London Riots and the Big Picture

It is astonishing to find that the British press that is so quick to tell us about the ‘true’ nature and motivations behind each mass protest in the Arab world, is somehow intellectually lame in its attempt to grasp their own huge scale riots at home. Until now, I have failed to see even a single worthy analytical attempt to understand the full meaning or significance of the current violent events taking place on the streets of cities all over the UK. British papers have been outlining the events as being driven by, associated with, and defined by hooliganism. They talk to the victims, and sometime even manage to interview some protagonists and perpetrators.

But, amongst such shallow, sensationalist coverage, we are still missing the most important information. What is the demography of the riots? Who is leading it? Does it have any leaders? Is there an ideology behind it all? Why do they loot, what do they loot, and from whom do they loot? And most importantly, what is the meaning of it all?

The events we saw in the past week in London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol and Manchester were possible signs of disintegration within British society. Some sectors within the society were clearly saying “we have had enough of it.” The truth is that these people we see rioting on our streets have been drifting away for quite some time, and no one has shown any concern, and now they are clearly not interested anymore in obedience to any notions of law and order. They do not see any great value in it. And the reason for that may be simple — there is simply not much in it for them.

What we see in Britain is not a political protest. It is not a battle with any coherent call for justice. Neither is it an outburst of mere racial hatred. It is none of those things — and yet, considered in its entirety, it comprises and manifests all of those factors at once. It is actually a rejection of the entire system. It is a clear manifestation and forceful expression of generations who have lost all hope in a society that does not convey any prospect of a future for them — what we now see in British cities is young people who are putting the current system on trial. It is a spontaneous eruption of a demand for recognition.

For the obvious reasons not many in Britain are willing to listen to the desperate and urgent message voiced by the deprived. But I think that we must try to understand what is going on here.

If you want to know why the British media fail to understand what is happening, the answer is fairly straightforward – though they are there to transmit an image and appearance of freedom of speech, liberty and the spirit of enlightenment, large parts of the British media are deeply embedded as an inherent part of a wider system which they serve and bolster.

As a nation, we claim to believe in democracy — though we often enough kill en masse in the name of freedom. Closer to the truth is the fact that we are submerged in a culture of self-love, and hence, we simply find it impossible to imagine that anyone within our proximity would dismiss our ‘greatness.’ And yet, here is the bad news — it is clearly all spinning out of control now — for far too long, we have been celebrating our ‘greatness’ at the expense of our underprivileged neighbours. Clearly, our next door neighbours do not buy into this notion of freedom and liberty, since they do not posses the means to celebrate such freedom: they are left out, excluded from the game.

When I was young, I used to wonder what I would do when I had to finally support myself, and indeed, there were many options to choose from: education was available for most of us; but more than anything else, there were jobs to be found, since there were many different industries. I knew, for instance, that I would always be able to at least settle in a factory job and support myself and my future family. But Britain doesn’t offer any of that anymore. There are no jobs. There are no industries, and from this year, higher education will not be a viable option for countless youngsters.

Tragically enough, our politicians do not appear to be at all concerned with these matters: British politicians, much like other Western politicians, seem impervious to the austere challenges faced by our youth, and the implications of all of these events for their future and their sense of hope. It has been convincingly argued that Western Liberal democracy is simply there to merely set parameters, and to create the appropriate conditions for big businesses. Such a state of affairs is certainly true in Britain. The democratic system in Britain can be more accurately described as a form of subtle, perfidious and devious political oppression that simply gives the appearance of the ‘true reflection of our own will’. It gives the false impression that ultimately, the current order is nothing but fulfillment and reflection of ‘our own personal choice.’

The truth of the matter is actually far simpler: the Western political system is there to maintain consumerism, and to keep big business going. Our civil freedom is reduced to a simple set of entitlements: we are free to consume, to buy, to spend, to purchase, to acquire, to lease, to hire, and to rent. And yet, there is a big problem here that will not go away, because as we move up the ladder of our consumer existence, more and more people are falling behind. As the more fortunate among us proceed upward, more and more youngsters are realising that they will never even be able to join the game.

On the one hand we are subject to a ‘dictatorship of commoditisation’; we are trained to identify with a set of gadgets and brands, and yet, on the other hand, an increasing number of the people around us are left out — they can barely afford to possess these objects of desire, and find themselves removed from the ‘identity game’. They become faceless, their existence denied, left to wander, ghost-like, wrapped in training suits in a society driven by ruthless hard capitalism and sheer greed.

Such a reading of the riots in London may well help us to grasp the fact that many looters were apparently happy to be pictured by the press as they were seen in the streets with their new possessions. For the first time, they also had a chance to join the Western ‘symbolic order’. They smile at the camera, showing off their entry card into our society. They don’t want to be faceless anymore — they insist to be seen.

Lamentably enough, British politicians seem to be very enthusiastic about ‘moral interventionism’ in other countries. But I believe that the time is ripe for Britain to be subjected to a true form of moral interventionism — an influx of spiritual ideas that would redeem us all from mammon-seeking and hard Capitalism. Yet it is increasingly clear that within the British political spectrum we will not find any such force that could lead to such a transformation, and that is indeed both a volatile and tragic situation.

Gilad Atzmon, now living in London, was born in Israel and served in the Israeli military. He is the author of The Wandering Who and Being in Time and is one of the most accomplished jazz saxophonists in Europe. He can be reached via his website. Read other articles by Gilad, or visit Gilad's website.