British riots 2011: grime, history and the big picture
A lot's happened in the last two weeks. Here's my cover story for The National's Review section on the riots, trying to explain the context for overseas readers, or indeed for British residents who don't understand what 'context' means (there are a lot of them in Britain, it seems, many of them working in the media). Here are a couple of key passages:
Historically, austerity measures in times of crisis provoke this kind of upheaval. An almost eerily timely analysis published last week by the Social Science Research Network, entitled Austerity and Anarchy: Budget Cuts and Social Unrest in Europe, 1919-2009 found "a clear link between the magnitude of expenditure cutbacks and increases in social unrest. With every additional percentage point of GDP in spending cuts, the risk of unrest increases."And I want to quote Alex Hoban about looting and the free market, because it's very pithy and alas got cut from The National piece (I wrote too much, unsurprisingly):
..."Keep Calm And Carry On" is an exemplary piece of modern British myth-making. A propaganda poster created by the British Ministry of Information in 1939, the slogan sitting beneath the crown, it was intended to provide reassurance in the event of a Nazi invasion. Incredibly, given its total ubiquity in British pop culture since its rediscovery in 2000, it was never officially put on display during the war.
The message speaks to centuries of national self-delusion peddled from the top down - the stiff upper lip in times of crisis, the stoical acceptance of one's fate and the Whiggish history popularised in the colonial period, which sought to write British history as a smooth, peaceful progression towards enlightened liberal democracy, eliding and gliding over foreign and civil wars, grotesque imperial brutality and domestic revolutions, riots, uprisings and repression through the ages.
Its popularity is situated in the long history of the British iconography of denial but its recent popularity is somehow especially worrying, particularly in the face of a second financial crisis in three years, devastating austerity measures and now riots on the streets.
Appropriately, in 2011, "Keep Calm and Carry On" has a consumer edge - it is possible to buy the poster image on clothing, mugs, tea cosies, deckchairs, cuff-links, even a First Aid kit. After all, why treat the disease when you can just cover it up with a sticking plaster? Sweep up the broken glass and, with it, sweep the underlying causes of the riots under the carpet.
Point on Newsnight about rioters' anger being expressed in acts of 'violent consumption.' I'll buy that. An articulation of some sort of distilled capitalist spirit, torn from the hands of its Faustian creators, themselves stripped of authority as it's usurped by those who were denied it longest. The ultimate neoliberal return of the repressed / the truest expression of the consumption ideal which, for rioters, culminated in a market that truly was 'free'
And here's my 3,500 word piece for The Guardian talking to Wiley, Professor Green and Lethal Bizzle about the relationship between grime, rap and the riots, and looking at the incredibly quick musical response of the grime scene in documenting and responding to what was going on.
"They want to know why there's all this anger, all this pain/ They want to know why I talk that violence, talk that slang …" Rival spits, before moving into a chorus that is sung with such stymied emotion that it's all the more poignant, because it's so flat: "I just say, 'It's all I know."
It's an age-old argument – one that most will never change their views about – but the case that music with morally unpalatable messages merely reflects reality, rather than glamourises or incites amorality, needs to be reaffirmed more than ever. If, as Martin Luther King wrote, "a riot is the language of the unheard", a result of "living with the daily ugliness of slum life, educational castration and economic exploitation", then this is Dr King's language rendered as art, and set to music.
Novara Tuesday 9th August 2011 by guydemaupassant
Finally here's an hour - all that we could fit into an hour - of discussion of the riots on Aaron Peters' Resonance FM show Novara, with the excellent James Butler/Pierce Penniless - read his response to the riots, with some great 18th Century insights into the judicial crackdown that is now underway.