When I lived in Birmingham I occasionally used to visit the new Harvey Nichols store. There was a Paul Smith pinstripe suit that I particularly liked. Over a period of months I watched its price come down, but not even during the sale did it come within my price range.
I thought of that suit the other day when I saw a video recording on television of looters stripping the Birmingham Harvey Nichols store of its Armani suits in a matter of seconds. Presumably none was priced at less than £3000 a time. The same care and attention devoted to stealing the expensive stuff was also shown by the young woman – now under arrest – seen trying on and distributing trainers from the front of a looted store in London. Not any old trainers for her: only the best and most stylish would do. In another case, police tracked down a girl who had stolen a 50 inch plasma TV screen – how, one wonders, did she get it home in the middle of a riot? – only to discover that she already had a similar one affixed to her bedroom wall. Two 50 inch plasma screens! Nothing if not a luxurious lifestyle. But my favourite tale of the expensive tastes of today’s rioters comes from Hackney in East London. There, rioters brought a bus to a halt (which they subsequently set on fire) by throwing bottles of champagne stolen from Tescos at the window of the driver. I assume that they turned their noses up at the Asti spumante and the Spanish cava and went straight for the Bollinger! Today’s rioters, in short, are nothing if not discerning consumers.
As a historian of France I could not help but compare this behaviour with that of the famous French rioters of May ‘68. The liberal political thinker Raymond Aron could only see these events as a psychodrama, an occasion for young bourgeois students - copies of Herbert Marcuse and Mao-Tse-Tung in hand - to play at being revolutionaries. Despite this, their protests were deeply political and philosophical and they spoke the language of a counter culture opposed to what they dismissed as a ‘civilisation des frigidaires’. Their target was the consumer society. “Do not adjust your mind”, one of their wall slogans announced. “there is a fault with reality”. What they valued was autonomy and authenticity and this was at least the rhetoric, if not the reality, of revolution.
Like our own recent riots, the French événements subsided as quickly as they had appeared but over the last few days I have found myself wondering which of the two I find most disquieting. Do I feel less threatened by French riots proclaiming “Be realistic: demand the impossible” or by British riots whose equivalent slogan would presumably have been “Be realistic: demand the most expensive thing you can get your hands on”? Those French rioters, of course, went back to their bourgeois families and lived happily ever after. Many of the British rioters didn’t seem to come from functioning families and I doubt that living happily ever after will be their future. But, looking on the bright side, we can be sure that we are dealing with consumers of considerable sophistication. All we have to do now is convince them that they have to work for their consumer goods rather than steal them. And a lot of people on our streets are better dressed than they were!
Professor Jeremy Jennings is Director of the Centre for the Study of Political Thought at Queen Mary, University of London. His latest work, Revolution and the Republic: A History of Political Thought in France, was recently published by Oxford University Press.