A Jubilee spring followed by an Olympic summer: Brand Britain has had a pretty good airing this year. It’s been a feast for those corporate brands that have clustered around the big events, too; many of the sponsors are reporting excellent customer feedback, and despite the Champagne Charlie surface, real business has been done around the Olympic village. And, while it’s early days for an accurate analysis, the signs are that there is a short-term Olympic bounce in business and sales; whether there is a tangible legacy remains to be seen.

Contrast this national euphoria, and international acclaim, to last summer. The big news was bad news; riots, looting and destruction. There seemed little point in the chaos that spilled over onto high streets around the country, and research carried out some time after the events failed to come up with any coherent narrative to justify or explain what had happened. Could such a huge carnival of destruction really have been triggered by a relatively small demonstration outside a local police station?

In all likelihood, there is no single reason for the riots; local tensions, and local conditions, demographic, economic and political, are probably better indicators of what drove predominantly young people in some parts of the UK to get out on the streets, and into the shops (albeit not in the regulation fashion). But two themes do seem to have operated nationally, offering some breadth of pattern to the general confusion: first, the role of digital technology in both co-ordinating illegal activity, and in catching up with the perpetrators; and second, the shadow of the market, and brand culture, which took on a magnetic role for at least some of the rioters.

Word of mouth

The social media were seen by many commentators as having an influential role in the proceedings: I suspect this, largely inaccurate, view was prompted by the genuine role social networks have played in organised political protest movements around the world in recent years, mixed with the short-sighted euphoria that has greeted every new iteration of social media (which proves that this aspect of the digital revolution has yet to become transparent to its users).

The role of technology was, in the event, a much more nuts-and-bolts affair; it was about hardware rather than software. Mobile phone ownership and use is now close to universal in the UK; as a society, we have agreed, apparently, that this is a good thing. Young people are heavy users of the technology, and their use patterns are largely recreational. In these circumstances, it should have come as no surprise that mobile phones were instrumental in focusing and gathering rioters and looters; the bleating about social networks, and their perceived lack of social responsibility, was irrelevant.

Unfortunately for the rioters, the technology that allowed them to invite friends to the carnival also left them vulnerable to arrest in the aftermath. The police were able to trace participants rather easily; mobile phone records turned out to be as good as digital fingerprints on stolen goods. Big Brother worries aside, it seems that there was a rather poetic technological justice at play.

Fast-moving consumer goods

A lot of damage was done, and tragically, there were deaths and injuries as a result of the rioting; but the iconic activity was looting. When I asked one young neighbour of mine what he thought of the riots, his reply was ‘I got a telly!’ He is now watching a different telly, courtesy of HM Prison service (so I guess I wasn’t the only person he told) but something about his narrow personal analysis strikes a chord.

The invention of an autonomous culture for young people is more the work of the market than sociologists; this culture is mainly about consumption and attention, and how these two economies overlap. ‘Cool’ (how to be it, and how to recognise it) is the password to belonging; and ‘cool’ requires a certain level of acquisition, a certain level of access. We trade on the consequences of the anxiety inevitably associated with intense belonging, and those consequences are not always pleasant.

One image from the riots was widely commented on; a young woman, stepping through a broken shop window, and trying on different trainers before legging it with a suitable pair. The quivering outrage this provoked was as comic as it was wrong; in the circumstances it seems perfectly logical behaviour – arrived at by a peculiar route, perhaps, but logical all the same. If you are offered a free pair of the trainers you can’t afford, you obviously make sure they fit.

The David Starkey affair may also have something to tell us in this context. Starkey, a reasonably good conventional historian, was an odd choice for commentator on the riots; his inept attempt at cultural analysis (not to mention his clanking demonstration of normally tacit middle-class racism) let everyone off the hook. His fellow commentators turned on him with the desperate glee of those who knew that otherwise they had absolutely nothing useful to say.

Behind his ridiculous picture of cultural miscegenation there lies a germ of truth. Youth culture, whatever else it is, is relatively homogeneous in some respects; in habits of speech, for instance, and habits of consumption. Where these habits originate is irrelevant; they become important only when they become universal. Starkey’s ravings effectively obscured this point. Young people share an economy of aspiration generated by a market; this shared world, incoherent as it is, stands for a kind of politics in a cultural segment which largely sees itself as unaffected by mundane political realities.

Two summers, one year (and for most of us, several worlds) apart: crowds in one, mobs in the other; two media circuses, one celebratory, one gladiatorial. Perhaps it is wrong to attempt to link them in any way, but I can’t help the feeling that they represent two poles on a single continuum: two forms of extreme shopping. Brand Britain has shone brightly this year, brightly enough, maybe, to obscure the darker residue of last year’s excesses. We should probably be grateful for that.