UK Riots: The Cracks Beneath the Veneer

Without venturing into moral judgement, the massive rioting in UK has, if nothing else, brought to light the fragility of the ostensible peace of ‘developed’ societies, which stirs an engaging debate bearing strongly upon some central sociological and philosophical questions.

For someone as myself coming from a deeply fractured and messed-up society steeped in violence, unrest and social injustice, the material and moral ‘superiority’ of liberal-secular societies in the Northern-Western hemisphere is often referred to as an enviable standard and veritable benchmark. The reckless frequency of the usage of loaded terms like ‘advanced’, ‘developed’, ‘progressive’, ‘civilized’ for specific social contexts rooted in Enlightenment positivism suggests an unquestioning and facile acceptance of an ascendant social paradigm that draws power from the political-historical narrative — following the Fall of Egypt in Napoleon’s wars in the East — of the superiority of the post Enlightenment ‘West.’

Societies are shaped by underlying intellectual, philosophical and moral traditions that shape social phenomena and direct social change. The 18th century Enlightenment with its structuralist underpinnings is the predominant factor shaping the social lives of individuals in communities belonging to Europe and North America. The Structuralist sociological perspective conspicuously marginalizes non materialist phenomenological and interactionist elements of sociological thought and those that take a critical view of Structuralism. According to Structuralist-Functionalists, a consensus around values is vital for social order and stability. This implies general agreement among the large majority of the members of a society over its basic values. Speaking of societies in Europe and America, this stabilizing consensus is developed around Utilitarian values that promote ‘the greatest good of the greatest number’, while the Positivist-Structuralist premise defines this ‘greatest good’ in material terms — economic good, incomes, jobs, health insurance, education, benefits, pensions, etc. –the boons of the modern welfare state.

Structuralism, concerned with social structures and institutions rather than individuals, has an inbuilt majority-oriented outlook. What is ignored out of the neat formula for happiness is the not-so-great number of those who do not constitute the favoured and dominant ‘majority’ and therefore do not pledge loyalty to the values that create a system which does not offer them dividends in the same measure as significant others.

Consensus on values comes about when individuals benefit as members of a society and are socialized into it to the extent that they learn to desire only that which the society provides. However, the socialization process for creating value consensus is not always neat and perfect, and cracks do appear. In Utilitatian-materialist societies, economic crises, inequalities, etc. weaken the socialization process so that some individuals identifying themselves with minority groups do not rally around the society’s core values to generate the value consensus considered necessary for stability and order. Hence they experience alienation. Given the rising incidence of racial profiling and ethnocentric calls for ban on immigration by racist-supremacist groups like the English Defence League, the alienation gradually turns into an ‘otherization’ of members who do not smoothly and naturally merge into what is classified as the ‘majority’ — white, British, urban, middle-class.

The ethic of ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ leaves marginalized minorities out of the bigger picture. This also explains the attempt by disgruntled minorities to make their sense of alienation be seen and heard by asserting it in spectacular ways. The unsuspecting shock and horror over the events also exposes the extent of unawareness of, and insensitivity to, the raw sentiment that festers in multiracial, multiethnic British society. Tony Blair in his article. “Good Headlines but Bad Policy” (The Guardian, August 21), carefully reminded us of the horrific events being the acts of a “minority”.

Without contesting this fact, it may be argued that the tenor and the overall meaning of the writer was a subtle trivialization of the tremendous street sentiment at the heart of which lies the deep social alienation, resentment and discontentment of a significant minority. In an attempt to salvage the narrative of the high moral ground of secular-liberal British society, the counter narrative of a marginalized and restive minority is slighted. While the ‘majority’ cleaning up the clutter, as Blair points out, reinstates hope, yet ignoring, trivializing or slighting the almost palpable existence of pent up frustrations among a sizeable section of British population is a grave mistake and shows we learnt little from the events.

However, even a Blair, desperately trying to save the face of British society, could not altogether brush under the carpet the real issues that stare Britain in the face: “the country’s problems stem from too many dysfunctional households… this is a phenomenon of the late 20th century. You find it in virtually every developed nation.” However, an insightful approach into understanding the collapse of the family in Western society and the discrediting  of the family as an institution is necessary, of which not much has been said other than attempts to highlight the general decadence and its origin in dysfunctional families. It has a lot to do with general moral decline and an inadequacy of the education process (whether by families or by schools) that carries the ideological baggage of positivist Enlightenment thought and has discarded the universal moral premise considered sacrosanct in traditional societies.

Saeeda Ahmad is an inspiring social entrepreneur and social activist in UK. As a Muslim, she looks at the riots with rare insight through her faith. She writes:

This year has indeed been a year of much reflection and big change in a very short space of time where civic participation, ethics, Islam, Muslims and many other things have affected us not just as British Muslims but Muslims internationally. From an Islamic perspective some of the key tenets in our faith can help understand the riots: Self accountability, gratitude, hope and aspiration, self responsibility, social and civic responsibility, Defence of others people and property.

These are subjects in their own right but need to be adequately addressed. A different poverty in the UK and in the developed world exists than that in poor countries. It is the poverty of spiritual values. In a developed secular country there may be a state that caters for people’s need. It does not replace the human requirement for accountability, hope and compassion towards others. The idea of ‘don’t worry, social services will bring you a meal if something happens to you (as long as you meet their criteria) doesn’t make me feel great and excited for my old age.

Also valuable is a critical outlook afforded by alternative social theory. Interactionists have something to say on the matter as they emphasize that the tenuous stability that Structural-functionalists imagine through the generation of value consensus is a blinkered view. Society is not an objective entity ‘out there’, nor is it a monolith. To understand that every individual relates to society based on his individual subjective social experience is essential. For those who lead wretched lives in the streets, Britain may not be the egalitarian welfare state committed to social justice even in the presence of voluminous statistical data to verify that. When this individual’s authentic subjective experience of society is slighted as an aberration and not understood as deserving of serious redress, it will seethe as frustration, anger and even violence.

Marxists offer an insight into the false and deceptive nature of Functionalism’s “value consensus”, which they see as imposed from above — from the privileged, empowered class. The compulsive acceptance of the same by the lower classes guarantees a perpetuation of the privileged status of the moneyed elite. The stability this creates is false, privileging a section of the society over and above another, creating an exploitative stratification. However, this will inevitably give rise to frustration and discontentment as “class consciousness” gradually develops. Any event, even small, may then trigger off a string of events till the false order collapses like a house of cards.

As an important ‘Aside’ from the sociological discourse the dramatic events stirred, mention must be made of the strong case for religious faith that has powerfully asserted itself. It perhaps lies beyond the pale of this debate but provides some important keys to a deeper and more insightful understanding of the issues at hand. When human life and human society is centred around the utilitarian-materialist premise that is the legacy of the Enlightenment’s positivist enthusiasm; when the resultant definition of happiness is considered the be-all and end-all of life, the lack of material security or a drop in material benefits takes away all meaning and worth from life.

A N Wilson, in an important article “Legacy of a Society that Believes in Nothing”, (The Daily Mail, August 13), mentions the case of popular British showbiz icons who, at the height of popularity, ended their lives out of a deep sense of inner emptiness and meaninglessness; he also comments on the morals of a society that reveres their degenerate private lives.

When it is understood that the truly valuable things in life are those you can never buy (in a cutthroat consumerist culture), deprivation, suffering and injustice seen as part of a larger Pattern no longer devastate and madden. They are gracefully accepted even as the right to protest and claim legitimate rights is asserted. This is what was so beautifully and powerfully demonstrated by Tariq Jehan, father of Haroon Jehan,  one of the Birmingham youth of Pakistani origin crushed to his death as he defended his people. Jehan’s simple yet resounding statement in the wake of his personal tragedy strikes at the heart of the matter. Until the secular-materialist pretense is shed off and the ascendant positivist underpinnings of society reassessed giving due recognition to the “feeling in the heart” and the “moral law within”, a true qualitative improvement and meaningful, all-inclusive progress in our individual and social lives will remain a distant, elusive dream. As Pascal said, “above the logic in the head is the feeling in the heart; and the heart has reasons of its own that the head cannot understand”…

Maryam Sakeenah is a student of International Relations based in Pakistan. She is also a high school teacher and freelance writer with a degree in English Literature. She is interested in human rights advocacy and voluntary social work and can be reached at: Read other articles by Maryam.