Blog post

"The riots are a catastrophe"—Owen Jones

Josh Oldham13 August 2011

In a blog post for Labour List, Owen Jones, author of Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, describes the riots as a catastrophe; the political consequences of which may be felt for a long time to come.

Jones fears that the growing backlash against rioters may be indicative of an impending swing to the right. With public mood supportive of an authoritarian response to those involved, and discourse surrounding the debate one of prejudicial and divisive generalisation, it seems that right-wing attitudes are primed to take hold across Britain. As Jones writes:

My real fear is that we have just witnessed another crucial stage in the political ascendancy of the right. When asked how he would cure what he described as a "sickness", one of David Cameron's key suggestions was "a welfare state that doesn't reward idleness". And so begins an attempt to link the actions of a few with benefit claimants as a whole.

By offering criticisms of benefit claimants and the welfare state, Cameron is tapping into a huge well of public support, one which will allow the PM to distract attention away from the deeper socio-political issues highlighted by the rioting.

To even look at possible reasons why a relatively small proportion of people engaged in these acts means to be slapped down as an "apologist". For many who are now enraged, scared, or both, it is outrageous to suggest that the rioters are anything other than mindless, feral criminals. This is, without doubt, completely understandable. Suggestions that we should look at a wider context to stop this from happening again risk being instantly shouted down: that one in five young people out of work nationally, a figure that is even higher in many of the communities worst affected by the riots; that half of all children growing up in Tottenham, for example, grow up in poverty; that the poorest living alongside the most affluent in boroughs like Hackney, looking at lives they will never have; or to examine the impact of a consumerist society in which to have status is to own things.

Although Jones is keen to point out that such underlying factors do not justify the actions of those involved, they may go some way to explain them. However, it is of course convenient for the government to paint recent events as a purely criminal issue, divorced from wider concerns regarding their policies and spending cuts.

Jones is all too aware of the effect this may have on an already divided and fearful public. In his book, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, society's attitudes and prejudices against the likes of those involved in the riots are explored at length. The scapegoating of 'chavs' and the 'underclass' discussed within is particularly pertinent given the increased backlash the riots have fostered - a connection Jones highlights in the article.

The caricature of the idle, feckless benefit recipient is more hated than ever because of the economic crisis. A crisis of the financial sector was turned into a crisis of public spending. A crisis of public spending was, in part, turned into a crisis of welfare expenditure. To justify slashing benefits, it is necessary to demonise those receiving them. 

Visit Labour List to read the article in full.

Filed under: articles, riots