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UK riots and Cypriots

I am a bit shocked about the way Cypriots of my age conceptualise and analyse the riots in the UK. I was a recipient of quite a few remarks against what they described as people who live on benefits and who are driven by consumerism rather than by a genuine anger against the conservative policies. Not only they dismiss the people on the streets as thieves who seized the chance to steal things, they also challenge the whole idea of the welfare state. The latter point is the most worrying.

Their argument is a rather simple one: (a) they dismiss as irrelevant the claim that people’s long established rights have been cut/decreased by the coalition government and (b) they define people who live on benefits, not as individuals who did not have equal opportunities in their lives, but rather as people who do not want to work or pursue the opportunities available to them. They do not see the correlation between race, class and geographical location. For example, according to this twisted logic, it is impossible that the people on the streets respond let’s say to the cuts on education because they do not want to go to the university anyway. The matter shifts from “opportunity” to “choice”, and as it goes with choice, little room is left for responsibility outside the individual. In other words, they blame no one other than the people in the streets.

What makes me angry the most, is that even if their holistic and monolithic understanding of “people living on benefits” was reflecting reality, they are not willing to think “Why do these people choose to live on benefits and do not want to become educated and therefore pursue more rewarding careers?” [all of this of course, if we ignore the big elephant in the room, which is the cost of studying at a University]

I obviously disagree with them. It is one thing to condemn violence, and another to support the government, which I argue, had it coming. You cannot expect that it would suddenly be ok to impose neo-Thatcherian measures that empower (and to a certain extend recreate) the class-system of the previous century, and yet expect people not to react. What is even more naive, is the expectation that people whose collective identity has been destroyed as a result of the conservative attack on worker’s unions during the 1980s, would be in position to express their collective anger in an orderly way.

I hope that much more Cypriots than those that I had the chance to chat with see things from the perspective of people who grow up having no chance at all. Unfortunately, to my surprise,  this uncritical and homogenizing  understanding of (mostly) marginalized and oppressed groups, slowly becomes the norm.

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  1. Working with marginalized groups for many years, and specifically intervene in order to gain access to welfare benefit procedures I can assure you that this belief is a deep rooted one, cultivated and supported mostly by state agents in Cyprus. For many years the procedure was disconnected from a human right approach and carried a “philanthropic” approach. Thus many people were institutionalized and still is in the absence of any serious empowerment option. After 2004 the focus and rhetoric changed and it was used against migrants and Turkish Cypriots who could access (due to EU Directives) the social benefit procedure. So what we hear in Cyprus is what is encouraged, promoted, used by officials, agents, politicians for a very good reason… We cannot perceive human rights or social injustice concepts apart of what they want us to think it is!

    • Rose,

      I totally agree. Along with what you said, it is also the matter of public lies by state officials and politicians. The DIKO deputy Zacharias Koulias comes in mind when he attacked immigrants (who were all of course labelled as “illegal” and described as “people whose benefits are taken from those of the real [our] refugees”) when he presented false data about their benefits. Koulias and his likes should at least be *legally* required to issue an apology. Instead, he shamelessly continues the propaganda which is replicated and magnified at the societal level.

  2. I’m not entirely convinced by your arguments although there is definitely truth to what you say. For example I do not consider myself an individual coming from a privileged elite yet I have managed to get an education and pursue studies at an advanced level away from Cyprus. For this I have my parents to thank for bringing me up in a manner that allows me to set my priorities with respect to societal requirements. I live in a not so prestigious area in the UK where many people live with benefits and I see that their priorities are mixed up. For example subsistence and accomodation come in second place when it comes to drinking down at the pub and having fun. Many people have been brought up to believe that the system will save them so coerce themselves in a self-perpetuating loop of unemployment and benefits. For this I personally blame the lack of a proper role model and marginalisation. In large marginalisation of such individuals is to blame but the blame game is not a one way street. In part I believe that the riots were necessary to force the government to take notice but they quickly got out of hand with many not even knowing the purpose behind the riots (in mind comes the example of the two girls opinion about how cool the riots were on bbc). When it comes to Cypriots it’s difficult to convince them that there is no choice in education or work. Don’t forget that Cypriots have managed to stand on their two feet after an invasion which saw many lose their properties and yet not as many live on benefits or want to live on benefits as here in the UK. It seems to me that the generation after generation living on benefits has made people lose their pride and individuality and their will to excel. On the one hand it is society’s fault that started this game yet on the other the dynamics of this game are largely governed by its players-the citizens involved. Don’t forget that other kinds of riots never had as a priority to loot and steal; loot and steal not only from gigantic corporations but their own neighbour. I hope my long winded post has not gotten off topic a lot 🙂

  3. I am also shocked at how someone can simply dismiss the riots as coming from “people who live on benefits and who are driven by consumerism” but I disagree on the conclusion that it is driven “rather [..] by a genuine anger against the conservative policies”. As the statistics show almost 70% of those arrested, and therefore of those taking part in these riots, are under 24 years old (33% are 15-20). I don’t believe that they are angered at the increase in university fees which will take place next year…. These are people that have been marginalised for years. They might receive benefits from the state but they are not given a chance to break out of the endless loop of poverty. The only way to do this is to make sure that these people at least complete high school and are given opportunities to get some sort of vocational training or other specific training courses. If you are on benefits from father to son, you obviously grow up with an attitude of “hating the world”. Marginalization is due to not only by poverty, but also race.

    I think that you are over-emphasizing the recent policies in trying to find a reason for the riots, which I believe are the result of years of pent up anger at a society that overlooks and takes the easy way out (providing “benefits”) a portion of its population.

  4. Hey guys,

    You are right that my post seems to overemphasise the relationship between the riots and the cuts and does not give the emphasis needed to the institutionalization of exclusion that goes on for decades.

    The system of benefits is problematic. It is the government’s way of sweeping the dust under the rag. The dust is obviously the people (mostly non-white, all poor) and the rag is the ghettos that have been created and financed through benefits. It is very convenient for the state to throw money at these people and restrict them (marginalize them) into certain geographical locations outside of the city-centres where they cannot be seen. If people are geographically separated, the costs of one’s lifestyle on another’s life are not apparent, and the inequalities are hidden and restricted within the boundaries of these segregated areas.

    What matters is how we approach this fact. This is what made an impression on me when I talked with other Cypriots about it. Instead of focusing on the inequalities, they focus on the benefits. The benefits are not the problem; rather they are the most convenient “solution” to the problem. If we take away the benefits, many people will die.

    Also, another aspect to which I did not give enough attention, is the fact that (obviously) there are people who are not driven by anger against anything political and who only took part in the riots driven by opportunistic motives. I did not mention something like that because I consider it a given. These people are always there to take advantage of such situations. But, it is important, again, to separate the issue of agency and the issue of adaptive preferences and action. I do not discount the fact that an asshole teenager attacks a local shop (not a multinational etc), but I can see what series of historical exclusions drove him/her to that position. In other words (and trying to avoid misunderstandings) the fact that there are very specific reasons behind the opportunism that we’ve seen on the streets, does not act as an excuse in favour of these actions. The agency of the individual should not be ignored for the sake of arguments against oppression and exclusion. Instead, they should be taken into account together.

  5. amen brother. We are eliminating the symptoms because we do not understand the causes. They will not tell us the causes because they work in their favor. But eliminating the symptoms is sometimes so inhuman.