London’s been burning for two weeks, with the flames of chaos spreading across the United Kingdom. The spark was the police killing of a black man in the working class Tottenham neighborhood, hence early media reports glossed the affair as a “race riot.” But it’s not. Perhaps the silver lining on an otherwise dismal situation is the fact that this is not a race riot, with looters and arsonists representing the racial and ethnic makeup and diversity of their communities. Likewise, unlike in previous UK riots, there isn’t much evidence of racial targeting of victims, even in areas where the rioters are predominantly white or black. There is evidence, however, that rioters, while not sharing a common racial or ethnic identity, do share two common demographic traits: They’re poor and they’re young.
Despite the demographic solidarity of the rioters, however, I’d shy away from the temptation to label what we’re seeing as any sort of cohesive class war or revolutionary uprising. I’m sorry, but this is just a romantic fantasy. The targets have not been the seats of corporate or government power, which are too well protected for a mob of adolescents to attack. Instead we’re seeing targets of convenience, mostly in the form of neighborhood businesses and unfortunately situated cars, go up in flames. And the human targets haven’t been members of Parliament or hedge fund managers, but instead the working-class cops who are stuck doing the shit work of maintaining an empire of privilege.
What we’re witnessing is more visceral than a formal revolution or uprising. When spontaneous anger first spilled onto the streets of Tottenham, Europe’s most sophisticated security state showed itself to be vulnerable. The pent-up anger it was designed to contain immediately boiled over. The rioters weren’t sparked on by any Marxist dogma—most are teenagers who, after suffering through some of the UK’s most underfunded and subpar public schools, have little formal understanding of political theory. What they do seem to understand, and understand better than most people, is the simple concept of being fucked over. And that, apparently, is enough.
For me, what’s most surprising is how surprised people seem to be in the face of what’s happening. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned back in 2007 that among the world’s 21 wealthiest countries, British children fared the worst overall in a study examining their educational, material, and social well-being. Austerity measures adopted by the British government following the economic crisis of 2008 have only made things worse—much worse. The employment rate for people under the age of 24, for example, has increased by 50 percent since the UNICEF study was conducted. The worst unemployment was recorded in the boroughs of Hackney and Haringey, where Tottenham is located, and where the riots first began.
This is also a neighborhood that has suffered, and continues to suffer, from some of the most draconian cuts in social programs in Britain, with youth centers being shuttered and tuitions for education programs being raised beyond affordability. It’s also an area where aggressive “stop and frisk” policing policies have angered and alienated a generation of children—who, after regularly being treated like criminals, have now learned to act accordingly.
Looting is complicated. Certainly, on one level, it’s the result of pure greed, not a political consciousness. It’s not about a conscious attack on material inequality as much as it’s a reaction programmed by a commercial culture—to accrue stuff by whatever means are open to you. For middle-class folks, that means turning a blind eye toward the sweatshops where your affordable goods are produced, essentially stealing the labor and health of the people who produced them. For those with the same material desire but no cash or credit cards, the theft goes one level higher. It’s not revolution. It’s greed. Or hunger. But the cause is the same. That’s the social inequality and hopelessness documented by UNICEF.
When there is no hope—as in no jobs, no hope of jobs, no hope of getting a decent education, no hope of getting by with any sort of stable healthy life, and little evidence that anyone in your community is getting by—the social fabric tears. Revolutions are born out of hope. Riots are gestated in despair. In this case, this is the despair that a half million protesters in London warned about on March 26 of this year. In the UK, like here in the US, the relentless, insatiable greed of the hungry ghosts at the top of the economic pyramid has bled large tracts of the nation of the very lifeblood it needs to survive.
Ultimately, where there is social pain and frustration, and no hope of relief, bad things happen. Individuals give up and self-destruct by anesthetizing themselves with drugs, poisoning their families and communities in the process. And communities eventually self-destruct with undirected, as in no real revolution to direct it, anger. This is what we’re seeing in the UK. It’s a class war, but not one that’s being waged by poor and working-class people. The riots are the end result—a sort of colony collapse syndrome like that suffered by bees.
This should be the mother of all wake-up calls for us here in the United States. Remember that UNICEF study? While poor British children suffer the worst conditions in the developed world, the same study places the US right behind Britain, with the difference between the two countries being statistically insignificant. The only difference is that in Britain, even conservative politicians are talking about how the social safety net might need a bit of mending. Here in the US, our politicians are instead plotting unfathomable cuts to the final remaining threads in our social safety net.