Me and the rioters: what we might have in common

In memoriam: because there are links

The premise of this post will seem silly to some people. It seems slightly silly even to me. But it is a response to a lot of crap written about rioters from both left and right. This post is about what I and the participants in the recent riots have in common. The point is not to obsess about myself. I want to do it because so many people have been talking about ‘them’, as though they are fundamentally different from ‘us’, whoever the hell ‘us’ is (I know I have more in common with an ocelot than I do with David Starkey and I barely even know what an ocelot is).

A lot of the speakers and writers have sounded very sure of themselves too, especially when demonstrating their moral superiority to rioters, whether referring to them as animals or as lumpenproletariat. It is a politician’s job to sound sure of themselves so that we don’t guess they wank over their work colleagues and aren’t sure what life is about and wake up in the night with the horrors just like we do. There’s far less justification for those outside the Parliament of Performing Seals to sound so sure of themselves.

While thinking about what I could be sure of I realised that I was more sure about what I had in common with the various rioters than what separates us. What separates us on the surface seems very obvious: I have a good and expensive education, largely paid for by the state – I was almost the last intake with LEA grants. Most of the people on the street probably don’t have that and will probably never get the chance. But then, maybe there were more people of my ‘demographic’ out there but their sense of self-preservation was stronger – perhaps they looked over the shoulder for the police more because they had more to lose. We have no idea whether the arrests reflect the people out on the streets looting.

I’m a bit older than your average rioter, but then, some of the rioters (Or people, as they are also known) arrested were around my age, so let’s not generalise. Because I look a bit more middle class and white than most of them, I suspect I get less harrassment from the police. Police harrassment was a huge factor in the riots in some areas, and those on the street attacked the police because that was what they most wanted to do. Let’s not generalise though: in some areas the focus was more on looting than on fighting the police.

Another difference between me and most of the rioters is that I have a job. That’s not true of all of the looters: the employed were there too, though no one took a straw poll of what their jobs are and whether they are better or worse than mine. Because I have a job and most of them don’t, I have more money than most of the people out on the street. I am able to buy what I need with some left over and on balance the work I do is not bad.

There is a difference between me and a few of the rioters: I have the empathy and impulse control not to take out my anger and frustration through violence against people. I would not burn down shops with homes above them. Nor, of course, would most of the rioters (people, remember?). I would want to check a retail park thoroughly for human occupants before setting light to it. I would assume that a combination of their family and peer environments has created most of the difference. But this too is a guess, and I am sure that some of the respectable middle class people who expressed such disgust at the rioting would look on rioting very differently if other respectable middle class people were doing it too. Something most people share is a shit ability to resist peer pressure.

I’m not crazily sure about a lot of the above differences. There’s a lot of guesswork in there, and different people are…different. You know? As the above issue of mob behaviour hints at, we should be very careful about assuming that what is going on in the minds of rioters and looters we haven’t met is really that different from what is going on in our minds. Middle class people can also do horrible things because everyone around them is doing it too, and they do it from their position of comfort, not from a collective outburst of pent-up frustration.

But now onto things I have in common with the people who were out on the streets last week.  There may be things I share that I can’t know since I didn’t ask people: taste in music, hatred of Michael McIntyre, a dislike of complacency, a caffeine addiction. Who knows on these counts? But it is obvious I would share some of these things and not others. To me at least it is obvious: I’m not sure it is to the baying mob calling for their blood. I suspect they see most of the ‘rioters’ as fundamentally alien to them. Who knows what horrible vices lurk in their dark, immoral hearts etc etc.

But on to the more general commonalities,  and a few of these I can feel more sure about – while remembering that all the rioters were different.  Despite a ‘middle class’ upbringing my family had neither money nor power. I have no contacts in high places. I have no powerful friends. I can’t call a journalist up and ask them to defend me. By dint of my education I may be able to phrase myself in a way more acceptable to mainstream discourse (See, I used the word discourse! Clever old me!) and yet despite this I feel that the difference in powerlessness between me and those other people on the streets is actually quite marginal. They are not ‘important’ and nor am I.

This leads to us sharing certain things whether we want to or not. The politicians do not give a fuck about us. The big media organisations do not give a fuck about us. Any campaigning organisations that attempt to ‘represent’ us get sucked up into a state machinery that removes them from us and undoes their work. As for parliament representing me, the idea just strikes me as fucking absurd. I don’t think it would help if I voted either, and I don’t think it would help the rioters. That is not the problem. The problem is that ‘representation’ is a con. It always was. It doesn’t work. I feel it and so do plenty of others.

There is something fundamental we also share in our relationships to companies and corporations. Those companies and corporations make things for me when I have the money or will to pay, but as soon as I don’t they are not interested in me. That seems obvious of course – but is it so obvious that our main economic organising units, as legally created by the state, should be founded upon pure selfishness? Whether or not you think it reasonable, you’ve got to agree that once you are not suckling at their tits any more, the relationship between us and the corporations is over. They don’t feel they owe us anything – despite occupying the physical and mental space all around us and controlling most of our resources – so we don’t feel we owe them anything. Why should we? There is nothing between us. Except the advertising we can’t escape. We owe them nothing.

This leads on to my dislike of the police. I hate the Met for being racist. I hate them for their role in keeping a lid on ‘social disorder’ that usually appears in response to organised theft from above. I hate them because I have witnessed them mobilise large numbers in defence of corporate property and not care who they had to hurt to defend what is only stuff. I hate them because their role is to freeze power relations where they are. And I don’t have any. We don’t have any.

There is something that most of us in Britain share at the moment. While I do have a job, I would like to move jobs but I can’t. There aren’t any jobs to move to. Boohoo, you say. But it stings because a few years ago it would have been easy. Someone else fucked up my economy (it was never mine, it turns out) and as a result the horizons of my present have contracted. Having got myself into a good position just before the Credit Theft (as we should rightly call it) I have not yet had my present crushed into a small box on a benefits application form, but I am aware of the loss of opportunity and aware it might get worse yet. I am aware too that the price of food and fuel and transport is going up while my income stays the same. We are all getting poorer by the day. This hasn’t reduced my standard of living yet but some people will already have reduced their food expenditure because of it. They won’t have had a choice.

One thing we share looms largest of all. I might phrase this a little differently from a lot of the people on the street last week, but we are still aware of the process we are undergoing. A particular form of governing has arisen in which the balance of powers and the triumph of certain rhetoric within public debate actively facilitates the removal of wealth from us so that it can be handed to those who already have most of it. This is an ongoing project, currently undergoing considerable intensification, with us as the target. We have lost free education, we are in the process of losing welfare, and the NHS is being sold off, one billion pounds at a time. Housing policy is deliberately tilted towards those who own much of the property already. I do not expect to have universal healthcare when I am older. I do not expect to own a home that will fund my retirement. I do not expect to have a welfare safety net worthy of the name. I do not expect to have a pension that will feed and house me decently. Nor did anyone on the streets last week. Perhaps they’re not fucking idiots after all. Not nearly as idiot as the people who think the government is saving them from the evil deficit and who blithely assume that their lives are going to stay as comfortable as they have been for the last fifty years.

My future is diminishing as my present is contracting. And I have no idea how to fight it yet.

Our future is diminishing as our present is contracting. And we have no idea how to fight it yet.

The last thing we share is this: I need a new computer. One from PC World would do just fine.

On The March for the Alternative that wasn’t and Ed Miliband’s inability to fuck Tina

The logic of Tina has its way with a puppy and a child

There were lots of alternatives on offer on last Saturday’s March for the Alternative. Alternatives to marching. Alternatives to peaceful protest. Alternatives to non-political policing. Alternatives takes on what the other protesters were up to. Alternative tales of how your day went. And ‘alternative’ versions of the the truth in the media the next day. Protesters have had a go at each other and there have been some honourable attempts to bring them back together again (Solidarity Forever).

Unfortunately the one thing the March for the Alternative didn’t deliver was the one thing it claimed to deliver: an alternative future for those marching. The reason for that can be summed up in the fact that it had Ed Miliband at the end of it. Anything that finishes at Ed Miliband has got to be flawed. Not because Ed Miliband is any better or worse than any other leader of recent years, but because Ed Miliband is no better or worse than leaders of recent years.

And the only argument the TUC and anyone else ever has is: They’re better than the Tories.  And so we get Ed Miliband at the end of a ‘March for the Alternative’.

Now it’s true that people protested and marched for lots of different reasons on Saturday, but I’m pretty that they all agreed on one thing: when David Cameron said there was no alternative to the cuts, they wanted to scream at their television that he was lying. The first, most basic, most necessary response to There Is No Alternative (TINA) has always got to be:  Fuck Tina. Just because your imagination has failed, doesn’t mean mine has. Fuck Tina. We can and we will find alternatives, because we have to, and because we’re pretty sure you’re lying about them not being out there. Fuck Tina.

(As an aside, I once had the passing thought to set up a website called fucktina.com on this very subject, but upon investigating found – unsurprisingly really – that the name is being squatted by someone waiting to make a quick buck from porn providers. Another cunning plan bites the dust.)

So if that’ s why people marched – with the conviction there are alternatives – what was a man deeply complicit in the Blair/Brown regime doing at the end of the march? Not fucking Tina, that’s for sure. Ed Miliband has never fucked Tina. Ed Miliband will never fuck Tina. Ed Miliband is incapable of fucking Tina. But the problem is much worse than that. No one in the Labour party, destroyed by the right wing economic coup that brought Blair to power, will ever fuck Tina. But it’s worse than that even. No party, in our current political system, will ever fuck Tina. It is set up so that those who succeed must fully commit themselves to an undemocratic institution – Parliament. This institution is not made democratic by a vote every few years, whatever we’ve been told. Parliament is a place for powerful people to gather and decide our future.  Most of those powerful people are not elected, and the ones who are got there by lying. That sounds extreme but if you think about it for a moment you’ll realise it is a simple statement of fact.

It is my opinion that the only way we can fight for a real alternative in this country is to fight for radical institutional change within the governmental and economic structures that currently manage our lives. This is a very definite and specific thing to ask for: neither revolution, nor policy changes, but changes to the structures themselves. Changes that would let us inside the walls, that would recognise that we can trust ourselves to make the decisions that our leaders currently make. Changes that would recognise the unsustainability of closed institutions like Parliament in a world where information flows more freely, and people are better networked than ever before. Changes that would keep politicians on a much, much shorter leash.

But the first step is to lose the idea that we must choose one party or the other. We must stop acting as though this way of doing things was created by God at the beginning of the Universe. It wasn’t. It’s very recent. It’s not working.  We need to stop believing that choosing a party slightly less bad than the other party is an okay way to run a country, that this system is worthy of our hopes and aspirations and skills and knowledge. The Labour party is not the problem in the system, the problem is that we allow professional power-mongers to make our decisions for us in the belief that they know better. They really don’t. On that topic, and just in case you’ve forgotten what Labour is all about. Here’s a reminder of what they’ve done recently:

– Undermined the welfare state

– Prepared the NHS for privatisations

– Started a war of aggression in a country not threatening us

– Been bought by the bankers, had lots of nice dinners with them, and so helped precipitate the financial crisis

– Introduced university tuition fees

– Increased the gap between rich and poor

– Reduced social mobility

– Infected the public sector with a plague of targets and other business-worshipping methods

– Passed a veritable barrage of authoritarian measures

– Sold schools to rich people

– Contributed to anti-immigrant and anti-muslim feeling

– Expressed no doubts about their former leader becoming a millionaire off contacts made during his ‘public service’

– Allowed James Purnell to continue existing

People marched last Saturday for good and honourable reasons and they marched in large numbers. They marched against an essentially undemocratic government that does not care about them and has a deeply-held belief that Money Is Right. Ed Miliband is not offering an alternative, and is certainly not offering institutional reform. He couldn’t if he wanted to. People are often convinced that you can change institutions from the inside. But if the change you want is to give away power, you simply can’t. No institution does that willingly. It doesn’t allow people who would give away power anywhere near the reigns in the first place. That means if we want it, we have to unite and take it.  If I’m right, and institutional reform is the way forward, then we all have to fuck Tina together.

I’ve never had group sex before, but they say you should try everything once.

My libraries

I was driving to work the other day thinking about the library closures in Lewisham and around the country and began to feel angry about it. For a moment I checked myself: surely there were other cuts that should bother me more – why get worked up about this in particular? Then it struck me that I was being silly. I spend a lot of time being pissed off about things being done to other people. For once I was feeling pissed off about something being done to me. It felt good and right to be pissed off on my own behalf. I let it happen.

I spent many hours in the library of the village where I grew up, and took hundreds of books out. For a long time I went there nearly every weekend – and would always have finished books to change. I read a lot. My mother would sometimes drop us off at the library when she went to do shopping. It was safe space to her, except in one sense she never understood: it was the anti-dote to the limited, controlled intellectual environment in which I was raised.

I read mostly fiction, and mostly to escape, but in doing so I read many things my parents would have hated. I loved it. Over time my reading increased until the village library was no longer enough and I began consuming the contents of the library in the town where I went to school. I frequently withdrew and read ten books in a week. Think about that: ten books a week. Even if my parents had been earning full salaries they could never have afforded a £70-£100 a week book habit. Anyway they would never have approved of half the books I read (some of them hidden behind other ‘approved’ books as I sat in the sitting room reading). I also bought books at charity shops of course, but that was when they cost between 10p and 50p. Now the pricing in charity shops has been professionalised and that avenue is shut down for most children. There are only libraries left.

I am an adult now and earn enough money to buy books. But I still cannot afford all the books I want. I still look for new things in the library. I still order rare books through the national network of libraries. Libraries were my great comfort when I felt at home nowhere else. They are still my place of first resort when I want to try something new, and the last resort when I need books I cannot obtain elsewhere. I still love to wander round them. They are free spaces where simply reaching out and taking a book can open a whole new world. If I have not always felt at home in my own town, or my own country, I have always felt at home in libraries. You might say that I am a product and member of the great republic of public libraries.

So when politicians and bureaucrats attack libraries, they are attacking where I come from. The closure of libraries feels personal. It is personal. And of course when I go to the local libraries I see that other kids use them now, perhaps kids like me, whose other connections to the world are strangled. Kids and teenagers need libraries particularly. In an authoritarian-by-default world, libraries and the internet are the only places they can gain some control over their own development, and many kids’ internet connections are tightly controlled, or at least their histories are viewable by the parents. Children and teenagers still use libraries. So do pensioners, the unemployed, mothers looking after kids alone. As well as working people like me who are always looking for something new. Libraries are free space for everyone, but they are most of all free space to the people who really need it: the lonely, the harassed, those without money, those who need to escape, those who want more from life than what they have been offered.

And all over the country they want to close libraries down. ‘They’? Who are ‘they’? That is the question they want to vex us. As with all the Local Authority cuts, the councillors hold up their hands and say ‘It isn’t us – blame the government for forcing us to make these cuts’. And the government holds up its hands and says ‘We never ordered libraries to close – it’s a Local Authority decision’.

This is the question they want to vex us. Avoidance of blame is a key political skill. But the question does not trouble me in the slightest, I have an answer that satisfies me. I blame the government for making cuts and lying that they are necessary. I blame the Local Authorities for implementing them with barely a murmur. I blame the civil servants who did the cost-benefit analysis on libraries. I blame the Councillors who voted for it. I even blame the administrators who are implementing it. I blame anyone who is involved who didn’t stand up and walk out the room when they realised what their actions meant.

They want to claim too that they aren’t shutting libraries, they are just putting them in community hands. Without money. This is the government’s whole ‘localism’ strategy encapsulated. Give ‘control’ to local communities, take away the money. It will destroy the libraries – except perhaps in affluent areas that can support them from disposable cash – and they know it will destroy them. They don’t care, or not enough to stop it, which is the only caring that matters.

When you close down libraries, you shut off the oxygen to developing minds. You close down the only space where people have freedom of thought not just in theory but in fact. It is a crime against the right to free thinking and a crime against those people who need them. There’s plenty of blame to go around, and we should attach it to everyone involved. The closure of libraries at this point in time is not a ‘natural’ process that we have to accept, but rather than the result of a certain type of politics and economics in which we should refuse to take part.

I want to stop libraries being closed. I think we should stop libraries being closed. If it cannot be stopped, then as far as I’m concerned, it cannot and should not be forgiven.