Rebelling Without a Cause

Opportunistic rioting in England is emblematic of a consumer society, and a symptom of a wider European problem

News | Mazin Elfehaid | September 2011


It was a balmy August evening in London when, standing in a parking lot in the deprived Haringey borough, hip-hop artist Lefty made a dark prediction about an imminent rise in the local crime rate.

"Our community is in trouble," he told me.  "Our local youth centre is closing down because of government cuts. When it does, young people won’t have anywhere left to go. All our parks have been sold to property developers, so these kids are gonna be hanging around on the street. Crime and theft are going to increase."

It didn’t take long. Less than 24 hours after our conversation, a riot broke out in Haringey that sparked several days of looting throughout London and other major UK cities.

The riot erupted after police officers shot and killed a local drug dealer called Mark Duggan. When his family and community members marched on the police station to demand an explanation, officers refused to meet with them, causing their anger to explode.

Race is not the cause  

Relations between police and low-income communities in London have a long history of tension. In the 1970s , "sus" law allowed the MP to condone stop-and-search techniques, particularly in African and Caribbean neighborhoods. Most agree, however, that great strides have been made since then.

"The current leadership of the Metropolitan Police is light years ahead in sophistication and sensitivity from the Metropolitan Police that I used to march and demonstrate against in the ‘80s," Hackney MP Dianne Abbott wrote in The Guardian, though she admits that bad blood still exists.

In particular, black men are still eight times more likely to be stopped and searched than white men, according to Rob Berkeley, the director of the Runnymede Trust, a race relations think tank.

That first night of rioting was a community’s genuine expression of outrage against a police force with which they have historically had a difficult relationship. But by the next day, as rioting spread throughout the city, it became clear that the situation had devolved into an apolitical free-for-all, with teenagers of all backgrounds forming mobs that roamed the streets to hit up their favorite stores for some free sneakers, TVs, and anything else they could get their hands on.

The most striking thing was the way consumer trends seemed to dictate the focus. Electronics warehouses, shoe shops and clothing stores were cleaned out, furniture stores simply set on fire. In Clapham Junction, the only store left untouched was a Waterstone’s bookshop - a  fact both funny and sadly revealing of the rioters’ priorities. Alternatively, it could be read as a shrewd targeting of goods with the highest re-sale value. Reporters and commentators were left stunned as they faced what appeared to be the first-ever "Rebellion Without a Cause".

Austerity and inequality

If there was no political motivation behind the massive civil unrest, then why did it happen?  The answer, it turns out, has important implications for the EU as it continues to deal with the fallout from the financial crisis and subsequent European era of austerity.

London, one of the financial capitals of the world, was the European epicenter of the 2008 crisis. The United Kingdom has equally been at the forefront of defining a radical response to the burgeoning public debt facing many European governments as a result of the economic downturn: sweeping cuts to state spending.

While many, including the Labour opposition leader Ed Miliband, are accusing the government of cutting "too far, too fast," local authority budgets have been slashed to the bone. Haringey, for example, has the highest unemployment rate in London at 8.8 percent, compared to the citywide average of 4.4 percent and the national rate of 7.7 percent. According to the Financial Times, the Haringey council has seen a reduction in spending power of almost 8 percent in the last year and has been forced to cut its youth budget by 75 percent, hence having to shut down its community centres. Meanwhile, cuts to the national government budget have meant that benefits like the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), a weekly grant of £30 for the poorest high school students, have been scrapped entirely.

"The EMA is vital for me," 17-year-old Lee Christian told The Guardian in October of last year. "I wanted to get a degree, but with rising tuition fees, I’m wondering if it is really worth it." It would appear that students from low-income families are increasingly faced with the prospect of having to give up school in order to support themselves.

"[The UK is] a country in which the richest 10 percent are now 100 times better off than the poorest," wrote Nina Power in The Guardian, "and where, according to the OECD, social mobility is worse than any other developed country."

A European tale?

Recent research ties public sector cutbacks, and worsening social mobility to social unrest: A study published in August by economists Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth titled "Austerity and Anarchy" found "a clear positive correlation between fiscal retrenchment and instability" in Europe between 1919 and 2009. Crucially, recessions alone don’t elicit social unrest; the key predictor is the percentage of budget cuts.

With youth unemployment in Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain, and Italy higher than in the UK, the risks of further unrest are high. As the austerity measures in these countries begin to bite, governments will come under increasing pressure to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected and growth opportunities aren’t choked off, a caution echoing throughout the British media in the days following the riots.

"This is what happens when people don’t have anything," wrote columnist Zoe Williams in The Guardian, "when they have their noses constantly rubbed in stuff they can’t afford and ... no reason to believe they will be able to afford it."

The lesson? While these rebels may have no clear cause, their societies have no such luxury. Needs without means are a powder keg. Despair is rarely clear-headed and this looting may merely be the unsanctioned version of what economists call "pent-up consumer demand" – just without the resources to back it up.

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