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London’s burning

[ 122 ] August 9, 2011 |

Nina Power in the Guardian on the larger context of the London riots:

Those condemning the events of the past couple of nights in north London and elsewhere would do well to take a step back and consider the bigger picture: a country in which the richest 10% are now 100 times better off than the poorest, where consumerism predicated on personal debt has been pushed for years as the solution to a faltering economy, and where, according to the OECD, social mobility is worse than any other developed country.

As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett point out in The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, phenomena usually described as “social problems” (crime, ill-health, imprisonment rates, mental illness) are far more common in unequal societies than ones with better economic distribution and less gap between the richest and the poorest. Decades of individualism, competition and state-encouraged selfishness – combined with a systematic crushing of unions and the ever-increasing criminalisation of dissent – have made Britain one of the most unequal countries in the developed world.

Urban riots are usually complex events, in which people participate for many reasons, ranging from simple boredom and criminal opportunism on one end, to conscious political protest on the other. To the extent the latter is a factor in a riot, the riot becomes a genuine threat to the political order. As William Paley observed more than 200 years ago (How Subjection To Civil Government Is Maintained (1785):

Could we view our own species from a distance, or regard mankind with the same sort of observation with which we read the natural history, or remark the manners, of any other animal, there is nothing in the human character which would more surprise us, than the almost universal subjugation of strength to weakness; than to see many millions of robust men, in the complete use and exercise of their personal faculties, and without any defect of courage, waiting upon the will of a child, a woman, a driveller, or a lunatic. And although, when we suppose a vast empire in absolute subjection to one person, and that one depressed beneath the level of his species by infirmities, or vice, we suppose perhaps an extreme case: yet in all cases, even in the most popular forms of civil government, the physical strength resides in the governed. In what manner opinion thus prevails over strength, or how power, which naturally belongs to superior force, is maintained in opposition to it; in other words, by what motives the many are induced to submit to the few, becomes an inquiry which lies at the root of almost every political speculation. It removes, indeed, but does not resolve, the difficulty, to say that civil governments are now-a-days almost universally upholden by standing armies; for, the question still returns; How are these armies themselves kept in subjection, or made to obey the commands, and carry on the designs, of the prince or state which employs them?

Indeed.

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  • Tybalt

    If the rioters were attacking the property of the richest 10% I don’t think I’d have a problem. They are attacking their neighbours and burning and looting their homes and businesses.

    That’s why riots aren’t in fact a genuine threat to the political order. That’s why riots in the modern West are dealt with in the manner they are: the use of force to hem rioters in, rather than any attempt to use force to stop them from occurring.

    I can’t think of a single instance in post-1930s America, for example, where riots precipitated any kind of meaningful political change, anywhere. But then I’m not a historian – are there examples?

    • Paul Campos

      Watts, Newark and Detroit got Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan elected.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        You were posting as I was typing…

      • mark f

        It’s funny ‘cuz it’s miserabally, horribly frustrating and sad true.

      • DrDick

        I have to admit that there are days when I think that wee need more of this here, but I suspect you are correct about the likely consequences. That said, I do not think that the 60s riots make really good parallel to today’s events as you cannot separate out the racial aspect from the consequences of those riots.

        • Malaclypse

          Can you separate the racial aspect from London’s today?

          Please note, that is a real, not a rhetorical, question.

          • Morbo

            I think people who want that to be part of their agenda will make it one. To my eyes it looks like the rioters are a pretty racially diverse group though.

            • DrDick

              That is my understanding as well, but I am not really on top of that.

              • Malaclypse

                Thanks to you both.

      • Dave

        Funny, I would have said white people got Nixon and Reagan elected.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      The Kerner Commission Report certainly promised such change. And if Humphrey–or another Democrat–had won in 1968, we might have seen it.

      Less counterfactually, Nixon won–and Wallace did relatively well outside of the South–in large measure because of the politics of “law and order,” in which urban unrest played a crucial role, at least rhetorically. The extraordinary rate of incarceration in the US is, in many ways, a legacy of those politics.

      • DrDick

        In large part owing to race baiting.

    • soullite

      The problem with this argument is that riots tend to start when it’s clear that there is simply no political progress to be made. They aren’t an attempt to achieve change. They are acts of desperate frustration that occur when people realize that change is impossible.

      Nobody who has studied psychology, particularly the effects of and reactions to frustration, can be surprised by this. They tried repetition, they tried variance, so now they default to violence.

    • JohnT

      This was particularly true on the first, allegedly most ‘political’ night, when most of the violence involved looting and burning down low-end shops (used by the powerless and not the powerful) and buses (used by the powerless and not the powerful). It now really does seem to be down to straight opportunistic mass theft, solely for material gain. If they wanted to make any relevant point about inequality they’d be in Mayfair, Chelsea, Kensington and the City, rather than looting and burning Peckham, one of the poorest place in the UK.

    • Esteban

      Yes, I guess the rich aren’t kind enough to drive the poor to the upscale neighborhoods and compounds to burn them down. If only.

  • Tony

    All these riots have taught me is that people on both sides of the political spectrum are curiously certain that they validate the political prejudices they were touting before anything kicked. People who are expressing concrete certainties about root causes at this point are largely either full of BS or writing with a view to the political main chance.

    We also keep hearing in the same breath that these rioters are completely unrepresentative of the public at large and that they carry with them profound messages about how we need to re-order society. Can’t have it both ways.

    • mark f

      All I know is that Soullite must be masturbating like Glenn Reynolds watching Shock & Awe.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      All these riots have taught me is that people on both sides of the political spectrum are curiously certain that they validate the political prejudices they were touting before anything kicked.

      This may prove to be a key difference between these early 21st-century social crises (including the Great Recession itself) and those of the 1930s and 1960s. In those earlier periods, a significantly higher percentage of those in power came to question their core political assumptions. Today…not so much.

    • witless chum

      All these riots have taught me is that people on both sides of the political spectrum are curiously certain that they validate the political prejudices they were touting before anything kicked.

      See also, all other events that have ever occurred?

      People who are expressing concrete certainties about root causes at this point are largely either full of BS or writing with a view to the political main chance.

      It’s not like were going to get a real empirical answer to these things? Why did Detroit burn in 1967? And why previously in 1943? There’s a host of reasons and using your ideological preferences to pick which ones you want to emphasize is probably as good of a way as any.

      • mark f

        It’s not like were going to get a real empirical answer to these things?

        Amazingly, via Crooked Timber:

        Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth have just published a CEPR Discussion Paper looking at the relationship between austerity and social unrest in Europe between 1919 and 2009.

  • xaaronx

    I already posted this in the CT thread, but I figured I’d put it up here too as a entertaining presentation of the situation from which these riots precipitated: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cC7OBpTsk2E

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  • Dave

    I stand even with the opportunists.

  • Malaclypse
    • DrDick

      Saw that story earlier today. I would note that he also said that earlier over 1,000 folks from the area had marched on Scotland Yard, but there was no mention of it in the press.

      • Tony

        If 1,000 people had marched on Scotland Yard it would have been in the news. British TV has been interviewing senior police outside Scotland Yard all day long. There’s been live camera feeds for much of the day.

        • Malaclypse

          Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.”

          • Tony

            Sorry, I thought you meant it had happened today.

    • Without blog-whoring, I wrote something along those lines.

  • Byron

    Before I climb onto the excuse wagon, I’d like to know how many of these folks availed themselves of opportunities for training in the trades to qualify for jobs as mason, electricians, roofers, etc. etc. Those skills are well-paid and always in demand. And once you have that training if there’s no work in your area, you can always go where the jobs are.

    • Tony

      Indeed. Worth noting that many of those who have been looted and burned out will have gone to the same schools as the rioters and worked bloody hard. These communities are indeed poor but very large amounts of government money have been pumped in over the course of the last decade. Many of these kids actually have opportunities that would have been unheard of for their parents and grandparents. They have wrecked local charities, not-for-profits and community facilities. To strip individual responsibility and agency out of this is to do a disservice to those who have worked hard to carve themselves a decent slot in life.

      • Byron

        “Individual agency” is a good thing, but it’s something that social welfare bureaucracies have little interest in cultivating, not wishing to put themselves out of a job.

        State support should be contingent on behavior that will make such support unnecessary, wherever possible (not referring to the genuinely disabled, for example). Checks should only keep coming as long as you are in some kind of training program that leads to employment. If job opportunities are not available locally, then some help relocating might be in order.

        But to issue checks for simply sitting and doing nothing will only result in lots of sitting and doing nothing, and becoming bitter and alienated, filled with feelings of personal worthlessness and anger. Trouble follows, as we see. None of this seems like rocket science, does it?

        • Kurzleg

          Byron – Have you ever been laid off?

          • Byron

            So you think these mobs are made up of laid-off tradesmen?

            I do love a puckish sense of humor.

            • Malaclypse

              Why don’t you tell us who makes up these mobs?

              • Byron

                You go first.

                • Malaclypse

                  See, I just don’t know. But you are claiming to know. So I’m asking you, nicely and politely, to enlighten us.

                • You already went first.

            • Kurzleg

              Not exactly. I’ve been laid off, and I can tell you that the meager check I got was 1) most appreciated, and 2) did not create a sense of bitterness and alienation. A layoff might not be the best comparison, but it’s similar.

              I don’t disagree that there’s something to be gained by finding things to do for people collecting unemployment checks. I just don’t think that doing so is the trick that would have prevented London’s rioting.

          • Asteele

            I’ve always liked the idea that unemployment only exists because of individualistic failures, not because of any larger macroeconomic factors.

            It’s poor people not applying themselves that’s causing the US to have 9% employment.

            • mark f

              If a bunch of motivated unemployed people just moved away that percentage would get closer to zero!

              • If we rounded them all up and stuck them someplace…let’s call them “boncentration bamps”, unemployment would be zero!

                • mark f

                  Worked for Stalin and he still had labor shortages!

                • He just didn’t find all the Troskyites.

        • “Individual agency” is a good thing, but it’s something that social welfare bureaucracies have little interest in cultivating, not wishing to put themselves out of a job.

          It couldn’t be more obvious that you’ve never spoken to anyone working in a social services agency in your life if you had the words tattooed on your forehead.

          You’re trafficking in ignorant stereotypes you picked up from someone else who’s never spoken to anyone working in a social services agency in his life, either.

    • Kurzleg

      …in the trades to qualify for jobs as mason, electricians, roofers, etc. etc. Those skills are well-paid and always in demand.

      Perhaps in an economy not in recession, but not in one like the current one where construction isn’t exactly moving at a frantic pace.

      • ajay

        Plenty of construction work to be done now in Croydon, Ealing etc.

        • Kurzleg

          Wow, the rioters ARE clever!

          • Byron

            I have no way to know, but I would make a large bet that the general profile and background of these rioters contains precious little in the way of marketable skills of any form or fashion. I’d have some respect for them if they’d riot for better training opportunities and job placement.

            All the complaining about being “trapped” in a bad situation rings false. Nobody has them in chains. If they are trapped, it’s by the dole. People with any amount of drive don’t sit by, they get up and get out. But I have the feeling most of these individuals don’t know where out of town is, couldn’t find it if they wanted to.

            • Kurzleg

              You just answered my question further up the string with this comment, Byron.

            • If they are trapped, it’s by the dole.

              Ah, yes: if they, and their neighbors, had no money at all, Help Wanted signs would magically start appearing all over the neighborhood. In the middle of 2011.

              People with any amount of drive don’t sit by, they get up and get out.

              You’ve never spoken to anyone who lived in a high-unemployment neighborhood in your life, but you know all about their life stories.

        • DrDick

          See mine below for a link, but the building trades he mentions are all among the 17 hardest hit by the recession.

      • mark f

        Why don’t they just eat cake move to where there are jobs!?!

        • Byron

          That is a very good question, and a very interesting one since through history that’s what people have always done.

          • mark f

            And there are no economic or political barriers to a person just relocating?

            • Byron

              So what if there are? People relocate constantly you may have noticed, in spite of obstacles of every kind.

              • DrDick

                All too true. So how do you feel about illegal Mexican immigrants in this country?

            • Holden Pattern

              Hey, the Irish did it to avoid starvation, and if those lazy Micks could get off their asses, surely these poor people can.

              I mean, all it took was the potato famine, and the starvation of a million people by the British as they shipped beef grazed on Irish farmland back to England. I mean, if the Irish had any gumption, they woulda been able to find trades work and buy back the land from the English plantation owners.

              All you need is enough desperation incentive, and you can get people to do almost anything — that’s why the dole is so very bad.

              • mark f

                And as I recall the Irish were welcomed with open arms wherever they turned up, sort of like Mexicans and Guatemalans now!

                • Holden Pattern

                  I regularly see trucks from Irish-named construction businesses chock-full of Latino workers.

                  Cracks me up every time — the wheel of immigration keeps on turning.

                • Byron

                  The implication of your comment is that the Irish should have stayed in Ireland and starved. They have done rather well in America, it turns out, and so have migrants from Latin America. It’s that hope that motivates them to come, in spite of the difficulties involved.

                  There seems to be an idea here that people are by nature weak and timid, that they require the easy path and constant help along the way. I think the evidence is pretty clear that people deserve a lot more credit than that.

                • Holden Pattern

                  … in which Byron proves that he’s even dumber than he appears at first.

                • DrDick

                  As were my fellow Okies, when they relocated to California in the 1930s.

          • Andy W

            You are Norman Tebbit and I claim my 5 pounds!

          • dave3544

            By “history” what exactly do you mean? Because until the modern industrial revolution, no, there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot of “moving” to look for work. I think you’ll find that feudal and slave societies had some pretty firm policies about moving to look for work.

            But then, we’re talking about your fantasy world where a little gumption and a lot of elbow grease is all that any poor person needs to achieve middle class comfortude, so maybe in that world there was always a lot of moving around to look for work.

            • Holden Pattern

              I think you’ll find that feudal and slave societies had some pretty firm policies about moving to look for work.

              So did the Jim Crow South.

            • mark f

              The other half of the equation, however, has had no trouble relocating to more profitable environs.

          • Where is this magical land full of jobs, Byron?

            Can you tell me?

            But these people you’ve never met – they know, and they just choose not to go there.

        • JohnT

          To the extent that there are jobs in the UK they are in London and the South East – i.e. where most of these rioters are. Those that are locked out of jobs are so because a complicated mix of factors – culture, public services, inequality – left them with no skills and terrible attitudes.

          • Byron

            There are never many opportunities for people “with no skills and terrible attitudes.”

            But I wouldn’t give up on people, even so. A change of scene can change the person. If what you say about the UK is true, then it’s time to get out of the UK and go where an individual can make something of himself. People migrate constantly for exactly that reason.

            • JohnT

              I’m not sure where a member of the UK (or more generally Western) underclass with no obvious skills could actually migrate to. Legally they could go to other EU countries, but only a few have better employment opportunities than Southeastern England and in most cases you’d have to learn the local language which is hard if you have no skills and bad atittude. Other Anglophone countries (US, NZ, OZ, Canada) would want to see evidence of employability before letting you in.

              I can sort of see what kind of things could be done to save the next generation on these estates, but have no idea what you do with/for these guys who are already 18 or older.

            • Walt

              Byron makes a good point. Other people’s problems are incredibly easy to solve. The further away they are, the easier the solutions are to see.

            • Paul Campos

              Unfortunately free transportation to Australia is no longer an option for the London poor.

              • Malaclypse

                ‘The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?’ said Scrooge Byron.

                ‘At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge Byron,’ said the gentleman, taking up a pen, ‘it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.’

                ‘Are there no prisons?”

                ‘Plenty of prisons,’ said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

                ‘And the Union workhouses.’ demanded Scrooge Byron. ‘Are they still in operation?’

                ‘Both very busy, sir.’

                ‘Oh. I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,’ said Scrooge Byron. ‘I’m very glad to hear it.’

                • Byron

                  Is this really what passes for dialog on this board?

                  Fine. I will leave you folks to whatever it is you think you are doing.

                  Have a wonderful day in your bubble. Sorry I intruded.

                • Holden Pattern

                  Don’t go away mad. Just go away.

                  I love the pretend-parachute trolls:

                  “I’ve never been here before, I wish to just engage in dialog by injecting some simplistic folk wisdom that just happens to jibe with wingnut ideology. What? I’m being ridiculed? This is not ‘dialog’! I am outraged. Liberals are close-minded. I’m ‘leaving’.”

                • mark f

                  I say good day to you, sir. Good day to you, indeed!

                • Malaclypse

                  I’ve never been here before… What? I’m being ridiculed?

                  The idea that I was not going to mock him really shows a lack of awareness of internet tradition.

              • Byron

                Assuming that’s not just snark, Paul, I.
                agree.

                I don’t see the upside to sitting in London, unskilled and unemployed, with little or no hope of a better life. If there is opportunity in Australia, then go for it.

                • wengler

                  Just let me get my swim trunks on.

                • ptl

                  If there is opportunity in Australia, then go for it.

                  Australia only takes people with needed skills. The unemployed and unskilled are not wanted there.

            • Uncle Kvetch

              If what you say about the UK is true, then…

              Thank you for acknowledging that you haven’t the foggiest fucking idea what you’re talking about. It’ll save us all a lot of time

              • Byron

                The village idiot is heard from.

                Surprised it took this long.

                • wengler

                  But you already left several comments upthread.

            • Hogan

              Just walk across the border!

            • Lit3Bolt

              Byron,

              I hate to tell you, but the Old West is gone. The days where a family could simply pack everything they own on the back of one mule are gone. The days where 90% of the population lived by subsistence farming are gone. The days where anyone could sit in his garage and invent anything and claim credit are gone, thanks to patent laws, and people can’t even cut each others’ hair or paint nails anymore without going to school and passing a regulatory test. Industrial jobs are gone thanks to automation and globalization, and are not coming back.

              And all you can utter are aristocratic “tut-tuts” that “those people” have no drive today. Let me guess: you got where you are today because you “earned” it. If people are not at you level, then they must suffer for their lot, because they didn’t “earn” what you “deserve.” That about sum it up?

              Enjoy your tautological, aristocratic world. It makes just as much sense as it did for the nobles of 18th century Europe.

              • Byron

                The ad hominems are starting to fly.

                I’m outta here.

                • Holden Pattern

                  Byron says:
                  August 9, 2011 at 11:30 am

                  The village idiot is heard from.

                  Surprised it took this long.

                • Malaclypse

                  Wow, the fake dramatic exit was fake? I’m shocked.

                • dangermouse

                  Two flounces so far. Will he go for the hat trick?!

    • Bollocks.

      I’m not that familiar with the UK trades system, but if its anything like the US system, then there’s layer upon layer of levels to pass thru, from apprentice to journeyman to craftsman, and I can guaran-damn-tee you if the choice comes down to craftsman v. journeyman, the craftsman going to be the one hired.

    • DrDick

      Google is my friend and your enemy, as you really want to check your facts before making statements like that. It seems that the occupations are among the 17 hardest hit by the the economic downturn.

      • Holden Pattern

        It doesn’t have to be true, it just has to have a high truthiness factor.

        Byron bellyfeels the goodthink.

      • Holden Pattern

        BTW, your link is blank — which suggests that there was a copy-and-paste fail.

        That doesn’t change the assessment of Byron’s so-called “thought” process.

        • DrDick

          Here it is. It is the first hit when you search “uk unemployment by occupation.” The least he could have done is make me work for it a little.

  • If only Americans weren’t so afraid of their government and the Tea-brown-stained shirts that protect it.

    • dave

      What, they could burn down family-owned shops, too?

      Is it appropriate to point out that, pace Nina Power and her bien-pensant chums, the most likely outcome of these events is not, funnily enough, anything that might be described as social progress, but rather an intensification of inter-ethnic hostility? And perhaps, if we’re all really lucky, a reversal of those particular public-spending cuts that were directed at the forces of order? The Watts-Nixon linkage nails it, as does pointing out that the UK’s infamous riots of the early 1980s led to over a decade of further Tory rule.

      What is happening is so massively counter-productive for anyone with any interest in social justice that I don’t understand why supposedly progressive bloggers aren’t all joining in one massive scream of frustration.

      • And perhaps, if we’re all really lucky, a reversal of those particular public-spending cuts that were directed at the forces of order?

        You make this sound like an unattractive alternative.

        Let me put this in terms a rioter would:

        THE FUCKING BANKS GOTS THEIRS! WHERE THE FOOK IS MINE, WANKERS?????

        Am I clearer now?

        Good!

        • dave

          No, you’re not clear, at all. I said the police would get extra funding; what did you think I said?

          • That the police would get extra funding, implying that spending cuts across the board would stand a chance of being restored.

            I don’t think most people mind more cops. They mind more billionaires with fewer cops.

  • Richard

    It seems that the results of the rioting in England will be more funding for police, no new policies to increase jobs, destruction of the businesses of small shopholders, many owned by immigrants, and increased support in the polls for the Conservatives. Does anybody think that something good will come of this?

    • Hogan

      I suspect that by the time people get to the rioting stage, they’re not expecting anything good ever to come of anything. They’re fucked, their neighborhood is fucked, and no one in power has any interest in unfucking them, so why not take some control over the process, if only by accelerating it?

      • Richard

        That may be the motivation (and I’m not saying that this motivation is good or bad) but it just seems that the result will be more misery for everyone involved.

    • Holden Pattern

      Good lord, no. Nobody thinks that anything good will come of this, EXCEPT the lawnorder conservatives who think the state’s primary use is keeping the boot on everyone’s necks, and the secondary use is ensuring that the rentiers’ income keeps flowing.

      Which is in part why people on the nominal left spend so much time saying: “don’t tear down the state, don’t sacrifice actual demand to the free market fairy, because it causes suffering and free-floating anger, which has unpredictable but always shitty results.”

      But now that the manure has, as predicted: intersected the plane the rotating air distribution device, it’s a bit rich to expect the nominal left to say “whoops, we were wrong, let’s just impose a police state.”

    • wengler

      The Tories will be discredited. They have shown a powerful disinterest in this since it began. They only came back once it was clear that the rioting would continue, and it would spread south and west toward their tony enclaves.

  • Anon

    £100 says the streets would be quiet for a week if you offered all the rioters an ounce of weed each.

    • Why didn’t you make that £1000000000, anonymous guy?

      • Anon

        ‘cos the TV I just offloaded only got me £100 and there’s no weed to buy with it anywheeerrreee !

    • Malaclypse

      I’m sure we can cover that bet. Why don’t you stroll down and start distributing? Let us know how it works out.

      • Anon

        If I had any, then I wouldn’t to rob to get the money i need to buy it with, obviously

        • Hogan

          Then get up off your lazy ass and move to Texas. I hear Rick Perry has a job waiting just for you.

          • DrDick

            Damned shiftless white trash. All they ever want to do is sit around drinking, smoking, and screwing their sisters.

    • You think the people in those riots have trouble finding hash?

  • dave

    Kenan Malik, as is often the case, talks mostly sense here:

    http://kenanmalik.wordpress.com/2011/08/09/five-quick-points-about-the-riots/

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  • I couldn’t think you are more right