Be young and shut up

A blog about student activism.

Panic on the streets of London, panic on the streets of Birmingham

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This is a guest post from Innes MacLeod, a History student and member of the Socialist Society at the University of Edinburgh. His Twitter handle is @theinnesmacleod – go on, give him a follow. Here he writes about his feelings on the riots of the last few days.


This would be a good time to be an end of times prophet, as the world’s economy collapses and riots are breaking out in the streets. I think there is a connection to be made between these two events, though it has little to do with a forthcoming Armageddon. The truth is, I believe anyway, that these events are the culmination of a broken system – a broken system which has begun to collapse in on itself; and which breeds exploitation, discrimination and alienation.

I am mainly going to deal with the riots as the stock markets’ continual decline is probably best saved for someone with more knowledge of economics than me. I do feel I have something I want to say about the events in London, something which has been difficult to put across and many people have misunderstood and so I hope this goes some way to explaining it a bit better. The problem is that the, perhaps unsurprising, reaction of anger and fear of a great deal of people to these riots has made it difficult to hold a nuanced view about the situation without being derided and accused of supporting the destruction of homes and endangerment of lives. More worryingly the unwillingness to attempt to understand the cause of these riots being anything more than ‘mindless violence’ masks the true causes and in all probability will mean the problems which led to them will be left unfixed.

So to be clear, though I care little for the security of the windows of Tesco or the safety of MacDonald’s premises I take no joy in the destruction of homes or the looting of small businesses. It saddens me to see working class communities tearing themselves apart. But these actions are not mindless and they have not come out of nowhere. These riots have been brewing for years and are about much more than one man who was shot dead by the police.

Alienation is the word. It is perhaps fitting as we approach the first anniversary of the death of Jimmy Reid, the great trade unionist, that we should be talking about alienation for it he who said in his famous rectorial address to the University of Glasgow (which will be printed in full by many blogs in commemoration tomorrow).

‘Alienation is the precise and correctly applied word for describing the major social problem in Britain today. People feel alienated by society. In some intellectual circles it is treated almost as a new phenomenon. It has, however, been with us for years. What I believe is true is that today it is more widespread, more pervasive than ever before. Let me right at the outset define what I mean by alienation. It is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It’s the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies.

Many may not have rationalised it. May not even understand, may not be able to articulate it. But they feel it. It therefore conditions and colours their social attitudes. Alienation expresses itself in different ways by different people. It is to be found in what our courts often describe as the criminal anti-social behaviour of a section of the community. It is expressed by those young people who want to opt out of society, by drop outs, the so-called maladjusted, those-who seek to escape permanently from the reality of society through intoxicants and narcotics. Of course it would be wrong to say it was the sole reason for these things. But it is a much greater factor in all of them than is generally recognised.

For decades now communities like those rioting, as well as many others across the country, have been ignored by successive governments, been discriminated against by the police and the media, and have found themselves without jobs or prospects and with little in the way of a future. Anger and resentment has been building up for a long time and is now being released in a wave of violence sparked by one sad event. Do I wish it was unleashed in a less violent and more constructive way? Of course, but what other choice do they have when no one would listen? Do I wish this anger was not focused on local working communities? Of course – but what do we expect when these people hear their governments say there is no such thing as society – and are raised in a culture which rewards selfishness and individualism above all. There isn’t political motivation behind these acts because those involved have been disenfranchised by mainstream politics. There isn’t respect for laws because those who enforce them, the police, are whether rightly or wrongly associated in the minds of these people with discrimination whether racial or class based. No one is born a thug, there are no baby rioters, they are created by a system which has alienated and angered them.

The government response has been as disappointing as it was predictable. They did not think to look at why these riots had occurred but merely dismissed them as the action of mindless thugs and then believed they had the authority to speak on behalf of these communities which have been destroyed as much by their actions as by any rioter. There have been many images worthy of anger and emotion during the past few days but none disgusted me more than the image of our millionaire prime minister speaking from a European villa which few ordinary workers could hope to afford and attempting to speak for a community of those workers. Where are the government in all of this? On holiday.

They are rushing back now though and what worries me is the decisions they will take will only exacerbate the problems. More police powers, the use of water cannons that rip out people’s eyes, wider stopping and searching. It’s these kinds of things which breed this anger in the first place. The real solution, the one I believe will stop this from happening, is simple. The government must stop ignoring these communities. They require real regeneration and they need to create prospects and jobs for those living in them. Most controversially, but most effectively, they need to end this system which breeds these inequalities, which creates the ever growing gulf between rich and poor and which rewards greed and material wealth which is the driving force behind actions such as looting.

Society, community and solidarity are the words we need right now and though these values have been ripped out of many communities by this culture, remnants still remain as can be seen by the great number of those who organised this very morning to clean up the destruction caused by these riots. These are the qualities we should aim to imbue and perhaps they will come out of this stronger than before and rise like a phoenix from the ashes of London’s streets. It is a faint hope but it gives us something to cling onto.


Written by CakeCakeCakeCakeCake

August 9, 2011 at 8:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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