Criminality – pure and simple

“Criminality – pure and simple” is the prevalent slogan of the capitalist media to describe the riots of young people  in London and other cities in England (not Scotland or Wales) over the last few days.  But that is just what it is not.  It is neither ‘pure’ crime nor ‘simple’ to explain or deal with.  The initial spark of the riots was a protest over the fatal shooting of a man by the police. It now appears from the initial investigations that this man did not fire a weapon and the only firing came from the police.  The reaction of many local (particularly young) people in a poor part of London (Tottenham) to this event was one of anger.  The protest outside the police station soon got out of hand and youths began to attack the police and then rampage through the streets damaging shops and cars etc.  This disturbance then kicked off a whole series of ‘copycat’ rampages through various parts of London and then later into other English cities.

The crimes committed of breaking into shops, trashing businesses, burning some down and, even more serious, some attacks on people, were done in the main by young people often teenagers (but not entirely), of school age (not entirely), mainly African-Caribbean in heritage (but not entirely) and mainly male (but not entirely).  In effect, this represents that strata of British society which has been left out of any prospects or gains.  Many come from the poorest households (not all), many probably have or will have no educational qualifications that will get them a reasonable paying job or any job at all (again not all).   This is exactly the group that the capitalist media likes to ‘demonise’,  to use the word proclaimed by Owen Jones in his recent book, Chavs (see my post, The working poor, 6 June 2011).  It is clearly a group that feels little allegiance to the ‘community’, local or national, and that seems to dismiss with callous disregard any icons of ‘decent behaviour’.  Comments expressed by the rioters show a confused antagonism to the ‘rich’ and a hatred of the forces of ‘law and order’: ‘The rich have lied and cheated their way to where they have it all and the police protect them and abuse us when we want some of it too.’ is basically the sort of message that comes across.

Of course, the reality is that the vast majority of the poorest households living in bad privately rented housing and poorly maintained state housing projects and holding down the worst jobs, or in and out of work, do not riot in the streets and neither do their children and youths.  The rioters are a small minority. Indeed, there is a much higher proportion of the very rich who engage in hidden, invisible criminality through tax evasion, accounting fraud and outright financial scams.  Remember nobody has been charged and convicted of any crime arising for the global financial collapse – apparently the ‘full force of the law’ has not been applied against those who have committed one of the biggest crimes against society.  And no political leader has been prosecuted for lying and cheating over the evidence of weapons of mass destruction in order to launch the war against Iraq that has killed hundreds of thousands – again apparently, no crime against society has been committed.

Of course, the working people of London are outraged by the mindless vandalism, thieving and the trashing of their streets.  But they are also aware that when it came to protecting people and property (especially small businesses) the police were nowhere to be seen.  London’s Metropolitan police force had just seen its Commissioner and deputy Commissioner resign under a cloud of corruption allegations and for covering up illegal phone hacking by the Murdoch media (now railing against the rioters).  Much of the police force was on holiday (along with all the politicians) and seemed completely unwilling to do anything to stop the rampages.  Clearly, the job of the police is to protect the rich, not the rest of us, while repressing the criminal poor.

What has been the reaction of the ruling elite to this shock to their system by rioting young people?  Two things.  First, even if the riots are symptoms of a whole layer of poor households and disaffected youth with no prospects and commitment to ‘society’, there must be no reversal of the planned austerity cuts in government spending on education, housing and health.  The current programme of the Conservative-Liberal government to slash subsidies to student grants, end the educational maintenance allowance for school kids, reduce educational and youth services etc must continue (see my post, Making working-class students pay, 8 December 2010).

As one investment bank put it.  We think it clear that the rioters will not be placated by an easing up in fiscal austerity, even if such a thing were viable.  The ongoing fiscal crisis in the euro area and S&P’s recent rating downgrade of the US are pertinent reminders of the danger of diverging from the current credible plans. Any discretionary loosening of fiscal policy remains unlikely, in our view, and the riots should have a negligible impact on the government’s decision to stay the course. As a result, the UK continues to enjoy a sizeable safe-haven bid.”  So that’s all right then – the riots will not divert the government and that makes the UK still a good place to invest.

The right-wing daily financial paper of the City of London, City AM, explained that the riots were the result of ” first, decades of failed social, educational, family and microeconomic policies, which means that a large chunk of the UK has become alienated from mainstream society, culturally impoverished, bereft of role models, permanently workless and trapped and dependent on welfare or the shadow economy.”   But the blame for this did not lie with the capitalist economy and its generation of inequality, poverty, unemployment and slumps.  No, the cause was ” a politically correct ideology…where…  it is acceptable to permanently chuck welfare money at sink estates and… an ultra-soft reaction to riots over the past year involving attacks on banks, shops, the Tory party HQ and so on, as well as an official policy to shut prisons and reduce sentences.”  The answer was not to improve education and housing, not to create jobs and raise wages.  No – what was needed was the hard fist of the law.  “Criminals need to fear the possibility and consequence of arrest; if they do not, they suddenly realise that the emperor has no clothes.”

This brings us to the second reaction of the ruling elite.  Their conclusion, according to City AM, this mouthpiece of finance capital, is that the problem was not that had been too little state spending on public services, but too much:  ” the state will spend 50.1 per cent of GDP this year; state spending has still been rising by 2 per cent year on year in cash terms. It has never been as high as it is today – in fact, it is squeezing out private sector growth and hence reducing opportunities and jobs.”  And anyway, there was no point in spending anything on these deprived youth as they “would never have any hope of going to university, regardless of cost, such is their educational poverty.”   So instead of ‘wasting ‘ money on these people, what was needed was “New York style zero tolerance policing, with all offences, however minor, prosecuted. But what matters right now is to regain control, to stamp out the violence and to arrest, prosecute and jail as many thugs as possible.”  Once that’s done, we can expand the private sector, deregulate the economy for the free market and then watch the jobs flow in!   Thus City Am promotes the very policies that brought Britain to where it is today and generated this explosion of mindless mayhem.  Once we’ve locked them all up and thrown away the key, it should be business as usual, only this time with even fewer resources devoted to these people who are a waste of time anyway.

That may be the view of the capitalist elite and its media.  But it stands in stark defiance of the reality of the growing inequality of income and wealth in Britain in the last 30 years that is well documented (see my post, Inequality of opportunity, 7 April 2010).   See the item at the end of this post. It denies the steady decline in the share of annual resources (both state and private) devoted to job creation, education and housing in the UK economy.  For example, annual housing construction in the UK is now at its lowest level in 60 years, a result of mercilessly ending  local council home building and selling off the stock of state housing, so that the poorest households face high rents and/or poor housing owned by private landlords.  The kids from the poorest sectors must also go to schools where facilities are stretched, class sizes huge and the prospects of educational success low.  The answer of the professional classes, particularly in London, has been to take their kids out of state schools and ‘go private’ at exorbitant cost.  Thus London’s schools are deprived of a proper mix of educational, social and racial strata.  This only breeds further inequality and antagonism.  The answer is not to reduce state education and open it up to the ‘free market’ as the Tories plan, but to end private education and integrate all schools back into the state sector.

As for jobs after school, they are disappearing because of the weak growth of the British economy, miserable private sector investment in new industry and huge cuts in government investment in infrastructure projects.  The latter is always the easiest to cut to ‘save money’.  Just stop mending roads, fixing buildings, building new roads and bridges to speed up transport, defer rail and airport projects etc.  And yet these projects are usually the most job-generating investments that could be made, especially for people with little or no qualifications.   In the US, the American Society of Civil Engineers recently released its national infrastructure report.  It found that one in five American bridges were “structurally deficient”.  While the number of miles travelled by cars and trucks had doubled in the past 25 years, highway lane miles had risen only 45%.  Demand for electricity had increased by 25%, but the construction new transmission facilities had fallen by 30%.    This deterioration had lost 870,000 jobs that could have been secured with new projects, while the costs of moving goods had risen significantly.    The ASCE reckoned that there was $100bn of potential work available.   Instead the US Congress intends to cut such spending by 35% over the next six years.  It’s the same story in the UK.

The riots of a section of British youth over the last week has been a shock to the ruling establishment.  But they expect to ride it over with a suitable show of force and repression.  And they hope to convince the majority that it is just ‘criminality – pure and simple’.  The trouble is that crime is never pure and simple.  And the causes of these crimes are not easily explained away.  The solution of the ruling elite is further cuts in the projects and services that could help avoid a repeat of these riots and the promotion of more inequality, poverty and deprivation – and thus more criminality.

“When you cut facilities, slash jobs, abuse power, discriminate, drive people into deeper poverty and shoot people dead whilst refusing to provide answers or justice, the people will rise up and express their anger and frustration if you refuse to hear their cries. A riot is the language of the unheard.’ Martin Luther King Jr.

London has become the most unequal city in the western world, according to a leading academic.

‘Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists’, a new book by Professor Danny Dorling of the University of Sheffield, shows that the richest tenth of Londoners had an average wealth of £933,563, a figure 273 times greater than the lowest 10 per cent, with an average wealth of £3,420.  The gap is bigger than comparable cities such as New York or Tokyo.  Professor Dorling said: “The wealth gap has created a social divide so big it now resembles an Indian caste system where people in London only mix with those from their own income brackets and have little to do with those outside. We are getting wealth inequalities in London now that have not been seen since the days of a slave-owning elite.”

10 Responses to “Criminality – pure and simple”

  1. udayanchandra Says:

    This ‘obnoxious’ mentality extends to many other parts of the world, including the ‘developing’ third world. By some strange quirk of fate the ‘corporation minded’ gentry has united Globally and devising newer means to exploit, suppress and destroy the disadvantaged sections of the society.

  2. Alison Mcgarry Says:

    Useful anaylsis

  3. Judah Oudshoorn Says:

    Well written and stated. As someone observing from Canada, where we just recently had a hockey riot (small in comparison to what seems to be happening in the UK), I’ve been wondering what other stories are not being told about what is taking place over there. I particularly like your comments about the criminality of the elite and how the full force of the law is rarely applied to this segment of the population.

  4. HarPe Says:

    Excellent post!

    These people are considered “trash” and they know it and, being human, act like “trash” does in this type of situation. It’s incredibly dumb and laughable to try to blame these tens of thousand of people for behaving like they do as it is a natural response to having nothing to lose and at least something to gain from a situation like this.

  5. El Pelón Says:

    I also have to say that this is well-stated. Some person was murdered by police and lost his life. Indeed, it seems that this is a common occurence. But everyone wants to focus on how many shops got burned down, etc. Are these mobs going through the streets killing people? Has anyone died as a result of their actions? One could argue that people’s livelihoods are being threatened, and I have nothing against people defending their property in a concrete situation. But there seems to be some sort of moral asymmetry going on here. Capitalists can decimate entire regions of the world, destroying shops and homes through debt and foreclosure, and that is called “progress”. A few youths start burning things, and it’s the end of the world, time to call out the water cannons. etc.

    • michael roberts Says:

      Unfortunately, it seems that some people (up to five) did die during the riots, although it is still not clear that they died due to actions of rioters. But let’s not measure the number dead in these riots to the number dead as a result of all kinds of events around the world that have not led to the ‘full force of the law’ being applied.

  6. purple Says:

    I see a US cop (former LAPD) is being considered for the Metro police job. The American solution is to throw a lot of people in jail and introduce heavy weaponry into day-to-day policing.

    The ruling class can go a long way on shear repression.

    I would say one big advantage the UK has over the US is the lack of entrenched fundamentalism; this makes an American style system of repression more difficult to construct.

  7. xxredmaxx Says:

    Nice well measured article giving an insight into the effects current policy of the predominant wing of the capitalists is pursuing.
    I remember and lived amongst the last riots under Thatcher and although there are clear parallels I also believe we are into a differing phase.
    In the 80’s the same ingredients were present as to day – police repression, job losses, attacks on living standards (cuts) and a general feeling amongst the youth of little future.
    When the uprisings occurred there was a general support amongst workers even if repulsed by the mindless violence because all sections of unions and other workers were feeling the effects of Thatchers policies.
    The local authority unions were under direct attack (Lambeth and Liverpool) so it was easy to link the struggles of unionised workers and youth.
    Indeed platforms were offered by local unions to youth so they could vent their frustration and calls for police accountability which was a beacon lit by workers who’d also experienced police repression without justice.
    The difference in the present climate is that workers have been under attack for a long time and those in work have struggled with no wage rises and/or pay cuts. Although the TUC has made some timid gestures we have not seen any leadership from the Labour and trade union movement.
    Many workers are not connecting the mindless violence with their own struggles and ask why if they have put up with cuts why cant others?
    What must happen is that the labour and trade unions must intervene at ground level and not wait for Milliband and others so the best of these youth can be drawn into the struggle against the system.
    Interestingly the riots have been a catalyst in many workers’ neighbourhoods for discussing the question “if riots aren’t the answer then what is?”
    Ordinary workers know instinctively that we cannot condone or promote worthless destruction and a permanent solution to poverty, repression and constant attacks on living standards must be found.

    There is a whiff of reaction in the air and the likes of the EDL and BNP will exploit the void left by the Labour Party and TU movement if we are not vigilant and campaigning for change on a Socialist programme.

    Keep up the good work Mr Roberts. Your work always allows me to argue against ” there is no alternative” with true depth and understanding.

  8. Nadeem Mahjoub Says:

    Interesting!

  9. michael roberts Says:

    The British courts have revealed the social and educational backgrounds of those arrested in the riots.

    Those who took part were poorer, younger and of lower educational achievement than average. Some 90% of those brought before the courts were male, and only 5% were over the age of 40.

    The government figures show a quarter were juveniles – aged 10-17 – and a similar proportion were aged 18-20. Of those arrested, 13% were identified as gang members. Even in London, where gang membership among those arrested was highest, the figure was less than one in five.

    Some 35% of adults brought before courts were claiming out-of-work benefits, which compares to a national average of 12%. Of the young people involved, 42% were in receipt of free school meals compared to an average of 16%.

    Two-thirds of the young people in court were classed as having some form of special educational need. This compares to 21% for the national average. More than a third of young people who were involved in the riots had been excluded from school during 2009-10. The figure for all Year 11 pupils is 6%, according to Department for Education records. And more than one in 10 of the young people appearing before courts had been permanently excluded – the figure drops to 0.1% among all those aged 15.

    Three-quarters of all those who appeared in court had a previous conviction or caution. For adults the figure was 80% and for juveniles it was 62%.

    In terms of ethnicity, 40% of those arrested were white, 39% black, 11% of mixed background, 8% Asian and 2% were classified as “other”. Ethnic background ranged geographically from 77% white in Manchester to 32% white in London, and from 47% black in London to 11% black in Hertfordshire.

    One in eight of all the crimes committed in the disturbances were muggings, claiming 664 victims. More than 2,500 shops and businesses were victims of looters and vandals, and more than 230 homes were hit by burglars or vandals.

    The MoJ said: “It is clear that compared to population averages, those brought before the courts were more likely to be in receipt of free school meals or benefits, were more likely to have had special educational needs and be absent from school, and are more likely to have some form of criminal history.

    “This pattern held across all areas looked at.”

    BBC legal correspondent Clive Coleman said: “One of the key, surprising statistics is the one relating to gang members because there was much talk of the involvement of gangs after the riots.

    “These statistics seem to reveal that, relatively speaking, a small number of those involved were gang members, and most police forces are reporting that to be the case.”

    Earlier this month, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith told the Conservative Party conference that gangs had played a “significant part” in the riots.
    Water cannon

    Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Police has published the initial findings of a review into its handling of the rioting and looting.

    It said that so far there was no evidence of senior commanders ordering local commanders to not make arrests if offences were taking place.

    However, it admitted that “with hindsight” the Met did not have enough officers available on the first night of the rioting.

    The review will investigate the cost of making water cannon available to the force – although the report notes that such equipment does have limitations.

    The Met is reviewing ways of “co-ordinating, assessing and prioritising social media content for intelligence purposes”.

    Assistant Commissioner Lynne Owens said: “Thoroughly reviewing disorder that touched almost every part of London was always going to be a significant task and we are progressing this as quickly as we can.

    “We are committed to being as open as possible so that we, our partners and the public can properly understand what worked, what didn’t and what we need to do differently.

    “Today’s report provides some high-level emerging findings and we will publish more detailed findings as the review further progresses.”

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