Welfare-State Mobs

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It's a Theodore Dalrymple moment, I'm afraid. I've been watching the news from London and the UK with dismay -- but not, altogether, with surprise. The cultural conditions for this orgy of criminality have long been apparent on the streets of many British town centres every Friday and Saturday night: areas simply given over to menacing gangs of feral teenagers roaming around as if they own the place, which they do.

My parents told me some years ago that they no longer dared to venture into their local town centre (Bolton) after dark. I was glad to hear it. For a while I had a flat near Piccadilly Circus in central London. The wall of a building nearby -- two steps from the square, mind you, not in a back street -- had been designated a late night urinal. To get to my front door late at night, I used to walk past a line of men pissing. Now and then a policeman would amble by this sight unperturbed -- though to be fair I never saw an officer avail himself of the facility. Less common was the sight of a young woman squatting to relieve herself -- something you would rarely see before midnight, at least on a main thoroughfare such as Haymarket, and probably no more than once a week. ("Couldn't you at least use the gutter?" I used to think.)

Much of the UK commentary about the "protests" and "the cuts" therefore depresses me  as much as the looting and burning. The best piece I've read on it so far was in The Australian (thanks RCP).

These are youngsters who are uniquely alienated from the communities in which they grew up. Nurtured in large part by the welfare state, financially, physically and educationally, socialised more by the agents of welfarism than by their own neighbours or local representatives, these youth have little moral or emotional attachment to their communities. Their rioting reveals not that Britain is in a time warp in 1981 or 1985 with politically motivated riots against the police, but that the tentacle-like spread of the welfare state into every area of people's lives has utterly zapped old social bonds, the relationship of sharing and solidarity that once existed in working-class communities. These riots suggest that the welfare state is giving rise to a generation happy to shit on its own doorstep.

This is not a political rebellion; it is a mollycoddled mob, a riotous expression of carelessness for one's own community. And as a left-winger I refuse to celebrate nihilistic behaviour that has a profoundly adverse affect on working people's lives. Far from being an instance of working-class action, this welfare-state mob has more in common with what Marx described as the lumpenproletariat. Indeed, it is worth remembering Marx's colourful description in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon of how that French ruler cynically built his power base among parts of the bourgeoisie and sections of the lumpenproletariat, so that "ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie rubbed shoulders with vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, brothel-keepers, organ-grinders, ragpickers, knife-grinders, tinkers, beggars and from this kindred element Boneparte formed the core of his [constituency], where all its members felt the need to benefit themselves at the expense of the labouring nation". In very different circumstances, we have something similar today where the decadent commentariat's siding with lumpen rioters represents a weird coming together of sections of the bourgeoisie with sections of the underworked and the over-flattered, as the rest of us, "the labouring nation", look on with disdain.

I'd say "disdain" is too mild: disgust and despair might be nearer the mark. Otherwise, this is right.

Update:

Dalrymple's view is online at City Journal. Read this essay of his from 2008.

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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