they receive is vastly disproportional to those talents.
      But the most disgraceful thing in the UK is that people don’t take resposibility for these social failings, these negative values. Instead they choose to blame the Government, the media, the education system, the police, groups of people such as foreigners, etc.

  6. Pingback: Sherrill Stroschein: Bilateral Mobilizations, Vigilantes, and RiotWombles « Nationalities Blog

  7. Pingback: Is Change coming (finally)? Thoughts on the Bosnian Protests | Florian Bieber

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