London calling: a haunting glimpse into our future?

by Jerome Roos on August 9, 2011

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The riots spreading through London are a terrifying reminder of what lies ahead as the austerity-obsessed West nosedives into economic collapse.

The markets plummet and London burns. Whatever your political inclinations may be, there’s no denying the apocalyptic quality to the headlines coming out of Europe’s largest city right now. What we are witnessing is financial meltdown and social meltdown in tandem. And, while there is no direct causal relationship between the two historical moments, there’s a connecting theme that unites them in a complex dialectic of collapse.

So this is what things have come to: a societal tragedy of unfathomable proportions. What the UK is experiencing right now is the total breakdown of social cohesion into utter lawlessness and indiscriminate violence. On the third consecutive day of unrest, rioting and looting spread throughout the capital and — for the first time — to other UK cities as well. And while I hate to be gloomy, I have to remind you once again that this is only just the beginning.

With over 20 poorer neighborhoods in London convulsing in the flames of rage, and with the unrest spreading to disadvantaged areas in Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds and Bristol, this total breakdown of law and order has an undeniable structural quality to it. The explosion of anger and cynicism may have come as a complete surprise to the authorities, but locals have known this to be simmering beneath the surface for years — if not decades.

So when Boris Johnson, as Mayor of London, refers to the social unrest as ”nothing more than wanton criminality,” he engages in an extremely dangerous simplification. After all, violence is a complex phenomenon that arises from an intricate dialectic between behavioral/psychological (individual) factors on the one hand, and cultural/socio-economic (structural) factors on the other. It is in their complex interplay that we must look for answers.

The Structural Component

The United Kingdom has always been one of the most unequal and least socially-mobile societies in the Western world. Among continental Europeans, it is notorious for tolerating the existence of what Oscar Lewis has called an “underclass“, and what Marx referred to as the “lumpenproletariat“, or the “refuse of all classes” that continues to live an unproductive existence at the margins of society, excluded for all practical purposes from the basic functioning of the market system.

The numbers, in this respect, are telling. In 2003 and 2004, a whopping 21 percent of children in the UK grew up in households below the poverty line (after housing costs are taken into account, this rises to an incredible 28 percent). One EU study this year found that 17 percent of UK youths qualify as “NEETs” — Not in Employment, Education or Training, “in other words high-school dropouts with no prospects of employment.” The same study found that over 600,000 people under the age of 25 have never had a day of work.

While it would be ridiculous to use such statistics as a justification for the dangerous, irresponsible and anti-social behavior of the rioters, it would be just as foolish to simply ignore this crucial social context and only focus on the “aberrant behavior” of “deviant individuals.” The violence and thievery may be entirely indiscriminate and a-political, but the root causes of it are profoundly political and carry a very clear discriminatory component.

A society where an hour’s bus ride from Kensington to Newham takes you across a six year reduction in male life expectancy – from 78.5 years to 72.4 – is a profoundly sick society. The gap is actually bigger than the one between the US and Nicaragua, with the latter being the second poorest country in Latin America. London, in other words, may be the most expensive city in the world, but it literally contains a developing country within its city boundaries.

Even the pro-market Financial Times last year warned that “Britain must mind the gap”. Referring to a landmark government report, it wrote that “the UK suffers from high inequality,” and “saw a surge in its Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality, between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s. Since then, increased redistribution has managed to slow this process. But British inequality is a problem that will not disappear. It has deep roots and cannot be ignored.”

In their crucial book, The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett provide a wide array of statistical evidence to back up their claim that unequal societies tend to produce (in addition to a range of other social and medical problems) more violence and more crime. As a result of this, the UK prison population nearly doubled from 46,000 to 80,000 in the two short decades between 1990 and 2007.

The Individual Component

So how does this social reality affect the individual? The Guardian quoted criminologist John Pitts as saying that ”many of the people involved are likely to have been from low-income, high-unemployment estates, and many, if not most, do not have much of a legitimate future … Those things that normally constrain people are not there. Much of this was opportunism but in the middle of it there is a social question to be asked about young people with nothing to lose.”

While there is never any justification for selfish theft and wanton violence against innocent individuals, the looters find ways to justify their actions. “They feel they can rationalise it by targeting big corporations. There is a sense that the companies have lots of money, while they have very little.” Indeed, in a fascinating conversation caught on tape by the BBC, a couple of girls boasted that the riots are about “showing the rich we can do what we want.”

There are two crucial components to this seemingly simple sentence. First of all, there’s the powerful assertion of “doing what we want.” As Lukács put it, under the ruthless logic of the market, “the personality can do no more than look on helpless while its own resistance is reduced to an isolated particle fed into an alien system.” Violence becomes a psychological tool for breaking out of that hostile universe and reclaiming a sense of agency. In Pitts’ words, looting makes “powerless people suddenly feel powerful,” which is “very intoxicating”.

Secondly, there’s the overt class component that the BBC is still so desperately trying to hide. One doesn’t need to be a Marxist to follow this line of reasoning: class-based exclusion is closely tied to its cultural manifestation, what the anti-Marxist sociologist Pierre Bourdieu famously called symbolic violence. By this he referred to the patterns of speech, dress, consumption, etc., by which dominant groups express their cultural “superiority” over subordinate ones.

The psychological consequence of this symbolic violence is to produce a profound sense of social alienation within the individual — a sense that one has absolutely no stake in society’s dominant value system. This leads to a situation where the subversion of societal norms suddenly becomes a deceptively joyous act of “liberation”. Ironically, this process may have been further fueled by endless marketing campaigns promising “salvation through consumption“.

As Pitts puts it, this is a generation bred on a diet of excessive consumerism and bombarded by advertising. “Where we used to be defined by what we did, now we are defined by what we buy. These big stores are in the business of tempting [the consumer] and then suddenly these people find they can just walk into the shop and have it all.” As @DominicKavakeb tweeted, “if you keep telling people who can’t afford stuff to buy stuff, they might just end up taking stuff.”

A Regression — Not a Revolution

But that said, one thing needs to be made very clear: anyone who is still under the impression that this is a “protest” is gravely mistaken. This is not a revolution. If anything, it’s a major regression; a breakdown into mob rule. No one will benefit from this, except, perhaps, for the government itself. After all, the unfortunate fact that many of Britain’s poor tend to be ethnic minorities will allow Cameron to once again play the “death of multiculturalism” card.

Furthermore, as this brave West Indian woman pointed out, people don’t fight for a cause. The disturbances have long ceased to be protests against police brutality — they have descended into total chaos. In this environment, there is no hope of building a constructive movement for progressive social change. This was bound to happen, though. As a Greek friend predicted at Syntagma last month, “when the UK goes into revolt, it will be ugly.”

These riots are particularly ugly because the principal victims so far have been the hard-working shop-keepers and average people who have become the innocent targets of indiscriminate aggression — the people who had to jump from their homes to escape the blaze, the people who lost their houses and their livelihoods through arson, theft and destruction. Why in heaven’s name would these angry youths target their own neighborhoods, instead of the rich ones?

While many people responded with shock and horror to a video displaying a bunch of thugs stealing from an injured man while pretending to assist him, psychologists have long had an explanation for this “inexplicable” behavior. As Wilkinson & Pickett write, ”when people react to a provocation from someone with higher status by redirecting their aggression onto someone of lower status, psychologists label it displaced aggression,” (The Spirit Level, p. 167).

The greatest tragedy is that this displaced aggression leaves the peaceful majority doubly affected: first by the economic exclusion and symbolic violence of the ruling social groups, and secondly by the displaced aggression of the disaffected youth in their own neighborhoods. And sadly, this pattern is likely to intensify over the coming years and decades, as financial collapse and fiscal austerity will combine to squeeze millions of Britons into poverty.

As the New York Times correctly pointed out, “for a society already under severe economic strain, the rioting raised new questions about the political sustainability of the Cameron government’s spending cuts, particularly the deep cutbacks in social programs.” After all, austerity measures “have hit the country’s poor especially hard, including large numbers of the minority youths who have been at the forefront of the unrest.”

In December 2010 we made a gloomy prediction for the new year: “The rage is spreading, and the legitimation crisis of global capitalism is only going to deepen in 2011 as austerity measures aggravate inequality, insecurity and unemployment. The question is not so much if there will be renewed violence, but where and when it will take place.” Austerity may not be the root cause of these riots — but it will be fuel on the fire of Britain’s ongoing social meltdown.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Laurinda Seabra August 10, 2011 at 00:27

Very well written article. I totally concur with your reporting on the status quo. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with the world.

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Anthony Binder August 10, 2011 at 01:58

The role of social factors in unrest, the inability of capitalism to deal with social problems, the collapse of market capitalism, medias bias in reporting such events…An article like this should be the editorial column of a major daily. Shame on them for lacking the courage to speak up. I do suspect that a lot of people feel a truth in what is being said here…

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Ana M.Silva August 10, 2011 at 04:54

yes i agree, i think we have to go back to the future….Utopia

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ryan August 10, 2011 at 08:09

“The United Kingdom has always been one of the most unequal and least socially-mobile societies in the Western world.”

I’m sorry but that is absolute nonsense.

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Jérôme E. Roos August 10, 2011 at 14:59

Proof?

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Matt August 11, 2011 at 13:52
Rodrigo August 10, 2011 at 13:14

I see less “violence” than media seems to say.
People are attacking properties far more than other people, that’s not “violence”.
Also, the targets are more corporate ownerships than other people’s houses.

This is a behavior that shouldn’t be stimulated, but on the other hand, it’s more than expected. Decades of repression.
Doesn’t matter if it’s labeled as “Democracy” if when people complain they’re not listened, but supressed.
If people were heard, there would never be riots.

Now the only thing remaining is anger, that’s what happen when you have no expectations of being heard, and doesn’t want to make a point anymore.

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BobF August 10, 2011 at 13:51

that top image (of a woman jumping from a burning building) is NOT from the riots. It’s not even taken in the UK. Look at the car-lit signs on the left of the picture….

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Jérôme E. Roos August 10, 2011 at 14:58

This is Croydon, London, right next to the Reeves furniture store on Monday evening at 8:50pm.

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tink August 10, 2011 at 14:34

As always Jerome, you are articulate and insightful to an astonishingly touching degree. I particularly like your description of London containing a developing country within its city boundaries, although this is clearly not unique to London. We have such areas thoughout our nation and the residents of such places are mostly ignored, dismissed, or written off with claims that the circumstances under which they exist are entirely of their own making. When they have attention, it is always extremely negative. Sadly, I notice that the EDL/BNP are using this as an opportunity to raise their ugly voices and sickening agenda, as well as – as you pointed out- Cameron also using it to push his, at times equally sickening, idealogy. Alarmingly, on the govt’s new e-petition site is a suggestion that those involved in the riots and looting “should have their benefits cut” alongside a call for the reinstatement of the death penalty in this country. Even tho the petition to retain the current ban on capital punishment does have more support, atm, I believe that your use of the descriptor “regression” is all too accurate. I’m concerned that these particular riots push back our chances of having a real and necessary revolution, but I remain hopeful that people are waking up to the fact that capitalism, gross consumerism and a debt based monetary system lay at the heart of this and must be changed. Direct democracy anyone? (There is an e-petition for this too, for any UK readers that may be interested.) Thank you again, Jerome and apologies for my very long winded comment. Regards

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berb August 10, 2011 at 17:13

really well written article, i had pretty much the same thoughts but wouldnt have been able to articulate them like that.

i think the displaced aggression is quite an important issue, as in my opinion its also shown against deprived social groups in the entire society with middle classes directing their discontent towards poorer people, who are in need of benefits. This is used by politicians to gain support for right-wing policies.

However, I would not agree with the thought that it actually benefits the government. In the short- or medium-term surely it might benefit it, but in the long-term such policies are not sustainable, for the reasons given in the article.

The austerity measures are another important factor, because as you outline correctly they accelereate the inequality and rage. I think however, they are also part of the cause of structural problems, because they represent the wider picture of neo-liberal economic policies, reducing the importance of goverment spending and redistribution of wealth.

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tink August 10, 2011 at 20:18

Apologies if you are already aware of this, I thought you might find it an interesting perspective. Hope you dont mind me posting you the link.
http://nathanieltapley.com/2011/08/10/an-open-letter-to-david-camerons-parents/

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Chris August 10, 2011 at 23:22

Thanks for the insightful article and the site which has provided me with alot. If you need any Graphic Design help just send me an email (I am a designer).
I would like to make a point of the significantly different manifestations of reactions in the North and South of Europe. Will the Indignants of the South ultimately prevail hence a more direct-democracy South, but in the North, the poor minorities, which more and more are fleeing the South to go to the richer North, will be the negative manifestation ultimately leading to suppression of any and all North, even future indignant, uprisings…

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Mariano August 11, 2011 at 00:50
The Watcher August 11, 2011 at 12:33

Wait until inflation hits, what we have witnessed over the last few days is just the tip of the iceberg. A civilization based on consumerism, materialism and limited resources is a one way ticket to oblivion. 7 billion people and counting. Yet the Bombardment of advertising and glamorizing of money continues.

Wake up and smell the ashes

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Adam de Vries August 11, 2011 at 12:53

I don’t buy this argument that income inequality generates social instability.

How is it then that Singapore, one of the most unequal (and multi-ethnic) societies in the world has managed a virtually zero incidence of crime rate and civil unrest for the past 40 years?

Even in a perfect society, where everybody has the exact same quality of education, same socio-economic background, same exact of family upbringing, same exact level of opportunities, income inequalities will still arise because some people will (by biological chance) simply be better than others at kicking a ball, doing math, writing music, or inventing stuff.

Bashing the rich in this case is no-different than bashing the supporters of a hated winning football team. Its fun but its completely useless.

For more critic on The Spirit Level read this short article:
http://www.economist.com/node/17929013

Furthermore you take a very short-term view on these events.

True, globalization of capitalism has caused income inequality to widen WITHIN countries but it is causing income inequality to rapidly narrow BETWEEN countries.

A factory owner will move production to China because they will work for 10-100 times less than a English worker. The result is unemployment and wage stagnation for English workers but increased employment and wealth generation for Chinese workers and cheaper goods for Everybody.

Luckily this increase in within-country income inequality is temporary.
The global pool of cheap labor is finite and in 50 years Chinese and Indian wages will rise to Western levels, removing the incentive for capital source labor abroad.

In addition don’t forget the already massive positive impact global capitalism has had on what used to be called “Third world” countries. 50 years ago most Chinese, Koreans, Thais, Vietnamese, Indians and Indonesians were living on the brink of starvation in medieval conditions. Ever since they abandoned autarchic command-and-control economies and embraced the global market with capitalist principles they have managed to lift well over a billion of their citizens out of abject poverty and into the middle class.

While its not perfect, the positives of the current system far outweigh negatives and the benefits thereof will become ever more apparent in the coming decades.

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Jérôme E. Roos August 11, 2011 at 14:56

Couple of things wrong with your analysis, IMHO:

1) You mention Singapore as “proof” that there is no relation between crime and inequality, but as anyone knows, you can’t debunk statistical correlations on the basis of single outliers.

2) This is not about bashing the rich. It’s about trying to uncover the social context in which such indiscriminate violence and wanton destruction can flourish. Only by understanding that social context can one try to prevent it from occurring in the future.

3) You say that globalization has caused inequalities between countries to fall, but let me emphasize that if you take China — the world’s single greatest outlier — out of the equation, global inequalities actually worsened in the past 20 years. Internally, inequality in China is rapidly on the rise as well. And it’s this internal division that is closely correlated to prevalent levels of crime, violence and social unrest. Just look at what’s going on in China’s Western provinces right now.

4) It is commonly known that countries like China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia grew so rapidly exactly because they defied the nonsensical free-market dogma being propagated by the Economist (and pursued by the British government). They benefited from global capitalism only by pursuing neo-mercantilist strategies, from exchange rate depression to state subsidization and mass public investment in R&D. The WB and USAID declared dirt-poor and agricultural South Korea to be crazy when they started investing in a steel mill in the 1960s: obviously, this wasn’t S-Korea’s “Ricardian” comparative advantage. Now look: POSCO is the third largest steel producer in the world and the most profitable in Asia. Exactly because S-Korea refused to bow to neoliberal dogma. This story is just one example of the general economic strategy pursued by China and the Asian Tigers.

5) You don’t mention austerity at all, which is strange, because austerity is the logical outcome of the neoliberal model that you are (hopelessly) trying to defend :) Read this paper. It concludes that “The results show a clear positive correlation between fiscal retrenchment and instability. We test if the relationship simply reflects economic downturns, and conclude that this is not the key factor.” In other words: “austerity leads to anarchy”.

One last thing: I hope you are right, I hope that we will see the benefits far outweighing the negatives — and I hope that will become ever more apparent in the coming decades. But just taking a look at the stock markets right now, taking a look at virtually stagnant Western growth rates, taking a look at the debt to GDP ratios of some of the richest and most powerful countries on Earth, taking a look at the social unrest spreading from neoliberal Chile to neoliberal Israel (with the UK and Greece in between), taking a look at the ECB’s struggles to save the eurozone (since EU leaders don’t seem to care anymore), taking a look at the balance sheet and market valuation of some of Europe’s and America’s largest banks (Bank of America? Societe Generale?), taking a look at the balance sheet of the ECB and the Fed (both of only need a few percentage point drop in their asset base to push them into insolvency), and taking a look at the social indicators, like the imprisonment rate (the US prison population boomed from 450.000 in 1978 to over 2.000.000 in 2005, meaning there are now more people in US prisons than there ever were in the Soviet gulags), or health outcomes (life expectancy in the US will soon start decreasing for the first time since the 19th century), and taking a look at the rise of far-right extremism from Norway and the Netherlands to the United States, I have to be very honest with you and say that I am just a tiny, tiny little bit skeptical about the accuracy of your prediction.

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Adam de Vries August 11, 2011 at 18:22

1) Yes Singapore is an outlier, but maybe if these guys checked for a variable like narcotics trafficking (most of crime in Latin America, Africa, Asia is somehow related to cocaine-heroine production/trafficking) they would probably find this one variable to be a much better predictor of crime levels than simple income inequality. Drug legalization would go along way to solving that problem (and would drastically reduce the US prison population).

2) Alright ok

3) You would have to take China, S-Korea, Taiwan, HK, Singapore, SE-Asia, out of the equation to see that global inequalities (between countries) worsen. That’s about 2 billion people. Thats not an outlier anymore, but a relationship. True, inequality may have worsened internally but across the board income and quality of life have risen significantly in China. And generally as countries progress from low to high income, much like East Asia has, they suffer a temporary J-curve-like increase in income inequality only to have income inequality drop after their economies have progressed beyond middle-income status. I think the violence in Xinjiang and Tibet has more to do with the massive influx of Han Chinese, encouraged by the Chinese central government, than internal income inequality.

4) POSCO was a black-hole for taxpayer money for decades, money that could have been invested in infrastructure or education. It didn’t turn a profit after it was privatized in 1998, when the S-Koreans eventually did bow to neoliberal dogma and broke-up their government-sponsored Cheabols. There are many more cases of failed government-initiated enterprise than there are successes. Taiwan and Hong-Kong managed to develop world-class enterprises without any government industrial policy. Most of these countries have maintained their growth rates by sequentially adopting neoliberal policies and are doing well now.

5) So what would be your solution? Print money? Hyperinflation is even more detrimental to social stability than austerity. Default? The whole situation would then repeat itself in 10 years when they rack up new debts due to their fiscally unsustainable social model. I do agree that that they need to reform the tax code and get rid of deductions to up their tax revenues but there’s also a lot of ineffective expenditures (arts, culture, development aid) and inefficient expenditures (blanket subsidies for education and welfare instead of conditional vouchers) as well as cartel-like protections for professions.

I don’t see how austerity is the logical outcome of neoliberalism (unless a country is transitioning from a socialist command-and-control style economy to a neoliberal economy that is). The US borrowed its way into growth for a decade and dropped the ball on financial regulation in the 90’s and this is what happens. The Euro put many different socio-economic models under one currency so it’s only logical that borrowing costs start to diverge on their government debts.

To your last thing: You may be sceptical but these unrests and problems pale in comparison to the unrests and problems countries had when they were under command-and-control economies 30-40 years ago. Israel’s economy was sputtering and tanking in the 70′s/80’s before it turned neoliberal. Pinochet was horrible but the rather neoliberal economic policy he implemented during the time he was in power is the reason why Chileans have the highest standard of living in Latin America now. 20 years ago there was no Euro, but half a continent coming out of the shadow of communism. How is neoliberalism responsible for the decline of life expectancy in the US? Doesn’t that have to do with the fact that they sit in cars all day and take-in way too much red meat and soft drinks? You seem to ignore the benefits and successes of the neoliberal model and emphasize the negatives. What alternate model do you propose to this one?

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Michael August 11, 2011 at 15:55

Great, great article that avoids the usual crap. What it (and most other articles) does however fail to mention is that while the underclass is created by what is documented in the article, it is also actively absolved of all responsibility by the system : parents of criminal minors are not held responsible for the actions of their children, schools are prohibited from teaching right from wrong, etc.

Society is culpable of not only creating the conditions for this underclass to develop but also of placating it by being extremely hands-off in its attitude towards it. It’s the result of centuries of an overly paternalistic system being taken down until there’s no structure left AT ALL.

What are your thoughts on this particular angle of the question ? And why do you think that it hardly ever gets raised ?

Thanks.

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NoShitShurlock August 13, 2011 at 09:30

Multiculturalism IS FUCKING DEAD. I’m just kidding. It will still take at least a few more decades to completely wipe those evil whites from the face of the earth.

This is what happens 100% of the time when a government FORCES people of different races, religions, national origns etc. to “peacefully coexist” — rather they want to or not. Europe has traditionally been filled with WHITE CHRISTIANS and over the last 30 years or so, the “royalty” have dumped the bottom of the third world on top of everyone’s heads with the one liner “were all the same”. Funny how the same goes for every other part of the western world too. It’s also funny how you don’t see millions of whites tripping over each other to go live in Africa, Central America, etc.

The brainwashed, nightly news loving zombies of this world will deny it in the same way that a religious fanatic denies common sense. All of the statistics are right there in black and white. The truth is all around you, everywhere you look.

Still, you wonder why the world just happens to be turning into a giant ghetto… You just can’t figure it out can you? Europe is starting to look just like Africa. Rioting in the streets. Civil unrest. Savage inequality. I wonder why? I just can’t figure it out?

It must be whitey’s fault again. Yes, I take full responsibility for everything. Consider it a parting gift. You’re all going to need all of the help that you can get in the hellish third world, war war zone that you’re all going to be inheriting. Blame whitey while you still have the chance. Soon you’ll have no one to blame but YOURSELVES for the dark nightmare that you have unleashed upon your wreched little planet ;)

Have a nice day.

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