It’s consumer envy wot dunnit, innit
The Left blame welfare cuts and the moral failure of society’s leaders. The Right blame the bludger mentality and soft policing. As usual, the truth is more like c) neither of the above.
Some have portrayed the riots through the social frame of family decline and fatherlessness, while others viewed it through the racial lens, before hastily backtracking when they saw white faces beneath the hoods.
While many of these viewpoints point to a general sense of unease and frustration among a section of Britain’s youth, none of them explain why half of England ended up looking like a Boxing Day sale where someone forgot to open the store doors, with shoppers forced to smash their way in.
There’s a clue to the underlying cause in the rioters’ behaviour. As many have pointed out, there were no placards. There was no leader to follow and no aim to achieve. There was nothing, except a mad grab for high-end consumer goods.
If lawless consumerism was the end game, it’s not much of a stretch to say that consumer culture itself was the fuel that lit the bonfire.
If there’s one message that pervades modern western societies, it is this: Own it and you’ll be happy. Don’t and you won’t. Those three necessities of life – food, clothing and shelter – seem terribly quaint nowadays. What good is food, clothing and shelter if it’s not Wagyu beef, Prada and a perfectly renovated inner city pad?
In Don Draper’s 1960s, the advertising industry was the mainframe computer that propelled consumerism into the modern age. Advertising is still powerful, but there’s now an even stronger force amplifying the consumption message, and that force is reality television.
No matter what channel you switch on, you’ll find someone showing you how to cook better, dress better, live better.
Watch MasterChef, or whatever the British equivalent is, and you feel like a downright loser for sitting at home having your beans on toast on a Sunday night.
Watch one of those renovation shows and your self esteem is hardly going to skyrocket if you’re stuck in a 30 storey tower.
Watch Next Top Model or buy any magazine and you’re hardly going to be happy wearing tracky dacks from Kmart. As a much more “indoors” society than Australia, British youth is fashion obsessed. Just look at the unexpected transformation of Burberry from yuppie brand to “chav” brand. If you ain’t got the gear, you’re not in the game. At least, that’s the message.
Of course, you can always change channels to one of those cheesy American dramas, where earnest teenagers with expensive clothes and too much makeup tell each other “the most important thing is to be yourself”.
Oh, but let’s be real. Everyone knows being yourself is more fun if you’ve got really good stuff to be yourself in. That’s pretty much the mantra of modern life in the West, and don’t think the good folk in England’s council estates don’t know it any less than you or I.
Of course, none of this is to excuse the opportunistic frenzy of violence, destruction, looting and even murder we saw in the England riots. But it goes a fair way towards explaining why a mass outpouring of civil unrest would mostly manifest itself as an all-in free shopping spree.
Last week, London shopkeepers told of late night phone calls from young people asking whether they stocked certain upmarket brands. Safe to say the kids weren’t inquiring because they planned to visit during store hours the next day with their hard-earned.
The simple fact is, we are taught that owning stuff is what makes us feel good, and the quest to own that stuff is what drove England’s youth to the streets en masse. Just ask kid the kid in the YouTube video. When asked by the Sky News reporter if he had any bad feelings about looting, he said:
“No, cos I’m watching my plasma that I just got. It feels like Christmas came early.”
He might be a thief but at least he’s an honest one.
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