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Gordon Campbell on the riots in Britain

Gordon Campbell on the riots in Britain

So far, reaction to the riots in Britain has moved beyond the initial phase of surprise and bewilderment – goodness, the New York Times wondered, how can things have gone from Harry Potter and the Royal Wedding to phone hacking and riots in only three months? – and we’re now firmly into the crackdown phase. Use water-cannon and whatever else you feel like, British Prime Minister David Cameron has invited the Police.

In the course of trying to outbid the Tories on law and order, Labour has argued for spending on the Police to be exempted from budget cuts – but so far, Downing Street has declined to join that contest, and is still saying that the coppers, God bless’ em, must still do their bit to help rein in the deficit.

Meanwhile, and with its own distinctive brand of hypocrisy, the regime in Iran has lectured the British about using violence against ordinary citizens, and the need for government to respond to just concerns.

Bingo, some commentators have already concluded: the rioters must be alienated youth, spilling out of the housing estates and launching vengeance attacks on the likes of Marks and Spencer. Maybe. Except that many media reports also say there has been no consistent pattern to the rioters. The age of participants has been anything from 10 to 35, with many races, a range of low to middle income classes and both genders taking part in places as diverse as Tottenham on one hand, and the cathedral city of Gloucester on the other.

What does seem clear is that those taking part in trashing shops and stealing the TV sets and trainers seem to have been local opportunists – and they’ve organised themselves only so far as to achieve the critical mass of participants necessary to render effective policing all but impossible. As the Guardian noted, there has been no sign whatsoever of the anti-globalisation protesters or anarchist forces at the forefront of street demonstrations in recent years.

As several British media reports have noted, the coalition government will be at pains to depict the riots as purely a law and order issue – and will be trying to deter the public from making any connections at all between the riots and Britain’s soaring rates of youth unemployment and income inequality, both made far worse by the severe spending cuts enacted by the current government.

Labour, for its part, has been trying to make those connections, without looking like bleeding heart liberals soft on law and order, and sympathetic to the rioters. The competition between Conservatives vs Labour over pinning blame for the riots while evading responsibility for the causes cropped up in a recent British TV exchange between Labour’s veteran MP Harriet Harman, and the Tory Education Minister Michael Gove :

HH : But there is a sense that young people feel they are not being listened to. That is not to justify violence. But when you've got the trebling of tuition fees, they should think again about that. When you've got the EMA [student living allowance] being taken away, when you've got jobs being cut and youth unemployment rising and they are shutting the job centre in Camberwell – well you should think again about that because this is going to cost money. all of this does not help reduce the deficit.

MG: Harriet, do you think there are people breaking into Currys to steal plasma TV screens and breaking into Foot Locker to steal box fresh trainers who are protesting against tuition fees or EMAs ?

HH: No. Don't put me in that position.

MG: Then why have you raised it consistently in the debate this evening?

HH: Because I am saying I think you should be on the side of young people. By the way it was mostly young people that were being terrorised by other young people and they were horrified by the idea that somehow these young people are being portrayed as their spokespeople, as representatives of a cause. They are not. But the truth is the government should be on the side of opportunities for young people and jobs for young people. And you are not. But priority number one is actually sorting out law and order on the streets.

Etc etc. Hard to tell who is the more repellent in that little exchange. When it comes to repression though, the British courts have been more than willing to swing into action – and to sit all night if need be – to deal with the rioters, and defend property. White collar crime meanwhile, continues to pay.

Ironically, the current riots have played out against the backdrop of further meltdowns in the global financial system – namely, with the US debt crisis and ongoing problems in the Eurozone. While the rioters are getting summary justice, need it be pointed out that none of the perpetrators and enablers of the global financial meltdown (some of whom used their Blackberrys and social media to co-ordinate their gang activities on Wall Street) have felt the hand of the authorities on their collars at all? Banking regulation has turned out to be a slap on the wrist, and business (and bonuses) have resumed as before.

This week, the centre right think tank Stratfor chose to analyse the moral problems besetting the global economic order – by defining them as being essentially political in nature. Peel back the polite language, and you get an analysis that wouldn’t be out of place in Socialist Weekly. Here’s Stratfor’s lament for instance, about the 2008 financial crisis:

A sense emerged that the financial elite was either stupid or dishonest or both. The idea was that the financial elite had violated all principles of fiduciary, social and moral responsibility in seeking its own personal gain at the expense of society as a whole.

Fair or not, this perception created a massive political crisis. This was the true systemic crisis, compared to which the crisis of the financial institutions was trivial. The question was whether the political system was capable not merely of fixing the crisis but also of holding the perpetrators responsible. Alternatively, if the financial crisis did not involve criminality, how could the political system not have created laws to render such actions criminal? Was the political elite in collusion with the financial elite?

Well yes – now that’s a thought ! Stratfor then moved on and saw similar signs of self- interest and political shenanigans occurring in the Eurozone as well! Was Greece perhaps a victim, rather than a feckless villain? Were those allegedly sturdy and hardworking Germans in fact really to blame for the crisis, and being hoist now by their own petard ?

The Greek narrative, which is less noted, was that the Germans rigged the European Union in their favor. Germany is the world’s third-largest exporter, after China and the United States (and closing rapidly on the No. 2 spot). By forming a free trade zone, the Germans created captive markets for their goods. During the prosperity of the first 20 years or so, this was hidden beneath general growth. But once a crisis hit, the inability of Greece to devalue its money — which, as the euro, was controlled by the European Central Bank — and the ability of Germany to continue exporting without any ability of Greece to control those exports exacerbated Greece’s recession, leading to a sovereign debt crisis. Moreover, the regulations generated by Brussels so enhanced the German position that Greece was helpless.

Not that Stratfor tries to referee the moral conflct it has outlined so concisely. “Which narrative is true is not the point. The point is that Europe is facing two political crises generated by economics. One crisis is similar to the American one, which is the belief that Europe’s political elite protected the financial elite. The other is a distinctly European one, a regional crisis in which parts of Europe have come to distrust each other rather vocally.” Chances are, Stratfor says, this could “become an existential crisis” for the European Union.

Tell it to the rioters. They already know the system rewards the looters and wreckers engaged in the financial system, while cracking down hard on the guy who breaks a shop window, and steals a TV set. Stealing a TV set gets you landed with the full weight of the law. The other guy gets a bonus and a holiday on Ibiza. Has this disjunction become an “existential crisis” for society? Well, rather.

Yet does anyone expect that anything will be done to change the lot of the entire generation of youth – in Britain, Europe, and New Zealand, not to mention in the countries of the Arab Spring – who have few job prospects, and no stake in a society that treats them as being surplus to requirements? Previously, those young people would have been packed up, and sent off to war. This time the war is taking place on the streets of home.

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