Foundation essay: This article on the indignant generation by Simon Hallsworth, head of the School of Applied Social Sciences at University Campus Suffolk, is part of a series marking the launch of The Conversation in the UK. Our foundation essays are longer than our usual comment and analysis articles and take a wider look at key issues affecting society.
People are filling the streets all around the globe. From Turkey to Brazil, Libya to Egypt, the circumstances change but the scenes are eerily alike. Shouting, marching, clashing with police; masses of angry people gather together to share their indignation. And they are becoming impossible to ignore.
In August 2011 England’s metropolitan cities erupted in the worst outbreak of urban disorder the country had witnessed in three decades. At the end of four days involving 14,000 people, scores of buildings were destroyed; shops were looted and lives were lost.
It did not take the government long to identify what had gone so badly wrong. The riots were explained away in the first instance as manifestations of “mindless criminality” perpetrated by urban gangs. Shortly after, the discourse shifted to implicate half a million “troubled families”, products of a feckless underclass that had apparently given birth to the gangsters that then went on to riot.
In a subsequent report produced by the Riots Families and Communities Panel (reluctantly established by the government to investigate the disorder) a range of solutions was touted. The police were praised for taking a hard line with rioters who were being relentlessly hunted down before receiving exemplary punitive sentences.
Schools were instructed to instil “character” in young people and proposals were made suggesting they be fined if they failed. Money was made available to turn around the “troubled families” of the “underclass”, and more was given out to “end gang violence” - even though evidence began to emerge that gangs were not responsible for the riots blamed on them.
Devastated riot-hit cities did not constitute an image remotely consistent with the brand the government wanted to promote of a happy entrepreneurial society populated by contended, freedom-loving individuals. The wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton surrounded by happy crowds of cheering subjects was the image of Britain that needed to be celebrated along with the individuals who, through voluntarism or private enterprise, would build a new “Big Society”.
The Olympics duly arrived in 2012 and seemed to give life to the brand as athletes struck gold. The opening ceremony with its eclectic mish-mash of all things British provided a visual representation of a society that appeared to be coming together in common accord.
Meanwhile, back on the estates of the inner cities, things looked altogether different. As research conducted by the LSE and the Guardian uncovered, the rioters came disproportionally from marginalised communities dwelling in Britain’s poorest and most deprived areas.
What the research also brought to light was the indignation they experienced at the way things were. Indignation they dramatised in riot through the inversion and ritual demolition of the very principles around which rule-based societies are constituted: namely that within them people normally obey rules.
Are they the only indignant ones? Arguably not because indignation best describes the dominant emotion that shapes the lives of an entire generation of young people today.
Let’s return to the violent street world from which many of the rioters derived. A world populated by young people who also experience and carry within them a legacy of deeply internalised anger. Indignation graphically expressed in violence. The depressing litany of young men killed by other young men just like them represents in this sense the symptoms of anger inwardly directed.
But they are not the only ones capable of self-mutilation. Take The English Defense League (EDL) – predictably out in force in the wake of the Woolwich murder. Here we find another group of deluded men defined by the indignation they feel. Sad products of a working class in free-fall, whose demise they blame on migrants undertaking work they would never touch.
The violence of the street is mostly implosive: gangsters kill each other, the EDL takes out its anger on another part of the working class. But indignation can also become explosive and outwardly directed and this is how we might retrospectively best make sense of the English riots.
The externalisation of indignation also explains the motivation behind Occupy. A movement populated not by the urban poor, but by a middle class constituency whose life chances are immeasurably diminished compared with those enjoyed by the baby boomers of the post war epoch.
Is this wave of indignation connected? More so than it first appears. We can begin with the material conditions these diverse constituencies face in the context of a society in which they lead increasingly precarious lives. Indeed, all the groups identified above belong to what the economist Guy Standing terms the new precariat. This is, he argues, a new class in the making. It has no history and no class consciousness.
A fragmenting working class is being decanted into it - including many members of the EDL. The denizens of the UK’s violent street world also live precarious lives in what has become for most a low wage, low status “mac economy” where temporary work, unemployment and endemic insecurity constitute the conditions of its existence.
The migrant communities that the EDL blame also live precarious lives, and precariousness is a term that captures well the lives of the rioters as the Guardian LSE research uncovered. The educated young people who were involved in Occupy also form part of the new precariat; many burdened down with student debts they will never pay off.
Ruling regimes do not require the full ideological incorporation of their subjects. And while persuading people to believe in the virtues of the ruling regime might be desirable it is not a necessary condition. What ruling regimes must avoid however is being considered wholly illegitimate. If they can’t keep all the people happy all of the time they have to avoid making too many people too unhappy. More than that, they have to avoid seeing the pragmatic acquiescence that normally defines most people’s relationship towards power (and the powerful) mutate into indignation and rage.
The Arab Spring (another movement driven forward by indignation) epitomises what happens when this occurs. Though it would be pushing matters too far to suggest the UK faces a crisis of legitimacy, the neo-liberal regime does and this is expressed variously in the indignation carried and expressed by its growing precariat, the new indignant generation.
While it is possible to identify in the endemic insecurity of lives lived precariously, a motive for indignation, it has been accentuated by the extent to which the ruling regime has all too effectively delegitimised itself; hollowing out, in so doing, any claim to integrity or moral authority.
We might begin with the feral over-class of financiers and the tame politicians that aided and abetted them in orchestrating the global financial meltdown; a crisis that’s costs are not borne by the class that induced it by but those whose lives have become more precarious as a consequence.
Add to this list the venality of the political elite in the UK who were caught with their hands in the nation’s till as the political crisis that followed the exposure of the expenses scandal revealed. Add to this toxic mix Blair’s disastrous foreign policy adventures and all of a sudden it is quite clear to see why our western ways are not resonating with an increasingly disillusioned and angry generation of young people that had every right to expect better.
A nomadic capitalist elite (the one percent) has not only accumulated the world’s wealth, it is clear that it has every intention of hanging on to it as “fat cat” culture of excessive pay testifies. The ruling regime reproduces itself certainly but does so in ever more self-destructive ways. But consider this; in the past five years the UK has experienced an economic crisis from which it has not recovered, then a political crisis. In the wave of indignation we are witnessing today we find a crisis being played out in the social system as well.
In Indignez-vous (Time for Outrage) Stéphane Hessel argued that people today need to become outraged at the way things are. In Britain’s ever more divided and inequitable society a new generation is outraged. Some express it by clinging to an imagined nation, while others find fundamentalism. Some turn on each other or, as in riot, the wider society. In Occupy and movements like it, we find a more progressive agenda where the very legitimacy of the neo liberal order has been brought into question.
Nor are they alone. There is of course the Arab Spring. But to the rioters in England let us add the rioters in the French banlieues and the young people currently rioting in Greece and Sweden. Canada too has faced unprecedented student unrest in recent years. Add to this mix the indignatos of Spain and Italy, Occupy in the USA and we are looking at indignation on a global level.
Simon Hallsworth’s book The Gang and Beyond: Interpreting violent street worlds is published this year by Palgrave Macmillan.