AFTER a police gunman shot Mark Duggan on 4 August last year, the sequence of events unfolded with the logic of a nightmare.
Even while homes and businesses burned in Enfield and Croydon, theories were advanced as to how London became so lawless, so quickly. Ed Miliband called for more investment, more understanding. David Cameron called for more personal responsibility, more Big Society. Former gang members were invited onto Newsnight to offer a black perspective. Most agreed, however, that the malaise set in long before anyone had heard of Mark Duggan.
According to Clive Bloom, its roots are deeper still. Riot City is one of the first books to put the August riots in the context of the wider unrest of the 21st century, in particular the 2010 student protests. However, Bloom is careful to draw distinctions, for the students rioted to restore equilibrium; the summer rioters to permanently disturb it.
As the author of Violent London, a 2,000-year history of street protest, he is well versed in riot lore. In the panicky aftermath of the August riots, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary concluded that lethal force might be appropriate in certain circumstances. “This was [the] first time that such a conclusion has been reached in England since the founding of the police in 1829,” Bloom notes. He dismisses comparisons with the Brixton riots of 1981, but finds precedent in the apprentice riots of 1668, when working-class men burned down small-time brothels to rage against the big-time prostitution going on in Charles II’s court – not so dissimilar from looting Footlocker with a vague sense that the bankers have been looting the country, then.
When it comes to chronology and narrative, Bloom becomes uneven. At times, he resorts to a sort of prose-poetry to describe events: “a fire extinguisher falls in slow motion; a student revved on adrenaline holds a red flag and kicks the Cenotaph; a hoodie on a Chopper bike, a cop on a radio”.
“Just what is it that makes today’s riots so different, so appealing?” he asks at one point, presumably the sort of hip, pop cultural reference that inspired the Times Higher Education magazine to laud his street-cred. Still, when Bloom stops channelling the over-friendly tutor played by Robert Webb in Fresh Meat, he brings genuine insight. Throughout the book, he builds a thesis on individualism which Cameron’s Big Society is a symptom of, not a remedy for. Bloom believes it misguided to appeal to the inward morality of the visibly dispossessed.
It was only in the 19th century that the inward, psychological nature of morality was developed; in the 17th century, social status and morality were seen as bound up in outward appearance. Since then, what was ignored was the continued presence of another, older way of understanding the self which has considerably increased in power alongside the rise in consumer goods. “We arrive at the conclusion that the rioters rioted precisely because, for them, there is no internal model of a self that is impelled towards a positive future.”
Solutions? Police reform, of course. Bloom warns that relative poverty is far more dangerous than absolute poverty. He is in favour of military-style discipline to create positive identities not rooted in individualism. The more middle-class educators affirm conscience and good citizenship, he argues, the more the underclass will affirm external values, such as Nike Air Force Ones. However, promoting an alternative to violent materialism will be hard to a generation whose corrupt attitudes are apparently replicated by their social betters – who seem immune from the punishment of the poor.
by Clive Bloom
Palgrave Macmillan, 224pp, £9.99
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Wednesday 22 May 2013
Temperature: 3 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 23 mph
Wind direction: North west
Temperature: 5 C to 10 C
Wind Speed: 24 mph
Wind direction: North west