Consuming and riots

In light of Stephen’s recent post and the Politics of Consumption conference (which I missed), I’ve been thinking about the recent riots in the UK.

The most striking images from those riots all feature consumption in someway.  The riots involved consumption practices and retail environments.  From what I’ve gleaned from my initial googling, there’s a lot of commentary blaming consumerism for the riots but I’ve not seen much on why the consumption relationship was the one used by rioters in this instance.  Put otherwise, why was this a good media for their message.  Not so much what were the causes of the riots but how did the methods work.

It seems a little naive to me to say something like ‘they were sick of being left out of our consumer society so they took what they wanted’.  Instead, I started to think about this in terms of a concept Stephen and I have crafted – commodity narcissism.  By this we argue that the consumption relationship is a highly efficient way for us to let out our aggressive instincts on the world around us.  It is, in this sense, not so much about maximizing utility, creating an identity or expressing some symbolic meaning than getting our kicks.  Stephen and I argue that this is why we see many consumers who claim to be ethically-concerned not acting on those concerns.  The knowledge about the results of their actions is self-defeating.  Even if we don’t want to admit it, it is pleasing to us to know we are fucking someone, somewhere – because it’s not about the harm we are inflicting on them but about knowing that we have the power to do harm them.

This, I think, might start to help us explain some of the actual actions undertaken in the riots – stealing rice, burning a furniture shop: it’s not the act itself but the need to know/demonstrate ability to perform it that we need to think about.  Conversely, this all got me thinking about why we’re so quick to blame “consumption” in this case – especially given the concerns Stephen raises about the concept in the first place.  I’d like to think about this more if no one else is.  ESRC are you reading this… email me.

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