Published in Uganda’s The Daily Monitor August 11, 2011 It has never felt worse to be British. First a financial crisis caused by the failure of governments to govern a finance industry previously hailed as an economic powerhouse. Then draconian public spending cuts that threaten to create recession. And now the worst riots in living memory, which seem to have less to do with politics than with opportunistic, loosely networked lawlessness and looting.
“We’ve shown we can do what we want!” two young women rioters told the BBC. They described smashing into shops to obtain “free alcohol” as “a laugh” and said they would definitely be at it again the next night.
The rioters are mainly young, some of them children. The British media are therefore wheeling out Youth Workers to explain what’s going on in young heads. But this can’t be treated as just a “Youth” issue. The youth of any society are its most real “output.” If we Brits don’t like our youth, or sections of them, it is a reflection on us and the way we made them.
Many young Britons today have legitimate grievances, but so do other Europeans and they do not behave this way. The Spanish economy is in worse straits than the UK’s, with unemployment among Spanish youth now near 40%. Some of them have taken to the streets in an informal movement of indignados(“indignant people”). But Spain’s is, so far, a peaceful movement and, although it has no clear agenda, it is a political movement: one that wants policy change, even if it doesn’t know what policy is right. British rioters, it seems, just want a good night out.
What kind of a society could produce something like this?
It is a society steeped on the one hand in the moral cynicism of economic neoliberalism--that greed is good, a necessary component of economic vitality; that only the individual matters—and on the other in the sharp inequalities that these doctrines have generated.
It is a society where even the poorest have been enticed to consume beyond their means, endlessly assailed with advertising and offers of credit for goods they cannot afford, leading many into insuperable debt.
It is a society where human oversight of public space has been replaced by the world’s most comprehensive system of closed circuit TV surveillance, creating a Big Brother atmosphere which the rioters are not alone in resenting.
It is at the same time an increasingly informal and demotic society which celebrates the ordinary and encourages everyone to express their opinions, however unformed and banal.
And it is a society networked with new communications technologies that have been praised for putting everyone in touch—but which here, as in the case of terrorism, again show their ability to join up some dangerous dots, resulting in loosely networked, apparently “random” violence.
Some of the underlying factors in this potent cocktail reflect global trends and deserve global attention. The specific and puzzling mix of empowerment plus disempowerment is, however, peculiarly English—not even, properly speaking, British, since the riots have not reached Wales and Scotland, whose electorate has consistently rejected neoliberal politics over the last 30 years.
So England has some real thinking and heart-searching to do. The right will react by saying this is all the result of too much liberality, that we need more discipline, more law and order, less immigration, less multiculturalism. The left will lament the social exclusion of youngsters in a neglected underclass and call for greater efforts to create civic and economic opportunities for them.
What’s needed, and unlikely to be forthcoming, is a deeper conversation that admits rights and wrongs in both perspectives.
But it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. If I had to name one person who is benefitting from this, I would nominate Yoweri Museveni . For he will doubtless soon be citing the UK riots as post hoc justification for his suppression of civic protest in Uganda.