Radical myths about Britain’s riots

In: Uncategorized

11 Aug 2011

Rather than discuss Britain’s riots in general terms I want to focus here on the explanations that relate to the themes in Ferraris for All. That is to look at the arguments that blame the riots on inequality, poverty, public spending cuts, greed and similar factors.

I should emphasise that my critique of economic explanations for the crisis does not mean to endorse other popular arguments. For example, the widespread view that the riots are simply criminal is more an expression of outrage than an explanation. Clearly looting shops and setting fire to buildings are criminal offenses. But the challenge is to explain why such behaviour took place, particularly on such a large scale, rather than simply condemn it.

Nor am I attempting here to outline my own explanation of the riots. I am broadly convinced by the points put forward by spiked and by Kenan Malik. To reiterate, the point of this post is to look more closely at some of the apparently more radical, typically economic, explanations for the unrest.

A useful starting point is the YouGov public opinion poll on the riots published in today’s Sun. According to the poll the MAIN cause of the riots is viewed as: criminal behaviour (42%), gang culture (26%), government cuts (8%), unemployment (5%) and poor policing (3%). Some 5% gave an alternative explanation while another 5% said they did not know.

The most striking feature of this survey is the unpopularity of those explanations generally associated with the left (cuts and unemployment). In contrast, over two-thirds of the population goes along with explanations generally linked to the right: criminal behaviour and gang culture. It is also noticeable that some other explanations widely used by radical pundits – inequality, poverty, greed and consumerism – are not mentioned by name in the survey.

1)Inequality. The explanations of the riots in terms of inequality takes two main forms. First, that inequality itself played a key role in driving the riots. Second, that WIDENING inequality provided the backdrop to the riots. In other words it was not inequality itself but the fact that is was becoming a more pronounced problem. Those who favour such arguments have sometimes cited The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett to justify their arguments (my review of the book can be found here ). Others have pointed to the work of Daniel Dorling, a geography professor at the University of Sheffield.

There are several problems with these arguments:

  • Inequality is a defining feature of capitalist societies. If it led directly to riots then capitalism would be in a permanent state of looting and arson. Indeed the really interesting, and more challenging, question is to explain why capitalism survives despite substantial inequalities.
  • Nor is it clear that inequality has widened in recent years – although it does depend on exactly what measure is used. According to a government-backed report published in January 2010: “Over the most recent decade, earnings inequality has narrowed a little and income inequality has stabilised on some measures, but the large inequality growth of the 1980s has not been reversed.” If that is the case then why have the riots happened now? The report suggests that income inequality has probably remained roughly stable for about two decades.
  • The existence of inequality does not explain the form of any reaction to it. In the past it was often the backdrop to industrial action and political resistance. These riots are notably apolitical and nihilistic.

2)Poverty. What is true of inequality is also generally true of poverty. The latter is also a general feature of capitalist societies; although over the longer term it should be noted that living standards tend to rise even for the poorest. Judging from the occupations of those charged with or convicted of rioting so far it also seems clear that many are not from the poorest of the poor.

3)The cuts This is probably the least convincing explanation of all. Ken Livingstone, a former Labour mayor of London, is one of several who has argued along these lines. But as the Economist has correctly pointed out : “The much-heralded cuts have only just started: public spending is still higher than it was a year ago.” Harriet Harman, a Labour party politician, has blamed the riots  at least partly on the effects of FUTURE cuts including the trebling of tuition fees, cuts among youth workers and the police. It stretches credulity to believe that frenzied rioters were somehow considering the impact of future cuts on their living standards.

4)Youth unemployment and inactivity. It is true that youth unemployment is particularly high at present. According to official data the unemployment rate of 16-24 year olds increased from a recent low of 9.9% in the final quarter (Q4) of 2003 to 18.2% in Q4 of 2010. However, perhaps a more striking long-term trend is the rise in the proportion of economically inactive youth (the vast majority of whom are students): from 22.4% in 1992 Q2 to 29.7% in 2011 Q1. Therefore a substantially higher proportion of young people is inactive rather than unemployed. In many cases it is likely that these inactive youth are at colleges or universities that are designed more to keep them occupied than truly educate them. Probably not that far short of half of Britain’s young people are either unemployed or phoney work creation schemes disguised as educational institutions.

5)Consumerism and “greed”. One set of explanations which has not received enough attention is related to consumerism and greed. Such arguments, put forward by pundits such as Zygmunt Bauman, are essentially an attack on aspiration. Another commentator on BBC’s Newsnight programme last night blamed the riots partly on images propagated by the likes of MTV. Such comments are essentially suggesting that the aspiration of many young people to have what they cannot legally acquire which has fuelled the riots. The implication is that government should somehow discourage words, images or actions that encourage the popular desire to become richer. Presumably this goal is meant to be achieved through such means as encouraging green values and regulating advertising. In a sense this is a particular twist on the inequality argument.

6)No future. Many commentators have made the point that the rioters probably have a bleak view of the future. No doubt that is true but in that respect they only reflect the commonly held sentiments of Britain’s green-tinged elite. Public discussion is full of talk about how dangerous drinking, smoking, unhealthy eating, unsafe sex and the like are ruining our lives. Meanwhile, climate change is often said to be set to destroy the world.

It is not hard to see where the rioters’ nihilism comes from.