Massive Riots: Britain Today, America Tomorrow?

Joblessness, rising inequality, and a frustrated underclass are all being blamed for the violence that's sweeping the U.K.

Bonner Aug 8p.jpg

Reuters


LONDON -- As residents brace for another night of rampaging youths burning and looting, government leaders have come home from their annual August vacations and Prime Minister David Cameron has announced an almost tripling of the number of police on the streets tonight. The police have said they won't use water cannons, but they may use plastic bullets. A special session of Parliament has been called for Thursday (it's not clear what politicians can accomplish in a day). Finally, pundits and commentators are in full gear in search of the causes of what's said to be the worst urban unrest in at least 25 years.

Before going on, note that London has not become a war zone, as some reports might suggest. A late afternoon run in Hyde Park witnessed couples paddling the blue paddle boats on the Serpentine and parents pushing their infants in strollers. That tranquility was marred, however, by sights of most shops closing early on the edges of the park and in trendy Notting Hill, and many restaurants and fancy clothes stories being boarded up. Police patrols were ubiquitous.

The riots were sparked when the police killed a 29-year old black man, Mark Duggan, last Saturday night, in Tottenham. Duggan was carrying a handgun, but, contrary to early reports, he did not fire it at police.

Writing in today's Guardian newspaper, Stafford Scott said that he had been with the family when they went to Tottenham police station Saturday evening, patiently waiting hours for answers, which they didn't get. "We were outraged they were being treated with such disregard," Scott wrote.

"If the riots at the weekend and the disturbances around London today have come as a surprise to the police and that wider society, the warning signs have long been there for those of us who engage with black youths," Scott wrote.

Essentially, it boils down to the belief among the young, and poor that "they have no stake in the neighbourhood, and consequently no state in wider society."

A column in The Telegraph, a conservative newspaper, echoed this theme, but went further. The headline reads: "London riots: the underclass lashes out. London's underclass lashes out. London's rioters are the products of a crumbling nation, and an indifferent political class that has turned its back on them."

Yes, unemployment and the government's cuts in social programs were partially to blame, wrote Mary Riddell. Her observations are worth repeating at length.

The real causes are more insidious. It is no coincidence that the worst violence London has seen in many decades takes place against the backdrop of a global economy poised for freefall. The causes of recession set out by J K Galbraith in his book, The Great Crash 1929, were as follows: bad income distribution, a business sector engaged in "corporate larceny", a weak banking structure and an import/export imbalance.

All those factors are again in play. In the bubble of the 1920s, the top 5 per cent of earners creamed off one-third of personal income. Today, Britain is less equal, in wages, wealth and life chances, than at any time since then. Last year alone, the combined fortunes of the 1,000 richest people in Britain rose by 30 per cent to £333.5 billion.

Europe's leaders, our own Prime Minister and Chancellor included, were parked on sun-loungers as London burned. Although the epicentre of the immediate economic crisis is the eurozone, successive British governments have colluded in incubating the poverty, the inequality and the inhumanity now exacerbated by financial turmoil.
   
...Watch the juvenile wrecking crews on the city streets and weep for all our futures. The "lost generation" is mustering for war.
...
London's riots are not the Tupperware troubles of Greece or Spain, where the middle classes lash out against their day of reckoning. They are the proof that a section of young Britain - the stabbers, shooters, looters, chancers and their frightened acolytes - has fallen off the cliff-edge of a crumbling nation.

The failure of the markets goes hand in hand with human blight. Meanwhile, the view is gaining ground that social democracy, with its safety nets, its costly education and health care for all, is unsustainable in the bleak times ahead. The reality is that it is the only solution. After the Great Crash, Britain recalibrated, for a time. Income differentials fell, the welfare state was born and skills and growth increased.

That exact model is not replicable, but nor, as Adam Smith recognised, can a well-ordered society ever develop when a sizeable number of its members are miserable and, as a consequence, dangerous. This is not a gospel of determinism, for poverty does not ordain lawlessness. Nor, however, is it sufficient to heap contempt on the rioters as if they are a pariah caste.

One of the most tragic aspects of London's meltdowns is that we need this ruined generation if Britain is ever to feel prosperous and safe again. If there are no jobs for today's malcontents and no means to exploit their skills, then the UK is in graver trouble than it thinks....

Financial crashes and human catastrophes are cyclical. Each reoccurrence threatens to be graver than the last. As Galbraith wrote, "memory is far better than the law" in protecting against financial illusion and insanity. In an age of austerity, there are diverse luxuries that Britain can no longer afford. Amnesia stands high on that long list.

Could she be describing America today, with the widening gap between rich and poor, no jobs, and a frustrated underclass?

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Raymond Bonner is an investigative reporter living in London. He was previously a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and a staff writer at The New Yorker, and is the author of Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong.

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