The Message in the Loot

by The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby

Posted: 13 Jan 2012

In my last article, I suggested that perhaps even more than the message we are hearing from the Occupy movement we need to hear the message from the riots of last summer. Or rather, if we don't hear the message being put to us by Occupy, that the events of the last couple of years show just how unjust contemporary capitalism has become and how desperately it needs reform, we shall get more messages like the one we got last August.

We might want to dismiss the idea of listening to rioters: their behaviour is unacceptable, and if they have convictions and ideas they are all about 'free stuff' and not, as the Occupy campers would have us understand, about the perilous future of the planet. What the rioters did, the theft, the arson, let alone the violence and murder, doesn't make them attractive people to listen to. Equally unattractive as people to listen to are those who awarded themselves the big bonuses and rewards for failure that have been part of our recent history: we might well say they provided a model for looting - really big looting in their case.

Natural as it is not to want to listen to looters, there are things we need to hear and actions we need to take in the light of the events of last August. The first of those is to look at what was looted; what did people take? Which is another way of asking, 'what, in our society, is there for the taking'. And what, by implication, is not?

What was taken was 'stuff', the very stuff that is the daily content of TV ads, the consumer and designer goods that we are encouraged to buy (if we can) in demonstration of 'consumer confidence'. The message is clear: it is patriotic to be a 'confident consumer', one who is prepared to spend in order to fuel us out of the double-dip recession which otherwise may overtake us. For when consumers 'lack confidence' - which you can tell because they don't spend - they are unpatriotic and indeed live by the self-fulfilling prophecy of that second dip - they will have brought the fulfilment on themselves.

The rioters and looters clearly decided they could have these symbols of consumer confidence without spending: the stuff was there for the taking, and they took it. There's nothing admirable about what they did, but they did show us clearly what is there for the taking, and what is not. And what is there for the taking is not in fact what they or we most need: what they and we need are the durables that are not consumer durables, things that we can put our trust in - and the lesson of last August is that they are not there for the taking or even for buying: they have to be procured by a different way.

What the rioters needed was security, a good education, the assurance of employment. Those are not there for the taking; they are opportunities society has to create and they have to be confident enough to accept. They are not there for the taking; they are not 'stuff' and you will not find them lying in the street or on the floor of a burgled shop. In fact we have made education, especially higher education, a scarce commodity which only those willing to get into substantial debt can afford.

What those rioting and we who saw them need is, for instance, ways of addressing the threat of climate change that will make the future more secure for us all - and that too is not there to be taken, not lying in a street or a burgled shop. Those things, those durable things, have to be worked at together for the sake of our human flourishing. They can't be part of anyone's loot; they can't even be symbols of an adequate confidence.

So part of the message of last August's riots is indeed in the loot - what was in it and what was not. It is a message about what we have become, that we have become what can be bought or what others can take. The wake up call is not about how to stop riots, but about what the riots mean, and where we need to place our confidence, not as consumers but as persons, not as individuals but as people with a shared destiny.

The message, in short, is about where we need to place our confidence. That should not surprise Christians for we are in the confidence business, and we know how important it is to locate our confidence in the right place. And the message about that is to be found in what was in the loot - and what wasn't. And if you tell me that the same must apply to the big loot of the bonuses and rewards for failure, you'd be right: more of that in my next article.

About this author

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is the former Bishop of Worcester. Following his role as part of the Interim Directing Team from 2012-2014, he continues as an adviser to St Paul's Institute.

Elaine Dando - Posted: 04 Feb 2012

My concern, at present, is the rehabilitation of those imprisoned after the riots and are now beginning to be released. Is there any support we can give to help those who may not be entitled to statutory mentoring, which I understand, only takes place with those who have a custodial sentence longer than a year?
Elaine Dando