The London Riots – On Consumerism coming Home to Roost


By: Zygmunt Bauman

These are not hunger or bread riots. These are riots of defective and disqualified consumers.

Revolutions are not staple products of social inequality; but minefields are. Minefields are areas filled with randomly scattered explosives: one can be pretty sure that some of them, some time, will explode – but one can’t say with any degree of certainty which ones and when. Social revolutions being focused and targeted affairs, one can possibly do something to locate them and defuse in time. Not the minefield-type explosions, though. In case of the minefields laid out by soldiers of one army you can send other soldiers, from another army, to dig mines out and disarm; a dangerous job, if there ever was one – as the old soldiery wisdom keeps reminding: “the sapper errs only once”. But in the case of minefields laid out by social inequality even such remedy, however treacherous, is unavailable: putting the mines in and digging them up needs to be done by the same army which neither can stop adding new mines to the old nor avoid stepping on them – over and over again. Laying mines and falling victims of their explosions come in a package deal.

All varieties of social inequality derive from the division between the haves and the have-nots, as Miguel Cervantes de Saavedra noted already half a millennium ago. But in different times having or not having of differentobjects is, respectively, the states most passionately desired and most passionately resented. Two centuries ago in Europe, a few decades ago still in many some distant from Europe places, and to this day in some battlegrounds of tribal wars or playgrounds of dictatorships, the prime object setting the have-nots and the haves in conflict was bread or rice. Thank God, science, technology and certain reasonable political expedients this is no longer the case. Which does not mean though that the old division is dead and buried. Quite on the contrary… The objects of desire, whose absence is most violently resented, are nowadays many and varied – and their numbers, as well as the temptation to have them, grow by the day. And so grows the wrath, humiliation, spite and grudge aroused by not having them – as well as the urge to destroy what have you can’t. Looting shops and setting them on fire derive from the same impulsion and gratify the same longing.

We are all consumers now, consumers first and foremost, consumers by right and by duty. The day after the 11/9 outrage George W. Bush, when calling Americans to get over the trauma and go back to normal, found no better words than “go back shopping”. It is the level of our shopping activity and the ease with which we dispose of one object of consumption in order to replace it with a “new and improved” one which serves us as the prime measure of our social standing and the score in the life-success competition. To all problems we encounter on the road away from trouble and towards satisfaction we seek solutions in shops.

From cradle to coffin we are trained and drilled to treat shops as pharmacies filled with drugs to cure or at least mitigate all illnesses and afflictions of our lives and lives in common. Shops and shopping acquire thereby a fully and truly eschatological dimension. Supermarkets, as George Ritzer famously put it, are our temples; and so, I may add, the shopping lists are our breviaries, while strolls along the shopping malls become our pilgrimages. Buying on impulse and getting rid of possessions no longer sufficiently attractive in order to put more attractive ones in their place are our most enthusing emotions. The fullness of consumer enjoyment means fullness of life. I shop, therefore I am. To shop or not to shop, this is the question.

For defective consumers, those contemporary have-nots, non-shopping is the jarring and festering stigma of a life un-fulfilled – and of own nonentity and good-for-nothingness. Not just the absence of pleasure: absence of human dignity. Of life meaning. Ultimately, of humanity and any other ground for self-respect and respect of the others around.

Supermarkets may be temples of worship for the members of the congregation. For the anathemised, found wanting and banished by the Church of Consumers, they are the outposts of the enemy erected on the land of their exile. Those heavily guarded ramparts bar access to the goods which protect others from a similar fate: as George W. Bush would have to agree, they bar return (and for the youngsters who never yet sat on a pew, the access) to “normality”. Steel gratings and blinds, CCTV cameras, security guards at the entry and hidden inside only add to the atmosphere of a battlefield and on-going hostilities. Those armed and closely watched citadels of enemy-in-our-midst serve as a day in, day out reminder of the natives’ misery, low worth, humiliation. Defiant in their haughty and arrogant inaccessibility, they seem to shout: I dare you! But dare you what?                                                                        NOTE:THIS ESSAY IS A CROSS POST.




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  • Willy  On August 10, 2011 at 5:17 pm

    Bauman’s concept of “defective consumers” leading
    “wasted lives” (as he has called them elsewhere) —
    lives “un-fulfilled”– reminds me of this quote from
    Marx from almost 168 years ago, a quote that keeps
    coming back to my mind:
    Let us consider the actual, worldly Jew — not the Sabbath Jew, as Bauer [the author of the essays that Marx was commenting on] does, but the everyday Jew.

    Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew.

    What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money.

    Very well then! Emancipation from huckstering and money, consequently from practical, real Judaism, would be the self-emancipation of our time. [italics in original]

    Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. Money degrades all the gods of man — and turns them into commodities. Money is the universal self-established value of all things. It has, therefore, robbed the whole world — both the world of men and nature — of its specific value. Money is the estranged essence [not only of the Jew’s work and the Jew’s existence, but] of man’s work and man’s existence, and this alien essence dominates him, and he worships it. [italics in original]

    The god of the Jews has become secularized and has become the god of the world.

    It seems to me, YAA, that many of the people who
    “bought in” to the majority religion of the West
    were bound to be disappointed even in the best of

    And as the Greatest Depression unfolds, bringing
    us the worst of times, almost all who remain
    bought in to the majority religion in the West are
    going to feel estranged from their god.

  • Saeed Qureshi  On August 11, 2011 at 4:48 am

    Interesting yet brain storming write up. The central idea of the article is premised over the connection between the minefields in a war zone and the shopping plazas where consumers gather and shop. The minefields explode and in similar fashion the supermarkets too explode. Perhaps the writer wants to drive the concept that if consumers cannot have enough buying power they explode and create havoc as the minefields do.
    The consumer societies as America or Britain or Western Europe on the whole are assuming the paradigm of dangerous minefield where even the human lives can be lost. In the West and particularly United States consumers or citizens are addicted to shopping and in order to cater for the poor segments of society the government provides subsidized food items or gives food stamps for buying free food.
    If today this food stamp enticement is withdrawn the streets of the United States would look like a battle ground between the protestors and rioters and the police. This is one indication that the people in the developed societies have developed bad habits which if nursed on cheap consumerism would remain peaceful. But once their lolly pops are wholly or partially taken away they would turn rowdy ad fight like soldiers. As for minefields which should be the supermarkets and big shopping centers, these would too explode and burnt as we have witnessed in various cities of UK.
    Saeed Qureshi

  • S U Turkman  On August 12, 2011 at 2:21 am

    These Protests were caused because of cuts in Charity given to Poor and then Criminal Element of the crowd took over. After they are arrested and sent to jail, there wouldn’t be new riots because Police would be a lot more ready for next time.
    A free speech country like not thinking of spying on Internet Messages of Suspects. Freedom can last as long as you do not use it to break laws.

  • Syed  On August 17, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    Within hours over 1,500 arrests were made and here we have killings after killings and for days on end not an arrest is made. So far to my knowledge no action has been taken against Sorab Gote and AlAsif Square and Bismillah Market. Who does not know, least of all the Police and secret services what goes on here and from where the arms come, stored and sold or distributed. Listen t this lady. How heart broken she must be:
    What is all this going on. Government in the hands of the nincompoops. Whose who cannot give protection to the people on whose taxes the salaries are paid have lost the right to govern. Why doesn’t the media talk about it and call a spade a spade and we hear guys like Shahi Syed making openly hate speeches on TV inciting Pathans otherwise living peacefully with their neighbors. ANP for political gains wants to polarise people.

  • Cek Kanunu  On November 27, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    This is garbage. It blames the wrong people. The High Street today is a battleground. Retailers:

    (1) use soft systems such as advertising to persuade us to want things, and
    (2) use hard systems such as police to prevent us having things without paying.

    The soft systems are very nasty, and include undemining our freedom of thought and choice by for example persuading us that certain things are necessary in order to be socially accepted by our peers. The battleground created by the retailers stops serving them when one of its two parts fails:

    if the system of persuasion fails, we don’t want
    if the system of prevention fails, we don’t pay

    All that happened was that the second event occurred – the police in Tottenham made a mistake – so people were left with the desires created by the retailers without the restraints the retailers relied on. And now the courts – a component of the retailer’s hard systems – are handing out ridiculously severe punishments, and handing them out to the wrong people – to the victims of the retailer’s systems.

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