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Economics

The English Spring

10 August 2011

The English Spring

By Gwynne Dyer

“I don’t call it rioting, I call it an insurrection of the masses of the people. It is happening in Syria, it is happening in Clapham, it’s happening in Liverpool, it’s happening in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, and that is the nature of the historical moment,” said Darcus Howe, a black British journalist, in an interview with BBC television on Tuesday. The revolution has finally arrived: after the “Arab Spring”, here comes the “English Spring”.

And the revolution is going to spread. There’s apparently a “Trinidadian Spring” too (although it’s also possible that Howe only mentioned Port-of-Spain because he grew up in Trinidad). Whatever. In any case, the English Spring is certainly an earth-shaking event.

With London in flames, thousands dead, and the British government trembling before a full-scale insurrection of the masses, the collapse of the entire capitalist order is only moments away. As the Tunisian revolution led to the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt and then to a non-violent revolutionary movement in Syria, so the overthrow of the British government will quickly lead to the destruction of the US government and the Chinese Communist regime.

Wait a moment! This just in! London isn’t in flames after all. Some dozens of buildings have been burned in various residential parts of London, but none in the centre. Apart from the original demonstration outside a police station in the London suburb of Tottenham by relatives of a suspected drug dealer who was shot by police on Sunday, it’s opportunistic looters who have been out on the streets, not political protesters.

In the inner London district of Camden Town, for example, the social media on Monday night were full with rumours of local landmarks in flames. However, Tuesday morning revealed that a few phone shops in the high street had been looted overnight, and an iconic (but rather grubby) rock venue called the Electric Ballroom had been vandalised. Nothing else to report.

We in the media love stories of death and destruction, but it turns out that there aren’t thousands of dead either. As of Wednesday, there had been only five deaths that might be linked to the turmoil: three people killed in Birmingham by a speeding car probably driven by looters, one man found shot dead in a car in London for unexplained reasons, and the drug dealer, Mark Duggan, whose death at the hands of the police unleashed these events.

There are certainly questions to be answered about Duggan’s killing (it appears that the gun he was carrying was never fired), and further questions to be asked about the way that the police dealt with his family afterwards. The demonstration outside Tottenham police station was genuinely political, and there are plausible claims that the police response was excessive.

But after that, everything changed. On the second night, there was no rioting, in the sense of demonstrations with a political motive or goal. There was just looting, as disaffected youths from the under-class seized the opportunity to acquire a little property from the rest of the population and damage a lot more. They feel that they have been abandoned by the society, and they are right.

Every post-industrial society has a large and growing minority of permanently unemployed or under-employed people who would once have grown up into the good working-class jobs that no longer exist. They are present in significant numbers in Britain and in France, in the United States and in Russia, even in Japan. It’s those bored and angry youths who are looting in England now.

Some people want to impose an ethnic explanation on this phenomenon. They try to define the looting and violence as a response by underprivileged black youths in Britain (or by underprivileged Muslim youth in the 2005 and 2007 riots in France). But the truth is that rioting and looting have always been equal-opportunity activities in both countries.

In the past thirty years of sporadic rioting and looting in England, every outbreak has included a large, probably majority participation by young whites from the under-class. The same was true of France in 2005 and 2007, where the young “Muslim” rioters were quite happy to be accompanied by their white and Asian friends from the same tower blocks.

For complex cultural reasons, the looters in England are disproportionately Afro-Caribbean youths, but it is not a particularly racist society. Afro-Caribbeans come last in school performance in England, but the children of immigrants from Africa come first. Fifty percent of second-generation Afro-Caribbeans in England end up in inter-racial relationships – but often in relationships with people of the white under-class. No escape there.

The real issue here is class – or to be more precise, the despair of the under-class. Less brutal and insulting behaviour towards the under-class by the police in normal times would reduce the level of resentment and the frequency of rioting and looting, but it wouldn’t stop it.

So there will probably be at least a few days’ more looting in England, until the under-class youths in every city and neighbourhood have had a chance to vent their anger and fill their pockets. And then it will stop. For a while.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 2, 5 and 12. (“And…event”; “In the…report”; and “For complex…there”)