Control

My understanding of life as a poor teenager on an inner city housing estate is about as sophisticated as the Downing Street cat\’s take on politics: I can see it, where I live and where I work, but my analysis is superficial at best. Nonetheless, a few days after riots in London, thoughts and analyses race through my head, as the muttering backbeat of commentary – both banal and insightful – grows in volume. So, here\’s what I think today.

On Wednesday, Boris Johnson told the Today Programme, \”Over 20 or 30 years we have got into a situation where young people have a massive sense of entitlement.\” Leaving aside trite scoffs about his own Eton-educated sense of entitlement, he\’s on to something here. A sense of entitlement and benefit dependency are a reality for many poor people today, but the deeper tragedy is when this becomes the only reality.

From where I stand (and my limited perspective may be part of the problem), this world of entitlement and dependency looks pretty bleak – alienated from the sense of self-worth that work can generate, with weak family and social networks (apart from the toxic ties of gang culture), in grim environments illuminated only by the iconography of consumption. Russell Brand, writing in yesterday\’s Guardian, was typically eloquent: \”The only light in their lives comes from these luminous corporate messages. No wonder they have their fucking hoods up.\”

Benefits and precarious rights are the only stake that this class has in society. Should it surprise us that threats to these residual rights are regarded as an assault? Should we wonder that any fleeting opportunities to seize control and to share in consumer culture are embraced? We\’d like to think that education and employment initiatives can create those opportunities. For the lucky few they do, but that path looks increasingly steep, rocky and uncertain.

If you take a left perspective – and it\’s increasingly hard to find any others that make sense – you start to wonder what the role of the benefits system actually is. In the era when the spectre of communism was seen as a real threat to burgeoning capitalism, was social security used, like \’liquid cosh\’ in an old people\’s home, to pacify the masses and prevent them from rising up to seize control of a system that loaded the dice against them?

Perhaps the road to this week\’s riots is a long one, leading back through the last forty years, as working class culture wilted in a post-industrial economy, as the soviet regime faltered and fell, and as capitalism\’s leash was loosened by successive governments. The demented bout of speculation that ensued took the system to the brink of collapse, but the banks were bailed out, like rich kids in magistrates\’ courts, while welfare spending tightened and jobs became fewer and fewer – \’socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor\’. Seen through this lens, it is not the riots that are remarkable, but the fact that peace was not breached far earlier.

In this uncertain state of crisis, the dependency relationship created by benefits may be one of the few ties that continue to bind the poor to the rest of society. The irony of the current situation may be that, by cutting benefits across the board (let alone withdrawing them from those involved in rioting), the Government may be undermining one of the few bulwarks that continue to defend a decadent and discredited capitalism.

Step on

After the riots, the surge of opinion and analysis. As Aditya Chakrabortty observed in today\’s Guardian, this week\’s mayhem has acted like a tumultuous Rorschach Test in which everyone can see what they want to see. So, three quick thoughts on the week\’s events (please take \’nothing can justify\’, \’London is the poorer\’ and \’in a very real way, we are all guilty\’ as read):

As any halfway-decent engineer understands, suspension bridges wobble worst when crowds fall into step: the unified pace amplifies the sway, and bridges become perilous. This natural tendency to lock step scuppered the Millennium Bridge in 2000, and a sign on Albert Bridge still warns troops to break step. Social networking enabled the rioters to converge and focus their looting, but enabled the clean-up too. The cumulative impact was dramatic: just as rioters overwhelmed the police, volunteer street cleaners swamped Hackney and had to be redirected to Clapham Junction. The capacity of social networks to foment groupthink makes for a queasy feeling, like being on a ship that lurches, as its passengers rush first one way then another. This alleged anarchy was built upon systems and herd mentality.

The roll-call of closed roads on Tuesday\’s radio bulletins gave a trivial taste of what is must be like to live in a war zone, never sure from one morning to the next what districts remain intact. It showcased the precariousness of urban life: the actions of a few hundred teenagers can quickly disrupt the delicately-balanced metabolism of the ecosystem (as can a few days\’ fuel blockade, or a heavy snowfall). But Tuesday also showed the resilience of that ecosystem: people picked their way past burnt-out buildings to the tube, and shops continued to operate from behind smashed windows.

Finally, the riots may not have been explicitly political, but they were about power. Or at least about powerlessness. It may be as futile as it is presumptuous to speculate about individual rioters\’ motives, but it is not hard to read into the faces captured on CCTV the euphoric rush of suddenly and surprisingly being in control – of your life, of your neighbourhood, of your scared fellow citizens. The price to be paid for those moments will be harsh, but will the violent euphoria prove addictive?