The generation gap, not rap, is to blame for the riots

August 22, 2011
article header image

Prospect contributor Shiv Malik responds to David Goodhart's web exclusive article, "The riots, the rappers and the Anglo-Jamaican tragedy

Searching for the root causes of the riots David Goodhart wrote last week: “The ‘hoodie’ culture of disaffection has told young people that their inchoate anger at the ‘power,’ the system, the government, the rich (or their nearest surrogate the shopkeepers), the police—whatever!—is righteous.” He goes on to say that there is “a complex interaction of class and ethnicity here.” A potent mixture indeed.

This “blame black/rap culture” argument is essentially the same argument that the Tudor historian David Starkey made on Newsnight. It is also a close relative of the "crisis of morality" claim made by another David, our prime minister.

Aware I’m sure that, like his fellow Davids, he is white and in the top one per cent of this country’s earners, Goodhart protects his flank by blaming the rappers themselves for somehow cutting off the debate: “Lethal Bizzle, Giggs and other inner city opinion formers have contributed to the crisis of inner city youth and then decreed that no one else can talk about it apart from them, ‘because you have to experience it,’” he writes.

That last point is the easiest to dismiss. Goodhart should realise that no one is actually denying him a voice. He has of course been the editor of the brilliant Prospect for 15 years—enough time I’m sure to get a word in edgeways. But it is not the airing of opinions themselves that are the problem; it is uninformed ones. What Lethal Bizzle actually says at the start of his song, “You’ll Get Wrapped” is that, “You don’t come 'round here. You don’t know."

Geography matters, and if anything, I’d read Lethal Bizzle’s statement as an invitation to come and witness his reality. This gets to the root problem of Goodhart’s article. What is missing from his piece are the interviews with those involved in the riots, the voice of those who work day-in-day-out with gangs, a document of the moment of the rioting itself. The event was more than just a set of TV pictures and YouTube videos.

Perhaps if Goodhart had done this legwork, comparatively easy because the riots popped up in dozens of locations around London (and Britain), I’m sure he would have found very little support for his opinions and quickly have realised that there was almost no connection between the recent rioting and gangs themselves, let alone gang culture.

The shame is that Goodhart and many others can get away with such theories because the usual checks don’t exist; the people we are commenting on are actually the ones without a voice or platform to fight back. The best they have is a semi-commercial rap tune or two.

I have already written about this subject for the Guardian but here are perhaps some salient points that have arisen from doing just a little of that legwork:

Firstly crowds are not groups of individuals. They act in their own fashion and have their own dynamic. People undergo a process of “de-individuation” and they will also reinforce the behaviour of others and perform copycat actions. Mobs, unlike gangs, are not controlled and do not have a rigid hierarchy.

Secondly looting is not “shopping with violence” as Starkey suggested. Through social media (and on the street), people invite others to break social norms. What run of the mill street theft involves this kind of politicisation? Moreover gangs are about maintaining—usually brutally—structure and power. Gang members do not readily invite others into their group—certainly not strangers off the street or from the internet. Again, though gangs may have taken advantage of the disorder for their own material/criminal ends, riotous mobs are not gangs.

Thirdly, we have had gang culture and hip hop/rap/grime for a very long time both in this country and in the US. So how does Goodhart explain the timing for all of this? Why now? And why not also in the US?

A better explanation for the root cause for the riots is the global economic reality—and it is fascinating that so few older commentators cite this as a factor. As the co-author of Prospect’s February front cover, I predicted along with Ed Howker, that 2011 would be the "Year of Protest," and of course it is worth remembering that we have already had recent riots in Britain.

Last winter, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets to protest against the raising of tuition fees and the removal of the education maintenance allowance. But beneath those student riots was a sense that hope, and a plan for the future had been obliterated without warning—and that this had happened without any message of sympathy or condolence from those in power.

What Davids Goodhart, Starkey and Cameron seem not to understand is that young people, especially those in Britain, live completely different economic lives to their elders. This is the great disconnect. To fail to understand that this massive generational difference in economic plight would not translate into anger is a remarkable failure—or just willful blindness—on behalf of our political and cultural leaders.

Take two basic examples: housing and unemployment. One in five young people not already in full time education is out of work. This unemployment rate is five times higher than for those aged over 50. When those around you have little income, especially when so many of them stayed in school beyond 16 on the promise of a better paid job, it is very hard to see a way out. Older people in this country seem not to understand this current economic reality. It’s as if they have all declared, "What recession?", conveniently forgetting that when they grew up from 1960-75 there was very little unemployment.

Secondly, as Rachel Wolf wrote in the last issue of Prospect, young people cannot afford to get on the property ladder. That’s why one third of under 30s live with their parents. Without social housing for the younger generation, those who don't live with their parents usually seek accommodation in the private rented sector where (older) landlords have ensured that rent (currently at an all time high) far outstrips inflation. Again older people seem to conveniently forget that they had their houses built for them by their parents' taxes (not the private market), that rents were controlled, tenants had real rights, and the exchequer wrote off their mortgage interest payments through the Miras scheme.

Without basics like a secure job or affordable accommodation, we still expect our young adults to be responsible. These are just two examples and there are plenty more.

Look at how the cuts have actually fallen. Young people have had their education mainsenance allowance stripped, student fees massively increased, housing benefits cut (for single under 35s), subsidies for youth centres cut, job funds cut, education budgets cut. Meanwhile, older people still enjoy free bus passes and NHS prescriptions along with winter fuel payments, regardless of their income.

So the message is plain: if you’re young, you'll have to pay your own way because this country can’t afford you—even though we will depend on you to pay for the older generation's pensions and health care in the coming decade.

So blame "hoodie culture" if you want. It is foolish and it will achieve nothing. Meanwhile as they subsist on the dole, more of the young will become further discontented, angry and paralysed. And if you think they will thank you for standing by and berating their lack of morality, think again.