Category Archives: riots in Britain

No Nostalgia for Thatcher, but a Tribute to the Welfare State by Ken Loach

The muted protests at Thatcher’s funeral on Wednesday gave the world a glimpse of the deeply-felt divisions in British society. She did not create this social cleavage, which at root is part of an international process: a shift of manufacturing out of Europe and the U.S., and a rapid expansion of speculation in financial centres like London and New York. What she is responsible for is ending the ruling elite’s Keynesian commitment to the mitigation of regional and social inequities.

Although her death evoked few tears in Britain’s industrial heartland, there was more than a little interest in showings of Ken Loach’s new documentary about the Attlee Labour government, “The Spirit of ‘45”. I was fortunate enough to see it while in the UK recently, and my own feelings were mixed: my childhood was spent under the wing of the welfare state, so I took state-provided health and education for granted, and share Loach’s affection for the cradle-to-grave policies that characterized the period.

The interviews with people who were children in the 1930s and 1940s were very moving. They remembered the harsh and degrading conditions of that time and the optimism for a better future after the 1945 election, articulating the general disaffection with prewar society and the determination that things were going to be different.

The interviewees vividly recounted the social impact of the Labour government’s nationalization and house-building program. The experience of state-directed industry during the war had established the feasibility of state intervention to achieve social goals. There was a huge sense of pride and ownership of the newly-nationalized industries, especially the National Health Service, which brought free health care to working-class families who had never been able to afford it. The government channeled state resources into solving the immediate problems of poverty, unemployment, and bad health. Housing for millions of families living in slums or private boarding houses was made a priority.

The weaker part of the film was the final segment, which showed participants urging a return to the collectivist spirit of the postwar era. While Thatcher was the clear villain of the piece, the discussion gave the impression that she imposed privatization and unemployment from above, an arbitrary political decision that could be reversed by a revived social-democratic party in Britain.

But the world has changed since Labour’s manifesto was written in 1945.  Globalization has made national forms of struggle increasingly ineffective in resisting corporate power. What troubled me was the message that the younger generation should look to the history of the Attlee government for an alternative to austerity, which amounts to advocating old solutions to qualitatively new problems.

The achievement of a welfare state after World War II was essentially a political compromise between an organized and homogeneous working class and a capitalist class that had survived the war and needed to restart capital accumulation. This cemented the priorities of the Labour leaders to the recovery of British-based capital within the economic boundaries of the old empire.

The Labour electoral landslide was not the result of some mass revolutionary wave, as some on the left like to think, but rather came from a popular determination to continue the state planning established during the war. State technocrats were more enthusiastic about nationalization than the government, which never intended to change the balance of power in industry, and obsolete production relations were kept intact along with antiquated machinery.

While making a huge difference in people’s lives by alleviating the prewar degradation of the working class, nationalization also released capital bound up in older industries with more than generous compensation to the former owners. Later Conservative governments continued the social compromise, while full employment and expanding markets gave shopfloor militancy leverage to gain a larger share of the surplus being produced. As production rapidly accelerated, the focus of capital accumulation shifted from the national arena to the global. The revival of the German and Japanese economies intensified competition in the world market, and the boom began to falter.

Signs of the erosion of the postwar political compromise were evident by the time of the Heath government, with a wave of inflation and industrial slowdown in 1973; national control of the economy dissolved with the IMF loan to the Callaghan government in 1976. As Michael Hudson explains it: “Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan made a token attempt to address [problems of the economy] by requesting an IMF loan in 1976 to finance tangible industrial re-investment as bridge financing until the UK’s North Sea oil could begin generating foreign exchange. But US Treasury Secretary Bill Simon read him the riot act. IMF and U.S. policy was to provide credit only to pay bondholders, not to build up the real economy. Britain would be advanced loans only if it reoriented its economy to let high finance do the planning.”

At the same time, industries based on new technology were expanding in the south of England, dividing the country socially and politically, and intensifying existing class divisions which had been left unchanged even after thirty years of the welfare state. This created the upwardly-mobile forces Thatcher was able to mobilize to champion populist capitalism against the Keynesian compromise. Her neoliberal agenda corresponded to the changes in international production and exchange that had weakened the unions and enabled her to change the ideological climate within the British ruling elite to toleration of the harsh monetarist doctrines shared by U.S. capital.

She did not set out to empower bankers, but that was the inevitable result of lifting restraints on capital as soon as she took office. As Hudson puts it: “Attacking central planning by government, she shifted it into much more centralized financial hands – the City of London, unopposed by any economic back bench of financial regulation and ‘free’ of meaningful anti-monopoly price regulation. … The Iron Lady was convinced she was rebuilding England’s economy, while in reality it was only getting richer from London’s outlaw banks.”  Her administration was the last to stridently claim an independent nationalism before later governments succumbed to the dictates of international finance – there is no pretense today that British foreign or economic policy is anything but dependent on the US and the City bankers.

Like the rest of Europe and the US, Britain has moved to a low-waged, service economy dominated by global corporations. The labour movement is faced with finding new ways of organizing and fighting in line with the realities of this globalized economy. That is why signs of international resistance to global capital are significant. US workers are flying to Europe to take on their Dutch supermarket owners. Striking immigrant McDonalds workers are returning to their homelands from the US determined to spread the campaign for a living wage. Bangladeshi survivors of the Tazreen factory fire and Nicaraguan victims of antiunion assaults are in New York to confront Walmart board members. And US unions are creating non-traditional ways to organize workers who have no recognized union at their workplace; the AFL-CIO affiliate, Working America, now claims 3.2 million members and is planning to establish chapters in every state in the USA.

I made this brief sketch of events in the years not covered by Ken Loach’s film to give some historical context to Thatcher’s administration, and to argue that the revival of a social-democratic perspective, necessarily limited to winning concessions from a nationally-based state, would not be productive. I believe that activists should focus on connecting with workers in the international supply chain feeding commodities into Western markets, which is corporate capital’s weakest point.

Nostalgia for the welfare state is understandable, but we need to learn from the creative solutions of the international labour movement in order to defend those reforms that remain from the past.

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Conservative icon and much-hated politician Margaret Thatcher is dead

The demise of Margaret Thatcher, for 11 years prime minister of Britain, has attracted eulogies from the conservative right and condemnation from the left. She is not entirely deserving of either.

Although credited with destroying the welfare state, her role was much smaller than her public persona made it appear. The “Iron Lady” was a carefully cultivated media image of single-minded ruthlessness for a woman who in actuality limited herself to the politically possible. Obama is mistaken when he says that she was able to shape history with her “moral conviction, unyielding courage and iron will.”

The social consensus of postwar Britain had already been eroded in the 1970s by changes in the economy deriving from technological innovations like automation and the emergence of international capital markets. When Thatcher took on the miners’ union in 1984, the labour movement had been weakened both by economic decline and the removal of legal immunity for damages resulting from strikes. She unleashed the forces of the state to crush the political opposition of miners fighting to keep their jobs in the pits: however, their union was isolated by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and faced a legal and physical onslaught against their pickets. The miners were unable to counter the state’s strategic build-up of coal reserves imported from Poland in preparation for the conflict.

What Thatcher really did was to dispense with the role of the TUC in government. Since 1945 the union leaders had worked to keep disputes within a legal framework, while workers in shop floor organizations had become increasingly militant, in effect bringing down the Heath government in 1971 and undermining the Callaghan government after 1974. She abrogated this arrangement and took on the most militant union for political effect, similar to the way she attacked Argentina in 1982 – sending a naval task force to retake an old coaling station off the South American coast – and to when she allowed Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands to die rather than concede political status for IRA prisoners.

She hardly deserved to be a world figure. Her outlook was distinctly parochial and small-minded. What gave her international influence was her relationship with Ronald Reagan, who recognized in her an ideological kinship. Thatcher later wrote: “I knew that I was talking to someone who instinctively felt and thought as I did, not just about policies but about a philosophy of government, a view of human nature.”

Although she claimed the mantle of Churchill, her politics were closer to those of Neville Chamberlain: she appeased dictators and was viciously hostile to unions. As Glenn Greenwald pointed out: “She played a key role not only in bringing about the first Gulf War but also using her influence to publicly advocate for the 2003 attack on Iraq. She denounced Nelson Mandela and his ANC as ‘terrorists’, something even David Cameron ultimately admitted was wrong. She was a steadfast friend to brutal tyrants such as Augusto Pinochet, Saddam Hussein and Indonesian dictator General Suharto…”

Author John Mortimer described Thatcher’s political achievement as snatching the Conservative party from “the privileged but often well meaning old upper-class gentlemen, and giv[ing] it to the shopkeepers, the businessmen, the people in advertising and anyone she considered ‘one of us.’ ” Historian Kenneth O. Morgan elaborates: “The Thatcher background was one of entrepreneurial, upwardly-mobile, self-sufficient, middle-class neoliberalism. … The roots of Thatcherism lay in acquisition rather than in production. It sought to create a business, perhaps a rentier culture.” [The People’s Peace, Oxford 1990:443]

What Thatcher gave to many parts of Britain, especially in the formerly industrialized north, was mass unemployment, collapsing public services, and urban decay. But decline in manufacturing coincided with a boom in technologically sophisticated smaller industries located mainly in the south, and this more than anything else sustained her base.

She was able to get public support for the privatization of nationalized industries and council houses by doing so in a way that seemed to advantage workers who bought shares in the initial offerings. Later, of course, the real profits accrued to the banks and businessmen who were able to buy these assets at prices considerably lower than their valuations.

Her political legacy has to be seen as that of a neoliberal transition from the consensus politics of the postwar years to a country dominated by financial institutions. She spearheaded a state assault on unions, the public sector, and local government from an ideological free-market position, and met her political end after attempting to impose a “poll tax” which would have hit the poor the hardest. The monetarist philosophies that had apparently revived the economy were failing, and by 1990 Thatcher’s belligerent but idiosyncratic style was rejected by the Conservative party itself and she was booted out of office.

Thatcher’s agenda was a counterpart to the globalization of production and exchange that had weakened and undermined the national compromise embodied in the welfare state. So to regard her as destroying it single-handedly, as some on the left imply, is mistaken. Movements of resistance now have to take on international capital, and are no longer confined to what was possible within a relatively closed national economy. Although many in places like Merseyside and Tyneside will be drinking extra pints tonight, Thatcher merely pushed over an edifice whose foundations had already decayed.

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“We are the 99 percent” movement – the (Tea) Party’s over.

The Democratic Party leadership are attempting to explain the “We Are the 99 Percent” movement as merely an expression of people’s anger and frustration with the banks, and not with themselves. Joe Biden asserted “there’s a lot in common with the Tea Party” – a ridiculous and superficial comparison which has no basis in fact. As I have argued consistently in this blog, the Tea Party is a fake movement which was set up by Republicans so they could behave badly; a rebranding of the Republican Party with no more substance than changing the name of NYNEX to Verizon.

In any case, the “Occupy Wall Street/We Are the 99 Percent” movement has made the Tea Party as yesterday’s news as Sarah Palin. It is a qualitatively new, genuine grassroots movement which channels the energy and enthusiasm of a generation of Americans, while at the same time taking inspiration from Cairo’s Tahrir Square and Spanish acampadas, the exact opposite in fact of corporate globalization. Interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, Laurie Penny, a writer and journalist, noted how similar the non-hierarchical leadership structure of the occupation was to protests in London and Spain. She said: “… it’s striking to me how much this seems to be not about America or about any individual country, but about a global uprising.”

Tim Frasca emailed this account of Wednesday’s march to the Guardian: “I can say as a veteran of these things (I’m 60) that the march had a real spontaneous spirit, tons of hand-lettered signs, that sort of thing. I felt that it is tapping into a widespread sense of anger and discouragement and lack of an outlet to express oneself given that Obama is so much in the pocket of the banks. There was nothing directed at him, but it is interesting to see that there was no mention of politicians at all, just banksters like Blankfein et al. And the main chant, Banks got bailed out, We got sold out, reflects this attitude, that we are on our own and no one represents us. This is bad news for Obama, but it means that no one is looking to the electoral system to resolve anything. I find that significant. My favorite sign: ‘I’ll believe corporations are people when the state of Georgia executes one’.”

Precisely because of its horizontal democracy and its refusal to be incorporated into the stalemated electoral system, the movement touches many of those who encounter it in a way that changes them. The New York Times reported that the occupation in Zuccotti Park has become a magnet for scores of New Yorkers who have never been involved with a protest before. Among them, “Peter Gavaghen, 50, a Brooklyn-born ironworker who lives in New Jersey, first went to the square with his 12-year-old daughter last week for her school project about current events. But Mr. Gavaghen, who is grizzled and lanky and working on 2 World Trade Center, found himself returning. He said his own father had saved $250,000 to pay for college for Mr. Gavaghen’s three children, but he said the money was lost when Lehman Brothers collapsed. Mr. Gavaghen said the government bailout of banks still bothered him. ‘I’ve never been a victim of anything, but I feel like a victim now,’ Mr. Gavaghen said softly. ‘I feel connected to these people’.”

Matt Stoller has written a very perceptive piece in Naked Capitalism about how this connection is sustained: “I have been through a few general assemblies now, and they are remarkable because the point of the assembly is to truly put listening at the heart of decision-making. There’s no electronic amplification allowed in Zuccotti Square. So the organizers have figured out an organic microphone system. A speaker says a half a sentence, everyone in earshot repeats, until the whole park can hear that half a sentence. Then the speaker says another half a sentence. People use hand signals to indicate approval, disapproval, get a move on, or various forms of objections and clarifications. During these speeches, speakers often explicitly ask for more gender and racial diversity, which is known as ‘progressive stacking’.

“At first it’s extremely… annoying. And time-consuming. But after a few hours, it’s oddly refreshing. I felt completely included as part of a community forum even though I had not been a speaker. But what I realized is that the act of listening, embedded in the active reflecting of what the speaker was saying, created a far richer conversational space. Actually reflecting back to one another what someone just said is a technique used by therapists, and by pandering politicians. There is nothing so euphoric in a community sense as truly feeling heard. That’s what the general assembly was about, not a democracy in the sense of voting, but a democracy in the sense of truly respecting the humanity of everyone in the forum. It took work. It took patience. But it created a communal sense of power. … This kind of power, the power that comes from the trust and love of other people, doesn’t emerge from a list of policy demands. It comes from the formation of a public, through the appreciation and sharing of a public space. …

“This dynamic is why it’s so hard for the traditional political operators to understand #OccupyWallStreet. It must be an angry group of hippies. Or slackers. Or it’s a revolution. It’s a left-wing tea party. The ignorance is embedded in the questions. One of the most constant complaints one hears in DC about #OccupyWallStreet is that the group has no demands. Its message isn’t tight. It has no leaders. It has no policy agenda. Just what does ‘it’ want, anyway? On the other side of the aisle, one hears a sort of sneering ‘get a job’ line, an angry reaction to a phenomenon no one in power really understands. The gnashing of teeth veers quickly from condescension to irritation and back.

“Many liberal groups want to ‘help’ by offering a more mainstream version, by explaining it to the press, by cheering how great the occupation is while carefully ensuring that wiser and more experienced hands eventually take over. These impulses are guiding by the received assumptions about how power works in modern America. … The Democratic establishment is finding itself tied in knots over how to react to the protests. Many want a left-wing version of the tea party, whereas others are deeply uncomfortable with democratic impulses like this one.”


As I write this on my Mac laptop, I am saddened by the death of Steve Jobs. All of us who use Macs or iPods or iPhones are connected to him in some way. Much is being written about him, good and bad, but I only know that he had an amazing sense of how products could be made an extension of how people thought and felt. He employed artists to design interfaces, and once said:  “Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer, that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”


Filed under austerity measures, credit creation, debt limit impasse, financiers, health care, marxism, monetary economies, Obama, occupy wall street, political analysis, populism, riots in Britain, Sara Palin, strikes, Tea Party movement, Uncategorized, We are the 99 percent, Wisconsin

Which Queen’s English are we speaking?

On BBC TV’s recent Newsnight program discussing the London riots, David Starkey, a constitutional historian and honorary fellow of Cambridge University, who presented a popular TV series on the Tudors, claimed that “the problem is that the whites have become black.”

“A particular sort of violent destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion and black and white, boy and girl, operate in this language together. This language which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois that has been intruded in England and that is why so many of us have this sense literally of a foreign country,” he said.

Starkey used coded language to make “whiteness” a synonym for British middle-class values, for law and order and stability, while “blackness” signified the dangerous other, the outsider, the criminal. Asked point-blank whether he thought that “black culture” was responsible for the rioting, he replied obliquely: “Listen to the [language of the] text sent by the girl who had been the Olympic ambassador, who then engages in shocking acts of looting.” “It’s not skin colour, it’s culture,” he said. “Listen to David Lammy, an archetypal successful black man. If you turn the screen off, so you were listening to him on radio, you would think he was white.”  (Watch the whole thing here.)

This provoked a storm of protest. But Starkey did not budge from his position. He told The Mail on Sunday: “I said until I was blue in the face on the programme that I was not talking about skin colour but gang culture. A large group of whites have started to behave like blacks. I think that is the most unracial remark anyone can make.” He added later: “David Lammy does sound white, so does [MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington] Diane Abbott, because they’ve had a white cultural experience. It’s one of the reasons they don’t have any street credibility. They have no contact with the young.”

The outcry that followed Starkey’s comments typifies the awkwardness of the British in talking about race. It’s usually discreetly suppressed, but whenever race is discussed openly the assumption of the superiority of British bourgeois values coded as “white culture” is expressed in a crude essentialist attitude.

Starkey’s racialization of culture was elaborated by right-wing commentator James Delingpole. “Listen to how many white kids (and Asian kids) choose to speak in black street patois; note the extent to which hip-hop and grime garage and their offshoots have penetrated the white mainstream; check out how many white kids like to roll like pimps or perps with their Calvins pulled up to their midriffs and their jean waistbands sagging below their buttocks. Is anyone seriously going to try to make the case that this isn’t black culture in excelsis?”

What has really happened, it seems to me, is that there has been a fusion both of languages and outlooks, of an unemployed or unskilled British working-class attitude which rejects middle-class norms of propriety with Afro-Caribbean assertions of identity expressed linguistically in British Creole. While some Afro-Caribbean second- and third- generation immigrants have risen into the middle-class through education and “speak like whites,” others identify with working class defiance of authority and elite cultural values. And white and Asian youth find hip hop and Afro-Caribbean cultural expressions a way to express their rebelliousness and social alienation, a way to oppose middle-class ideals which devalue them.

Starkey’s identification of blackness with a propensity for violence was repeated by another BBC presenter, Fiona Armstrong (otherwise known as Lady MacGregor of MacGregor). Interviewing long-time Afro-Caribbean activist Darcus Howe, she kept asking him if he was shocked by the riots, and when he attempted to explain the police harassment youth, including his grandson, faced daily, she objected “That is not an excuse for what has been happening over the last few days…”

At one point, she said, “You are not a stranger to riots yourself I understand, are you? You have taken part in them yourself.” Howe replied indignantly: “I have never taken part in a single riot. I’ve been part of demonstrations that ended up in a conflict. Stop accusing me of being a rioter and have some respect for an old West Indian Negro, because you wanted for me to get abusive. You just sound idiotic – have some respect.’”

As the guardians of public morality, the BBC later acknowledged it had been a “poorly-phrased question.” But the racialized views of a highly-placed academic and an upper class television anchor attempting to “otherize” non-establishment voices reflect the role of the BBC in reproducing bourgeois ideology. They are afraid that alongside Queen Elizabeth’s English we will also hear Queen Nanny’s.

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London riots are the ultimate expression of Thatcherism

It’s been a long time since I’ve lived in the land of my birth. So it was distressing to read of the riots in parts of London and other cities in Britain, which now seem strange and foreign to me. And yet at heart there was something very familiar. The rhetoric of politicians depicts the rioters as scum, as hooligans and gangsters, outside of the social pale. But they are our youth, and their outlook and anger comes from British society just as much as the standard political rhetoric does.

18-year-old Chavez Campbell predicted the riots after budget cuts closed down youth services in his area. He told The Guardian: “I did see the riots coming and the government should have seen it coming, too. Jobs are hard to get and, when they do become available, youths don’t get the jobs. There is nothing to do, they are closing youth clubs so the streets are just crazy. They are full of people who have no ambitions, or have ambitions but can’t fulfil them.”

At first sight, the formula seems to be the same as the riots in Toxteth and Brixton in the 1980s, in Paris in 2005, or even Tunisia this year: high unemployment, resentment toward a rich and indifferent ruling elite, and police harassment. Reuters reported this conversation which records the growing feeling of marginalization: “ ‘It’s us versus them, the police, the system,’ said an unemployed man of Kurdish origin in his early 20s, sitting at the entrance to a Hackney housing estate with four Afro-Caribbean friends who nodded in agreement. ‘They call it looting and criminality. It’s not that. There’s a real hatred against the system,’ he added, listing what he saw as the police prejudice, discrimination and lack of opportunity that led him and his friends to loot shops, torch bins and hurl missiles at police on Monday. ‘There’s two worlds in this borough. More and more middle classes are coming and we’re being pushed out. The shops are pricing stuff like it’s the West End, we can’t afford the rents. We’re the outcasts, we’re not wanted any more’.”

But the rapid spread of the rioting to other cities indicates a deeper problem. Juan Cole, although perceptive about Middle Eastern society, misreads the situation by describing it as a problem of immigrant youth: these are kids well integrated into British society. More cohesive immigrant groups in fact banded together to protect their communities, as The Independent reported: “In Whitechapel, home to Britain’s largest Bangladeshi population, locals described how 70 masked rioters were chased out of the neighbourhood by Bengali youths who had gathered for evening prayers outside East London Mosque.”

The Guardian reported: “as multi-ethnic areas from London to Birmingham, Liverpool and Bristol burned, a myth was being dispelled: that so-called ‘black youths’ are largely behind such violence. In Tottenham on Saturday many of those who gathered at the police station to protest against the shooting of Mark Duggan were, like him, black. But others were Asian and white. By the following day, as the looting spread to other north London suburbs, there appeared to have been a slight shift in the demographic, which started to look younger. In Enfield most of those who gathered in the town centre were white. The youngest looked about 10-years-old. Those taking part in the battles in Hackney’s Pembury estate on Monday included many women. Teenage girls helped carry debris to form the burning barricades or made piles of rocks.”

Seamus Milne commented in the Guardian: “… there’s no mystery as to where the upheaval came from. It was triggered by the police killing a young black man in a country where black people are 26 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than their white counterparts. The riot that exploded in Tottenham in response at the weekend took place in an area with the highest unemployment in London, whose youth clubs have been closed to meet a 75% cut in its youth services budget. It then erupted across what is now by some measures the most unequal city in the developed world …”

Although they are not rioting for an overt political cause, the nihilism of the youth was politically aware: they regard politicians, the police, and the rich as venal and corrupt. “The politicians say that we loot and rob, they are the original gangsters,” one told a reporter. Two girls explained to the BBC: “We’re showing the rich people we can do what we want.” Eyewitnesses reported that “even in the early hours the rioting was not without some social symbolism. ‘Murderers,’ shouted one man clutching a stereo as a police van drove past on Lordship Lane at around 3.45am.” The looters’ attitude to their marginalization by consumer society seems to be ambivalent: in some cases they took goods from stores, denying their  alienation from shopping, but then destroyed them, rejecting them entirely as symbols of their marginalization.

What was different was the absence of restraints, the breakdown of social limits that respect property and personhood. Independent commentator Michael McCarthy wrote: “What began to terrify people, especially in areas where the police were absent, was the seemingly limitless nature of what the rioters would do. It had gone far beyond a barney with the coppers and the looting, in particular, it went past all previous bounds; the rioters would loot everything, everywhere; they would attack and rob anyone they came across; they began to break into private houses. I think people were so frightened because something had been loosed and was on display, which was new to many people – and that was the sight of very large numbers of people, mainly young men, who were no longer constrained by our culture. The role of culture in making British society what it is, and in giving it its remarkable strengths, is not often remarked upon, but it is enormous. We are, or we have been, a culture-bound society: we have been governed largely by informal constraints on our behaviour.”

This seems to me to hit on something more profound. The British state has long depended on the acceptance of a certain social ideology that rationalizes its class structure. For example, in the miners’ strike of 1984-5, both strikers and government condemned two miners who dropped a concrete block from a footbridge and killed a taxi driver who was driving a scabbing miner to his pit. This went beyond the mutually accepted rules of the struggle. The Tottenham riots began when police crossed another line by shooting dead Mark Duggan in a minicab. That broke the constraints of toleration between the police and inner-city youth. But gangs didn’t get involved until the following day, after angry protests escalated into the initial rioting.

Traditional British social structures and institutions are premised on a mass of skilled, semiskilled, and unskilled workers whose work and taxes sustains the privileges of the middle class and pays for welfare benefits. The destruction of job opportunities following the decline of manufacturing in Britain broke down these social structures, and then, given the extent of deprivation in so-called “sink” estates—where “problem” families are sent to cope with unemployment, alcoholism, and drugs—inter-generational relations and class organizations became impossible to sustain. Let’s be clear: these are working-class communities that have been disintegrated by several generations of unemployment and hopelessness. This creates a subculture in which gangs are the only cohesive force; they don’t necessarily have many actual members, but their territorial or tribal outlook is respected. There is no mechanical relation of poverty with social breakdown, but it’s what has happened in Britain because its social structures have already disintegrated.

Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of the charity “Kids Company”, works with the youth on the streets. She argued: “An absence of morality can easily be found in the rioters and looters. How, we ask, could they attack their own community with such disregard? But the young people would reply ‘easily’, because they feel they don’t actually belong to the community. Community, they would say, has nothing to offer them. Instead, for years they have experienced themselves cut adrift from civil society’s legitimate structures. …Working at street level in London, over a number of years, many of us have been concerned about large groups of young adults creating their own parallel antisocial communities with different rules. The individual is responsible for their own survival because the established community is perceived to provide nothing. Acquisition of goods through violence is justified in neighbourhoods where the notion of dog eat dog pervades and the top dog survives the best.”

But this outlook of the top dog has a familiar ring to it. This is the working out of the ideology of Thatcher, who famously declared there was no such thing as “society.” What she meant was that society was to be atomized into individuals who could take care of themselves – her rationalization of an assault on communal social values in education, jobs, housing, and peoples’ lives. Together with Reagan she inaugurated the rejection of social responsibility for the poor and disabled, ending disapproval of individual selfishness, dismantling of state social support systems, rapid impoverishment of working class areas together with the accumulation of incredible wealth at the top of society.

As a close friend confided to me: the riots are the ultimate expression of Thatcherism.

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