Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Shopping Riots

The Shopping Riots is the name that seems to be popping up in referring to the recent London riots.  For myself, I think they are a pretty good name for the “Flash Mob” as well.

The term was coined by Zoe Williams of the Guardian (U.K.). 
Zoe Williams, The Guardian (U.K.), 9 August 2011 (Indirect ht: SE).
By Monday night, Debenhams [department store] in Clapham Junction was empty, and in a cheeky touch, the streets were thronging with people carrying Debenhams bags… [Radical left winger and resident Claire] Fox said the riots seemed nihilistic, they didn't seem to be politically motivated, nor did they have any sense of community or social solidarity. This was inarguable. As one brave woman in Hackney put it: "We're not all gathering together for a cause, we're running down Foot Locker."…
I think it's just about possible that you could see your actions refashioned into a noble cause if you were stealing the staples: bread, milk. But it can't be done while you're nicking trainers, let alone laptops. In Clapham Junction, the only shop left untouched was Waterstone's [a book seller], and the looters of Boots [A drug store] had, unaccountably, stolen a load of Imodium. So this kept Twitter alive all night with tweets about how uneducated these people must be and the condition of their digestive systems. While that palled after a bit, it remains the case that these are shopping riots, characterised by their consumer choices: that's the bit we've never seen before. A violent act by the authorities, triggering a howl of protest – that bit is as old as time. But crowds moving from shopping centre to shopping centre? Actively trying to avoid a confrontation with police, trying to get in and out of JD Sports before the "feds" arrive? That bit is new.
…I wasn't convinced by nihilism as a reading: how can you cease to believe in law and order, a moral universe, co-operation, the purpose of existence, and yet still believe in sportswear?  How can you despise culture but still want the flatscreen TV…
She then gets into an extended discussion of the less immediate causes, and I will skip to what is probably the correct conclusion:
Between these poles is a more pragmatic reading: this is what happens when people don't have anything, when they have their noses constantly rubbed in stuff they can't afford, and they have no reason ever to believe that they will be able to afford it. …"Consumer society relies on your ability to participate in it. So what we recognise as a consumer now was born out of shorter hours, higher wages and the availability of credit. If you're dealing with a lot of people who don't have the last two, that contract doesn't work. They seem to be targeting the stores selling goods they would normally consume. So perhaps they're rebelling against the system that denies its bounty to them because they can't afford it."
The type of goods being looted seems peculiarly relevant: if they were going for bare necessities, I think one might incline towards sympathy. I could be wrong, but I don't get the impression that we're looking at people who are hungry. If they were going for more outlandish luxury, hitting Tiffany's and Gucci, they might seem more political, and thereby more respectable. Their achilles heel was in going for things they demonstrably want.
She goes on to note, in a convoluted way, that the youth in the streets have very poor impulse control.  But then shifts tack.
She notes that the people riot as if there are no consequences.  They show little care to disguise themselves.
This could go back to the idea that, with the closure of a number of juvenile facilities and the rhetoric about bringing down prison populations, people just don't believe they'll go to prison any more, at least not for something as petty as a pair of trainers. I feel for them; that may be true on a small scale, but when judges feel public confidence seriously to be at issue, they have it in themselves to be very harsh indeed…I'm thinking of Charlie Gilmour [Pink Floyd guitarist’s son jailed for 16 months for violent student demonstration].
She notes that there is an air of detachment to the crowds.  As if it is all one big T.V. show, and they are all playing parts.  But then she notes her own detachment as events unwind.
Late on Monday night, news went round Twitter that Turkish shopkeepers on Stoke Newington Road in Dalston were fighting off the marauders with baseball bats… And it struck me that it hadn't occurred to me to walk on to my high street and see what was going on, let alone defend anything. I was watching events on a live feed, switching between Sky and the BBC, thinking how interesting it was, even though it was audible from my front door and at one point, when I couldn't tell whether the helicopter noise was coming from the telly or from real life, it was because it was both.
So what we have is complete buy-in to the consumer portion of our consumer culture. But there is no buy-in to the work portion that is supposed to go with that.  Of course with the [at least previously] availability consumer financing, it is not clear that the work part of the consumer culture message has ever been pushed that hard.
I think credit cards are wonderful.  If your car breaks down, and you are short on cash, you can get it fixed so you get to work.  When I was living with people who were very low on the wage earning scale, the lack of emergency finance always struck me as a huge problem.
However, our culture is not about the careful use of credit.  Motorcycles, riding lawn mowers, furniture, home improvements just start the list of items that I have seen bought on credit recently.  Granted the people making these purchases had enough impulse control to get the education and work needed to be offered this credit.
But if you are looking at it from the outside, the connection to the work and the purchase is a little tenuous.  And since our culture is all about cross comparisons of wealth, if you have some  detachment from the real world you live in, little serious role within our economy, and very little fear of incarceration, you are going to grab those goods when you have the chance.
Shopping Riots!  We have shopping riots.  Riots about shopping.  We are indeed a religious society, with the high priests being the Ad-men and marketers.

3 comments:

guysalvidge said...

See J. G. Ballard. He wrote about this kind of thing extensively in his later novels.

russell1200 said...

I had not thought of that. I have his drowned world book, because it is famous. It was, in a vaguely planned way, going to be in my next set of reviews sometime in the distant future.

But I remember reading a review of one of his later (latest?) books, and what your saying rings true. Very prescient.

guysalvidge said...

I would read everything by Ballard as it's all excellent work, but in terms of riots his best novel is probably High-Rise. His last novel, Kingdom Come, is definitely relevant to the shopping riots as well, although not as good a book as High-Rise.