Politics & Law

British riots: Culture or poverty? Try dignity

Jonathan Simon

British Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech (listen to excerpts here) to Parliament yesterday on the recent rioting dripped with all the racially charged rhetoric of forty years of war on crime in both the US and the UK (read the Guardian’s backgrounder by Nicholas Watt here):

This is not about poverty, it’s about culture. A culture that glorifies violence, shows disrespect to authority, and says everything about rights but nothing about responsibilities. In too many cases the parents of these children – if they are still around – don’t care where their children are or who they are with, let alone what they are doing. The potential consequences of neglect and immorality on this scale have been clear for too long, without enough action being taken.”

Cameron was clearly hoping that Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, would fall into some Michael Dukakis like time warp and begin to blame the rioting on Cameron’s severe cuts in social spending. No such luck, predictably Miliband attacked instead on the New Labour ground that the coalition has imposed cuts on police budgets all over the country. Everyone seemed to agree that the police, perhaps aided by the army, were the thin blue line separating civilization from the chaos spread by the brawny spawn of the underclasses. Even the left oriented Guardian’s writers have speculated on whether announced plans to reduce incarceration has sapped the deterrent threat of prisons (read Zoe William’s interesting column discussing criminological views of the riots).

Observers should be reluctant to embrace either the view that rioting is the inevitable or at least direct result of increasing poverty on the one hand, or the product of a culture, i.e., practices of child rearing, which produce violent and narcissistic adults, on the other. The alternative view is well expressed in another Guardian comment by Seamus Milne (read it here) who notes that riots, unlike the dangerous classes, are not with us always, but why?

This time, the multi-ethnic unrest has spread far further and faster. It’s been less politicized and there’s been far more looting, to the point where in many areas grabbing “free stuff” has been the main action. But 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.

For my money it is not poverty that links the cuts in social benefits, to rioting, but dignity, or one should say, indignity. While many of the cuts have yet to take place yet, the communication of who has standing in our societies has come through loud and clear. The world’s leaders tremble over the narcissistic rage of bond holders whose pursuit of shameless risk free profits in investments they should have known were gambles, has placed them and the entire global financial structure in peril. But in Washington and London (and one suspects in Paris and Berlin as well) there is no element of urgency about the situation of communities locked into degrading helplessness by anomic and dysfunctional education and employment practices. It is this sense of relative deprivation that goes to the basic sense of dignity, the equality of which is essential to the survival of any truly democratic society. he reason young people, apparently of many races and in some cases classes, are so prone to riot, I would suggest, is not their lack of impulse control or high discount rate on the future, but their heightened sense of dignity/indignity.

In the meantime, it is not lost on those rioters that the deep financial crisis that has cast both the US and the UK into huge budget deficits was caused by behavior which has been frequently and obviously compared to looting. Where is Prime Minister Cameron’s outrage at the poor parenting and deformed culture of his class peers in the executive suites of the top London and Edinburgh banks? Where is London Mayor Boris Johnson’s statement that the City of London’s efforts to aid corporate clients in avoiding lawful taxes (thus furthering the deficit crisis) was “criminality, pure and simple”? And while both Cameron and Johnson are invoking painful punishment to malefactors as the only sensible government response to rioting, there has yet to be a single prosecution in either the US or the UK for behavior involved in causing the crash (put aside criminals like Madoff whose crimes were discovered because of the crash). If there is a failure of deterrence, it is there.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.

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Comments to "British riots: Culture or poverty? Try dignity":
    • Hank S

      Martin Luther King Jr had dignity. You could see it in his words and actions. Same for Gandi. Through that dignity & the actions & words that it led to, they earned immense respect and changed the world.

      The UK rioters have no dignity, their words have no value, and their actions garner no respect. That was true before the riots, and made obvious during.

      So who to blame? We could blame them. We could blame the socialist system under which they were raised. But if the professor argues for dignity or indignity as cause, then blaming recent political choices about social cuts, which haven’t even taken effect yet, is to be completely divorced from reality.

      [Report abuse]

    • Avi Rosenzweig

      I once arrived at Hampton Court palace on an early bus (before the grounds open for the public), saddled with a lot of exotic photo gear and capacious bags, and the guards obliged me without a second look. They gave me the run of the place. A little later in the morning, a small group of black tourists, who sounded a lot more English than I do, approached the entrance and were practically swarmed by staff insisting on carefully examining their tickets and bags and coats. They were treated with suspicion and condescension verging on hostility.

      It looked like a sketch from a BBC comedy from my angle, but I bet it didn’t feel that way to the tourists. Imagine having to put up with that kind of reception and scrutiny all the time. It wouldn’t foster a we’re-all-in-it-together bonhomie.

      When the effects of a chilly welcome everywhere one goes in one’s own country mix with a fearful majority in an atmosphere where everyone starts believing there isn’t enough stuff to go around, the results are unpleasant. Start feeding the person sitting across the banquet table, let him reciprocate, and then the pleasantries will flow freely.

      [Report abuse]

    • Peter Baxter

      Rob a bank and you get 10 years The Bank robs you and they get a seven figure pension.

      Factors that contribute to rioting are population size, the breakdown of respect for social order, poverty, the lack of opportunities for personal advancement and Debt.

      Today the people that led the world into debt by their corrupt practises within the Banking, Insurance, and Financial sector have been reappointed by President Obama to head his financial team. No one has been brought to justice for the debt all the world is now paying and rioting about.

      All the banks had AAA status just before they collapsed from Standard and Poor the same people who have just downgraded USA economy?

      University Professors who advised the governments were working without declaring their paid interest for these corrupt banks etc. just before the crash.

      If you check the facts you will find a transfer of wealth from the poorest to the top one percent and these crooks are still running all our economies.
      This was achieved by getting companies like standard and poor to give false assessments of bad debt which was then sold to our pension funds as triple A.
      Whilst ever these crooks go unpunished and are rewarded by huge golden handshakes and top government jobs, riots will get worse.

      We all have a remedy it is our vote and a free press.
      Make sure you give your vote wisely and all the politicians who supported crooked bankers, insurance companies, are swept from power.
      To the press it is time to expose these crooks. Name and Shame

      [Report abuse]

    • Joe McFarley

      There is no excuse for the riots. These neighborhoods are not starved of opportunity!! These neighborhoods are in the UK, and just growing up in the UK is an opportunity by itself. The UK is not a perfect country when it comes to race relations, economic opportunity, and class divisions, but that is no excuse to riot. The rioters have probably never seen real poverty, real lack of opportunity, or real inequality.

      It is a disgrace and extremely embarrassing that the UK is rioting, while the young people in the Middle East have largely been protesting peacefully even though their opportunities are much fewer.

      There really is no excuse for the rioting. The police need to stop it with full force and only allow peaceful protesting.

      [Report abuse]

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