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London riots: Is our consumerist society to blame for the recent looting?

Posted at 2:00 pm, August 15, 2011 in News

London riots aftermath at Tesco Metro, East Dulwich RoadTime Out’s News Editor Rebecca Taylor speaks out about the recent London riots: Some of the most striking images of last week’s riots have not been the burning buildings or armed mobs, but the pictures of young Londoners emerging gleefully from wrecked shops clutching looted clothes, food, booze, mobile phones, shoes. Whilst their peers in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria rioted for regime change, the children of London looted for sneakers and TVs. For people to dismiss this as purely ‘mindless’,’ opportunistic’, or ‘senseless’ is wrong. Yes, it was all those, but when hundreds of young people stage a smash and grab across your city, something different is clearly going on.

The looters are part of a problem that we are all complicit in creating: a world in which shopping and consuming gives meaning to our lives. We are what we buy, and if having goods equals fulfillment and success, then not having them must equal discontent and unhappiness. Why shouldn’t these rioters see acquisition of goods through violence as perfectly acceptable in a world where the notion of dog-eat-dog pervades and only the top dog survives? If you live in a city in which the emphasis is on wealth creation as one of the few means to success, isn’t it unreasonable to expect our young people to aspire to anything else? Half the time it didn’t even matter what the kids grabbed – and by the way, adults joined in too. The papers were full of pictures such as the woman with her arms full of bottles of vodka and tomato ketchup; another showed a woman with a bag of rice on her head; luxury brand stores were attacked alongside Lidl and, incredibly, an Age UK charity shop in Croydon.

It felt like the whole of London had become overrun by desperate shopping addicts, staggering around under their ‘purchases’, not really caring what they were. Like most shopaholics they probably woke up the next morning and looked at their loot with sinking hearts. Most of what we buy doesn’t usually make us happy. The pleasure is in the buzz: the instant gratification of the moment, whether shopping or looting. Similarly if you can appear on ‘Big Brother’, or sleep with a footballer to acquire instant fame and fortune what’s the point of trying to build a career or business?

So what’s the answer? Create a society where bonds between people matter more than how many pairs of trainers you own? Overthrow Western capitalism? Whatever the solution, maybe we should think twice before we smugly look on and shake our heads in disbelief – after all, what happened out there wasn’t so dissimilar from another scrummage we experience every year: it was the January sales in August – just without the Visa cards.

See this week’s Time Out Magazine for more coverage of the recent London riots.

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