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London town is falling down

August 10, 2011

Truly disturbing images of the riots in England have gone viral. We have infernos, masked mobs, riot police, looters and to top it off that heartbreaking footage of an injured Asian youth being helped to his feet only to have his backpack ransacked.


It provides fodder for a very emotive response but what of the bigger picture? Why are these areas such tinderboxes and why such an alarming escalation to what started as an ostensibly peaceful protest? Commentators are floundering in their attempts to explain the backdrop to these recent events with very few that I have read really offering an explanation that seems credible.

The clearest opinion I have read that attempts to understand the riots without looking through the prism of either politically correct obfuscation or red-neck racisim/ageism, is by Brendan O’Neill in The Australian today.

These observers are right that there is a political context to the riots. While the police shooting of young black man Mark Duggan may ostensibly have been the trigger for the street violence, there is a broader context to the disturbances. But they are wrong about what the political context is. Painting these riots as some kind of action replay of historic political streetfights against capitalist bosses or racist cops might allow armchair radicals to get their intellectual rocks off, as they lift their noses from dusty tomes about the Levellers or the suffragettes and fantasise that a political upheaval of equal worth is occurring outside their windows. But such shameless projection misses what is new and deeply worrying about these riots. The political context is not the cuts or racist policing, it is the welfare state, which has nurtured a generation that has no sense of community spirit or social solidarity.

What we have on the streets of London and elsewhere are welfare-state mobs. The youth who are shattering their own communities represent a generation that has been suckled by the state more than any generation before it. They live in urban territories where the sharp-elbowed intrusion of the welfare state during the past 30 years has pushed aside older ideals of self-reliance and community spirit. The march of the welfare state into every aspect of urban, less well-off people’s existences, from their financial wellbeing to their child-rearing habits and even into their emotional lives, with the rise of therapeutic welfarism designed to ensure that the poor remain “mentally fit”, has undermined individual resourcefulness and social bonding. The antisocial youthful rioters are the end-product of this antisocial system of state intervention.

The most striking thing about the rioters is how little they care for their own communities. You don’t have to be a right-winger with helmet hair and a niggling discomfort with black or chavvy yoof (I am the opposite of that) to recognise that this violence is not political, just criminal. It is entertaining to watch the political contortions of commentators who claim the riots are an uprising against the evils of capitalism, as they struggle to explain why the targets have been Foot Locker sports shops and why the only “gains” made by the rioters have been to get a new pair of trainers or an Apple laptop. In the Brixton race riots of 1981, looting and the destruction of local infrastructure were largely incidental to the broader expression of political anger, by-products of the main show, which was a clash between a community and the forces of the state. But in these riots, looting and smashing stuff up is all there is. It is childish nihilism.

Read the entire article. Does any politician spring to mind who has the leadership, courage or will to not only understand what’s happening but then try and turn it around? I’m feeling less than hopeful.

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