Saturday, August 13, 2011

British Riots as "A Clockwork Orange"?

A thought provoking opinion piece from the Financial Times:

Britain burns the colour of ‘A Clockwork Orange’

The speed of the disintegration said everything. It took less than 48 hours for London to descend from self-styled capital of the world into a circuit of burning dystopian hells. The speed of BlackBerry messaging; the speed of kids on BMXs; the speed of Molotovs and petrol. Never mind the police, even the media couldn’t keep up.

In a country that takes order for granted, the speed meant a free-fall back to fundamentals, not just in an obvious Hobbesian sense, but in a way that made events feel more real. If you wanted to know if your neighbourhood was next, there was no point watching the riots on television, it was quicker to listen out for breaking glass and burglar alarms; sirens if you were lucky. There wasn’t much time for disbelief.

Crucially, life was more real for the looters. That much was clear to anyone on a sofa at home, switching on their flatscreen TV to watch footage of people stealing flatscreen TVs. And as that footage was beamed around the world, the images had their own kind of psychic velocity: a short-cut to viewers’ unconsciousness provided by Britain’s rich tradition of fictional visions of dystopia, from George Orwell’s 1984 to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and of course anything by JG Ballard.

But following a week in which buildings and communities burnt the colour of A Clockwork Orange, this year’s prize for late literary prophet clearly belongs to author Anthony Burgess. With its depiction of a lawless Britain, where the police command neither confidence nor deference and residents live in fear of feral youth empowered by their own vernacular, the parallels in Burgess’s novel are instructive.

While the speed of this week’s events gave Britain’s urban descent the feel of inevitability, commentators grappled with contradictory pop-socioeconomic theories over its origins. The shooting of a black man by the police sparked the original protest, but it morphed into something that had little to do with multicultural meltdown. When the looters were finally unmasked, their social diversity made it even more difficult to decipher motivations. The only certainty was that politicians would credit the perpetrators with whatever agenda most conveniently suited their own ideological programmes – from the left’s concerns about an economic underclass, to the right’s focus on plain and simple criminality.

In A Clockwork Orange, by contrast, Burgess captures his delinquent protagonists’ complete lack of political motivation, but without dismissing their actions as simple opportunism. Numbed by the dullness of their existence, Alex and his gang of “droogs” revel in demonic violence to stave off the demon of boredom. The only way for them to feel alive is to be literally “alive and kicking”. For Burgess there is nothing paradoxical about an apathetic rampage.

Likewise, many rioters in London and other cities were laughing as they looted. The speed of the destruction was partly a function, then, of their sheer exuberance – the opposite of stereotypical listlessness more commonly known as “chillaxing”. Like football hooliganism, the violence was recreational – a day out in a Nietzschean theme park. This was a key difference between this week and previous flashpoints in Britain’s potted history of public disorder.

Another much-discussed difference was the role of consumerism. In place of the traditionally anti-capitalist stance of previous youth counter-cultures came reports of rioters in low-end fashion retailers, engaged in the new practice of “trying before you loot”. This form of extreme consumerism meant that, by the end of the week, the biggest bogeyman was our culture of rampant materialism and instant gratification. In a consumer society, identities are constructed from owning things. But the widespread sense of self-entitlement revealed by the riots also betrays a broader fetishism of objects. Some of Britain’s urban centres are so atomised that it is now easier to connect with things than with people. Likewise, digitally reduced attention spans have also contributed to a culture of superficial “bling”.

Despite being published in 1962, A Clockwork Orange is uncannily critical of these trends. Unlike today’s youth, Alex has no love of bourgeois comforts. Perhaps more revealingly, some critics suggest his ultra-violent campaign is an elaborate form of self-harm. He knows his actions will have consequences and is subconsciously seeking castigation. Certainly his parents won’t rein him in.

Even if this does not apply to this week’s looters – who appeared to believe that they could not and would not be punished – the argument still leaves us with a parallel. As with the disaffected youth who set the suburbs of Paris alight in 2005, the first buildings and cars to burn in London were not in the resented districts of the rich, but those in the perpetrators’ own communities. So not only was there no discernible political agenda to improve their lot (save for a few fleeting material possessions), the rioters were actually destroying their own. David Cameron, the prime minister, acknowledged as much when he warned them that they were wrecking their own lives.

Self-destruction is more dystopian even than nihilism. Not only does it imply hopelessness, it suggests this week’s rioters are cut off not just from society, but also from themselves. In A Clockwork Orange, Burgess illustrates this by naming one of Alex’s victims “Alexander”. The idea is taken further in the film Taxi Driver, when the protagonist Travis Bickle utters the immortal “Are you talkin’ to me?” monologue while pointing his gun at his own reflection in the mirror.

As in fiction, so in reality: just because the violence across Britain’s streets seemed to have no meaningful target, it doesn’t follow that it wasn’t directed at anything.

Anyone who is familiar with Burgess' novel and Kubrick's later film adaptation can see the eerie similarity.

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