I tried to buy the Daily Mail this morning, because a friend had written something about the classes he runs in Peckham to encourage black kids to aim higher at school. I could not find one in the three newsagents I visited. A first sign of the backlash against liberalism? Perhaps we need such a backlash. Or if not a backlash against liberalism, certainly against the benign neglect of the pathologies of inner-city culture.
The nihilistic grievance culture of the black inner city, fanned by parts of the hip-hop/rap scene and copied by many white people, has created a hardcore sub-culture of post-political disaffection. The disaffection is mainly unjustified. It’s as if the routine brutalities and racist humiliations of 30 to 40 years ago have been lovingly preserved to provide a motor of real anger for what is really just a kind of adolescent pose. But this disaffection is lionised in popular culture and feared and admired—and mainly simply ignored—by white Britain. It’s time the rest of the country took more notice.
The shooting of Mark Duggan does give the original rioting a link to the more political disturbances of the 1980s. There clearly was a problem with the handling of the Duggan case, and there is still a problem between young black people and the police with stop and search. But by all accounts relations with police are vastly improved on the 1980s, and Operation Trident, the police operation to combat the hugely disproportionate gun crime in the black community, was requested by the black community itself and is generally regarded as a success.
So, what’s the problem? Notwithstanding cuts to youth services and poor employment prospects, this is not a matter of “society is to blame.” A rapper called JaJa, interviewed by Sky TV, said if he was younger he would have been out with the kids. He then admitted that most of them were doing it for fun, to feel powerful, “for 15 minutes of fame.” The actual rioters I saw interviewed on television did complain about the Duggan case, but the real complaint seemed to be the police’s power to stop them committing crime. It’s as if they think it’s unfair that they are not as powerful as the police! This certainly represents a poor grasp of how power works in liberal democracies, but it may also signify a garbled account of modern multiculturalism in which all are meant to have equal power and any departure from that, or indeed any personal setback, is racialised.
Shaun Bailey, a black Tory, complained on Newsnight that too many black kids have been raised hearing a lot about their rights but not much about duties and responsibilities. Perhaps this has been reinforced by celebrity culture and even the surrounding “get rich quick” casino elements of the British economy. Bailey says it is down to “the community” to sort itself out. He is probably right, but it will need the intelligent help of the local and national authorities and the surrounding society.
We should neither stigmatise nor sentimentalise black inner city communities but ask clear questions about what can be done about family breakdown and the crisis of authority, both in those communities, where the problems are particularly acute, and in the rest of Britain. Laissez-faire liberalism (of the right economically, and the left culturally) has left too many people adrift, especially in the inner city, without sufficient structure or sense of obligation or meaning in their lives.
Simply offering them a job or a training place is not enough. Most of the serious rioters will, I suspect, be NEETs (not in employment, education or training), at least those that are not school children. Most of them probably don’t want a job, or at least don’t want to make the effort to make it in a mainstream society where they think the cards are stacked against them. But if nearly 1m east Europeans can turn up and find employment then the jobs are potentially there. You will not, however, get a job if you don’t give a shit and have been taught by the culture around you that you are a victim of a racist society.
In the 1980s there were genuine grievances to riot about; today there is just a sullen disaffection connected to an excessive, and now violent, consumerism. These are truly post-political riots, style riots, boredom riots, feel-good riots, look-at-me riots, riots at the end of history.
Read David Goodhart’s response to your comments in a web exclusive essay here: The riots, the rappers and the Anglo-Jamaican tragedy
Follow Prospect on Twitter and Facebook