A few weeks ago, England erupted with protests that many saw as tied to the global economic crisis. What began as a peaceful protest against the police, who had shot dead a suspect in Tottenham North London on August 6, rapidly spread across London and then to other parts of the country. Over the space of the next five days, Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester all experienced a wave of rioting and looting.
Politicians and commentators proceeded down a well-worn path of analysis and political point scoring. Most politicians were quick to blame “mindless thugs,” “gangs,” and “feral youth.” They pointed to the lack of moral values in contemporary society, and the Conservatives, who are the senior partners in our coalition government, saw the riots as yet more evidence of their narrative of “Broken Britain” (conveniently ignoring the fact that other parts of Britain, such as Wales and Scotland, suffered no problems).
What was lacking, initially at least, was any mention of class. It appeared only in references to an underclass. Rhetorically this is a really useful piece of shorthand for the political classes in Britain, as I guess it is in the US. Talk of the underclass allows critics to blame society’s troubles on an ill-defined amorphous band of cultural stereotypes and folk demons. It also allows for a wider sidestepping of questions of class and inequality that has been rising for the last three decades or more and is sure to increase further in the age of austerity. In this narrative, the riots are defined as the work of the work shy, the amoral, and the feckless; looting represents a mindless opportunism of those lacking a basic ethic of responsibility.
Any other mention of class takes the form of a kind of nostalgic lament for the working class of old. You remember, when the working class knew their place, worked hard, and got on with their lot without complaint. They, the old respectable working class, never complained about deprivation or went out and rioted.
When he was the leader of the opposition, David Cameron — now British Prime Minister — developed his party’s social policy around the concept or sound bite of “Broken Britain.” This was an interesting strategy and not without risk. It allowed him to reclaim social policy for the Tory party and create a British version of compassionate conservatism. In this way, Cameron could blame the Labour government, which by that time had held power for over a decade, for all of Britain’s social problems. Rather than the solution, state intervention was identified as the cause of the problem. Labour was strangely quiescent in the face of these charges for a number of reasons. It had itself been largely silent on the question of class; it had also been, as one senior New Labour figure put it “relaxed” about the super rich. But above all, the Party’s acceptance of Thatcherism and the wider neo-liberalism of the 1980s and 1990s meant that they were unable to develop a more critical analysis of deepening inequality.
In the wake of the riots, other voices that do want to talk about class and social and economic inequality have begun to be heard. At first this line of explanation was a difficult one for politicians and commentators as it was portrayed as a causal argument – poverty equals riot – and therefore easy to criticise as not all rioters were poor, and not all poor areas went up in flames. Gradually what has been emerging, I think, is a more nuanced account of the riots which begins to look harder at the nature of social inequality in Britain. This more self-confident attempt to talk about these issues emerges from a range of academics through to journalists.
In their wake, Labour politicians and some liberals one have begun to deploy these arguments themselves. The most high profile academic in the UK addressing inequality is the social geographer Danny Dorling (most recently in Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists), whose detailed reading of a range of materials places in long-term perspective the widening gap between rich and poor. Dorling is joined by journalists such as Polly Toynbee, who writes for the left of centre Guardian newspaper and who has been a longstanding voice for those left behind by neo-liberalism. Finally, the riots have thrust centre stage a young social and political commentator Owen Jones, author of Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class – whose book charts how the working class has been marginalized within political rhetoric and had its problems ignored. While none of these commentators seeks to excuse civil unrest, they all, in fairly similar ways, explain the complexity of British society and its longstanding problems. All three recognize that contemporary social problems and community breakdown have their origins in the deindustrialization and subsequent joblessness in Britain since the 1970s and 1980s.
The hopeful development from the tragic events of early August is that class is once again beginning to be rediscovered in the political lexicon. It is interesting to note that some commentators draw parallels between the unbridled acquisitiveness of the looters and the compensation paid to bankers and the fraud so recently committed by members of Parliament in their expenses claims. This may suggest the potential to shift the discourse about class, so that inequality is no longer seen as evidence of individual moral failing. It also might herald a shift in the vernacular where class can be really talked about and “working class” ceases to be a pejorative label. It might also allow those critical of the current government to pose two questions. First, if Britain is broken, who broke it? And, secondly, if you didn’t like the organized working class of the 1980s, how do you like the disorganized working class now?
Strangleman is a Sociologist at the University of Kent and co-author of the textbook, Work and Society: Sociological Approaches, Themes and Methods