Many of this week’s riots have been organised by Blackberry’s Blackberry Messaging Service (BBM). This allows for anonymised, tough to trace messages to be sent for free. It seems this service has been used to coordinate and direct the mayhem that has seen London’s worst violence in decades. A lot of people seem to think that this means that arguments that the rioters are driven in part by poverty to be silly.
“How can you be poor when you own a Blackberry?!” they cry.
I’m not sure why I’m saying “they”, I mean boring, conceited right-wingers, of course. The main point I want to make here is that manufactured goods are incredibly cheap but lots of other things you need to not be poor are not, but I’ll come to that later.
The auxiliary point I will address first is that Blackberrys are actually quite cheap as a phone. Not only because of the availability of long term contracts, £15.50 a month from Tesco, or from £10.50 from Carphone Warehouse but also because Blackberry Messenger is a great service. This service is quicker and easier than texting and is completely free to boot. Chris Bertram‘s niece is a convert, as am I.
It is not as good as texting because you need to coordinate with your friends to all have the same phone, but it is pretty good considering it is free to use. So that people without much money opt for a cheaper but slightly inferior service (BBM) should not be taken as evidence that they have loads of money (unless you are a boring, conceited right winger, of course).
The main point I want to address is that being able to afford impressive consumer goods does not mean you are not poor. The main thing that capitalism is really good at is improving the productivity of manufactured goods. Even very, very poor people can afford technology that was recently considered futuristic. Just look at the explosive expansion of mobile phone usage in Ghana and Kenya, for example, these people I would still not call “rich” in any useful sense of the word.
However, while productivity has increased across the board it has done so noticeably less for other things the poor purchase. This (US-centric) diagram from the Centre for American Progress illustrates this point nicely.
People can afford fantastically advanced consumer goods because productivity advances very quickly in this sector. Other sectors important to the poor do not see such fast growth. In Hackney some one bedroom flats sell for £300,000, now people may live nearby with flashy phones, but how many Blackberry contracts would it take to afford that flat? Well, at £10.50 a month it would take over 2000 years. That may not be poverty to starve you, but it is certainly poverty to disenchant you – and it is that sort of poverty which we need to talk about.
In addition to this, there appears to be a poverty of ambition in these riots. This is displayed most obviously in the way many rioters willingly show their face despite the chance they will be recognised. More subtly though these rioters appear to be looting the same consumer electronics which are so bloody easy to afford in the first place.
Perhaps I should add a caveat at the end here, something along the lines of “I am in no way condoning the rioting, I condemn it utterly, I am only trying to understand what is going on.” But that would only be necessary to boring, conceited right-wingers, of course.