As Londoners come to terms with the third night of rioting, the general reaction seems to be anger at the mindlessness of it all. This is clearly nothing like the Arab Spring and nobody is occupying Trafalgar Square. The prevailing view is that it is all an excuse for looting and that the rioters’ main motivation is only greed. Which is absolutely right, except there is no ‘only’ about it.
These are consumer riots and consumerism explains just about everything about what is happening. We live in a consumer economy where our fortune is more dependent on what we consume more than what we make. We live in consumer society where status to a great extent comes from the things we own. We live in a consumer culture where we grow up believing that individuality and personality can come from brands and these brands are ideas to live by, more relevant than politics or religion.
The looters grew up immersed in consumption.
In 2008, when the global markets crashed, then Prime Minister Gordon Brown urged people to keep shopping. Our spending, we were told, could save the world economy and if we stopped shopping, we would destroy that economy. We were told we had a duty to consume.
Unfortunately, after the economy crashed, many people lost their jobs and thus the right to shop.
And now people from the poorest and hardest estates in London take to the streets and go straight to the very places they have recently found themselves excluded from, Curry's, Argos and JD Sports and clean them out.
And now people from the poorest and hardest estates in London take to the streets and go straight to the very places they have recently found themselves excluded from, Curry's, Argos and JD Sports and clean them out. They don’t go to Harrods’s or Selfridges, they went to their own high streets, to the shops they knew and stole from the brands they recognize.
Reported on the BBC news website a Hackney resident called Catherine Holmes did something that few proper journalists seem to have done, and spoke to some of the rioters:
"We spoke to looters trying to get home, the only explanation they gave for their behaviour was that they had no money today.
"It is sad to think that these people are thinking of only the next moment, and the moment they have created is a nightmare."
Back at the start of the twentieth century, in the early days of the advertising industry, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, worked on Madison Avenue working out ways of connecting unconscious drives like aggression and sexuality to brands. His legacy is a way of thinking deeply embedded in marketing and expressed in everyday concepts like brand image and personality. Perhaps what we are seeing on the streets of London is the consequence of all that aggression no longer being channeled through consumption.
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