The riots of the last few days have, for me, highlighted one of the most fundamental psychological distortions of living in our all-consuming consumer society. It’s something that Karl Marx predicted would happen as the production line factory system developed. And even more so in an economy like the UK where very little production of material goods takes place.
The thing Marx predicted was something he called ‘commodity fetishism’. This is where people overly covet material possessions. This is the result, Marx claimed, of people’s removal from producing goods and everyday items. In the past, Marx argued, people made many of the things they needed themselves or they were very close to other people who did make various things. They saw pots being created and understood the process at some level, they wove or knitted hats and jumpers. They made cakes and bread, grew their own vegetables, made their own wine and beer. Replaced their own watch batteries, made their own curtains or cushion-covers.
Over time we have become more and more removed from the production of material items. At the same time we have much less control over what is being produced. There used to be a general sense for example that drug production was in response to the need to make people well. Or that house building was done because families needed homes. But increasingly, as we know, production is carried out purely for profit not for need.
The impact, of these various and different influences, is to garble people’s perception of ordinary everyday items. People idolise material things above all else, even above physical violence against a fellow human being.
What we saw in the riots was a war of ownership. Both sides had something in common, they both worship material possessions. One side said if you conform and do what you are told you will get your reward, a new pair of trainers or a trip to Disney Land. If you don’t conform or you are poor or ill or for whatever reason you are outside of the mainstream then you don’t get the precious material goods. If you don’t have access to these precious things, you won’t be left alone to dwell on your material impoverishment, you will be constantly bombarded with images, advertisements and peer pressure to own just a little of the adored commodity.
We idolise and promote material commodity ownership and we wonder why people desire these things so much that they are prepared to risk physical harm and confinement.
One of the most shocking things about the riots was the way very law abiding, so called peaceful people were willing to see and accept the extreme violence towards unarmed people.
While I was wandering around the riotous streets of Manchester I saw two types of aggressive behaviour, one was violence towards property and the other, violence towards people. The first was perpetrated by unarmed people dressed in the main in jeans and cotton tops. The other was carried out by armed, body-armour clad, crash-helmet, shield-carrying police.
I personally saw one young man, not wearing a hoodie or face-mask, beaten about the head by a policeman in full riot gear. As I bent down to help I was driven off by the police, when I tried to phone for an ambulance I was forced off my phone by the police. Only when the police had gone was I able to return to the injured person and get help. This is a scene that will not be played repeatedly on your TV screens. I wonder why?