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What a Riot

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Recent events in France where violence erupted in response to proposals to raise the pension age to 62 from 60, seemed to demonstrate that rather than any kind of revolution occurring, what we were seeing was more of a reaction that reflected a widespread disappointment amongst middle class and older people -- where the youth took up the mantle not of a new world and another dawn, a brighter tomorrow -- but rather something that, for them, would be decades away. It seemed that this was a riot with extremely narrow preoccupations -- as riots may often be -- but not tagged to any sense of some alternative solution to ideas of resources, aging population and society.

Fast forward to the students in London who on Wednesday were protesting against government cuts and lifting of caps on university tuition fees and we see something similar. For the most part, as all commentators have noted, it was a peaceful demonstration. Then, a small contingent broke away and then some smashed windows at Millbank Tower, where the Conservative offices are, and went up on the roof.
Various young people have now been arrested -- one of which is the young man who allegedly threw a fire extinguisher off the roof. The fact that these students were utterly naive and somehow expected that there would be no consequences -- and hence not trying particularly hard to disguise themselves -- is indicative of the broader sense of childish outlook of both the students: who are absolutely in their right to be outraged and to challenge the deep and problematic cuts, but also of the police, who were completely taken by "surprise" on Wednesday.

Comments hurtling around the blogosphere, that students were "finally protesting" or "up in arms" and by commentators who thought this reflected some kind of sea change miss the point here that unfortunately, even though some young people have aspirations to see challenge things, the limited political outlook and the domination of the idea that TINA rules -- (There Is No Alternative to the Market) ensures that while these outbursts look radical and can take a violent form, they have little to offer by way of alternatives.

In fact, the Metropolitan Police, in the age of therapeutic policing, was clearly ill prepared and did not know how to handle events (although were filming everyone and hence the subsequent arrests). This is very very different to the scenes of the Poll Tax riots 20 years ago or the inner city riots of London, Toxteth and elsewhere. It suits some, who have a yearning to go back to the past of easy formulaic assessments of what is happening around us, but, as was once said so eloquently, the past really is a different country, and things were done very differently there.

The British commentator and sociologist Frank Furedi has pointed out that in fact while young people have always been the ones ready to change the world, currently their views reflect the more entrenched views of older people in society, who if anything, are desperate to keep things somehow the same.

We can rest assured however that the police will aim to come down extremely hard on the protesters -- there is talk of an attempted murder charge (for the fire extinguisher) - and this combination of not knowing how to handle situations and being naive will not help anyone searching for solutions to our problems.

While I responded to various hopefuls who thought a) the French protests were a sign of some new day and b) the London protests heralded a '68 moment, Claire Fox the Director of the UK Institute of Ideas pointed out how student activists when disrupting a Tory event had 'F*** the Fees' placards and their major political statement was, "for every £1 invested in universities, the country gets £3.65 back!" This type of attitude will never get to the root of the issue and shares a similar bean-counting mentality as the government. It's extremely frustrating that the appetite for something better among young people will be squashed so quickly for lack of better ideas. What we need, is a difficult debate, internationally, about how we organize our society, our resources, education and pensions as well as society generally. Until we get some serious discussion on this going, we won't get past naive knee jerk reactions.