For a lot of people who have spent much time in Britain, the widespread riots were not a big surprise. Rather the response has been “What took you so long?”
There are appallingly visible levels of economic and political inequality; the descent of political debate into competition over what petty punitive measures to take next; widespread alienation manifested through alcohol abuse and violence; the complete political capitulation of the Labour Party and other traditional organisations of the working class; the mammoth bailouts of the financial sector in 2008-09; and most recently the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties’ (ConDem) coalition’s slashing of public services in the name of fiscal consolidation.
Now there is the perverse spectacle of, at last count, some 1600 people being charged with various offences. There is talk of those charged (not even convicted yet) being evicted from public housing and having their welfare benefits cut.
There were appalling displays of bipartisan vindictiveness in the Westminster parliament, Prime Minister David Cameron declaring, “We will not allow a climate of fear to exist on our streets” and Labour leader Ed Milliband proclaiming that MPs “stand shoulder to shoulder, united against the vandalism and violence”.
Political debate has reverted to pre-Victorian standards of hypocrisy. It is more like the Georgian era: they would be sending this new class of convict off to the colonies if they still had any. The 18th century convict with a stolen loaf of bread has been replaced by the contemporary “chav” with the T-shirt he knocked off from the local high street’s H & M before the place was torched.
Understanding these events needs going beyond a standard tale of elites and their indifference to poverty and its impacts. They reflect deep contradictions in the world’s oldest consolidated capitalist economy and the class relationships upon which it was built.
The riots began in Tottenham after the death on August 4 of Mark Duggan, who was shot by police. The shooting and the widely perceived callousness of the police response to community outrage escalated into violence two days later.
Now the independent police complaints commission has admitted it may have misled journalists into believing Duggan had fired at police before he was killed, clarifying later that he had not done so. The police action reflects a long trend of escalating aggression. The violent attacks and “kettling” experienced by protesters in 2008 at the G8 meeting in London and by student protesters last year are everyday occurrences in many areas of the country.
Riots quickly spread throughout London and to other major urban centres such as Bristol, Birmingham, Nottingham and Liverpool by August 10. After being caught off guard by the spreading revolt, the police and security forces eventually organised a “surge” to contain the situation by August 12. In the aftermath there are unconfirmed estimates of damages of around ?100 million.
Worsening poverty and inequality
Commentators have pointed out that many of the areas in revolt witnessed similar events in the early 1980s. There was the same combination of police violence and harassment with the then Thatcher government’s attacks on living standards and fostering of mass unemployment.
The ConDem coalition government has initiated a similar series of attacks. Between 2008 and 2010 there was a surge in government borrowing to pay for the financial sector bailout and falls in tax revenues due to the recession. Public debt rose from less than 40% to more than 70% of national income.
The government’s 2010 budget established a raft of regressive measures across education, public services and taxes and benefits. Students began a widespread revolt in the latter part of 2010 over rises in tuition fees.
The most notable aspect for the rioting population has probably been the tax and benefit changes. Even the generally conservative policy think-tank the Institute for Fiscal Studies concluded that the budget measures were highly regressive. A 2010 report noted: “Low-income households of working age lose the most as a proportion of income from the tax and benefit reforms announced in the emergency Budget. Those who lose the least are households of working age without children in the upper half of the income distribution.
“They do not lose out from cuts in welfare spending, and they are the biggest beneficiaries from the increase in the income tax personal allowance.”
Bailouts for the rich; neutral impacts on the upper middle class and a (conservatively estimated) more than 5% fall in incomes for people with children in the lowest earning 10% of the population. One way of seeing the riots is that these people are probably reclaiming these losses as goods in kind.
The riots occurred at the same time as other major convulsions in the European and US economies. There remains a threat of Greek and other national economies defaulting on international loans used to finance emergency measures in the wake of the international recession.
There was a historic downgrading of the US’s credit worthiness to below AAA by credit agency Standard and Poor’s in response to the Obama-Republican credit ceiling deal. Stock market prices collapsed before recovering slightly before the end of the week. These are all indications that a “double dip” recession is on the cards in the key capitalist economies. One of the few mainstream economists who predicted the global financial crisis, Nouriel Roubini, went so far as to say in an interview with wsj.com:
“Karl Marx had it right ... At some point capitalism can self-destroy itself. That’s because you cannot keep on shifting income from labour to capital without not having an excess capacity and a lack of aggregate demand. We thought that markets work. They are not working. What’s individually rational … is a self-destructive process.”
Britain is one place where this scenario is being played out. The first round of rioting and rebellion in the cities, against the Thatcher government in the 1980s, was eventually calmed by the boom in the financial services sector. As Guardian journalist Simon Jenkins notes in his book Thatcher and Sons, the boom that occurred as a result of deregulation was almost not foreseen by the Thatcher government.
The resulting two decades of current account imbalance and property price appreciation fed a financial sector boom that cushioned the effects of Britain’s general economic decline. At the same time, deteriorating labour conditions and outsourcing led to the consolidation of a layer of poorly paid workers, often drawn from recent immigrants.
The boom allowed the Blair and Brown Labour governments to fund some limited welfare initiatives and repair some of Thatcher’s damage to the public sector. This cushion disappeared after 2007, when key banks became insolvent and the government opted to bail them out.
Now, as the International Monetary Fund’s report on its annual “Article Four consultation” with Britain notes, the very weak recovery of late 2010 has faltered – in large part due to the government’s dramatic and regressive spending cuts.
The riots have been expressions of despair. Many innocents were caught up in the conflicts. There is evidence of some race-based violence, including the death of three south Asian men.
In the short term, the government and its sycophants in the media will try to create a moral panic and paint any protest action as a return of the “riots”. The Labour parliamentary leadership has shown itself to be on the side of the government.
The challenge for the left will be to link together the different strands of resistance to the ConDem cuts. The trade union leadership has held some limited but large actions such as a well-supported public sector strike in July. The left, however, may need to find ways of working outside these channels if a real fight back against the ConDems is to emerge.