Chavs, Feral Youth, Moral Panics, #UKRiots

I’ve been reading Chavs by Owen Jones all day and I’m surprised by quite how broadly thought-provoking it is. From the reviews I was certainly expecting a good book but not such a sensitive and wide ranging engagement with the culture and politics of modern Britain. One thing that particularly piqued my curiosity was his references to Eden Lake, a horror film released in 2008, which tells the story of a ‘normal’ couple from Islington (intriguingly I can’t find any references to the man’s job, while the woman is a nursery teacher) who go on holiday for the weekend to a secluded spot in the West Midlands. An encounter with local kids, ‘feral youths’, sets off a chain of events which, as you can make out from the trailer below, doesn’t end very well:

Apparently when the couple first arrive, upon finding out that the titular lake is to be made into a gated community, utter some liberal platitudes about such things being bad… then they end up getting tortured and killed by the people such a gate would be keeping out. Sounds like subtle stuff. If it wasn’t for the fact I hate horror films (didn’t use to, not sure what changed) I probably would watch it though, simply out of morbid curiosity.

What’s bizarre and incredibly telling is the extent to which some have seemingly viewed this film as, in effect, a docudrama. This is my favourite of the reviews I read on IMDB:

I watched Eden Lake last night and now I’m angry.

Not because the film was bad (on the contrary, it was very good); not because the nastiest character was called Brett (when surely it’s common knowledge that all blokes named Brett are extremely nice); not because I had to watch the film on my portable DVD player while the wife watched ‘I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Outta Here!’ on the telly; and not because a rather silly ending spoils what might have been an otherwise perfect piece of entertainment.

No…. I’m angry because, with Eden Lake, I’ve been shown the terrifying truth about one of the biggest evils currently plaguing the UK (I’ll give you a clue: it likes to wear Burberry and has lousy taste in music!).

That’s right: I’m talking about Chavs!

If, like me, you find that yob culture makes your blood boil, then you too will be absolutely seething by the end of this excellent film, which cleverly taps into the viewer’s fury, fear and frustration with loutish teenagers who are free to terrorise the innocent because the law lacks the power to punish them.

In Eden Lake, Director James Watkins presents a harrowing fictional account of one such incident in which a couple are subjected to unbelievable pain and humiliation by a gang of nasty young thugs. The sickening atrocities perpetrated by Watkins’ lawless delinquents are terrifyingly real (reports on similar real-life events can all-too-often be found in today’s tabloids) and serve only too well to highlight just how far our society has sunk in recent years.

So if the middle classes are doomed to be prey, cowering within gated communities as unavoidable refuges against the teeming hoards outside, the natural question is whether there are any agents of moral order left within society? Step forward Harry Brown, the protagonist in a film that came out a year after Eden Lake, with Michael Caine playing the militant embodiment of the ‘respectable working class’. I wrote about this at the time here:

This film tells the story of Harry Brown, a pensioner living on a decaying housing estate in South London. Formerly a marine, Harry now lives a lonely life, with his wife on death’s door in hospital and few friends in an area increasingly plagued by drugs and crime. The film tells the story of Harry’s stand against the anarchy he perceives around him and the events that forced him to take action. While his friend Len lives in a state of constant fear unknown to Harry, he himself is not immune to it. Time after time, fear of the ‘hoodies’ in the subway by his estate forces him into taking the long route over the dual carriageway. Over and over again the film bombards the viewer with this message that we live in a broken society where the criminal leave the law abiding at best inconvenienced and disgusted, at worst terrified and broken. At times it’s difficult not to wonder if the film was produced in alliance with the Conservative Research Department given its continual graphic illustration of the Tory ‘Broken Britain’ theme.

Basically when Harry decides to take a stand, refusing to live in fear of the ‘feral youth’ the viewer meets in Eden Lake, he puts his army training to good use and brutalises a whole string of young people with barbed wire, knifes and guns. I do think that this is actually a good film, albeit a nasty and mean-spirited one, whereas Eden Lake just sounds shit:

How many people viewing Harry Brown cheered him on as he went on his killing spree? A brave and respectable man with a cause, standing up to the violent nihilistic subhumans who are eviscerating what remains of the social fabric with each ‘good’ citizen they intimidate and/or make a victim of (as well as a litany of other such crimes which don’t feature in a film like this e.g. having children outside of a respectable family structure) – the film works dramatically because, it seems, swathes of its audience instinctively recognise the moral universe it portrays. Even those who might subsequently intellectually disown any experience of thinking that Harry Brown straight forwardly represents the pervasive reality of modern Britain.

Do films like this represent a return of the repressed? Is there an obsession with class, stalking consciousness and lurking in nightmares, because of its effective erasure from public discourse, as the Thatcherite project was solidified by New Labour’s re-articulation of the social democratic problematic as a matter of using capitalist growth to fund measures which increase ‘social mobility’ in order to help erode ‘social exclusion’ one newly minted middle class family at a time.

It’s hard not to wonder where this spectre might lead, as austerity begins to bite and a beleaguered radical right-wing government digs in its heels to push through its extreme legislative agenda. Perhaps this is also a crucial part of the socio-emotional topography of #UKRiots, as such an unsettling number of people were so quickly calling for the army to be sent in to the streets of London. When challenged over and over again on Twitter to justify myself for suggesting this was a bad idea, it did briefly feel like the world was going completely mad (though unplugging the wifi for a bit made this feeling go away).

There has been a moral panic brewing in the back of the middle class British psyche for a long time and I don’t think it has come even close to playing itself out yet. We live in strange and troubling times.

6 thoughts on “Chavs, Feral Youth, Moral Panics, #UKRiots”

  1. As an Indian I am a little surprised why people, especially those in the West, go into all kinds of gobbledegook to theorise about such a trivial thing as the UK riots. It is trivial because if you are creating a situation where people don’t have a livelihood they are not going to have a stake in any of things that the other classes have, whoever they are – middle class or working class or whatever other “obsession” about human beings one may have. The world belongs to every single thing on this planet but if a very miniscule number of people begin to control everything then riots, climate change, species mass extinction – all these are obvious and trivial outcomes. You don’t need too much intellect to understand that – nor do you need too much theory to do so. Of course, I am a fool and maybe quite wrong!

  2. I’d basically agree with a lot of that! The above are just some scattered thoughts about films and politics, on a rainy afternoon when I’m struggling to concentrate on the work I’m supposed to be doing.

    I think your assessment of intellectual reaction to the riots is very obviously wrong though – there’s been almost no attempt to theorise the riots, or understand them at all really, at least within mainstream political debate. Likewise the fact that you’re talking about ‘such a trivial thing as the UK riots’ seems wrong… even if you simply mean that, compared to other things going on in the world, it’s not that major an event. They’re going to stand as a hugely important event in modern UK history and the fall out from them is going to have a massive impact on British politics at a time when an ultra right-wing government (of a very rare sort in a number of ways) is trying to push through radical policies at a time of once in a century global economic crisis.

    For what it’s worth, you’re obviously offering a theory yourself – you’re making observations about the world around you and offering an explanation through which to make sense of those observations. It’s just that because it’s simple and to the point, you don’t see it as a theory, you see it as common sense. With the result that you’re incredibly dismissive about something ‘as trivial as the UK riots’ because the way you understand politics, in spite of the motivation I’d agree with at the heart of it, leaves you uninterested in particularly looking at evidence because you see the truth as obvious and attempts to think further about it as ‘all kinds of gobbledegook’.

    Genuinely no hostility or irritation expressed in the above (well maybe a little bit about the fact you think the UK riots are trivial) but that’s because I share at least some of the politics that’s making it. The same kind of argument you just made is used by millions of people the world over to shut down critical debate and stop people asking angry questions about the world though – it works just as well for those who are saying we should stop going on about silly ideas of fairness and justice, instead embracing capitalism as something that will make everyone richer (etc etc)

  3. Like the post on moral panics – and I do think they are an expression of the things people cannot admit to – the problems with the world they have created – the problems that they would rather pretend aren’t there.

    Got to say I sort of agree with Arjun though. I think the intention was not to call the riots trivial, but to say that solving the problem of why they happened is trivial. And it is: the wealth divide. Having said that, I think it is worth investigating more specific causes – i.e. why they happened right at this moment.

    My post on it:

  4. Many thanks for your comments. I think I was a little bit too angry to try and dismiss the UK riots as trivial. I was not actually doing that – I was just trying to provoke.

    I was instead trying to say that capitalism has now reached a stage where theorists, especially in the fields of economics and sociology, should stop deluding themselves.

    Any honest appraisal of modern economics and sociology as theoretical subjects used to understand human social production and reproduction would show that not only these two subjects but a few other subjects such as history and anthropology in particular and a few other so-called “humanities” (as they are called in India) subjects or “liberal arts” (as they are called in the US) subjects, are entirely victims of delusion because they have, I mean the theorists in these fields, have deliberately tried to build theoretical models that were intended to delude the people and hide the facts. That was the very purpose behind all the so-called “theoretical” development of these subjects.

    These delusions are now haunting the deluders because now they find that in all these subjects, by deluding themselves all these years, they have not been able to develop the scientific tools they need to manage human society in a rational and scientific way. Economics is a specific case in point where even an official bigwig (to give just one example) such as Mr Adair Turner, chairman of Britain’s Financial Services Authority, is writing about challenging conventional wisdom in economics and if his gobbledygook is translated into scientific terms it turns out he is actually talking about basic problems of capitalism that had been understood and identified 16 decades ago. But since economic theory was built to hide these basic facts, today it is incapable of dealing with these facts or how to create a more rational economy.

    We social scientists were tasked to produce delusions that would hide all the hard realities that this poor and disgusting, carbuncle-infested, (Galbraith, in fact, believed that Mrax’s carbuncles were to blame for his “hatred” for the”bourgeosie” – how comical can delusions become, I wonder?), German pest had exposed and we have done so. Thus, today, Mr Turner is now a victim of the very delusions that his ilk has created over the past 160 years and quite unwittingly he is now vituperating about these same delusions. How comical? How ironic?.

    Today, we are scientific and rational about everything except when it comes to human society because it is class riven and the ruling classes control social science to produce delusions..

    This ideological game has now taken us all to the brink. The gobbledygook that I referred to refers to a subject that calls itself social science, yet it is a subject that starts with assumptions that simply wish away certain basic commonly observed and known facts of life – and that’s when a theory becomes gobbledygook – when it misses the empirical facts even as it starts theorising – when it misses empirically observable and verifiable facts such as the existence of class riven society, exploitation of labour power, extraction of surplus value, the very character of capitalism and, of course, historical materialism – all these hard facts of empirical, objective reality – when they are deliberately left out of the theorising, that’s when gobbledygook of enormous quantities begin to get produced and it has been produced – mountains of it.

    I am tired of all that, and I am angry. Sorry.

    And yes, about historical materialism, it is hard science because we follow this in zoology, biology and in the study of all possible forms of life and we globally also accept these subjects, which do nothing but historical materialism, as hard science, as long as these subjects confine themselves to everything else but humans. But when it comes to humans, we resort to gobbledygook mass producers – all the theorists who joined hands to prove that historical materialism is bullshit, that Marx is bullshit, all this HM being a science etc is bunkum – Weber, Levi Strauss, the marginalist mathematical mumbo jumbo producers – a whole galaxy of luminaries who spent their lifetimes producing lies because that was their task. They were paid for it. It is actually a wonderful history of social science theorising during the last century of forgettable human history where top theorists have spent quality time producing bunkum, high quality lies!.

    I think it is time for people like you to give up your theoretical bullshits – go back to studying German Ideology and the first premises of human history and begin from there – scientifically, in an unbiased way and without being the paid servants of the capitalist class and spewing gobbledygook. And pardon me for being angry! The poor of the world are angry! It’s a hard empirical fact. And, Oh yes! I almost forgot. Start looking at facts before you start theorising. The Marxists after Marx have been making that mistake too.

    P.S. When I debate I can be rather offensive, but I don’t mean to be person to person, so please pardon me for my harsh comments if any.

  5. And again I agree with a huge amount of this – particularly the ideological role that social science, most dramatically certain strands in economics, have played in propping up global capitalism in recent decades! But, without being rude, I can’t take your rejection of theory seriously: you attack theory on one hand and then talk in an endless stream of theoretical concepts, you argue that social science is nothing more than ideology then make the arguments of a left-wing 19th century social scientist, you explicitly engage with methodological and theoretical questions then say that engaging with questions like this is pointless. You say ‘people like you should give up your theoretical bullshits’ then tell me to go back to Marx. I agree with much of what you’re saying BUT the way you’re saying it (e.g. the way you shift from talking about ‘we social scientists’ to saying that ‘people like you’ should give up theoretical bullshits) makes me think that this is, at least in part, a product of an argument you’ve either had or are having with yourself. You seem to be projecting a whole host of things on to me which just aren’t true (e.g. I’ve been involved in activist causes since I was a teenager, I’ve been involved seriously in academia only for the length of being a masters and part-time PhD student) and, more obviously, there’s no way you have any basis to know if they are true or not. And it’ll probably get a bit dull for me if you keep doing it 🙂

    Plus I just can’t take the idea seriously that there’s no value within any aspect of social science because all questions have been answered by the ‘hard science’ of historical materialism. I don’t say this because I’m an unwitting cog in the ideological machine of social science, I don’t say this because I’m trapped within some delusion grand theoretical framework, I don’t say this because I’m deliberately trying to turn attention away from all the day-to-day realities of injustice in the world… I say this because I think it’s an absurd idea. I can take seriously a rejection of social science in its entirety, although obviously I’d disagree, but I can’t take seriously a rejection of social science predicated on the idea that one 19th century social scientist (interpreted in a particular way which, may I suggest, owes as much to Engels as it does to the man himself) has answered all these questions so we can stop talking about them.

  6. yeah i kind of agree and kind of don’t – there’s a difference between saying what’s at the root of the problem, in the political sense of the term & explaining the causal origins of a particular set of events. i get that you recognise this but i think it has implications for what we suggest politically as solutions…

    really really really like your article on this. ties in hugely with a conversation i was having with meems about uk riots yesterday in fact

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