Inter-generational conflict and moral panic
I’m still working on a post which tries to explore some of the political science of the recent English riots, but in the meantime I’m struck by the wave of commentary on the riots which positions them as an inter-generational issue. I touched on this in my last post, but only briefly.
And perhaps it’s not surprising that it has taken a little longer to emerge. The older generation, who are generally more blind to this issue (what? us? inter-generational beneficiaries?) include the politicians and media commentators who have more privileged access to the media and were therefore able to construct their preferred narratives more quickly.
I was interested in this because in several of the scenarios we’ve done since the crisis, the pattern of inter-generational conflict has emerged strongly. Let’s start with the economist David Blanchflower, who’s been more right than most on both the crisis and the downturn, in the New Statesman:
It is quite clear that the coalition decided very early on to protect the old at the expense of the young, presumably because this was politically expedient. It cut spending on youth workers and youth centres, abolished the Future Jobs Fund and Education Maintenance Allowance for children from disadvantaged families and slashed funding for charities at a time when demand was rising. An explosion in the inner cities was almost inevitable. What the heck did they expect?
On Open Democracy, politics lecturer Andrew Mycock made a similar point, but drew it more widely, albeit in a somewhat moralising post:
There has been a gradual abrogation of the responsibilities of the state towards young people which is rarely acknowledged by politicians. This curtailment of the role of the state has been viewed as politically expedient. Many of the young people most affected are not old enough to vote whilst those who can have become increasingly disengaged from a political system which increasingly focuses on older voters.
The great disconnect
The most entertaining exchange, though, came on the pages of Prospect‘s blog. Prospect’s editor, David Goodhart, had spent time on the blog developing a more literate version of David Starkey’s argument on Newsnight, connecting the riots to hip-hop and Britain’s Anglo-Jamaican experience. The headline caught the tone: “The riots, the rappers and the Anglo-Jamaican tragedy”.
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.
Malik points to employment and housing as significant issues. The unemployment rate for young people is five times that for over-50s; one-third of under-30s live with their parents; those who live in rented accommodation (unable to afford to buy) have seen rent increases far outstrip inflation. And the cuts – as Blanchflower observes above – have fallen disproportionately on the young.
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.
If you’re not from here
One of the more entertaining parts of the exchange between Goodhart and Malik is watching two writers engaging in textual analysis of Lethal Bizzle’s rap song, “You’ll Get Wrapped” (yes, I was new to it as well). There’s a line in it which goes, “You don’t come ’round here. You don’t know”. The older Goodhart hears this as saying, if you’re not from here, if you’re not one of us, you don’t have a right to speak. The younger Malik: “Geography matters, and if anything, I’d read Lethal Bizzle’s statement as an invitation to come and witness his reality.”
If you’re not from here, if you’re not one of us… You can turn that on its head, of course. One way of looking at this – which is underlined by the severity of the post-riot sentences – is that we’re seeing a “moral panic”, a term popularised in the early ’70s in his book Folk Devils and Moral Panics by Stanley Cohen which described how “[a] condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.” Folk devils, meanwhile, are those people who supposedly threaten the social order, and in a moral panic they’re are labelled and ‘othered’. Cohen identifies groups which are repeatedly on the end of moral panics; the first is ‘young working class violent males’.
Labelling the young
Abby Day talks about the way young people have been labelled in a post called “Riots, Respect and Research“:
Mindless, crass, materialistic, and, probably most unforgiveable by those on the left, apolitical. Those are the common descriptors of, principally, the young people involved in last week’s riots. Unsurprisingly, they are the words most commonly employed to describe young people even in the absence of rioting.
Similar stories, in similar tones, she says, are told in Australia and the US, as well as the UK. This is because they are myths, not insight.
And as it happened, I stumbled this week on The Insecure Offenders, a book published in 1961 and written by T.R.Fyvel, a left-wing journalist and sometimes collaborator of Orwell’s. His subject was “rebellious youth in the welfare state”, and he was much taken with the difference between the Teddy Boys of the early ’60s and another group of young people which he called “Thrusters and Drifters”.
In the early ’60s, the Teddy Boys – like their close cousins, the mods and the rockers – were a puzzle. Fyvel suggests that this was because they were the first generation of working class kids to have money to burn. In contrast, his notes on the ‘Thrusters and Drifters’ could come from this month’s riot discourse: “An idea of being excluded or unfairly treated, which can set off their floating resentment like a spark of fire, often motivates cases of vandalism”.
One of the reasons for moral panics, it’s argued, is that the underlying phenomenon is too difficult to discuss directly. In the early 1960s, the notion of an affluent working class, which might not behave the same way as the existing middle classes, represented such an underlying social fear. In the end. that cohort was the bedrock of Thatcher’s electoral success. Now that 30 years of neoliberalism has once more stripped that brief moment of affluence from the working class – at least in relative terms – the spectre of the young urban poor, and the hidden fear of the return of the English mob, is certainly enough to cause a moral panic. The other question that has emerged in our post-crisis scenarios is, where does the anger go? At least we have one answer to that now.
The painting at the top of the post is ‘When Did You Last See Your Father?’, by William Frederick Yeames, which is in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. It is used with thanks.