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London Burning

August 11, 2011

Riots have gripped London spread to other cities in the United Kingdom, sowing fear and uncertainty in their wake. The government and police appear to finally have regained control of the streets, and as the dust settles from this rioting that for some evoked memories of the Arab Spring, a myriad of questions arise. What caused these riots? What did the rioters want? Is there some way this could have been avoided, or at least prevented in the future?

Well the answers to all of these questions depend on who you ask. The government spending cuts are cited by many as a reason for the rioting. In this narrative, young people, in response to cuts that they see as unfair and infringing on their rights, took to the streets to send a strong message that they would not tolerate these inhumane cuts.

While the UK has been pursuing austerity measures in an attempt to get is finances in order, the state will spend 50.1 per cent of GDP this year; state spending has still been rising by 2 per cent year on year in cash terms. In cash terms, it has never been higher than it is today.

Perhaps it is due to more structural aspect of the welfare state of the United Kingdom, the persistently high youth unemployment rate. Earlier this year, the youth unemployment rate was 20.5% for 16-24 year olds, compared to just 7.9% overall. This could explain part of the root cause, as British youth are dissatisfied with a system that systematically prolongs their dependency, and prevents many of them from gaining independence and joining the labor force until their mid 20’s. In a more logistical bend, it is also easier to riot and loot when you do not have to worry about being fired for not showing up for work. This argument gets to part of the cause, but does not grasp the root of the problem. A decent proportion of the looters were younger than 16, so they have not yet had to suffer from the youth unemployment problems; another, more comprehensive explanation is needed. Why not go to the rioters themselves, to see what they have to say, what kind of message they were trying to send:

Some of the rioters give their message

So judging from these two participants, the message was mostly incoherent. That is because this rioting was not really to send a message in response to spending cuts. Why else would the main targets of looting be clothing and electronics stores, and neighborhood businesses? That one of the interviewees did not even know which political party had made the spending cuts belies the theory that this was in response to ‘inhumane and callous’ spending cuts.

The British youth engaged in these riots, they looted their neighbors and clothing stores because it was a way for them to do something, as the interviewee says, ‘we can do whatever we want’. This is more akin to disillusioned kids, unsure of their place, with no real prospects, no real ownership over their own lives, trying to fend of ennui. As Theodore Dalrymple suggested in 2005:

One reason for the epidemic of self-destructiveness that has struck British, if not the whole of Western, society, is the avoidance of boredom. For people who have no transcendent purpose to their lives and cannot invent one… self-destruction and the creation of crises in their life is one way of warding off meaninglessness

So although British youths are much more secure than their American counterparts, even incorporating the current spending cuts, they have less control over their own lives. They drift for longer, trying to find something meaningful into which to direct their efforts,  always having to stay one step ahead of the ennui that grips so many of the endlessly unemployed youths in the country. It finally erupts in a demonstration like this one, where they no longer worry about what they are doing, as long as they are doing something, if only in an attempt to make some imprint on their environment, to remind everyone that they are there.

In no way do I apologize for the rioters and looters, but I do feel sorry for them.



From → Politics

One Comment
  1. fuckedbylife permalink

    Britain is so fucked.

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