England’s Ashes – Our Future?

Hopefully the worst of the violence is over in Great Britain. London's fires are cooling into ashes, and with any luck they won't be rekindled. But even though the British economy is still a tinderbox, nothing that's happened has dampened some people's enthusiasm for doing the same thing over here…

The radical right, which is now in full command of the Republican Party, is exploiting the crisis for all its worth. And even though the self-described 'sensible center' (which is neither) will condemn the violence, 'centrist' Democrats and media cheerleaders like Tom Friedman will keep pushing the same policies that have brought Great Britain to its knees.

When your ideology demands a 'great bargain' that savages the social safety net, you can't let experience get in the way.

London's Burning

In the punk years leading up to England's last wave of rioting, “London's Burning” was the name of two different songs. The Clash said the city was burning with “boredom,” while their lesser-known rivals The Ruts said it was aflame with “anxiety.” This year's riots were born of both boredom and anxiety, along with lots of despair and rage.

Conservatives still trapped in the sixties argue that the rioters are acting out the rage of the left. But the angry crowds are really the mirror of a right-wing, instant gratification, get-rich-quick philosophy that exalts materialism and condemns anyone who can't afford goodies like those flat-screen TVs carried out of burning UK shops. The rioters know they've been thrown away by Britain's elites and they're responding in kind. The looters and burners are the flipside of greed, the castaways of consumerism, prosperity's prodigal children.

And they may be coming soon to a location near you.

In their increasingly desperate attempts to prevent the public from seeing the obvious, conservatives blame “multiculturalism” or social liberals. Andrew Roberts, for example, writes that “political leaders have constantly failed to ram home the vital message that the something-for-nothing society is as morally wrong as it is financially bankrupt.” Remarkably, that sentence isn't describing politicians who coddled rich criminals, whose deregulation kindled a wave of Wall Street greed and lawlessness that ruined the economy, and whose 'soft on crime' attitudes have allowed those crimes to go unpunished, as any reasonable reader might conclude. Instead, in a piece entitled “ fifth downgrade since the Cameron government took power, and that report came after it was announced that retail sales had fallen 2.5% and household income was projected to fall another 2% under the austerity program. Last year's gains in employment have already been reversed. The number of people who have been unemployed for more than a year is the highest it's been in more than a decade.

Three years after Wall Street precipitated a global crisis, British youth unemployment reached record levels earlier this year, An analyst noted that “”Being out of work for more than a year can have a scarring effect, making it harder to get a job as well as having a negative impact on one's health and wellbeing,” adding: “The Government's decision to abolish job guarantees for young people may leave a generation of young people scarred for many years to come.”

By 2008, Great Britain had reached the highest level of income inequality in more than half a century, and the austerity measures imposed by the new government targeted the victims of that inequality. As a recent report showed, the poorest 10% of the population saw their real income fall over the last decade, while “richest tenth of the population have seen much bigger proportional rises in their incomes than any other group.”

The riots began in Tottenham, which has the highest unemployment rate in London. Youth clubs have been closed, because the austerity economics regime slashed 75% of the youth services budget. And, as Seumas Milne points out, young people in the neighborhood said the club closings could lead to rioting, as bored and anxious young people take to the streets.

And the austerity crowd has slashed police budgets, too, just as the House Republican budget did here in the United States. Even law and order, that shibboleth of conservatism, takes a back seat to the radical austerity ideology. That makes it harder for the right and the pseudo-center to justify their discredited policies, leaving them to come up with increasingly shrill and implausible explanations for the violence.

Inflammatory Rhetoric

What do you do when your entire political platform's been discredited? If you're the right, you go on the attack. Glenn Beck said that Democrats are “intentionally going for entitlement cuts) …to get the American people out on the streets, and I'm telling you now: It will be London, it will be Greece, it is coming. They've sown all the seeds they need to. It's a matter of time.”

Rush Limbaugh said rioters were “the equivalent of Obama voters.”

(The right-wing quotes come courtesy of Media Matters and their hardy band of scouts. They go spelunking in the dark caves of the human spirit so we don't have to.)

When the right isn't accusing the left of “cheering the protesters on,” it's …. well, it's cheering the protesters on. This mad mentality is best exemplified by a wild rant from the National Review's John Derbyshire called “Let London Burn.” Some stalwart grad student could write quite a paper on the undertones and resonances of a paragraph like this one:

“Through British veins runs the poisonous fake idealism of “human rights” and “sensitivity,” of happy-clappy multicultural groveling and sick, weak, deracinated moral universalism — the rotten fruit of a debased, sentimentalized Christianity.”

Matt Yglesias makes some telling points, but we'll merely linger on the word 'deracinate' for a moment. The word means “to uproot or displace from one's native environment.” Derbyshire doesn't share his vision of a non-deracinated moral universalism or an un-debased, unsentimental Christianity, but we'll assume that the Book of Matthew has no place in it.

Derbyshire also waxes nostalgic for the time when England was “a nation” – words underscored by a link takes you to (I kid you not) a a mezzo-soprano singing “Rule Britannia,” as images of the British Empire appear on the screen.

His closing words ring like an unsentimental prayer: “Let it burn!”

The “burn, baby, burn!” school of conservatism is accompanied by the “fire brigade” conservatives who, while not openly cheering the violence in Derbyshire style, grimly warn that patriotic Americans may be building their own barricades soon. Sean Hannity speculates that rioting and looting will reach our shores in “maybe ten years,” another Fox commentator says “it's going to get nasty here, too.”

Are they right? Could we be next? That's hard to say. The United States has experienced riots before, of course. Today's economic misery has been most notable for its absence of public activity or protest. But every month that passes, and every austerity measure that's passed, sends the same message to the poor, the elderly, the unemployed, the young, and the struggling middle class: You're on your own.

That's a pretty inflammatory message.

Shrinking America

The austerity crowd has dominated the Republican Party for a generation. Now it's captured most of the mainstream media and much of the Democratic leadership too. The experience of real people in the real world – reflected in Great Britain's economic performance over the past year – hasn't shaken their resolve.

Their media shock troops greeted the austerity budget of the current British government with a wave of prose that can best be described as “austerity porn.” We've already discussed the sado-erotic prose employed by the cut-spending crowd as the Cameron team implemented its economic plan: “Articles about the nation's finances are filled with talk of blood, knives, and amputation,” wrote Applebaum. “And the British love it.”

Well, they don't seem to love it now.

As Appelbaum deployed her snuff-film imagery, millionaire Tom Friedman scoldingly told the nation that spending to reduce unemployment and stimulate economic growth was a “drug” and that the nation had a “values problem.” Now, after a year of living by Friedman's “values,” Great Britain's economy is in a tailspin and its society is in tatters.

Does that discourage Friedman? Three guesses. In his most recent column (written before the riots began but long after the economic results were in), Friedman's still beating the same old drum. This time he's excited about the idea that the United States and other developed countries are experiencing, not a Great Recession, but a “Great Contraction.” That calls for … gosh, it calls for the same austerity economics Friedman's been preaching for years!

Who'd have guessed? Welcome to Tom Friedman's Incredible Shrinking America.


A great contraction is what precedes childbirth, but Friedman as his cohort want the country to give birth to a monster. Friedman's preaching the incoherent gospel of a new anti-Jerusalem that would replace Winthrop's “shining city on a hill” with a smoldering slum in a trash-filled ravine. Friedman and others of his ilk, in the media and both political parties, are ignoring the economic experience of the last seventy-five years – and news that's as fresh as today's headlines.

Let's be clear: We're not accusing Friedman or anyone else in the US debate of having any responsibility for what's happened in Great Britain. Let's leave that sort of mudslinging to the right. And while we're at it, let's say what shouldn't need to be said but must be in this age of character assassination: To explain violence's economic causes is not to condone it, any more than it condones the crimes of Wall Street to point out that they're caused by deregulation, political corruption, and greed.

That image of America as a shining city comes from the Bible: “A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do [men] light a lamp, and put it under the bushel … let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

But the austerity future is a diminished one, a contracted destiny collapsing into itself like a black hole. Its only light would come from the burning garbage reflected in the windows of its abandoned buildings. We've seen their future, but the lessons of Britain haven't discouraged them. They're still demanding a British-style economy, even while the ashes of London are still warm.

It's incredible, really. As the ruins smolder over there, our most influential people act like children playing with matches. They may use different language, but John Derbyshire's words are the ones that best capture the soul of their vision for America:

Let it burn.