13 August 2011

Kenya: London's Street Violence And the Fire Next Time


The violence and wanton destruction of property witnessed in London and other cities in England has brought to the fore a number of questions about the crisis of modern capitalism.

Different excuses and explanations will be thrown up to explain how children as young as 11 could so casually indulge in acts of arson and loot trendy goods from convenience stores.

To some, like the presidents of Iran and Zimbabwe, this has been an opportunity to talk down at Britain feeling the boot, for once, is on the other foot.


To others, especially on the British right, outrage has spilt into the use of the most extreme language with one commentator calling the looters "animals less intelligent than dogs".

To apologists, always finding a social explanation for every form of deviance, excuses are coined about the alienation of modern Britain that created the monster in its middle.

The jury on burning London will be out a long time. But the events themselves accord us an opportunity to reflect on what trends can easily be discerned in our own urban centres, and what challenges they pose for our social calm. For starters, one thing is not likely to be emulated here.

Pictures on the first day of violence showed police officers running around purposelessly except when being chased away by the rampaging youth.

When the Prime Minister announced on the second day that he had authorised the police to use water canons and batons to contain the violence, the head of police called for restraint, saying the circumstances were not ripe for such measures.

On these shores, the police will break a few skulls and limbs as soon as they arrive at the scene of riots. Similarly, the police lead the violent response; it is the politicians who call for restraint.

In the wake of the collapse of institutional communism, the world continues to pursue a model of growth that often is devoid of poverty eradication. In our own countries, we daily face the paradox of growth without development.

Encouraging data on economic growth is accompanied by evidence that young people are getting ever more deeply mired in poverty and existential hopelessness.

The army of those left behind by prosperity (those whom Karl Marx called the grave diggers of capitalism) remain a potent threat to stability.

Flashes to our post-election violence should remind us how the poor do not see themselves as stakeholders in protecting the sanctity of property.

This ties in with another challenge that confronts societies with unequal development. Many communities of the urban poor tend to have children uprooted from a value universe and abandoned into a street community with little value parenting.

Centres of urban decay breed persons with a limited compass on right and wrong. Glorification of bad manners is tolerated and excused as part of protest against societal injustice.

When the consequences of such abandon come home on TV, excuses are made to define those involved as unique by tribe, race or class. Our failure in social parenting, in inculcating norms of social upbringing, will come back to haunt us.

The challenge is made worse by the global reach of communication. The triumph of global television and other advertising media have unleashed a binge of consumerism that unifies fads and fashion across country and class boundaries.

While the acquisitiveness of modern capitalism fuels expenditure in some, it inspires criminal access for those who want to belong and yet have no legitimate capacity to buy class goods.

Accounts on how youths in London targeted trendy goods stores are very much evidence of this phenomenon.

For some time now, the world has been alive to the role social media has played in mobilising for the Arab Revolution. While this positive role has played out before us, the negative potential has received much less attention.

London police have given graphic accounts of how youths used social media to pick stores to be attacked because of the goods they held.

In Kenya, radio talk shows following the death of a university student under mysterious circumstances a month ago exposed some of the goings-on at our university campuses.

One of the memorable accounts was how pimps are using Facebook and Tweeter to recruit specific types of female students to hoard into parties for their clients.

How society confronts the huge potential of social media to reverse societal values remains broadly unchartered territory.

Dr Kituyi, a former Minister for Trade, is a Director of the Kenya Institute of Governance mkituyi@kigafrica.org

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