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Donkin's World: Feeding The Feral Rich

In the aftermath of rioting in various English cities, author and columnist Richard Donkin agrees with the view that it is not just its damaged youth, but Britain itself that needs a moral reformation.”

It’s a managerial cliche in every corporate episode, good or bad, to “take away the positives”. Surely there must be some lessons we can salvage from the turmoil of the riots in English cities.

The riots were shocking for many reasons, one of which is that they lacked any sense of reason. Many of the people engaged in rioting and looting fitted a stereotype of social deprivation drawing on permutations of various descriptions – unemployed, poorly educated, mindless, dysfunctional, criminal, indiscriminate, opportunist, yobbish – pick your favourite combination.

But some who have since appeared before the courts do not fit such stereotypes. Among them is an Oxford University law graduate accused of throwing bricks at police, a soldier who tried to sell a stolen guitar, a fashion model who tried to loot an Argos store, an Olympic ambassador and various university students.

It was as if something in the air gripped an otherwise bored section of society and invited them on to the streets to share in the risk and excitement that goes with wanton plunder.

Most of the “professionals” – the hooded and masked hard core gang members - will be sitting at home today inspecting their new trainers and watching their looted plasma TVs, safe in the knowledge that their features were hidden from CCTV cameras and that their reputation for intimidation is powerful enough to preserve the omerta of the streets.

It is the opportunist amateurs that are packing the courts – young people irresponsible enough to allow themselves to be gripped by the fever of lawlessness that seems to have bred a belief that they could steal and get away with it.

These people are the real source of our worries. There have always been yobs who will riot at the barest excuse. They are not going to go away. Some of them may find redemption if they fall in to the right company – a helpful teacher, a strong parent, an influential role model at work or among their social circle.

But there is a much larger group of people on which any society depends – the people who bother to vote, who will take up their sweeping brushes to clean the streets, who continue to show that they care about their community because they feel a sense of outrage at wrongdoing. This group must prevail for any society to maintain cohesion.

The fear now is that some who we may have relied upon once to maintain that cohesion have become so alienated from government, so lacking in moral instruction or example, so cynical of authority and so saturated in the spirit of entitlement peddled by our consumerist culture, that they can be persuaded to neglect their sense of right and wrong.

A number of commentators have pointed to the lack of a cause behind the rioting. As Zoe Williams, writing in the Guardian, said: “I think it's just about possible that you could see your actions refashioned into a noble cause if you were stealing the staples: bread, milk. But it can't be done while you're nicking trainers, let alone laptops.” http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/09/uk-riots-psychology-of-looting?INTCMP=SRCH

She also pointed to what I would call the death of consequence, at least as a perception. Rioters who failed to cover their faces, she wrote, were failing to understand that their actions could rebound on them: “People just don't believe they'll go to prison any more, at least not for something as petty as a pair of trainers.”

Williams, like many others, was intrigued at the prime targets of the looters – typically gadget shops, electrical suppliers and, in several instances, branches of JD Sports, a downmarket retailer of casual clothes and sports trainers. The trainer, more than any other item of dress, appears to have assumed mystical proportions in gang culture.

Charlie Brooker, also in the Guardian, wrote: “Time and again, shops selling trainers or gadgets were targeted first. Fancy shoes and electric widgets mark the peak of ambition. Every looter was effectively a child chanting: ‘Give me my toys, I want more toys. ‘ “ http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/14/charlie-brooker-prevent-more-riots

These behaviours suggest that too many young people have grown up in a dependency culture characterised by a distorted sense of entitlement. This culture, as Peter Oborne observed, writing in a Daily Telegraph blog, has been nourished by the poor example set by expense-fiddling politicians and corporate opportunists. http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/peteroborne/100100708/the-moral-decay-of-our-society-is-as-bad-at-the-top-as-the-bottom/

He wrote: “I believe that the criminality in our streets cannot be dissociated from the moral disintegration in the highest ranks of modern British society. The last two decades have seen a terrifying decline in standards among the British governing elite. It has become acceptable for our politicians to lie and to cheat. An almost universal culture of selfishness and greed has grown up. It is not just the feral youth of Tottenham who have forgotten they have duties as well as rights. So have the feral rich of Chelsea and Kensington.”

It was strong stuff. A day or two earlier a distraught shopkeeper had caught the attention of the media when she likened the rioters to “feral rats”. That word feral struck a chord and Oborne knew what weight it would carry in using it brilliantly to focus attention on unacceptable behaviours among the more privileged in society.

Where do these feral rich go for their inspiration? Their bible, says Oborne, is "the repellent Financial Times magazine How to Spend It". Good on you son. It's high time someone said that. In an otherwise responsible newspaper, this magazine, an acknowledged advertising magnate for luxury goods, is permitted to plough its own furrow, focusing entirely on luxury and everything it represents in its own little blinkered Midas-like world. http://www.howtospendit.com/#

As a result, wrote Oborne: “The rioters have this defence: they are just following the example set by senior and respected figures in society. Let’s bear in mind that many of the youths in our inner cities have never been trained in decent values. All they have ever known is barbarism. Our politicians and bankers, in sharp contrast, tend to have been to good schools and universities and to have been given every opportunity in life.”

He could have gone further. These same people gravitate towards and mix in what we loosely describe as the establishment. In so doing they too often overlook their own advantages, a tendency acknowledged across the Atlantic by one of the world’s richest men.

Writing in the New York Times Warren Buffett, urged the US government to “stop coddling the super rich”. Why weren’t billionaires like him expected to pay more tax when those on modest incomes were struggling, he asked. Last year, he paid £4.2million in taxes, but, he disclosed: “What I paid was only 17.4 per cent of my taxable income.” He added: “If you earn money from a job, your percentage will surely exceed mine – most likely by a lot.” http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/15/opinion/stop-coddling-the-super-rich.html?_r=1

Buffett belongs to a rare breed - the deserving rich. He has used his wealth to invest wisely in sound businesses, cornerstones of the capitalist system. He lives relatively modestly and has committed most of his wealth to worthy causes. He could never be described as a carpetbagger or an asset stripper, yet such individuals roam this system like hungry hyenas, ripping the heart out of our greatest economies.

The damage caused by unbridled speculation far eclipses any that was caused across London and other English cities. That is not to condone the violence of the streets or to forgive the perpetrators. But if one positive thing came out of these riots it is that those in Government and in authority have been forced to sit up and listen to the inarticulate voices from the street.

And if they fail to make sense of the lame justifications we have been hearing these last few days, they should listen instead to those like Oborne who can articulate the underlying frustration of those at the fag end of consumerist opportunism.

I agree with his conclusion that: “The culture of greed and impunity we are witnessing on our TV screens stretches right up into corporate boardrooms and the Cabinet. It embraces the police and large parts of our media. It is not just its damaged youth, but Britain itself that needs a moral reformation.”


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