Keep the home fires burning

I’m in Copenhagen, yet again, for the third time in as many months, this time for a  workshop arranged by the Dark Cosmology Centre at the Niels Bohr Institute. It’s my talk this morning, in fact, so although I’m up early I haven’t got much time to post. I have to work on my talk to see if there’s a way I can make it all fit in 30 minutes!

Copenhagen is a pretty familiar place to me, but this has to be the most unsettling trip I’ve ever made here. I’m not talking about the long delay at Heathrow airport before we took off; I’ve come to expect that. The airport clearly can’t cope with the level of traffic it is supposed to handle during the summer months, so you have to reckon on at least an hour delay inbound and outbound. Sitting on the tarmac for an hour while being told over and over again that it will be “just a few minutes” really does bring out the grumpy old man in me. Still,  at least I didn’t lose any luggage.

No, the reason this is such an unsettling trip is that back home in Blighty all hell seems to have broken lose, with riots in the streets of, first, London and now apparently Birmingham, Liverpool and Bristol. I was also on the march in 1990 that turned into the Poll Tax riot. I was appalled by the violence that day and got myself and my friends away from trouble as soon as it flared, but it has to be said that it did lead to a change in the law, something Parliament had failed to achieve.

Back to the present, I note that the Tesco at Bethnal Green, where I used to live, has apparently been looted. I hope all my friends in London are keeping themselves safe.

I don’t think there’s anything I can say about these riots that wouldn’t be ill-informed, unhelpful, or even downright stupid. I am however old enough to remember that such things have happened before, in deprived inner-city areas, including Liverpool and Bristol. The circumstances were similar too.  Given the public spending cuts that have hit community programmes extremely hard,  it doesn’t surprise me that some have decided to lash out, especially at the Police,  whose criminal collusion with the media over phone-tapping and draconian tactics in dealing with lawful protests has turned many others against them .

I find it hard to separate these signs of social disintegration from the large-scale economic landscape. The huge level of debt accumulated by banks during the Credit Crunch of 2008 has now been absorbed by governments across the globe, who are attempting to deal with it by cutting public spending rather than raising taxes. Meanwhile the bankers have accepted their bailouts with glee, paying themselves bonuses by the bucketful and no doubt squirreling away the dosh in the Cayman Islands. If the state sanctions greed on that scale, is it surprising that people at the bottom of the heap decide to join in by looting the local supermarket?

The young  have the right to feel particularly disillusioned. The current generation has lived beyond its means for too long and, realising it too late, is trying to pay for it by mortgaging the future. The opportunities our young people, especially those from less affluent  backgrounds, can look forward to, in terms of education and jobs, will be much poorer than my generation.

I’m not usually one to endorse the view of the Daily Telegraph, but I think this piece hits the nail pretty much on the head. As Karl Marx would have said, it’s all about alienation, and I can tell you it’s not just the “underclass” that’s feeling it at the moment.

None of which is to condone the violence: you can be angry with the looters and the arsonists and those engaged in wanton destruction, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to understand why it’s happening.

But I’m very afraid that there’s going to be a lot more of this. The sovereign debt crisis is far from over. In many ways it has only just begun. There will be deeper cuts in public spending, greater inequality, greater social divisions and more upheavals like this. I think we’re in for a rough ride. I’m just glad I’m no longer young.

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29 Responses to “Keep the home fires burning”

  1. I see many echoes of the 1981 riots in Brixton and Toxteth – the same alienation from a seemingly uncaring Tory government felt by young people. With the downgrading of the USA’s credit rating, and the reaction of the World’s stock markets, I also fear that this could just be the beginning of many years of an increasing feeling of despair and hopelessness felt by today’s young people.

    Although I too do not condone the looting and violence going on, one has to try and understand the reasons behind young peoples’ dissatisfaction. When a select group of people seem to be doing so well, with the smug members of the current Government being the prime examples, is it no wonder so many people feel a sense of hopelessness?

  2. I’m currently away from all the trouble in Hawaii, observing, so have escaped whatever happened in Bethnal Green. But that Tesco’s is one I regularly walk past on the way to the tube, so this is all a bit worrying…

  3. @Rhodri
    The Tories have barely been in office and the cuts haven’t yet taken place in any meaningful way (public spending has increased over the past year). Given this, I’m not sure policising it is a sensible way to analyse the situation, not least since these problems didn’t crop up overnight and another party was in office during most of the last 15 years.

    • telescoper Says:

      Public spending overall has indeed risen over the last year or so, but that masks the fact that frontline services, especially education and community projects, have already been earmarked for closure.

  4. It’s certainly not as clear-cut as the Poll Tax riots were. It seems far more symptomatic, like you suggest. I wonder if this means more money will be found to increase police forces instead of cutting them. I don’t know how our leadership (transnational) has managed to stray so wrongly.

  5. I just hope the widespread condemnation, although rightfully focused on the rioters, does not give the government the opportunity to push through restrictions on the right to protest, claiming a mandate from ‘ordinary’ people. I do worry when I hear Theresa May speak of her disgust ad infinitum, with her solution that seems to go no deeper than ‘Don’t worry, we will lock them all up’.

    • Yes, I heard Theresa May on Radio 5 this morning. She refused to even address the issue that there may be deep seated dissatisfaction with the Government’s policies, and just kept repeating the mantra that these people were involved in criminal activity. She kept avoiding the question of what she thought might be the reasons behind the rioting, just choosing to condemn the criminality without addressing its possible causes. She, indeed, repated her disgust ad infinitum.

  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    That this is due to public spending cuts is untrue, for people lived peacefully through much greater poverty in the Great Depression when government spending was FAR lower, and in the last 3 nights it wasn’t food they were looting out of hunger, but TV sets and mobile phones out of greed. If the police had taken burglary and vandalism more seriously in the last 10 years (instead of investigating ‘hate speech’ AKA free speech?) then perhaps these actions would have been nipped in the bud of a thousand teenage minds. Also, if the laws and courts had applied meaningful penalties to such actions.

    Which raises the question: Why is it happening now, when it didn’t happen then? I suggest that the biggest difference is that back then the family was a stable institution, whereas today it isn’t. Of course you cannot legislate happiness, but you *can* legislate tax and welfare policies that promote family stability. For a generation now we have had policies that act as an incentive to family INstability.

    Bankers are greedy and unlovable but merely an easy target, because the percentage that they take for themselves is tiny compared to the percentage that they have lent to people who wish to live beyond their means and cannot possibly pay it back. In allocating blame over the banking debacle we should look at demand side as well as supply side.

    • “That this is due to public spending cuts is untrue, for people lived peacefully through much greater poverty in the Great Depression when government spending was FAR lower, and in the last 3 nights it wasn’t food they were looting out of hunger, but TV sets and mobile phones out of greed.”

      First, though looting out of greed rather than hunger is perhaps less excusable, that doesn’t mean it can’t be a (perhaps wrong) reaction to public spending cuts. Second, it is not the cuts per say but the distribution of cuts which is the cause of (in my justified—but not justifying violence, looting etc) anger. Many studies have shown that one’s personal satisfaction depends much more on relative (to the people one notices in day-to-day life) wealth than on absolute wealth.

      “I suggest that the biggest difference is that back then the family was a stable institution, whereas today it isn’t.”

      Do you have any evidence for this? Of course, correlation doesn’t imply causation, so evidence needs to go beyond correlation. Note that one of the major criminal operations in the world, the Mafia, is built around traditional family structures. Today, when patchwork families etc are more accepted (at least in some countries; I don’t yet see a UK Crown Prince marrying an unwed mother), people from such families do at least as well as those from traditional families, suggesting that it is not the lack of a traditional family which is the problem, but rather the ostracisation of such people by the rest of society. It is not so long ago that not only were the parents of bastards considered to be morally insufficient, but bastards themselves as well. (One did become King of England, though—but not peaceably).

      Sometimes those who decry the loss of “typical family values” are not the best examples of such values themselves. :-|

      “Bankers are greedy and unlovable but merely an easy target, because the percentage that they take for themselves is tiny compared to the percentage that they have lent to people who wish to live beyond their means and cannot possibly pay it back. In allocating blame over the banking debacle we should look at demand side as well as supply side.”

      I can’t agree more with the last part of this. No-one invests his money in Iceland by mistake. The irony is that the same people who want the government to cover their losses are often the “less government is better” crowd (who probably illegally avoid paying tax as well). However, just because the earnings of some bankers are small compared to the money they move (though still large compared to normal earnings) doesn’t automatically invalidate criticism of them. If I rob a bank and burn the money, I can’t get off the hook by saying that I put none in my own pocket.

      • Public spending was 5.1% higher in 2010-11 than in the previous year. I think the cuts argument is a bit of a chimera when it comes to explaining what is going on here.

        There are undboubtedly a number of different factors in play here. One such factor is unfortunately race. This needs to be handled very carefully (and honestly) or “Enoch was right” slogans will set the narrative. Any cursory look at the comments section to news reports shows what (a lot of) people think. Openly discussing the racial component to this whilst ensuring that minorities aren’t victimised will be tough.

        If ever there was a time for strong, fair leadership its now.

      • telescoper Says:

        According to the figures I have, total public spending in 2010 was 660.6 Million and in 2011 will be 683.4 billion, that’s an increase of 3.45%, below the rate of inflation. In in any case this increase disguises signficant cuts to programmes which are earmarked for closure in 2012 and beyond.

        I’m not sure how to respond to your insinuations about race, because I don’t know what you mean, other than alienation takes many forms.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      “Sometimes those who decry the loss of “typical family values” are not the best examples of such values themselves.”

      If that’s meant as a dig at me Phillip then I’ve never been married, have no children, and live true to my personal beliefs and don’t have sex.

      “one’s personal satisfaction depends much more on relative (to the people one notices in day-to-day life) wealth than on absolute wealth.”

      That’s an ingenious excuse for envy! I know plenty of people richer than me and I don’t feel envy toward them.

      ““I suggest that the biggest difference is that back then the family was a stable institution, whereas today it isn’t.”Do you have any evidence for this?”

      Plenty. Various publications of the (UK) Centre For Social Justice, reproduced on its website, document the links in statistical detail. I’m a bit busy just now but you’ll find my assertion backed up there.

      • “If that’s meant as a dig at me Phillip then I’ve never been married, have no children, and live true to my personal beliefs and don’t have sex.”.

        It wasn’t; I was thinking more of US televangelists (as satirised—though truth can be stranger than fiction—in the Genesis song Jesus he knows me. I remember one who was caught with a prostitute (which is actually illegal in the States) and later “repented”, with tears in his eyes, during his broadcast, which was one of his most highly rated shows.

        All the same, considering your personal description above, I do find it rather strange that you often decry the lack of family values in the comments here (and presumably elsewhere as well). Of course, you might see yourself as a victim of society.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Phillip: I don’t see myself as a victim of society. I might if I were persecuted for my faith, but even then I would do my best to love my assailants. I simply don’t understand your comment “considering your personal description above, I do find it rather strange that you often decry the lack of family values in the comments”. The fact that I don’t have a family does not invalidate my support for family values (just as the fact I did not fight in WW2 does not invalidate my relief at the result). Bear in mind that it is possible to mess up family values without ever having been married – in fact that is exactly what has happened, on the large scale.

      • “The fact that I don’t have a family does not invalidate my support for family values (just as the fact I did not fight in WW2 does not invalidate my relief at the result).”

        Maybe it depends on what the definition of “family values” is. Of course, you weren’t born (I am guessing) until after WWII, but if you were the right age at the right time, I doubt you would have said “I support the troops, but I won’t be a soldier myself”.

  7. Anton Garrett Says:

    It should also be said that for every rioter/looter on the streets, there are hundreds from identical socio-economic backgrounds who stay at home.

    • telescoper Says:

      Quite, but what creates the conditions that allow the criminal element to be unleashed? This kind of thing doesn’t happen every day (thank goodness).

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Yes Peter, I agree that there are answers in different categories to the same question, and that Teresa May was ducking the deeper version – but I wasn’t, hence my comment about family. That comment is there to be agreed or disagreed with.

      Incidentally, where are these deep cuts to public spending that the country badly needs? The cut about 1% below inflation that you mention is negligible, and we have agreed on your blog before that most of the vast expansion in local government jobs under Labour was an unnecessary drain on the taxpayer. It was mere bribery, since most people on the public payroll vote Labour.

      • Look at not just the total cut but what is cut and what has its budget increased.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Well I agree with that Phillip. It might be better if David Cameron had been a bit less concerned with imposing order in Libya and Afghanistan at vast expense to British taxpayers, and more concerned with it in Britain.

        I too have seen that televangelist clip, and felt sick. It suits the secular media to hold such people up as representative of Christianity when they seem to me to be, like the Pharisees, in a category of pers to which Jesus directed some of his sharpest words.

      • telescoper Says:

        If you’re interested in the actual figures for UK public spending, including projections for the next three years under the 2010 CSR you can look at:

        http://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/government_expenditure.html#ukgs302a

        The overall budget does grow in cash terms over this period, but, as Phillip says, some areas within that decrease. Community programmes have already been cut in many areas.

        The implications for public borrowing depend on tax revenues which in turn depend on growth. That’s likely to be weak over the next 2-3 years, so I predict there will be cuts over the next CSR period too.

  8. “If the police had taken burglary and vandalism more seriously in the last 10 years (instead of investigating ‘hate speech’ AKA free speech?) then perhaps these actions would have been nipped in the bud of a thousand teenage minds.”

    I don’t know why you’d say something like this. Crime rates have been falling dramatically, year on year, for at least a decade now if not longer. Including theft and vandalism. Crime amongst young people has increased according to some figures, but if anything that indicates a social problem – that investigating hate speech (-not- the same thing as free speech) and other social problems would probably go further in solving than putting more money into a already solved problem.

    • crime rates could be falling due to other reasons than crime is falling – e.g. the fact often people don’t report crime nowadays because they believe the police won’t do anything anyway.

  9. An acquaintance was reflecting the moral difference was between nicking a Wii from Dixons and putting down for a duck house on expenses…

    Not a good situation

  10. I don’t think one can pin this on any particular cause or trend. It’s more worrying than the miners’ strike, or 1926. When one also tries to take into account the ferocity and bitterness of US politics, the appearance of global economic disaster, together with religious tensions, then the forebodings of Yeats’s The Second Coming seem justifiable.

  11. telescoper Says:

    It’s perhaps worth mentioning that riots are not a new thing. There were many instances of rioting throughout Victorian times, e.g. over the Corn laws, despite the fact that this was the archetypal “family values” era. What is different about this time is that technology seems to have made coordination easier for the looters.

    It is of course the case that only a small fraction of people indulge in rioting, but the point I was trying to make is that these outbursts of violence do happen and they do seem to occur at critical times for the economy.

  12. Bryn Jones Says:

    I’m away from Bethnal Green, so I can’t comment on the activities there last night, apart from having seen a video on YouTube showing youths on the rampage on Bethnal Green Road. I find this greatly disturbing. The scenes on television yesterday of rioting and looting on Mare Street in Hackney shocked me as it is an area I know reasonably well. Incidentally, a week ago I happened to walk past a spot in Tottenham Hale where, only a few days later, a man appears to have been shot by the police, forming the pretext for the riots.

    When I lived in Nottingham I regularly used to travel on buses to the city centre past Canning Circus police station. The BBC reports this evening that the police station has been firebombed by a large gang of rioters.

  13. I hear reports this morning that some of the people arrested for looting are in their early 30s or older, and in “respectable” jobs like a teacher, a bus driver etc. To me, this seems to imply that some people took advantage of the anarchy to loot, even though they were not necessarily from any disaffected group.

    • Steven Pinker wrote in The Blank Slate: “As a young teenager in proudly peaceable Canada during the romantic 1960s, I was a true believer in Bakunin’s anarchism. I laughed off my parents’ argument that if the government ever laid down its arms all hell would break loose. Our competing predictions were put to the test at 8:00 A.M. on October 17, 1969, when the Montreal police went on strike. By 11:20 A.M. the first bank was robbed. By noon most downtown stores had closed because of looting. Within a few more hours, taxi drivers burned down the garage of a limousine service that competed with them for airport customers, a rooftop sniper killed a provincial police officer, rioters broke into several hotels and restaurants, and a doctor slew a burglar in his suburban home. By the end of the day, six banks had been robbed, a hundred shops had been looted, twelve fires had been set, forty carloads of storefront glass had been broken, and three million dollars in property damage had been inflicted, before city authorities had to call in the army and, of course, the Mounties to restore order.”

      This suggests that for many people, it is fear of retribution which prevents them from being criminal, not any moral scruples. (Of course, even if most people are moral, a small minority can still wreak havoc.) When that fear is gone, be it due to a police strike or due to the police being otherwise occupied, then their base desires get the better of them.

      Yes, I am familiar with communities where there is no sort of police force and enough people are moral that no bad things happen. However, these are not located in suburban areas in England.

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