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Why the U.K. riots have more to do with austerity than criminality

By Greg Martin - posted Monday, 15 August 2011

Can references by the media and politicians to “feral youth”, “mindless thuggery” and “sheer criminality” in relation to the U.K. riots be justified in the context of austerity measures, policing practices and a pernicious culture of consumption?

Criminologists reject the idea of “pure criminality”, preferring instead to focus on the social origins of crime. While pure criminality implies crime is a consequence of individual pathology, criminological research continues to recognise the enduring link between crime and relative deprivation. The root cause of much of the riotous behavior lies in young peoples’ exclusion from consumer culture coupled with over-policing and police harassment of particular groups in neighborhoods blighted by entrenched social and economic disadvantage.

Contrary to what many media commentators and politicians say not all rioters are intent on wanton opportunism and criminal extremism. The killing of Mark Duggan by police acted as a trigger or flashpoint for riotous behavior, although this chain of events is not new. The original Broadwater Farm Estate riot in 1985 was sparked by the death of a woman from a stroke after police searched her home. A riot in Brixton a week earlier was similarly triggered by the shooting of a woman by police who were looking for her son in connection with a firearms offence.


In both these events, and the current case, the trigger provides a catalyst to ignite a fire fuelled by relative deprivation and pre-existing tensions between police and parts of the community. Serious attention therefore needs to be given to “community policing”, even in the face of the Coalition Government’s proposals to cut police numbers, and in neighborhoods where police are largely absent or, if they are not, use stop and search powers to excess.

Another important part of the historical context concerns the steady erosion of the welfare state, beginning with Thatcherism in the 1980s. Thatcher’s policies produced “Thatcher’s children” or young people adversely affected by her Government’s harsh policies. Young people in Britain today continue to feel the effects of Thatcherite youth policy, which continued under New Labour as moral outrage at “anti-social behavior”.

Such is the current state of affairs in Britain that there is an emerging consensus among commentators that a significant section of the current cohort of young people constitutes a “lost generation”, which has extremely limited opportunities and very few life chances.

Against this background, it is small wonder many young people appear to feel they have nothing to lose by becoming involved in the riots and the attendant criminality, or at least they are prepared to take the risk of not getting caught because the crowd provides safety in numbers and a degree of anonymity: albeit the police and courts are now working round the clock to apprehend looters captured on CCTV footage.

Some reports portray young rioters as having fun while looting shops and stores. But not all crime is acquisitive. Some criminal behavior involves thrill seeking and the search for excitement or an adrenaline rush. Joyriding and other risky and dangerous activities such as high-speed car pursuits with police are examples. And even acquisitive crime can have exhilarating elements.

In any event, to see the riots as pure acquisitive criminality is to misunderstand the nature and dynamics of consumer culture. Young people living in poor neighborhoods in contemporary Western societies like Britain are especially affected by a fundamental contradiction of consumer capitalism whereby they are enticed by consumerism but are also excluded from participating fully in consumer culture and acquiring via legitimate means, at least, many of its trappings.


In short, large numbers of young people nowadays cannot afford, quite literally, to buy into consumer culture. This includes young people who are unemployed and poor as well as those who might be in employment and not necessarily young.

The emerging profile of some of the looters (employed and not young) underscores not only the connection between crime and relative deprivation but also the huge gap that now exists in Britain between the “haves” and “have-nots”. Seemingly, even those in employment are unable to fully embrace the lifestyles and consumption practices we are all told we should aspire to. On one level, the act of looting is acquisitive and criminal; it is a means of acquiring goods by illicit means, when there are limited opportunities to do so lawfully.

On another level, however, what has been happening in the U.K. could be read as a form of symbolic violence perpetrated by people frustrated at living in a society that includes them culturally and commercially, yet excludes them materially and economically. To say the riots are not political, as some are doing, betrays a narrow view of politics and presupposes people involved in civil unrest, such as we are witnessing, have a definite political consciousness or ideology that motivates them, and which they are able to express and articulate clearly and coherently.

History tells us social and political protest can be and often is brutal, chaotic and disorganised.
While politicians lay the blame for the riots on irresponsible parenting and bad kids (even though not all of the rioters are young), they should look closer to home if they really want to understand what may have precipitated the recent events. The police have reported greed not anger motivates the looters. However, the riotous behavior and looting is symptomatic of a wider culture of greed and corruption that goes all the way to the top of the British establishment.

Moral indignation has been expressed that these mainly young people are committing criminal acts brazenly and with impunity. However, they have seen the banks bailed out following a global financial crisis induced by unscrupulous U.S. bankers selling “subprime” mortgages to unsuspecting punters; a bail out the brunt of which has been borne by ordinary taxpayers through austerity cuts. Still bankers continue to give themselves huge bonuses as politicians stand idly by.

Indeed, the British political expenses scandal exposed widespread corruption among the political class, and the recent phone hacking saga has demonstrated senior politicians are not uncomfortable communing with journalists implicated in criminal activities committed with the assistance of corrupt police officers. What hope then is there for disenfranchised and disaffected young people in Britain today when they see those in leadership roles and positions of authority and responsibility behaving in these ways? 

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About the Author

Dr Greg Martin is a Lecturer in Socio-Legal Studies in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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