Why victim culture is running riot

Last year's English riots weren't down to government cuts but to a vast culture of self-pity and entitlement among the young.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

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A new Church of England report into last August’s riots in England ‘sounds a clear warning note’ about the ‘social consequences’ of austerity measures, senior cleric Reverend Peter Price said on Sunday. After the LSE/Guardian Reading the Riots reports, the Children’s Society’s Behind the Riots, and the government’s own independent panel report, the Church of England is the latest, and probably not the last, institution to blame the riots on cutbacks in social services. Written by the church’s mission and public affairs (MPA) council, the Testing the Bridges report is made up of interviews with clergy around the country who witnessed the riots breaking out.

A mixture of poverty and welfare cutbacks has, according to the church, had a negative impact on ‘already vulnerable people’. This has contributed to a ‘feeling of hopelessness which may sometimes emerge in destructive and anti-social actions’. The idea of the looters and arsonists being seen as ‘vulnerable people’ may surprise those who were attacked or had their livelihoods destroyed. But in recent years, being ‘vulnerable’ essentially means anyone who is not under the direct control of state agencies. These individuals, who clearly can’t cope when left to their own devices, must be nurtured, flattered and mollycoddled by nice, caring professionals.

If the response to the riots reveals anything, it is how the concept of the welfare state has dramatically changed in recent years. And it is this redefinition of state agencies which has helped pave the way, not just for the riots last August, but for a generalised culture of menace and anti-social behaviour, too. The original concept of the welfare state was to act as a safety net if an individual lost his job or when a person retired. At the heart of this conception of welfare was the idea that people made contributions which they would be entitled to in times of hardship. But in recent decades, welfarism has lost much of that ‘take out what you put in’ ethos. Instead, it now provides resources regardless of what a person has contributed to society beforehand.

Even worse, welfarism has actively promoted an incapacity culture, whereby the state has encouraged people to believe they can’t cope without help from an army of professionals. This is something that young people learn at an early age. The medicalisation of young people, whereby routine teenage behaviour becomes recast as a form of illness, makes youth aware of how potent the language of therapeutic victimhood can be. School pupils can be remarkably adroit at putting teachers on the backfoot by trotting out phrases like ‘you haven’t catered for my individual needs’. Consequently, schools in England have steadily replaced the attempt to instil in young people the value of personal responsibility with a belief that they are disadvantaged and in need of constant support. Far from ‘esteem boosting’ values providing a motivation to do well in life, instead they have informed a culture of self-pitying grievance and an inflated sense of entitlement.

Even before the riots, it was noticeable how a grievance or an assertive victim culture was increasingly palpable among young people. In an article I wrote for spiked in February last year, I pointed out that in ‘today’s therapeutic age, the cultural script is… an unappealing mix of gross emotional incontinence and aggressive assertions of victimisation. Even without oceans of booze inside them, I’ve seen young people kick off in public – to bus inspectors checking tickets or shopkeepers, for example – using the therapeutic language of assertive victimhood.’ Many a pop sociologist has reckoned that there were ‘warning signs’ of the riots in young people’s ‘sense of hopelessness’ and ‘anger’. In truth, it was a decade of the state promoting pity-based entitlement, not unemployment or poverty, that inflamed the short-fused tendencies of some young people today. This is why the riots should not be seen as an unfortunate one off, but as the rising to the surface of a more generalised culture of menace and aggressive entitlement.

At a Stone Roses gig last weekend at Heaton Park in Manchester, for example, one of the tent bars was raided and looted by crowds impatient with queuing for a drink. It was reported that one chap simply served pint after pint and distributed the stolen drinks to punters. On YouTube and internet chat forums, such antics were generally applauded for ‘sticking it the man’. In reality, as one individual pointed out, it meant that young bar staff were being threatened and intimidated by a riotous mob. It provided a rather sorry snapshot of the complete absence of class solidarity in British society today. Historically, a general affability towards service-industry staff, especially in domains of working-class life such as pubs, cafes and shops, was an important norm that was rarely transgressed. To do so would be to denigrate ‘one of your own’. The one-man riot at a T-mobile shop in Manchester last week, cheered on approvingly by a large crowd, was another dramatic example of how service workers are seen to be worthy targets of individual grievances and contempt.

The political defeat of the working class in the 1980s had the effect of weakening class solidarity. But it is the rise of state intervention into working-class life which has completely destroyed that important source of social solidarity. spiked has constantly attacked the ‘anti-chav’ prejudices of the political class because these have become ways to legitimise the state colonisation of all aspects of working-class life. As Brendan O’Neill said in a speech last year: ‘Today, people’s mental and moral powers are being decommissioned, weakened, undermined, put out to pasture by the relentless intervention of the welfare, nanny and psychological states into their lives, constantly telling them how to parent, how to eat, even how to think about themselves and their futures.’ For many people today, identifying with the ‘all helpful’ state has replaced identifying with each other or a local community as a source of moral support. The wider community, in turn, and individuals in that community, can end up being a focal point for all sorts of real and imaginary grievances.

Testing the Bridges also makes the point that the lack of youth centres should share in the blame for the riots. Come off it. Such places are hardly likely to be magnets for any self-respecting youngster. It would be far better if a vibrant pub culture thrived that enabled teenagers to socialise with, and be expected to behave like, grown adults. But here again, under the auspices of combating chav-style binge drinking and smoking, the state’s war on public drinking has effectively destroyed these once important areas of communal solidarity. Pubs were once a vital way in which expectations of mature adult behaviour were informally transmitted to the next generation. As places where the emphasis was also on conversation and quick wit, they forced young people out of their solipsistic state and into a relationship with others. The social development of young people has been seriously stunted through the state’s relentless attacks and interventions on pubs (see An initiation to the culture of unfreedom by Neil Davenport).

Testing the Bridges continues with the wrongheaded idea that further state intervention in ‘poorer communities’ is needed to prevent a repeat of the riots. That is clearly the last thing such communities need. The moral- and soul-destroying consequences of such hectoring intervention has not only corroded old forms of solidarity, it has also fostered the rise of a culture of victimhood and menace. You don’t only have to look at the riots to see the grim evidence of that.

Neil Davenport is a politics teacher based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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Topics Politics


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