(Göteborgs-Posten, 11 November, 2011)
The Indian summer in London is coming to an end as the audience crowds in at the British Library on Euston Road to applaud this year’s recipients of PEN’s Harold Pinter Prize, David Hare and Roberto Saviano. The latter is constantly on the move, Rushdie-style, from one temporary dwelling to another, but Hare is present and he expresses himself in a way that could serve as the starting point of this text.
– Clearly few of us now living in the West, he says, can recall a time when we had so little confidence in the way our societies were organized. But nor can we remember a time when we had so little imagination about how they might be organized differently.
The riots this summer started an intense debate about social divisions, a lost underclass, and moral misery. Was this a rebellion of the poor or a consumerism gone haywire? Why shouldn’t teenagers steal sneakers when bank CEO’s and members of Parliament plunder the public treasury?
Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister, wrote in The Guardian saying that the country’s main problem is all its dysfunctional families. But distrust of the system is a European illness, well-spread across borders. I put this aversion to banks, ministers and the media in my shoulder bag and carry it with me when visiting a number of British writers and debaters with differing opinions about the reasons behind the seeming disintegration of society’s joints.
Inequality can explain the riots, say Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, whose book ”The Spirit Level” has attracted much attention, as I meet them in the offices of the Equality Trust in south London. They can show how the gap between the economy at the top and the bottom of British society has widened since the 1980‘s and become a crater. But then, what could explain the car fires in Gothenburg or the stones thrown at ambulances and city buses in Malmö, in Sweden, a country they both refer to as a more egalitarian contrast?
That is a question they don’t really have an answer to.
Wilkinson says that he tends to view parenthood more and more as a system, whereby adults transfer their own experiences of misfortune to their children.
– We recently had a case where three mothers had forced their small children, two and three years old, to fight in order to learn to become tough. That was the extent of their own life experience: you must be tough. If you don’t have an education and a nice house to live in, you can only earn respect by refusing to step aside on the sidewalk.
There is something worried bordering on tormented in the faces of the people I ask to diagnose the current European condition. Dystopia grows like dirty linen in the corner. Both on the right and on the left riots and vandalism are seen as completely destructive; there are no expressed demands, no hope. The discontect that is moving across the continent does not necessarily produce any democratic impulses.
When it has become sanctioned to steal, everyone can join in, says Laurie Penny, left-wing activist and writer in New Statesman and in the news with ”Penny Red”, a collection of her magazine columns:
– People feel cheated. They notice that civil society is breaking down. What people in general are more worried about than an economic meltdown is violence in the streets. They will vote for anyone who promises to uphold law and order. There is a very limited sense of society in Europe at the moment.
The train to Shropshire takes me a couple of hours away from the metro region, to the idyllic small town of Bridgnorth: cobble-stone, charmingly warped front doors, polite greetings over the pub lunch crabcake. But the doctor and writer Anthony Daniels tells me how this calm, just like in TV’s Midsomer villages, may become pierced by its opposite; on weekends the drinking and fighting make the alleyways impossible to walk through.
Using the pen-name Theodore Dalrymple, Daniels has written about a wordless, uneducated and demoralized England, a culture of hopelessness with idleness and angry fists. In ”Life at The Bottom: The Worldview That Makes The Underclass” he tells of his experience as a doctor working in prisons and hospitals. It is a book with observations combining Charles Dickens with Ken Loach while simultaneously being horrified at the spread of a lifestyle defined by idleness and irresponsibility.
– I don’t really like the expression underclass, he elucidates. It implies that there is a sort of lumpen proletariat completely cut off from the rest of the population, but many of the pathologies of the so called underclass are visible in other places, too. I would say that these people are existentially desperate. They have no cultural, scientific or intellectual interests. They lack political opinions. They don’t have any sense of direction in their lives.
After eleven years of schooling, twenty percent of British children are unable to read and write properly, according to Daniels. Their financial prospects will be thereafter.
– Unfortunately there does not exist any solidarity besides the one passing via the government. The social glue is gone, the family has disappeared. In the long run, the state will not be able to sustain these people. Then there is nothing left.
”Chavs” is the title of Owen Jones’ very first book. His thesis is that the working class is being demonized in politics and in the media in order for the class injustices to be covered up:
– In the riots, anger at the police was mixed with hedonism and opportunism. The majority of those prosecuted are unemployed young guys. For the young working class men the loss of the old type of industrial jobs has created a vacuum.
During the post-war years there were high expectations, says Jones.
– The kids would be better off than their parents. Now all of that has come to a complete stop. The past 30 years we have lost all hope of structure and security. A large section of my generation – I’m 27 – lacks future prospects. That is something we cannot ignore.
Another day the communter train lets me off at Faversham, southeast of the capital, where the prolific writer och sociologist Frank Furedi is surveying the bleak everyday life which he compares to T. S. Eliot’s poetic wasteland: ”I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
– Every weekend we have cars burning and individuals being arrested. That’s the norm. I view the riots as a generalization of this, a public manifestation.
Furedi finds that the dependence on the state, primarily through different benefits, makes people unable to work together as active citizens.
– In a normal world, people look after one another. What is left now is an incredibly feeble feeling of societal life and community. Unemployment is permanented across several generations. The lack of ambition is institutionalized already at an early age.
Does he, I wonder, mean that we should dissolve the welfare systems?
– One should not throw old people out of the nursing homes. But noone under 25 years of age should receive benefits. It is a terrible way to start your life, instead activities should be created for this money. With self-esteem it is possible to identify with people in other parts of the world. You can become an intellectual nomad. But if you don’t have any sense of belonging, a train ride to the city center may look like a journey to another planet.
To myself, I’m thinking that the looters in their hoods in London this summer could be likened to a group of anonymous and frustrated commentators on the web – but what did they really want to say?
No trust, no ideas. Perhaps that will also be the summary of this text?
The grabbers at the top of society obviously have departed from any vision of the communal. What conclusions are we with lower and more insecure incomes to draw from this? There is still a middle class out there, that is expected to work, pay taxes, get a bad conscience, and feel moral guilt.
Frank Furedi, who has quit his former position on the far left, but insists that things that now may sound conservative coming from him are in fact progressive, stresses that the divided Europe demands solidarity between grownups and a will to act as adults and to guide the next generation. Turning away or gazing at your shoe laces will not do.
And perhaps this is where we can find the beginning of a healthy discussion about ideas: when laissez-faire does not function for either economy or children, where will we head without encapsulating ourselves in riot gear?