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England riots
Reacting to the riots that had been going on for a few days in Tottenham and elsewhere, British Prime Minister David Cameron said in Parliament: "There is a major problem in our society with children growing up not knowing the difference between right and wrong. 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".

Granted that poverty does not automatically justify violence, and these riots are hardly a proletarian uprising. Nobody in their right mind is suggesting that these riots are the appropriate reaction to some political or economical circumstances (as opposed to, say, the Arab Spring disturbances). But "this is not about poverty"? Really?

I must admit that I don't know a whole lot about English society, but it seems to me quite unreasonable to dismiss the socioeconomic aspect off-hand like this, even for a conservative. If it is "our society" that glorifies violence, disrespects authority, etc., how come it is always the same specific segments of "our society" that start those riots, as they have on several occasions over the last three decades or so? How come it is always the ethnic minority inner-city dwellers and not middle- and upper-class white folks that clash with police and go on rampages of looting and arson? Is the correlation between violence and poverty a mere coincidence?
Shorter David Cameron: Let them eat cake!

Damian I couldn't agree with you more. It's simply disingenuous for David Cameron to claim that this "isn't about poverty". Of course Cameron is anxious to preempt any suggestion that his government's draconian and ideologically driven cuts to the social safety net, in a country that is already second only to the US in wealth inequality, could have anything to do with peoples' behavior. People who are politically disenfranchised and ignored should just accept their lot in life and shut up so people like David Cameron can enjoy their Tuscan vacations.

I keep reading the same objections in commentary about the events in Britain: that wanton destruction of private property is wrong, that there is no clear program or leadership that would indicate political motivation, and that it would be far more constructive to organize peaceful protests. Even if one concedes that is all perfectly true (though protests by poor people are usually ignored by the media), it's also beside the point. The stability of any society ultimately rests on the willingness of its members to acknowledge a shared community of interest that entails some degree of mutual obligation to each other. The exact quality and degree of that obligation is the subject of constant negotiation, which is what politics is for. Recently the Conservatives drastically and arbitrarily rewrote the rules of those negotiations to favour the interests of the country's elite over its underprivileged. The natural reaction of those negatively impacted by these changes is to regard the political process as compromised and illegitimate. When people feel there is no hope for redress though socially sanctioned means -colloquially speaking, "playing by the rules"- they resort to extraordinary measures such as civil disobedience - and yes, I am suggesting that rioting is a form of civil disobedience, to the extent that it is motivated by the desire of people to contest their disenfranchised status by challenging civil authority.

It is of course profoundly unpalatable for the British establishment to acknowledge this dynamic because to do so would by to implicitly concede that the riots are at least partly motivated by their own policies. This isn't just a question of culpability, but of confronting the intellectually unacceptable possibility that their efforts to increase inequality in British society is inducing stresses that can no longer be mediated within constitutional bounds. Hence Cameron wants to talk about the "culture" rather than the circumstances of the poor, incidently reviving 19th century shibboleths about poverty being the mark of moral depravity, and reaches for the tools of repression to deal with the problem, for example by using social media to hunt down troublemakers -Big Brother is watching- and by threatening to call out the army. It's almost like watching the duke of Welllington fight the Second Reform Act -coincidentally, another instance in which political disenfranchisement was met with widespread civil disobedience, in that case amounting to a near insurrection.
Of course the riots are political. An editorial in the Guardian admitted them so yesterday (I think) and for the reasons you mention.

In response to Tom Kimmel
The Guardian would ...
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Latest Post: August 28, 2011 at 7:19 AM
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