Wednesday, 10 August 2011

The riots and our selfish society

"She is ruthless. She'll walk over and tread over anybody. She'll eat them up and spit them out for her breakfast. That's what I like about her, really" – Alan Sugar talking about a candidate on The Apprentice (Series seven, Episode eight).

Over the past several days riots have spread across Britain. The scenes of violence and looting are distressing to watch. How did modern Britain reach this point? Who is responsible? How can we ensure that things improve? The rioters are selfish, lack discipline and respect for others, cry David Cameron and his ideological bedfellows. If this is true, it surely has something to with the fact that these conservative values have been allowed to thrive for a very long time. Sue Gerhardt elaborates:

"For most of the period since the rise of industrial capitalism in the early nineteenth century, collective values such as solidarity and co-operation have been unwelcome to the authorities, although they were sustained by the socialist and trade union movements until the late twentieth century. Eventually, however, such values were eroded by rising prosperity and the pursuit of material security above all else - a project that spread from the middle class downwards as wealth increased. The new culture developed the 'I' at the expense of the 'We' (Gerhardt, 2010, 'The Selfish Society', P.25).

The claim that parents are to blame seems plausible, but Gerhardt is quick to point out that

"Although it is largely parents who convey many of these unconscious messages to their children, our moral behaviour - selfish or unselfish - is not just about the values of individual parents. Parents themselves are heavily influenced by their social relationships. Without being aware of it, they pass on the culture in which they are immersed. Just as children don't choose the family they are born into, so too parents don't choose their society. They respond to it and adapt to its norms, often unwittingly. If everyone around you is behaving selfishly, it is difficult not to join in"(ibid, p.9).

What do we see when we look around? Soldiers being sent to fight in wars for oil, rapacious politicians claiming false expenses, immoral journalists hacking the phone of a murdered child. It is also impossible to ignore the media's obsession with celebrity and ostentatious displays of wealth and privilege.

We are not born with a burning desire to wear Nike trainers and Rolex watches. We want them because we are encouraged to believe that having expensive consumer goods will make us happy. Thus, it is no surprise that designer stores were looted by those who are excluded from consumerism due to their lack of economic resources.

Excessive consumption has become ubiquitous in Western societies, but it does not make us genuinely happy. It provides an illusion of happiness when the values we really crave, such as kindness and co-operation, are not allowed to flourish. This suits the capitalists just fine because they can only continue to make huge profits if people want and buy more goods.

It is very easy for politicians to be sententious about the riots. However, if they really want to build a society that is less selfish, they must stop pandering to the narcissistic demands of the super-rich and start meeting the real needs of the poorest socio-economic groups.

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