An investigation of the causes of the August riots (2011)
This is an extract from my dissertation which explored whether the August Riots (2011) were the result of individual delinquencies in the British underclass or an angry response to an oppressive government. This section focuses on the particular social situation in which the riots occurred. It presents stereotypical views of individual delinquencies in an underclass compared with the structural barriers to equality erected by the economic and political climate and thus highlights the proposed preconditions.
Fulcher and Scott (1999: 436) indicate that in order to understand the nature and complexity of a particular riot, it is necessary to analyse the underlying social conditions and whether the affected communities were characterised by unemployment and poverty. Often, the media have portrayed riots as being provoked by a ‘feckless underclass,’ rebelling without a cause and defined by its previous disadvantages (The Sun 2011b). The Children’s Society (2011:1) illustrated that the backdrop against which the disturbances occurred, including economic instability, rising unemployment and spending cuts, needs to be taken into consideration when analysing the events.
Aldridge et al. (2011:1) state that in 2009/2010, children living in poverty comprised 29 per cent of the general population, 16 per cent of individuals of a pensionable age are currently living below the poverty line, and six million people in the UK were unemployed in 2011, a figure which has risen since then. Piachaud and Sutherland (2000, cited in Pierson 2002: 68) in a study of twenty-five nations across the developed world, found that the UK had the third highest proportion of child poverty and the highest rate in Europe. Commentary and analysis has tended to focus on the impact of out-of-work poverty on children and has declared that the way out of this would be for parents to enter the labour market. However, it is important to note that in-work poverty ‘accounts for half of all child poverty’ (Palmer et al. 2006:13). It is also important to discuss evidence in the literature that considers other disadvantages correlated with lower socio-economic status. For example, individuals living in poverty are statistically more likely to have lower levels of educational attainment, are more likely to be involved in criminal activity and have poorer health outcomes, including a lower life expectancy (JRF 2011b:1). It is not possible to determine whether these are causes or consequences of poverty, but they clearly do perpetuate the cycle of disadvantage.
Runciman (1990, cited in Haralambos and Holbourn 2008:66) defines the lowest strata as ‘those members of British society whose role places them more or less permanently at the economic level where benefits are paid by the state’. Auletta (1982, cited in Abercrombie and Warde 2001:209) indicates that the perception of individuals in poverty as a distinct and separate underclass is based on a rejection of ‘the norms and values of mainstream society’. Bagguley and Mann (1992, cited in MacDonald 1997:2) clearly state that this concept is a ‘recurrent political and social scientific myth’ and that its ‘inherent methodological and empirical flaws’ represent a ‘demonstrably false set of beliefs’. However, Morrison (1995, cited in Bilton et al. 2002:406) supports the notion that a distinct class ‘has emerged that is disconnected from the mainstream values of consumerism by virtue of employment’. This perception of a separate class located on the lowest strata of the stratification system, with ‘quasi criminal, anti-social, anti-work cultures of welfare dependency’ (Giddens 2006:345), has been apparent in a plethora of theories, including the work of Charles Murray and Karl Marx.
Marxist theory suggests the existence of a separate group of people, the lunpenproleteriat; a group whose characteristics are similar to an ‘underclass’. Giddens (2006:316) indicates that, for Marx, this group included individuals who were ‘located persistently outside the dominant forms of economic production and exchange’ and included ‘paupers, thieves and vagabonds who refused to work but survived on the margins of society as ‘social parasites’’. Haralambos and Holbourn (2008:64) note Marx’s inability to state whether he viewed this group as a distinct class; at times he referred to them as such, yet at other times he dismissed the idea, suggesting that they had ‘little potential for developing class consciousness or taking collective action’. Mann (1992, cited in Haralambos and Holbourn 2008:64) refutes this idea. His perception is that the existence of claimants’ unions, ‘organisations for those claiming benefits’, and urban riots, such as the one being discussed, indicates that this group is politically aware and, on occasion, is ‘more conservative than the working class’.
Fotopoulos (2011:2) applies Marxist theory to the August riots and states that they were an example of a disaffected underclass expressing its discontent at an unequal, capitalist and consumerist society. A piece written for ‘Indymedia’ fully supported this idea and the riots that occurred. It states that the riots were a response to three decades of submission to spiritless capitalism (Reis 2011:2). The article likens the events to a revolution, typical of Marxist theory. However, it stated that the capitalist nature of society would not be affected due to rioters being prematurely satisfied with an inadequate and incomplete rebellion. With regard to class consciousness, Reis (2011:3) states that average law-abiding citizens are in fact ignorant of societal problems and, by not participating, they display mere submission towards the bourgeoisie. Devine and Wright (1993:79) indicate that whilst Marx’s lunpenproleteriat focuses on attitudinal aspects, there are still clear similarities between Marxist theory and the theory of Charles Murray, such as economic redundancy, political disorganisation and criminal and deviant behaviour.
Charles Murray’s theory of an underclass originated from a study of poverty in America that focused on ethnic minorities. When he arrived in the UK, he considered himself to be a ‘visitor from a plague area to see if the disease is spreading’ and he concluded that Britain ‘too is becoming infected’ (Haralambos and Holbourn 2008:64). He proposed that the underclass has three main characteristics: illegitimacy, unemployment and crime.
Cuts in funding across the public sector and a dramatic increase in unemployment meant that ‘the recession arguably presents the biggest challenge which the British economy has faced in a generation’ (Youth Access 2009: 2). Between October and December 2011, unemployment for young people stood at 1.04 million, the highest rate since 1986. This was three times the national average at a cost of 3.5 million in Jobseekers Allowance every day (ONS 2012:1). Murray (cited in Giddens 2006:319) refers to a lack of shame in the ‘disgrace of unemployment’, which was not apparent in previous generations. This was supported by the Tottenham Member of Parliament, David Lammy (2011:127) who perceived the impact of high unemployment on both the individual and the wider community and acknowledged that ‘to work hard in a uniform you hate is seen as being naïve, and not sensible or dignified’. The increase of unemployment has specifically affected adolescents and is aligned with the economic recession. Smith (2011:5) supports this perception and maintains that due to the unequal nature of British society, it is inevitable that members feel disgruntled. Unfortunately children and young people, who are not responsible for their own predicament, have ‘borne the burden’ of this disparity.
Murray (1996: 27) implies that this group, by not acknowledging the importance of marriage in conceiving and raising a child, apparently ‘distinguished their mind set’ from the rest of society. Phillips (2001, cited in Murray 2001:9) implies that at the heart of his theory of the underclass is ‘the disintegration of the family with high rates of lone parenthood and teenage pregnancy and whole communities where committed fathers are unknown’. He states that his perception of an underclass is characterised by the breakdown of traditional family values. McDonald (1997:10) specifies that it is the large number of households headed by lone mothers that ‘threatens the orderliness and prosperity of society’. The fundamental role a father plays in a child’s life is ignored. Whilst it is clear that there has been a significant increase in the proportion of dependent children living in a lone-parent household (from 14 per cent in 1986 to 24 per cent in 2006) (Dunnell 2008), it is impossible to clarify whether this is as a result of illegitimacy or marriage breakdown and whether there is any impact upon the child’s well-being. Murray argues that these numbers are so high because of the welfare that is available. Welfare supposedly provides little incentive to work and prevents people from ‘taking responsibility for their own lives’ (Murray 2001:54). Iain Duncan Smith, the founder of the Centre of Social Justice and the current secretary of the Department of Work and Pensions, has supported the view of individual delinquency and the role the family plays. In his policy document he states that children who have experienced family breakdown are ‘75% more likely to fail at school, 70% more likely to be a drug addict and 50% more likely to have an alcohol problem’ (Duncan-Smith 2007:10). It is apparent that in Britain, lone-parent households have multiple disadvantages and ‘are likely to be economically inactive, to have low levels of educational attainment and to experience a high risk of unemployment’ (Percy Smith 2000:50).
Odone (2011, cited in BBC 2011a) supports the idea that the occurrence of the riots and one of the defining features of the underclass, can be ‘traced back to a lack of male role models’. Lammy (2011:102) also advocated the ‘importance of fatherhood’ and argued there was a distinct correlation between a lack of male role models and those convicted during the five-day period of the riots. In their study of individuals involved in the riots, Morrell et al. (2011:4) indicated that the behaviour of these young people illustrated the importance of ‘family attitudes and behaviour’ in either preventing or encouraging young people’s involvement. The study also presented the impact of social polarisation. Morrell et al. (2011) stated that ‘the starker contrast’ of this in the capital city highlights the disparity between material desires and what people can realistically afford.
Bradshaw and Holmes (cited in Murray 1996) argued that there was little difference in the attitudes and behaviours of this underclass. Their research indicated that individuals involved had ‘simply too little money to share in the activities and possessions of everyday life’. The perception of an underclass ignores the structural and societal barriers by focusing on individual delinquencies and deviance. Whilst dated, Valentine (1968, cited in McNeil and Townley 1989:85) criticises the notion of individual blame, and suggests that the perceived differences in people’s values and behaviours is not apparent but is the result of the middle-class prejudice that the researchers themselves hold. It is also important to note that the ‘moral collapse’ that is depicted in the theory is not necessarily defined by economic status. Incidents such as the scandal of the MPs’ expenses, the failure of the banking system and the invasion of privacy by the media have all been under public scrutiny. Smith (2011: 6) clarifies that, as with the riots, incidents have indicated ‘an emphasis on private gain at the expense of the whole and the use of practices that were either illegal or lacked moral responsibility’. Wilson (2011, cited in BBC 2011c) supports this and states that there is a ‘culture of entitlement in the UK’ that is not unique to those at the bottom of the stratification system, but in fact ‘permeates all levels of society’.