As the English weather promises an unusually welcome dampness for the days ahead, surely we can all hope that things are calming down. Let us not say “getting back to normal”, though, because “normal” meant ignoring the social and cultural collapse out of which this week’s troubles erupted. The desire to make things better which manifested in the #riotcleanup campaign to sweep up the broken glass must now be directed at the deeper breakages within our society.
Everyone I know has been shaken by what we have seen. Not all of us are surprised. We have taken for granted a background level of tension in the places where we live and work, where different worlds jam up against each other with little meaningful common ground. Events like these make you reflect on what you have taken for granted.
My friends and I don’t think of ourselves as affluent; many feel precarious, few can imagine affording to join the housing ladder. We are not poor, either: we may live in rented house-shares, but we spend money on good food at independent cafés and markets, we eat out and socialise across the city. But our privilege consists primarily in the amount of meaning and fulfilment we find in our work and our social relationships, the two often closely entangled. We work in social or creative projects, collaborate with friends, create spaces where people can talk about things that matter to them, bring people together to make things happen.
It didn’t surprise me when I saw people from my world stepping forward with positive actions in the aftermath of this week’s destruction. On Monday morning, one of our regular West Norwood Feast stallholders was out giving away free cakes in the centre of Brixton, a little gesture of good will. The next day, after the worst night of the London riots, a campaign spread through social media to organise a grassroots clean-up effort. It started with two guys: Dan Thompson from the Empty Shops Network and Sam Duckworth, also known as the singer Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly. Both have been good friends to the projects I’ve helped create over the past few years. Dan spoke at the launch of Space Makers Agency, while Sam played at the launch of the Dark Mountain Project — and will be headlining our festival next weekend.
I’m proud to be a friend and collaborator of both of them, and they deserve the credit they’ve been given this week. Yet by Wednesday night, I was also reading attacks on the impromptu movement they had helped to start, and these attacks deserve to be listened to carefully.
According to the critics, #riotcleanup smacks of sweeping problems under the carpet, dividing the city into “real Londoners” (with brooms in hand) and an excluded other, while creating photo opportunities for the government’s Big Society narrative. One blogger pours vitriol on Dan’s “art in empty shops” work for aiding gentrification and deepening social divisions.
These criticisms bite close to home for me. In the year which Space Makers spent working to revive empty shops at Brixton Village, I was conscious of the danger that a DIY culture of grassroots regeneration can curdle into something narrower and more exclusive, catering to a particular demographic. Alongside the many supporters of that project, we also had some passionate and eloquent critics, ready to highlight this danger. I could always see their argument, even when it felt like they were expecting us to solve problems way beyond the scope of any single project. Their words have stuck with me, though, and informed the choices we’ve made about where Space Makers goes next — and they come back with renewed force, as I reflect now on the “normal” we have all allowed ourselves to take for granted.
So when I read the critiques of the broom-wielding clean-up, I get where they’re coming from — but I think they’re misdirected. Leftwing bloggers are quick to refer to the smugness of those who came out to sweep the streets, but couldn’t this equally be said of their response? Because these posts reflect a tendency on the Left, dating I guess from the post-68 retreat into the academy, to treat critique as an end in itself. Writing something clever that exposes the implicit “fascism” of people’s well-intentioned efforts is somehow regarded as an effective political move.
The American philosopher Andrew Taggart brought this tendency into focus for me in an essay published here a few months ago, ‘Radical Leftist politics, what have you done for us lately?’ His argument could be summarised: ‘The Left has sought to critique the world; the point, however, is to renarrate it.’
The genuinely radical response to something like #riotcleanup is not to knock it down, but to broaden out the story, to take it deeper. Rather than abuse people for their desire to take positive action and to make things better, how about actually engaging with them — finding ways to help them make sense of why this happened, and of what else we could do together to face the realities which have been revealed this week?
Our society is in a mess. Our economic system is fuelled by the liquidation of the social and cultural fabric of people’s ways of living. (Not to mention the ecological fabric which underpins all our ways of living.) The kinds of projects I’ve been involved in are rooted in a desire to rebuild social and cultural fabric, to orient our lives around meaning rather than around money. We’ve tried to create pockets within this society which are sheltered from the raw destructiveness of this economic order. We’ve not done enough, we’ve not gone far enough, we’ve not built enough bridges into the other worlds that jam up against ours — the places where that destruction is at its most intense.
“What do we do, after we stop pretending?” we asked at last year’s Dark Mountain festival. What if #riotcleanup and similar responses this week were a step towards admitting how deep a mess we’re in — and coming together to do something about it?
Because when I look around at the world I’m part of, I do see signs of hope, people working on things which go deeper. I think of the simplicity of Sock Mob, building friendships with the homeless. I think of Lottie Child’s work with Street Training, getting kids on run-down estates to teach authority figures how to have more fun in the street. I think of Learning Dreams, working with parents who never had a good experience of education, helping them achieve their own goals, and seeing knock-on effects for their children. All of these projects are real, grounded and making a difference at a human scale. There are many more where they came from.
Rather than simply sweeping up the broken glass and going “back to normal”, how can we turn the desire to mend things which we’ve seen this week towards this deeper process of mending? Can we start a #ukcleanup movement — to come together, to have an honest conversation about how our society got into this mess, and to join in making the kind of society we want to live in?