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.Follow @telescoper