Marius Ostrowski on the role of status, morality and purpose in response to last year’s riots
findings of the enquiries
into the riots in early August 2011 paint a picture of systematic disadvantage
and ingrained tensions between societal groups. It has proved impossible to pin
down any single set of causes of this undercurrent of disquiet, which implies a
need for a more complex, systemic approach in assessing the status quo.
It is impossible to wholly separate political, economic, and social concerns in
analysing the background to the riots, so only a truly cross-cutting account
can hope to have the necessary tools to fully capture and interpret the aspects
of society from which the riots derive.
to received wisdom, societal development since 1945 has not eroded the
various historical stratifications in Britain—class, racial, geographical,
cultural—but rather subsumed them into a more pervasive dimension of status.
People are no longer separated by discrete criteria (e.g. age, ethnicity,
employment, material wealth), but a combination of biases that exaggerate the
advantage of those they favour, and the disadvantage of those who ‘lose out’.
self-reinforcement of this new status-dimension over time has created an
apparent societal ‘system’, where repeated winners become a dominant ‘overclass’,
and repeated losers an ‘underclass’, with the majority caught in between. The
self-perpetuating effect of this ‘system’ is strongly in evidence in rioters’
disparate “motivating grievances”, and the disproportionate representation of
under-25s in the number of those convicted. Complaints about the loss of EMA,
rising tuition fees, austerity measures, and police
discrimination are indicative of a youth that is increasingly alienated from
the entrenched social elite.
the persistence of these systemic social ruptures, the strong implication is
that, without concrete policy proposals to mitigate the riots’ causes and
effects, similar events may take place again, possibly in the near future. It
thus becomes all the more urgent to find some way of ensuring social stability,
and to do so, narratives about the riots cannot afford to ignore any factors
that may have fuelled their severity. Two such factors have, in my view, yet to
be accurately taken into account, so I will now explore them briefly.
it is inaccurate to attribute to the rioters a nihilistic ‘loss of morality’. Echoing
Blond’s description of the riots as ‘libertarian’, and Maurice
Glasman’s criticism of neoliberalism, I see the riots—like the MPs’
expenses scandal or the banking crisis—as extensions of a corrosive materialistic
libertinism. The treatment of wealth-accumulation as the yardstick of welfare
and satisfaction has not emerged from any moral vacuum, but has been carefully
cultivated over several decades by successive ideologies.
error is one to which ‘right-wing’, conservative, or classical liberal
politics, and ‘left-wing’, social-democratic politics, are equally prone. Seeing
welfarism as synonymous with resource redistribution by the state implicitly buys
into an impoverished view of human motivation—both sides abandon positions critical
of the neoliberal perception of human behaviour, and prolong its dominance
rather than suggesting alternatives.
this libertinism, theory and policy must mitigate the losing position of the
‘underclass’ without reinforcing the materialist framework that traps them. Non-material
empowerment must retrieve norms which have become lost under neoliberalism, by democratising
social institutions, legally protecting bargaining positions (loosely
construed), and restoring a relational component to our conception of
one of the younger rioters’ overlooked motivations was a crushing mindset of apathy,
passivity, and boredom, which saw rioting as a convenient way to escape an
existential lack of purpose. Extending the materialist bias gives a view of
novelty and change as both end and measure of social progress. The deification
of consumption and accumulation, and the transactionalisation of relationships with
others through advancing technology, have left a legacy of insatiable desire,
and need for permanent activity to meet it.
criticism is not intended to justify social conservatism ‘on the sly’, since
this glorifies immutability to just as damaging an extent. Nevertheless, a
small part of the ‘right-wing’ outcry
against the purported ‘entitlement culture’ feeding ‘criminal tendencies’ in
the ‘underclass’ rings true here. Society must de-emphasise the role of
political institutions in satisfying individuals’ desires, and (again) return
concepts of relationships to current discussions on rights.
successful response to the riots, such as the Commission on Youth
aims to identify, must return responsibility to individuals from an early age
in two ways. Firstly, individuals need the psychological ability to develop
their own values, separate from material or transactional criteria. Secondly, individuals
need a personal sense of social/individual purpose to guide their existence and
activity. In both cases, individuals must relearn how to avoid nihilism about
their place in the world, and take charge of themselves to avoid degenerating
into physical and intellectual dependency on society.
public policy response to the riots needs to examine political, social, and
economic factors to capture the ‘full range’ of their causes and effects.
Moreover, it cannot complacently dismiss the rioters’ behaviour as ‘amoral’, but
must urgently propose an alternative to libertine materialism. Finally, it must
comprehensively change the attitudes of younger citizens towards their
relationship with society, and encourage them to re-engage with the communities
of which they are a part.