In the four nights from 6 August 2011, London and some of England's largest provincial cities have witnessed rioting on a scale greater than for many decades. The prime minister David Cameron and his colleagues - on holiday and off guard - have sought to regain authority by promoting a clear narrative of the unrest that can appeal to many citizens, not least those concerned by looting and mayhem entirely out of their experience.
The government's central effort is to define the events in terms solely of absolute criminality and mindless violence. The perpetrators, according to this narrative, bear every bit of responsibility for what has happened; there is no need to explore any subtext whatsoever.
The penalties imposed on those arrested will be harsh. If the violence continues, then more stringent techniques - baton-rounds, water-cannon and more aggressive policing - will be employed, and prisons expanded.
The riots began as protest over a particular incident on 4 August, the police shooting of a man in north London, before developing into widespread looting. The switch was rapid, facilitated by modern communications and the ability of streetwise young people to outwit the police in rapid movements through city-centres and shopping districts.
In recent years the Metropolitan Police in London have become adept at managing large focused demonstrations, by employing tactics such as “kettling” (the enclosure of protesters in confined spaces, often for many hours) to maintain control. Such applications of force are, however, unsuited to handling small mobile groups of young people who have seen how kettling works and know how to avoid the traps.
What is most disturbing to the authorities, and especially to a government dominated by the Conservative Party, has been the palpable sense that they have lost control. This alone explains their utter determination to erect and maintain a dominant narrative that places criminality at the heart of events. This will be powerfully reinforced in the coming days, whether the unrest develops further or ebbs away.
The international pattern
There is a fundamental problem with this discourse, one reinforced by the sudden escalation in flash-looting: it leaves out entirely the motivations of the initial protesters and the environment from which many of them (and indeed of the flash-looters) have emerged. It also omits a much broader global context of protest, which in 2011 alone includes the violent protests in Athens in opposition to the government’s austerity programme, and the sustained and largely non-violent protests in Madrid and other Spanish cities.
Many of those involved belong to a generation of 16-30 year-olds who are experiencing or facing unemployment, and life-prospects that are far more limited than their elders. Their frustrations are further exacerbated by real anger at the ostentatious wealth of elites, especially bankers.
This pattern is extended by the extraordinary risings in recent weeks in countries as far apart as Chile and Israel. In Chile, a nationwide wave of protest involving mainly school- and college-students continues, with demonstrations attended by as many as 100,000 people. Behind the educational issues that provide the principal focus is a much wider agenda. In one account:
“Even as Chile appears to the outside world to be a model of economic consistency and prudent fiscal management, there is deep discontent here with the neo-liberal model and its economic consequences for those who are not part of the economic elite” (see Alexei Barrionuevo, “Students Pressure Chile to Reform Education System”, New York Times, 6 August 2011).
In Israel, a revolt that began in protest against housing costs has seen 200,000 people gathering in Tel Aviv and tens of thousands in Jerusalem and other cities. It “has been largely driven by Israel's working middle class, whose members are afflicted by rising costs of basics like housing, food and gasoline, and by high taxation. At the same time the country's social services have been shrinking and there is a growing gap between rich and poor” (see Isabel Kershner, “Protests Grow in Israel, With 250,000 Marching”, New York Times, 8 August 2011).
There are specific factors in Israel, such as subsidies for the settlements in the occupied West Bank and the demands of a massive defence budget; but the underlying factor - shared with Greece, Spain, Chile and many other countries - is that same “growing gap”.
The global chain
The connections go wider, for this transnational economic division reflects the persistent failure of the neo-liberal market-economy model to deliver socio-economic justice. The consequences, as many previous columns in this series have long argued, include “revolts from the global margins” - such as the Naxalites in India and the persistent if largely hidden social unrest in China (see "China and India: heartlands of global protest", 7 August 2008).
The extreme differences of wealth and poverty in such situations notwithstanding, there is a direct link between them and trends in western countries such as Britain. For there too, and increasingly since the financial crisis of 2008, the state's response has been dominated by spending cuts whose greatest impact falls on the poorer sectors of society.
The equivalents in Britain of the marginalised in India and China may not be in comparable poverty, but hundreds of thousands of them have far diminished prospects than would have been the case even a generation ago. Both unemployment and under-employment have grown, while even many young graduates have limited opportunities and life-chances. These groups have not, for the most part, hit the streets (at least not yet). But many others have, and the authorities' reaction - in the face of what they see as “mob rule” - is a strict reassertion of control. There is little or no attempt to dig deeper.
The reality gap
There are, however, useful exceptions. The city of Bradford, where I work, had a weekend of violent riots in July 2001, which led to numerous arrests and long prison sentences for the young participants. The city took years to recover, but by 2010 had done so to the extent that a deliberate attempt by the far-right English Defence League to come to the city and incite racial violence failed.
That whole process has been chronicled in a remarkable book by two Bradford academics that should be required reading for anyone dubious of the superficiality of the current riot discourse. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning: The 2001 Bradford Riot and Beyond (Vertical Editions, 2011) by Janet Bujra and Jenny Pearce, is based on extensive research that includes numerous interviews with former rioters, the police and many other local people involved at the time. The findings throw light on the real causes of major urban disorder, which are far more complex than almost all today's politicians and commentators can begin to acknowledge.
An extra factor lends urgency to the current predicament. Among the relatively few academics and think-tankers who work in this field, there has been a belief that Britain would experience major urban unrest; but most thought it would come later - perhaps in 2012-13 when the current cuts in public spending had really started to bite. It has now happened, a lot sooner than expected and with much greater intensity - yet Britain, like most other countries, is wedded to a neo-liberal economic model that ensures the rich will get even richer, the poor poorer, and the gap between them will grow ever wider.
The risk now is that the British and Greek patterns of dissent will spread, the authorities will crack down, the prisons will grow, and control will be maintained - “liddism” will rule, OK (see "Beyond 'liddism': towards real global security", 1 April 2010).
Perhaps, though, the consequences of this week's experience in England will include serious analysis of the underlying context. That seems unlikely at the moment, and is a lot to hope for. But this is an argument that has to be won.