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.
A great deal has been made over the past few days of the greed of the rioters for consumer goods, not least by Rotherham MP Denis MacShane who accurately remarked, “What the looters wanted was for a few minutes to enter the world of Sloane Street consumption.” This from a man who notoriously claimed £5,900 for eight laptops. Of course, as an MP he obtained these laptops legally through his expenses.
Yesterday, the veteran Labour MP Gerald Kaufman asked the Prime Minister to consider how these rioters can be “reclaimed” by society. Yes, this is indeed the same Gerald Kaufman who submitted a claim for three months’ expenses totalling £14,301.60, which included £8,865 for a Bang & Olufsen television.
Or take the Salford MP Hazel Blears, who has been loudly calling for draconian action against the looters. I find it very hard to make any kind of ethical distinction between Blears’s expense cheating and tax avoidance, and the straight robbery carried out by the looters.
The Prime Minister showed no sign that he understood that something stank about yesterday’s Commons debate. He spoke of morality, but only as something which applies to the very poor: “We will restore a stronger sense of morality and responsibility – in every town, in every street and in every estate.” He appeared not to grasp that this should apply to the rich and powerful as well.
Politicians don’t represent the interests of people who don’t vote. They barely care about the people who do vote. They look after the corporations who get them elected. Cameron only spoke out against News International when it became evident to us, US, the people, not to him (like Rose West, “He must’ve known”) that the newspapers Murdoch controlled were happy to desecrate the dead in the pursuit of another exploitative, distracting story.
Why am I surprised that these young people behave destructively, “mindlessly”, motivated only by self-interest? How should we describe the actions of the city bankers who brought our economy to its knees in 2010? Altruistic? Mindful? Kind? But then again, they do wear suits, so they deserve to be bailed out, perhaps that’s why not one of them has been imprisoned. And they got away with a lot more than a few fucking pairs of trainers.
These young people have no sense of community because they haven’t been given one. They have no stake in society because Cameron’s mentor Margaret Thatcher told us there’s no such thing.
If we don’t want our young people to tear apart our communities then don’t let people in power tear apart the values that hold our communities together.
The 1980s were marked by a more traditional struggle between the state and organized labor. The present moment, however, is defined by a more disorganized class politics of reaction, propelled by huge inequalities and a perceived injustice and indifference by the state to the fate of those involved. This time it is also not about race. The looting youngsters in London are a mixture of both immigrants and English natives, and they have quickly and deliberately made their way into the fancier neighborhoods of the city. An incident from the much-gentrified Notting Hill neighborhood in London is particularly telling. Hooded rioters armed with bats invaded the Ledbury, a two-star Michelin restaurant, demanding that diners hand over their wallets and wedding rings. As two female rioters told the BBC, “We’re just showing the rich people we can do what we want.”
So class politics are back in what many political scientists see as their most traditional home: the United Kingdom. Most of the country perceives Cameron’s policies as the poor paying for the mistakes of the rich. Thatcher’s neoliberal medicine was equally unpopular in 1981, but she was under no illusions as to what was required to enforce austerity and remains famous to this day for having argued in a 1987 interview that “there [was] no such thing as society.” Cameron’s assumptions have been challenged by these riots, and it is not at all clear that he has an alternative to offer. The rest of the world should take notice: After all, the perverse experiment of high inequality, low growth, and now fiscal austerity is hardly a uniquely British phenomenon.