Welfare state mobs or victims of a global crisis?

The widespread anarchy in England last week seems to have surprised only the politicians who were forced to interrupt their summer vacations in order to deal with the crisis. Perceptive observers of the English ‘underclass,’ notably the newspaper columnist Theodore Dalrymple, have warned for years that public disorder was on its way. Six months ago, watching demonstrations in Tunisia and Algeria, Dalrymple’s first thoughts (in a comment piece presciently entitled ‘Riots Present and Future’) was that he was “looking at pictures of young rioters in England or France.”

Dalrymple’s diagnosis is unapologetically Conservative: Britain’s bloated welfare state has nursed a viper in its breast. Instead of being grateful for government provisions and subsidies – more generous, by most standards, than any previous welfare state – a population coddled by the nanny state (and patronized by intellectuals and politicians)  feels “entitled to a high standard of consumption, irrespective of its personal efforts; and therefore it regards the fact that it does not receive that high standard, by comparison with the rest of society, as a sign of injustice.” High expectations and disappointing outcomes also produce a disdain for low-paid jobs so that “unskilled labour is performed in England by foreigners, while an indigenous class of permanently unemployed is subsidized.” Bored, disillusioned and raised in a culture that glamorizes criminal activity – drug use, petty theft, hooliganism – this lost generation distracts itself with violent hedonism. Arson, looting and clashes with the police are merely an alternative to fighting on football terraces.

Others have argued that the riots are a response to austerity measures brought on by the recent financial crisis. The shooting of a young black man in Tottenham may have sparked the violence, but its root causes lie in the feelings of helplessness that chronically unemployed youth face in an era of globalized finance. Sensing that their precarious lifestyles are about to deteriorate suddenly, those who depend on the welfare state are venting their anger at the indifference of a corporate and political class which faces no comparable threat. Writing in The Telegraph,  Mary Riddell points out that the American economist J K Galbraith’s ascribed the  1929 stock market crash to “bad income distribution, a business sector engaged in ‘corporate larceny,’ a weak banking structure and an import/export imbalance.” Riddell notes that “All those factors are again in play. In the bubble of the 1920s, the top 5 per cent of earners creamed off one-third of personal income. Today, Britain is less equal … Last year alone, the combined fortunes of the 1,000 richest people in Britain rose by 30 per cent to £333.5 billion.”

These analyses offer context to the riots, but a more pressing concern for communities swept up in the chaos is the dark pleasure the mobs seem to have gained from the mayhem and destruction. Prime Minister Cameron says parts of English society are “frankly sick” – and  he encourages the silent majority to confront the anarchists in its midst. This defence of the English national character does not quite square with the facts. Twenty years ago the American author Bill Buford spent a year with British soccer hooligans and recorded his impressions in a book called Among the Thugs. Buford recorded the intense physical pleasure of violent confrontations and argued that these mobs rioted “for the same reason that another generation drank too much or smoked dope …

“[It] is their anti-social kick, their mind-altering experience, an adrenalin-induced euphoria that might be all the more powerful because it is generated by the body itself.” The historian Gavin Mortimer has also pointed out that in March 1941 – at a time when national unity was presumably at its highest – the bombing of the Café de Paris in Piccadilly produced horrifying scenes in which looters cut the fingers off corpses in order to get at their rings, and also robbed the wounded survivors “amid the confusion and carnage.”

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the violence in Britain is the doubt it raises about troubled economies elsewhere. Millions of people in Europe and the United States have been overwhelmed by the recent financial crisis and some – most notably in Greece – have already taken to the streets. So far violence has been the exception rather than the rule, but Britain’s sudden descent into chaos shows how quickly this apparent tranquility can disappear.

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