Sunday, August 21, 2011

London burned...so could California

There were no columns of smoking rising out of London as my plane passed over on Wednesday afternoon and indeed, little outside of the not-unusual hysterical headlines to indicate that one of the world’s great cities had just been torn by days of protest and rioting, whole neighbourhoods in some cases reduced to smoking wreckage. 

The analysis emerging in the British political world in the aftermath of the social unrest that gripped London for several days is vapid even by the standards of that less-than-elevated sphere.  In truth, the response of officials shouldn’t be at all surprising.  Prime Minister David Cameron referred to the riots as “criminality pure and simple”.  The usual rules of justice were temporarily discarded (the invocation of a state of emergency eerily similar to practises used by Britain in its despotic policing of colonial territories), and first-time offenders were imprisoned en masse despite public servants warning of the risk of creating “colleges of crime”.  Cameron also suggested that Facebook, Twitter and text messaging could be switched off to aid the police.  Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, blamed a “me first” culture, thereby sidestepping addressing the root causes (which his party largely ignored for years) of unrest while identifying some fuzzy Thatcherite ill.  Nick Clegg, supposedly representing the voice of reason in the right-wing coalition, gave the police his full backing and praised them for the “brilliant job” they had done, ignoring the fact that the protests which led to the riots broke out over the killing of an unarmed man by police.

Cameron joined councils in calling for the eviction of rioters (along with their families), as though putting them out on the street will contribute to solving the problem.  The Tories’ language here is worth noting.  Cameron: “For too long we’ve taken a too soft attitude towards people that loot and pillage their own community.  If you do that you should lose your right to the sort of housing that you’ve had at subsidised rates”.  Eric Pickles (Communities Secretary): it’s no time to “pussyfoot around”.  This mirrors their approach to public sector workers.  Oliver Letwin, onetime Shadow Chancellor and current policy minister, argued that what public sector workers need is “some real discipline and some fear”.

The problems are: a) that none of these measures even attempt to address the causes of the disturbances; b) that they risk exacerbating the situation; c) that they pose a threat to civil liberties; d) that in their unseemly urge for revenge they might very well abuse the families of perpetrators as well as the perpetrators themselves.

It is likely that Britain (and quite possibly the United States) will see further unrest of this nature, if perhaps on a smaller scale.  The fight against unrest “at home” will become the next “War on Terror” in the sense that those behind any “unrest” will be treated as an inexplicable evil to be uprooted rather than understood.  Any civil unrest will be shamelessly and dishonestly conflated with organised protests against cuts to social services and used as casus belli for a war on the unions (Wikipedia already needs a note explaining that the 2011 riots in London are not the same thing as the 2011 protests against cuts to the public sector).  Those who commit the cardinal sin of trying to explain the underlying causes of riots or protests will be attacked every bit as savagely as the rioters and protesters themselves.

The war (to my knowledge, no one has yet used the word, though it is likely only a matter of time) on domestic unrest will also likely mark the next great abdication of our rights.  David Cameron was praised by no less than the Chinese government for proposing to give authorities the power to shut down Twitter and Facebook should such an Orwellian move serve the “national interest”.  And BART (Bay Area Rapid Transport) did exactly that to cell phone service in the face of protests against one of its officers’ shooting of a homeless man (he was armed, but this continues a disturbing trend of trigger-happiness and brutal violence on the part of BART police).

Already, we are hearing that the burning of buildings and cars, the looting of shops, are despicable, abhorrent actions, which are beyond our understanding and arise from some intrinsic moral deficiency on the part of their perpetrators.  And of course these are, to many of us, despicable acts of violence and destruction that are difficult to understand, ruining and endangering as they are, the livelihoods of other people.

But there is a reason that we find it difficult to understand these actions.  They violate our sense of what it means to belong to a given community (national, local or otherwise).  They feel like they’re being committed by people who are outside of that community, who can’t possibly be living within the same moral framework.  And therein lies the rub: by these people’s rights, they don’t live in the same society as the classes who are wont to comment on them as though they were animals rather than people, nor do they share the same moral framework.  Shunned by their political representatives and potential employers (employment statistics for young men in the neighbourhoods at the heart of the riots are sobering), people will justly feel like social and economic outcasts.  When membership in a nation is defined by the ability to access services, to live a particular kind of lifestyle defined by the promise of social democracy, and when a growing class of people is unable to obtain those services or realise that promise, we are looking at two different nations.

The hard truth is that people who rioted in London did nothing more and nothing less than the economic gangsters whose avarice lies behind our economic collapse.  Rioters in London have done it in a more physically violent and visually spectacular manner, but it is not one iota more destructive than the violence perpetrated against our social system by those who mug by contract rather than at knifepoint.  Indeed, far less.  And people see this.  And they've seen one kind of criminal, who shows utter disregard for moral niceties, who bankrupts hundreds of thousands of people, who plunges an entire nation into turmoil, not only get away with nary a slap on the wrist, but actually profit from their actions. 

Christopher Hitchens was right to point out that the present round of cuts to education and social services can’t bear all of the blame for the riots in London.  But he is wrong to insinuate that a kind of citizen activism—calling out rioters, haranguing them in public—is the solution.  The economic and social chasm that exists between the people burning cars and ransacking shops on the streets of London, and their detractors in civil society, the press and government, has been a long time in the making.  The wealth inequality that Margaret Thatcher glorified during the 1980s continued during the 13 years of Labour rule and will very likely be exacerbated by Britain’s experience of the economic downturn.  In the United States, between 1952 and 1972, the share of wealth of the top 10% never rose above 35% of the total.  Today estimates put it at over 50%.  Wealth inequality, as in Britain, rose dramatically during the 1980s and temporarily levelled off thereafter.   

Today, David Cameron’s coalition is steadily eroding the welfare state that was created in the aftermath of the Second World War and which, for many years with the support of the Labour, Liberal and Conservative Parties, aimed for full-employment.  Median wealth in the United States dropped by 36.1% as a result of the housing crisis and recession, but only by 11% for the top percentile.  Tellingly, the bottom 80%, as of 2007, possessed only around 15% of the country’s net worth and financial wealth.  Wealth inequality, self-evidently, translates into inequality of another kind.

When the combined wealth of the two riches Californians equals our projected budget deficit for the year 2011-2012 (A Portrait of California: 5), and yet our leaders resort to cutting support for health-, education-, environment- and safety-related agencies and programs, they should be made to explain very clearly what kind of society they think is going to come out of this, and what sort of values they think they are reflecting.  A Portrait of California reveals that “by 2005, California taxpayers in the top 20 percent were reporting 64 percent of all the income in the state, up by 50 percent since 1975.  The income share of the middle 60 percent fell from just over half in 1975 to only one-third in 2005”.  The report identifies the failure of wages to rise in real terms, the failure to produce sufficient skilled workers to meet the state’s economic and social needs (and the concomitant wage disparity produced by the resulting earnings gap), the decline in the number of “middle-wage” jobs in favour of high-earning technical and low-earning service classes, and falling unionisation rates (117-118). 

The results: inequality; unemployment and underemployment (a similar problem in Texas—the part of Perry’s “economic miracle” that he doesn’t tell you about); disparities between different ethnic groups, age groups, and regions; “precarious housing, frequent moves, and homelessness”; poor, differentiated and segregated services; and “residential segregation” (120-123).  In other words, a situation very like that in London, and quite possibly much worse in some areas, given our already-paltry and shrinking welfare system.

If we refuse to understand the consequences of crafting economic inequality, and if we refuse to admit that the social turmoil and dispossession this causes has roots in policy, we are deluding ourselves. 

Mike Davis, sometime historian, commentator, and currently professor of creative writing at UC Riverside, is often credited with predicting the 1992 Los Angeles riots.  But I suspect that Davis would be bemused by the awe he is correspondingly accorded.  Then, as now, all we need to do is pick up a newspaper, think critically about the relationship between our economic framework, our social world, and the interactions of people within those to imagine the consequences.

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