The Youth are Revolting


Like many others, I have been caught in a state of incredulity, as rolling footage of London streets, hijacked by lawless gangs of young people occupies the news space.  Aerial shots capture infernal scenes of flames engulfing large-scale buildings, while on the ground, bewildered business owners and neighbourhood residents lament the breakdown of their communities. Flashpoint after flashpoint sparks unpredictably like unstable firecracker charges, in various parts of London, spreading out to other UK cities. The scenes unsettle the mind with visions of dystopia; a future gone wrong and it seems to have taken many of us by surprise. We shouldn’t be surprised at this, we have always known about them, but it was easier to ignore them. Now they have our attention, it may be of benefit to all of us to think about what may have caught their attention.

The authorities have offered the predictable condemnatory responses, labelling the perpetrators as ‘mindless thugs’ and their actions as ‘criminal’. The truths in these responses are undeniable, to an extent. The whole premise for these riots was the alleged shooting of a young man by the police. Call me dim, but I fail to see the relevance of looting shops for trainers and widescreen TVs as a demonstration of solidarity with a grieving family. So in this sense, I have to agree that their actions are mindless and criminal, on the basis that they are actions which I cannot relate to.

However, using the word ‘mindless’ to describe the perpetrators offers a glimpse into the world which they occupy. When we call them mindless, we dehumanise them and excuse ourselves from facing the questions which beg to be asked, when a systematically marginalised section of society vents their anger in such a disturbing way. This anger has not just erupted from nowhere; it is a manifestation of something larger and more complex than official commentary would give it credit for.

It must be made clear that this issue is not one of race, but of class. This class of people were on the frontline of deprivation long before the rest of us began to feel the bite of this ‘age of austerity’ which governments are at pains to constantly remind us of. Public sector cuts are no news to them, for in their neighbourhoods, they have seen little evidence of investment throughout their lives. This failure has formed a depressing theme of disconnection, spanning from their home-lives to their interactions with the state. As a result, they have learned from early childhood, that the only way to get attention; from their parents, their teachers, the police and others who claim to be in authority, is to behave destructively. Furthermore, they have learned that towing the line and following the rules gets them nowhere and in fact renders them invisible.

In addition, for the past ten years, representing most of the lives of these young people, success in developed societies has been defined purely in terms of acquisition and consumption. This acquisitive ideal, ferociously promoting the lifestyles of celebrities and the super wealthy, as the very definition of success and fulfilment in life, has been stacked in a glittering display in the collective shop window. Meanwhile, the majority stands at the wrong side of the shop window, with their noses pressed against it, with no legitimate chance of accessing the spoils of success. There is a saying, that ‘He who feels it, knows it’. In this current climate, where we are repeatedly being reminded of ‘scarcity’ after a period of ‘abundance’, this group of people are the first to feel it. This is no excuse for looting – just an explanation.

A larger issue connected to this, which these young people through their anarchic actions have inadvertently highlighted, raises the question of credible authority in general. This, I believe is the reason why so many of us find these riots deeply unsettling. Economic instability across Europe and the trillions of dollars of debt faced by the United States highlights a growing collective suspicion that we are clinging to a discredited system, with a lack of alternative possibilities in sight. It doesn’t hold water for those who purport to hold power and leadership to, on one hand tell us to save for our pensions and tighten our belts, with the reassurance that ‘we are all in this together’, while at the same time channelling public money to buoy up a failed banking system and printing more money to stave off bankruptcy. We find ourselves struggling to accept that this system is the best that we can do, and yet we struggle to find a place where any viable or desirable alternatives are even being discussed.

The inevitable period of analysis following these events (which hopefully will not escalate) will throw up many theories and angles as to what should be done and what society has, and should become. As these riots have shown us, mob-think, is generally not a good thing. So in this analysis, our responsibility, as individuals is to take a step back and not be drawn into proposed solutions motivated by fear. Step away from the repeated news footage showing the same buildings burning; put down the newspapers, screaming headlines distinguishing ‘you’ from ‘them’, and form your opinions for yourself. Because like it or not, simply by virtue of occupying the same planet, and the fact that they may next be rioting in a neighbourhood near you; we are all connected.

Related article:

The Death of Youth Culture:


  1. by Marty On August 9, 2011 at 15:53

    This discussion piece is thought provoking and written in a very considered manner. I really enjoyed reading it, despite the subject matter.Hopefully things will improve as more individuals come to the realization that they as individuals are not defined by their material possessions.

  2. by Andrea On August 9, 2011 at 18:18

    Like your thoughts on this as very balanced and tought provoking. Couldn’t agree more.

  3. by Victor (the neighbour) On August 10, 2011 at 18:36

    I’m new here, hey Denise you definitely have a talent – two things that came to me when reading your piece – firstly it’s unsurprising to see coalition and Co. seeking to quickly criminalise a supposed minority. They are well aware that to plug the youth in to communities is a 20-30year project, it almost needs us to accept defeat over several generations. We need to focus on the youth born today to truly turn around learned formative experience to the benefit of society. That kind of thinking doesn’t sit well with the 4 year terms afforded governments and leads them away from long term ideology and toward short-term pragmatism. We have to ask is this populist brand of instituted pragmatism is equal to the task of rebuilding communities. What’s for sure is the political class would need consensus over several consecutive governments for this project to be undertaken with perspicacious determination.

    The second point I think that needs to be made concerns general governance. Politicians and the populous that put them in power, trade in heavily loaded terminology that has a meaning and coercive power that becomes more than the sum of its parts. For a full discussion of these themes its worth having a look at Rose and Miller. The general gist is that comprehension of societal problems is inextricably linked to the politically loaded terminology promulgated by the dominant voices in society (dominant usually alluding to economic standing). Expression that strays outside these imposed and managed referents points is ignored, ridiculed and occasionally vilified.

    Refreshingly, the youth is often unaware of these imposed perspectives they have yet to be programmed and have a happy knack of resisting the ‘status quo’, governments like discourse, they like regulation and they like to be spoken to via the correct channels. The average 12 year old from a deprived background with low socio-economic status doesn’t have the access or the means to express themselves according to the rules of the game so what do they do? as Denise rightly says they communicate in a way that can’t be ignored.

    I think we need to open ‘our’ minds to the possibility that the impulsive behaviour over the last few nights could be a set of subconscious reactions, perhaps they are not swept along; passive somnambulists on the way to the apocalypse… maybe there’s a flicker of recognition that this expression is the right thing to be doing even if they can’t define and account for their actions in a way society finds acceptable!

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