Anarchy in the U.K.: How the Pundits Got it Wrong

Firefighters at a burning store in South London. Courtesy AFP

There’s a temptation to see a simple correlation between the recent riots in Britain and high levels of youth unemployment and lack of economic opportunity. A recent Guardian books blog, for example, takes note of how the rioters showed no interest in looting vulnerable Waterstone’s bookstores–reflecting the fact that bookstores are full of stuff that appeals only to “white, middle-class people.” In other words, the rioters were drawn from society’s lower orders.

Compare that assumption with reporting from an August 11 article in The New York Times. “One surprise was the presence of young men and women with regular jobs among the riot suspects lined up in police wagons outside courthouses in London and other cities,” wrote reporters John F. Burns and Ravi Somaiya. These included a graphic designer, a postal employee, a dental assistant, a teaching aide, a forklift driver and a youth worker, the article said. It also reported the presence of a 19-year-old female resident of “an upmarket area of rural Kent that is part of what Londoners call the stockbroker belt.”

O.K.–so maybe the events weren’t totally a result of social deprivation. Perhaps we should have guessed that from the fact that the looters apparently kept in contact via their ubiquitous Blackberries.

But what else would account for the wanton destruction of property and mass involvement in looting at electronics, clothing, and cosmetics shops? Bad parenting, as Prime Minister David Cameron would have it?

Here’s another idea. The recent News of the World scandal has revealed Cameron and much of the Establishment to be a clannish, money-grubbing group of cynics. Rupert Murdoch, his “favorite daughter” Rebekah Brooks, Metropolitan Police officials including Assistant Commissioner John Yates, and on and on have shown themselves to believe in nothing other than feathering their own nests. “Yes, I believe we paid the police,” disgraced ex-News International CEO Brooks blurted out before Parliament, as if there could be nothing in the world wrong with such a practice.

If the leading figures in society are openly broadcasting that the only thing that matters is getting ahead–and scoring that BMW or luxury townhouse–well, why not just smash a few shop windows and grab that iPod or wide-screen TV as soon as cutbacks in police provide an opportunity?

The consent of the governed and legitimacy accorded such institutions as the Fourth Estate have long depended on a belief that officials have the broader interest of society at heart.  Once it’s been made perfectly clear that they have no such concerns…well, why should anyone else?

The 1920s’ Italian Communist theoretician Antonio Gramsci believed that unmasking what he called “capitalist cultural hegemony”–or the control of a society’s values–might lead to a socialist revolution.  In this case, however, such an unmasking has led merely to imitation. “Hey, Rupert and Cameron have theirs–why shouldn’t I get mine? Let’s smash some windows!”

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