Riots: Left and Right both to blame for 'sick' society
Entire urban communities have been sacrificed in the blind rush to 'liberate the people'
Within hours of the first London riots breaking out, the debate was already being polarised, with left-wing commentators blaming Tory cuts, poverty and institutionalised racism, and right-wing observers slamming multiculturalism, poor parenting and 'community' policing.
In fact both the Left and Right must take equal responsibility for the social breakdown we are now witnessing. Or more precisely, the New Left and the New Right.
The New Left, which came to dominate left-wing thinking from the late 1960s onwards, is responsible for diverting the Left's focus away from economic issues onto cultural ones: with political correctness and identity politics being put before traditional causes like public ownership.
While the old, socially conservative Left, with its commitment to collectivism and solidarity, and its focus on working-class concerns, was implacably opposed to commercialism and the market economy, the New Left believed that markets and consumerism could be liberating because they broke down traditional - and, in their view, restrictive - ways of living.
A key figure in New Left thinking was Stuart Hall (the Jamaican-born academic, not the former It's a Knockout presenter), who railed against what he saw as the Old Left's cultural and economic conservatism. "If people's capitalism did not liberate the people, it nevertheless 'loosed' many individuals into a life less constrained, less puritanically regulated, less strictly imposed than three or four decades ago," Hall wrote in 1988.
For the New Left, 'removing constraints' on individuals' lives was far more important than opposing consumerism. In the eyes of the New Left, someone could be categorised a 'progressive' or 'left-wing' not because he/she supported nationalisation or higher marginal rates of income tax, but because they held a suitably 'counter-cultural' stance on social issues and favoured open-door immigration.
The influence of New Left thinking on Labour could be seen when the party finally returned to power in 1997 after 18 years in opposition. There was no attempt to renationalise the railways, or indeed rein in any of the excesses of capitalism.
Under New Labour we got formal equality between citizens, as same-sex civil partnerships were legalised and an Equalities and Human Rights Commission was set up, but no sense of solidarity was created because consumerism and materialism were allowed to run amok.
Meanwhile, the wealth gap widened to levels not seen since before the Second World War: by 2010, Labour's last year in office, the richest 10 per cent were more than 100 times as wealthy as the poorest 10 per cent.
In their promotion of the rights of the individual above the collective - and their desire to destroy the 'old-fashioned' post-war social democratic consensus - the New Left had ideological allies in the New Right.
The free market ideologues who captured the Conservative party with the election of Mrs Thatcher as party leader in 1975 also wanted to remove what they saw as restrictive constraints. Full employment - the goal of all post-war governments up to 1979 - was jettisoned and instead 'market forces' were allowed to dictate almost every aspect of our lives. Whole communities were sacrificed on the altar of economic orthodoxy.
During the Thatcher years, greed went from being one of the seven deadly sins to being actively encouraged, and as a consequence our society became coarser, more aggressive and more violent. Traditional 'One Nation' Tories like Sir Ian Gilmour could see the enormous damage these policies were doing to Britain's social fabric, but their warnings went unheeded.
The New Left and New Right have together created the incredibly materialistic and atomised society in which we now live. Yet despite their political dominance, their views have never been shared by the majority of the public: as Seamus Milne, the decidedly 'Old Left' Guardian columnist has pointed out, "The assumption that the broad Blair-Cameron consensus - social liberalism combined with free-market economics, privatisation, low taxes on the rich, and a welfare safety net - reflects the centre of gravity of public opinion is completely unfounded."
The pernicious legacy of 30 years of New Left and New Right dominance can be seen on the streets of Britain today. In their book Criminal Identities and Consumer Culture, Steve Hall, Simon Winlow et al argue that far from being rebellious citizens who reject the values of the age, "committed criminals in economically marginalised neighbourhoods" are, by their obsession with obtaining the very latest consumer goods, conforming to the ideology of the times.
"Every street criminal we spoke to appeared to believe wholeheartedly that the good life should be understood in terms of the acquisition and conspicuous display of commodities and services that signified cultural achievement in the most shallow of terms."
As if to prove their point, the rioters in London, Manchester, Birmingham and elsewhere have not been taking to the streets to shout for a new economic order - as protestors have been doing in Spain and Greece - but to walk off with plasma TVs and designer trainers.
David Cameron expressed disgust yesterday at the CCTV footage of British teenagers pretending to help a victim of the rioters while actually robbing him. Speaking to the press in Downing Street, he said: "Pockets of our society are not just broken but are frankly sick." He vowed to do "whatever it takes" to put it right. But is Cameron really ready to turn nearly half a century of political dogma on its head? ·
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