A Tale of Many Cities

August 10, 2011

I, like many Londoners, am today welcoming the fact that overwhelming force works. Whether one night of calm is enough to put a halt to the riots for an appreciable period of time remains to be seen, but now seems a good time to pause and look at how the story of the riots has unfolded, and what it can tell us about our society.

London has been revealed as not one city, but many cities. In my area, everyone uses the same public transport, the same shops, and the same healthcare services – but even in my relatively small area of London the experience of the city varies enormously from person to person, and from family to family. It’s as though we simply ignore the fact that the other people on the bus are from variously the sort of tightly-knit genuine communities like the Sikhs and Turks who came out to defend their neighbourhoods, from transient foreigners briefly attending London to work, from estate communities propped up by middle-aged women, and many more besides. These groups socialise in different places, get different types of services from the State, and have a whole panoply of different rituals and traditions, both formal and informal.

London can be seen as place of multiple overlapping networks of people, which only cross in a few shared spaces. The metaphor underlying this was brilliantly brought out by China Mieville’s work The City & the City, in which two cities exist in the same place but the inhabitants of both are forbidden from admitting that they see each other. The experience of the Sikhs is not the same as the experience of the underclass responsible for the riots, just as much as the experience of the Turks is not the same as the experience of the greater bourgeois meta-culture of which I am a proud member.

The latter comprises a significant number of sub-groups, ranging from the hipsters of Shoreditch, the young professional families of Richmond, the Boat People of the canals, to the community of political apparatchiks of the Westminster Bubble. The tenuous threads that bind them are an appreciable level of prosperity and education as well as varying degrees of support for the institutions that comprise public life, including Parliament in the sense of the mechanism of Government, the rule of law and the volition of the individual. Their political positions range across the spectrum, but their actual stance is unimportant for the purposes of this classification, as in real terms they are the ‘public’ that ‘debates’.

The riots have brought this out in an unexpected way. The left has been arguing for more understanding, the right has been arguing for more punishment, but both have taken as read that the fate of the rioters and the city they represent lies in our hands. No-one has suggested that the rioters should take responsibility for their own destiny – not in the moral sense of their immediate action in the riot, but in the broader sense of determining their own relationship with society. Instead, it is to be our meta-culture which determines what we do with them.

Whether you’re calling for more youth services or the return of caning, you are part of this – as am I, by writing this blog post. I have never heard anyone ask what we should ‘do’ about the Shoreditch hipsters, who befoul our streets with their ridiculous clothes, or what we should ‘do’ about professionals pushing up the house prices out of the reach of ordinary folk. These people are not within our power to command, and rightly so.

Why then, do we do it for the underclass? The answer is that they are in our command, from decade upon decade of institution-building designed to contain them. Labour had thirteen years in which they tried all manner of ideas around dealing with the underclass, including ASBOs and the expansion of ‘youth services’. They gave people enormous opportunities to ‘care’ about the fate of the underclass, and to work to ensure that they got better lives. They permitted the police to heavy-handedly contain its more troublesome elements. I think it’s pretty safe to say that they failed. If they had genuinely succeeded in fostering resilient communities, they wouldn’t riot as soon as someone threatened to take the institutions that helped them away.

It’s been pointed out that the riots had more in common with prison riots than traditional civil disputes. The institutionalisation of the underclass is a clear reason as to why this is the case. The panoply of support services on offer reduces the children they are set up for to numbers moving through a system of people whose job it is to tick boxes against each of their names. Remember the complaints from social workers about the managerialisation of their profession, which they argued led to the death of Baby P? The same cause is at work here; a surfeit of high-level care which removes the scope for individual judgement from both the service provider and the individual engaged in the system.

This managerialism converted London into a vast open-air prison for the underclass, a place in which they could be assured of being fed, clothed and housed, but could not join our meta-culture, because the individual volition necessary to do so had been systematically removed. Even in this environment, as in a prison, the underclass desperately longed to set up their own institutions, which would belong to them in the same way that Parliament belongs to us. Hence, postcode gangs, a bizarre phenomenon parasitic on an arbitrary bureaucratic method of dividing geographical areas. This is another city which sat along side us on the bus, and we ignored.

Calls for the restoration of youth services – a de facto reward for rioting – will only continue this divide. What we need to do instead is to bring them into our city, rather than leaving them in a city we run as a fiefdom. I’m confident that they want this, as their first move upon breaking their restraints was to engage in a grotesque imitation of a bourgeois shopping spree.

Unfortunately, they’ve just burned down the bits of the city we could’ve used to do this. No-one is going to invest in Tottenham now – even if they wanted to, I suspect the insurance premiums for all the affected areas are going to skyrocket.

Regardless, we still need to develop a framework in which this transition can be made. It cannot be run by the Government, as more institutionalisation is not what is required right now. We need to give these communities space, and access to the institutions to which we hold dear. We need to give them the freedom to realise that their judgements in our social context can lead to success.

However, first of all we need to lock a large number of them up for quite a long time. The key to being part of our city is to understand that if you break the law, there are consequences.

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