“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.”