One of the most interesting bits of commentary I read this week about the London civil unrest was by Zoe Williams in the Guardian. She cut right to a point that I hadn’t seen anyone else in the mainstream press hit on: that these were “shopping riots”:
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 from the bookies? Alex Hiller, a marketing and consumer expert at Nottingham Business School, points out that there is no conflict between anomie and consumption: “If you look at Baudrillard and other people writing in sociology about consumption, it’s a falsification of social life. Adverts promote a fantasy land. Consumerism relies upon people feeling disconnected from the world.”
[T]his 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. Hiller takes up this idea: “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.
This jibes with something I read earlier in the week (but can’t find the link to — sorry) about how in at least one shop that was being looted, the looters took the time to try on clothes. I hadn’t yet put my finger on the importance of that, but now, with Williams’ commentary, I think we have it: Trying on clothes before taking them home is much more like shopping than it is like looting.
And as Williams seems to indicate, it’s not just a matter of people wanting things they can’t afford: it’s much bigger than that. Consumer culture and the advertising that sells it to us has created a fantasy of what our lives are supposed to be like, and part of the disconnect the looters may have felt from larger society — which is, I think, a necessary requirement of someone who would trash their own neighborhood — is that they’re being denied participation in that society. In one way, it might be said that the looting was emblematic of a design to belong, and not, in fact, an indication of a proud outsiderness.
No one — not Williams, not me — is looking to excuse or justify the actions of the looters; we want merely to understand. And none of this consumerism-run-amuck explanation is meant to suggest that any looter consciously thought about his or her motives… but it doesn’t mean the explanation is wrong if their motives were unconscious. (The explanation could be wrong for other reasons, of course.) Cultural pressures at large and, in particular, the insidiousness of advertising, which often works on subconscious levels and over one’s entire life, means that even when you’re self-aware enough to realize you’re being sold to, you’re still often subject to these influences. (How often have you seen a TV ad for something presented as luscious and tasty and gotten an instant craving for it?) The sea of advertising we live in can be hard to see as something artificial until it’s pointed out to you, and until its agendas are deconstructed for you.
So: Are the London riots this week the inevitable consequence of consumerism, and are we likely to see more such unrest?
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