Were the London riots just wanton criminal acts or were there much deeper causes? Two eminent writers comment on the economic faultlines in Britain today...

A context of inequality

Three years of recession and austerity measures that impacted the poor a lot more than the rich — this is the context for the riots, not ‘feral’ youth and a culture of selfishness.


“Criminality pure and simple” was Prime Minister David Cameron’s initial verdict on the rioting. From the Right came the mantra, “Down with sociology! Up with water cannon!” Don’t think but do act — harshly, punitively, peremptorily.

In the wake of the riots, a powerful vested interest has been at work — a vested interest in people not making links, not searching for causes, not weighing contexts. Above all, an interest in derailing the growing resistance to the government’s austerity programme.

In the vast realm of human phenomena there are few things as impure or as complex as a riot, with its ever-shifting array of motives and circumstances. It is a social phenomenon and requires a social analysis and response. It’s the denial of that duty that’s reckless and irresponsible, not the alleged “socio-economic excuses” reviled by conservatives.

The opening scene was in Tottenham, an impoverished, multi-ethnic community in north London, where a local young man had been shot dead by police in circumstances that remain unexplained. A peaceful vigil was held outside the local police station but the mood turned angry when no one from the police would come out to talk to the bereaved family. What ensued was a running battle between the local youth — as multi-ethnic as the local population — and police. The arson and looting came in the wake of that.

The next major flashpoint came 48 hours later in Hackney, just south of Tottenham and sharing all its problems. Here, groups of young people faced off against the police for several hours, during which time they took control of and barricaded a nearby public housing complex, to a decidedly mixed response from residents. Here again looting was secondary to the confrontation with police.

Spreading unrest

In the hours and days that followed, various forms of disorder spread to other locales in London and eventually to other English cities, notably Liverpool and Birmingham. In Ealing in west London, restaurants and cafes were attacked. In Enfield, to the north of Tottenham, a Sony warehouse was ransacked and incinerated. In Clapham, south of the Thames, a Debenhams department store was looted. Most tragically, in Birmingham, three young men from the Muslim community were killed as they protected their family shops. In the London suburb of Eltham, a vigilante mob assembled to hunt for “rioters” — backed by the Muslim-hating English Defence League.

What happened was a concatenation of actions and reactions, with the riotous behaviour taking several forms: confrontation with police, destruction of property (large chain stores but also small shops), sporadic assaults on individuals, looting (theft), sometimes as a secondary overspill and sometimes as primary purpose, plus a lawless reaction to all of the above.

All Londoners have been distressed by the riots, but only a small minority have been directly affected. At no time did London resemble a “war zone”. The main business of the city went on as usual. There are small scarred patches but no large burnt out areas. The exaggeration serves a purpose, however, selling papers, stoking mutual fear and licensing the authoritarian responses that go with fear.

Though no one foresaw the course the riots would take, it wasn’t hard to predict some kind of social outburst, and indeed such predictions were made by many, not least the police themselves. To anyone walking around certain areas of London with their eyes open, it was clear that patience was ebbing, anger brewing, grievances converging. And behind that lies the realm of context and causation that we are being warned not to explore.

The killing in Tottenham elicited a response because it was the latest in a series of events which have left the Metropolitan Police (London’s police force) deeply compromised. There have been fatal and near-fatal shootings of innocent young men, the death of a middle-aged newspaper vendor as a result of heavy handed policing at the G20 protest in 2009, and the death earlier this year of reggae musician Smiley Culture during a police raid on his home (a peaceful protest of thousands was ignored). When student demonstrations against the tripling of tuition fees surged through central London this past winter, they were subjected to stringent police tactics, with many thousands “kettled” — forcibly confined for hours to small areas without facilities of any kind. Tens of thousands of London youth have found themselves subject to demeaning and discriminatory ‘stop and search’ operations. Finally came the exposure of police complicity in the Rupert Murdoch-sponsored phone-hacking scandal, culminating in the resignations of the Met’s two top cops only weeks before the riot.

Obvious connection

When historians look back, I suspect they will be most immediately struck by the conjuncture of the rioting with the global stock market turmoil sparked off by the Eurozone crisis and the downgrading of the US’s credit rating. They’ll scratch their heads and wonder just how it was we missed this connection.

Britain as a whole is a wealthy country but the distribution of that wealth has grown increasingly and palpably unequal. In London in particular, there’s a concentration of glamour and grimness, luxury goods and lifestyles next to poverty and exclusion. Fifteen years of GDP growth passed many of those in the riot-affected areas by, and three years of recession have hit them hard.

Average male life expectancy in Tottenham is 18 years less than in wealthy Kensington and Chelsea (and youngsters there five times more likely to be injured in road accidents). Youth unemployment, running at 20 per cent nationally, runs at double that figure in places like Tottenham and Hackney.

Recession is now being compounded by austerity, with the coalition government cutting public support for housing, education, healthcare, pension contributions, the disabled and the unemployed, while privatising state functions and further easing the tax burden on the rich. Young people face an exceptionally bleak future: it will be much harder for them than for their parents to get an education, a decent job, a secure home, or, in the remote future, a dignified retirement. The life chances of millions are being diminished. One hundred and fifty people have been made homeless as a result of the recent riots, but tens of thousands will be made homeless by the government’s cuts to housing benefit.

There is widespread resentment about the way the burden of austerity has fallen much more heavily on some than on others. Tax evasion and avoidance by the rich will this year cost the public more than one hundred times what’s being spent repairing riot damage. And the anti-social behaviour of the banks and financial institutions has been as brazen as anything seen in the riots. Their reckless avarice triggered a meltdown that destroyed London’s property values to a far greater extent than the riots, but they go on rewarding themselves record-breaking bonuses — sharing among the few a pot of money worth twice the combined spending of all London local authorities.

As so often these days, whenever there is resistance to acknowledging a context of inequality, “culture” is dragged in as the preferred culprit. Or rather in this case a putative youth sub-culture of selfishness and indiscipline, usually held to be the upshot of an over-permissive society (or over generous welfare state). This seems to be Cameron’s current line and he will use it to push long-standing Right-wing ambitions, not least the curtailing of European Union human rights requirements.

There is, of course, a cultural context, and it is provided principally by the dominant culture of the day, a competitive consumerism in which self-aggrandisement is celebrated, brand names fetishised (see the clips of looters in footwear shops), and leisure thoroughly commercialised. Looting is shopping without money, a brief dose of retail therapy. In naked acquisitiveness and contempt for the law, the rioters were merely emulating their betters. One elite scandal has followed another — from MPs’ expenses through bankers’ bonuses to the Murdoch hacking imbroglio. There must be a cumulative impact, an erosion of authority, and it would be naïve to deny it.

Brief moment of power

Beyond culture, and informing it, there is the phenomenon of powerlessness, which is both a subjective and objective reality, and poverty’s constant companion. Watching the rioters, it was easy to see how pumped up and liberated some were by this brief taste of power, of possession. But in the end the only antidote to powerlessness is power, economic and political. The current route to that is through resistance to austerity, in Britain and across Europe. For that resistance, the challenge now, in the wake of the riots, is to expand in scope and diversity.

For the moment, we’re being treated to a familiar demonology — “feral” youths, an amoral underclass of the irresponsible and rude — a phantom menace that is dangerously elastic, easily shaped by racial, generational and class prejudices. Politicians and media want rioters stripped of benefits and evicted from public housing. The Sunday Express wants to see them conscripted into the armed forces (and handed guns). Cameron wants to import a super-cop from the U.S. to run the Met. He’s even targeted “the obsession with health and safety” as a riot factor which must be addressed, of course, with deregulation. More ominously, the riots are being used as an excuse to criminalise protest and clamp down on Internet freedom.

But the demonology has already been undermined by the diverse social profile of those appearing before the courts. Thousands will pass through this mill in the months to come. Politicians and the media are pressing for harsh penalties, and the six-months’ sentence handed to a first offender for looting four bottles of water bodes ill for the future. Britain’s prisons are already over-crowded, costly and dangerous, with more than 300 deaths in custody in the last decade, including scores of children and young people.

The court appearances and jail terms will inevitably involve injustices, disruption of family life and depletion of family resources. And given what we know of the fates of ex-prisoners we have no excuse for not expecting that many of those imprisoned will re-offend or suffer joblessness, poverty, homelessness, mental illness. The scale of the human damage to be done in the coming months, most of which will go unreported, is disheartening in the extreme. Unlike the riots, this damage will be done not spontaneously but deliberately, which makes it all the more chilling.

Discussion on the ground in London is more nuanced than the official version, with its prerequisite of mindless condemnation of “mindless violence”. There is confusion and disagreement and emotion, inevitably and rightly. But the government’s one-dimensional response has little credibility. The battle over the meaning(s) of the riots has only just begun.


Provinces of paranoia

There is a tendency to explain the London violence in terms of ‘colour' and ‘culture'. The real reasons lie elsewhere, says TABISH KHAIR.

“You safe?” I texted a (white) London friend when images of London burning flashed on TV. “No fear,” she texted back, “Our locality is protected by Turks.”

What's happening in London, the media kept asking in Denmark, where I am based. Scholars who pointed to growing social inequalities and the fact that working class people (many of them, inevitably, from recent immigrant backgrounds) feel discriminated were often prodded to give explanations in terms of colour and culture. Interestingly, two days earlier, I had read in a leading Danish newspaper that every 10th Dane was arming himself against home robberies. Denmark was not burning; so, what was wrong here? Had there been a spate of burglaries in Denmark?

Actually, only 359 home robberies were recorded in Denmark in 2009, and the current figure is estimated to be around the same. This means that less than 0.015 percent of Danish homes were robbed in 2009.

But don't laugh: Denmark is suffering from a heightened state of paranoia. So are countries like Norway, Holland and Germany. The shooting-bombing spree of the Christian fundamentalist, far-Right nationalist Anders Behring Breivik in Norway on July 22 was an extreme expression of that paranoia. The fact that ordinary Danes imagine themselves threatened in their own homes and are willing to arm against a 0.01 per cent possibility of robbery is another expression.

Discourse of fear

Europe is filling with states of paranoia today. Only some of the paranoia can be attributed to the actual possibility of threats — such as those from Islamist terrorism. Most of it is the creation of a certain kind of political and media discourse. I will not waste space by highlighting the increasingly xenophobic tone of politicians from the far Right — and sometimes even from the traditional Left — in these countries. The suspicion of strangers, growing intolerance of immigrants, an easy slippage from a gimmicky version of multiculturalism to a gimmicky dismissal of it, an increasing tendency to hector minorities instead of entering into a mutually respectful dialogue with them: these tendencies have been betrayed by a number of politicians, including some mainstream ones, from England to Norway.

Converging frustrations

Combine these tendencies with the current economic downslide, which is largely the result of the increasing complicity of politicians with free-floating business interests, and the fact, obvious to any thinking person today, that corporations and banks can lose millions of other people's money and be bailed out by governments, but the same generosity is seldom extended to ordinary citizens and never to really poor ones. And you have an understanding of the London violence.

Intellectuals, except in some pockets here and there, have failed to stand up to such easy and at times slanted political discourse, though there are differences here. Intellectuals in places like France and, at times, England have been more critical of such trends than in places like Denmark, where even a couple of ministers have indulged in verbal bullying to cower down dissenting intellectuals. Media reportage has often been deeply unprofessional: for instance, the initial ease with which Danish papers blamed the Norway attacks on Islamists, with no real evidence to show for it and with little consideration of the consequences of such public airing of prejudices as ‘expertise'. Or the current tendency to see the London troubles largely in terms of ‘ colour' or ‘culture'.

What is even less visible is another sort of mis-reportage that adds, subtly, to ‘racial' paranoia. A couple of years ago, for instance, there was this report of the gradual ‘disappearance' of the gene for blondeness. While many media reports of matters like ‘genetic research' are slanted towards simplistic phrenology-type assumptions, this one was even worse. It was simply wrong: neither the scientific survey nor the scientific body behind this purported study of the disappearance of blonde genes existed! But while British newspapers investigated the report after publishing it and carried rebuttals (less visible, but still!), I do not recall seeing any such correction in the Danish media.

There are many such reports: scientific facts twisted in such a way as to create a state of siege in the minds of many Europeans. I do not think all of them are deliberate. Most of them simply reflect the unexamined prejudices of their writers — more so in cultures, like Holland or Denmark, where people see themselves as basically ‘open' and hence unprejudiced by definition. Such reports are substantiated by a spate of action films — where ‘humans' are invaded by Apes, insects, UFOS etc, and the only real option is complete destruction of the one or the other side.

Breivik's ‘reality' shared elements of this fantasy.

This is not a totally new development. As the great Swedish historian, Sven Lindqvist has documented in Exterminate All the Brutes, ‘invasion scare' stories were particularly popular in the first half of the 20th century — the decades that saw the rise of fascism. Now, I suspect, they are back in more refined forms.

All this adds to the state of siege in European minds. It creates new provinces of paranoia.

Why the desire to arm yourself when only 0.01 percent of your homes get burgled? Why the need to demonise immigrants when the vast majority are law-abiding citizens? Why the craving to see Europe as a ‘pure' space when studies — such as Jonathan Lyon's The House of Wisdom — indicate how much Europe has shared with other cultures (including Arab ones) all through history? Why the choice of colour over class as explanation in societies where social inequalities are increasing?

The history of European xenophobia is not sufficient as explanation. What is happening has more to do with the present than the past. Rich nations in Europe are increasingly behaving like rich people in places like India, South Africa and the Caribbean do, and for largely the same reasons. They are erecting electrified fences.

The reason is the same: some are too rich and some too poor. Some can't afford proper clothes while ‘stars' are paid millions just to wear brands to parties; the criminal rich loot entire nations with impunity while the criminal poor are charged for looting shops.

European welfare states — which managed, partly by their own endeavours and partly by the favours of colonial history and Capitalist dominance in the world, to raise their own poor out of desperate poverty — are particularly paranoid today. These admirable welfare states are not sufficient. Their welfare privileges finally depend on their dominance in a world of Capitalism — their AAA and AA+ ratings — which can only be maintained if their Capital can flow around and freely exploit the wealth and the labour of the entire globe. But along with this there arises a twin-problem: that of labour following capital to better wages, and capital following cheap labour to higher profits. Both are inevitable. Both will also inevitably affect European welfare privileges.

Ignored contradiction

The European middle classes want the benefits of Capitalism but they do not want to pay the price. With Capitalist logic finally pricking their consumerist booms, they do not even want to face this contradiction. They give it the face of the ‘Other': hence, the choice of colour or religion, rather than class, as ‘explanation'. Xenophobia is the new religion of such sections of the European middle classes, regardless of whether they vote Left or Right. In this, they are aided by the non-European Right, such as Islamists.

Otherwise, they will have to work towards the only other option: to create internationally what some European statesmen and leaders — workers and employers, liberals and Leftists — managed to do nationally in the mid-20th century. A more equitable society. But this time it will have to be a democratically equitable (not just ‘charitable') international community — and where is the European politician who has the courage to say so nationally, and lose votes?