Riots of consumerism or a new kind of retail therapy

The riots (called civil unrest by Al-Jazeera) are not “criminality pure and simple” as David Cameron called it. Of course, they are criminal and I have no sympathy for those committing the looting and violence. However, characterizing them just as a crime fails to capture the context.

2011 is the year of social movements, from the Arab spring to mass protests in Southern Europe and lately in Israel and now in the UK. The social movements have their origins in the global economic crisis. They might be triggered by the hopelessness of the poor as in Tunisia, the dim prospects of the shrinking middle classes in Israel, Spain or Greece or the lack of perspective for “youth” in many parts of the UK. Of course, not all types of social movements and types of expression are equally legitimate or understandable, but they have similar origins.

Looting is in many ways the most appropriate expression of a social movement in the UK. British society has struck me as more consumer-oriented than in any country I have lived in (save possibly the US), definitely beating the rest of Europe. Shopping is the fun activity to do on Sundays. If you are feeling down, you go for “retail therapy”. If you are politically active, you do or do not buy some product or from some company. Looting is taking a social trend to the logical conclusion where there are members of a society are less and less citizens and increasingly only consumers.

The second striking feature of British society in contrast to most other European countries is the latent and often open violence and aggressiveness or a particular social group (mostly defined by age and social background), visible on Friday and Saturdays in any given British town or city. The often tense and distinctively unpleasant atmosphere in British high streets as dark falls stands in stark contrast to most European down towns. The violence in recent days of course by far exceed this everyday violence and aggression, but those provide the subtext which made the large-scale violence possible.

The riots and looting have been coupling these two trends, a consumerist violence to express an dissatisfaction of a social group which seems unable to clearly articulate either the exact nature of their disgruntlement or the cause (besides the police, the Conservatives and the state in general), but they are sure angry.

While it is a first step to recognize that an underclass exists in the UK that feels like it has little to loose and is socialized to believe that consumerism (including consumerist violence) is both a means of political expression and outlet for grievances (retail therapy of a different type). What is needed is a broader debate about social cohesion in the UK, how consumerism replaced other forms of social engagement and the manner in which public displays of aggression are more acceptable than elsewhere.

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