Monthly Archives: August 2011

Could Civil Unrest Happen Here?

rioting and civil unrestCivil unrest seems contagious. Civil unrest in Tunisia instigated civil unrest in Egypt and Libya and Bahrain and Yemen. All unrest directed at oppressive governments, dictatorial regimes, that sort of thing. London’s civil unrest seems a little different – focused on destroying the community itself, destroying small businesses, shared spaces, their neighbors’ homes.There are factors common between London and the U.S. – factors that drive civil unrest:

  1. Unemployment or underemployment.
  2. Poverty, stagnant economies & concentration of wealth.
  3. Nonrepresentative government.
(For data on England and these factors, see the last post.)To summarize this unhopeful picture, people are unhappy because they can’t find jobs, feel pushed out of their neighborhoods, live next to increasingly wealthy groups and, in a final coup de grace, see that the government is not acting in their interests. Of course, the stagnant world economy, with collapsing economies in nearby Greece and Spain, means there’s not a lot of hope to counterbalance the bleak picture. New jobs aren’t emerging.So the real question is, what’s different between England and the United States?

What’s past is prologue

Certainly the first two conditions are true in the U.S. 9.1% of American people are unemployed and another 10 million people have given up looking for jobs or are working part time against their preference. The country’s wealth is becoming more concentrated: “As of 2007, the top decile of American earners pulled in 49.7 percent of total wages.”

The only point up for discussion is whether our government is acting in the the people’s best interest. While I would argue not, it probably doesn’t matter. What matters is how people perceive the government is acting. Clearly, satisfaction with the federal government is pretty damn low. We agree on that!

So what’s standing between us and civil unrest?

Until a year or so ago, I would have said that the American public was so distracted by wars (heroism, sacrifice), social issues (abortion, gay marriage), false dichotomies in patriotism (civil liberties, security), and social divisiveness (racism, anti-immigrant sentiment) that they were blind to the increasing inequality in our society. That we were so distracted by social issues that we didn’t notice how bad the governance was – or maybe we didn’t care.

It feels different lately. People are focused on the issues of governance- spending, budgeting, priorities – but our discourse is so distinctly uncivil, so horribly without empathy, that the histrionics prevent solutions. So the situation deteriorates, the rhetoric escalates and sensible people walk away from the discussion.

If there is civil unrest here, I predict it will be an uprising of strange bedfellows: The first, people who have been abandoned by their government. People who are poor, unemployed and disenfranchised. The second, people who believe government is inherently undesirable.Today, the second group is doing all the talking. The violence may come when the first group finds its voice.
Image credit: cyphunk on Flickr

London Isn’t Full of Criminals: The Enraged & Disenfranchised

This afternoon, when asked about the cause of the London riots, the Deputy Mayor of London said:

“[There has been] an awful lot of rationalization of criminal activity. I think that’s fundamentally what it is. It is criminal activity, pure and simple. It’s driven by greed, avarice and a desire to just grab other people’s property,” he said.
“I think you can try and confect some kind of complicated sociological argument about people’s motivations for that criminality, but I think that’s getting them off the hook. There is no excuse for it, absolutely none whatsoever.”

That’s a little bit like saying that Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda planned and executed 9/11  because they are evil. To be clear, evil was definitely a prerequisite for the 9/11 attacks, but it certainly wasn’t the only necessary condition.

To perpetrate mass atrocity, you need a group of people who are dissatisfied enough with their lives to endorse and take part in evil behavior on a broad scale. Thousands of young British people didn’t get up one morning last week and decide to void the social contract with their neighbors because they became spontaneously criminal.

Drain the Swamp

Just as terrorism has broader social causes – a swamp of unhappy, unemployed, disaffected angry young men living in undemocratic societies – the riots in London have social causes, including poverty, unemployment (and underemployment) and disaffection with government.

Former London mayor Ken Livingstone argues that “We are in danger of losing a generation of young people. [This is] the first time in our history when children have less prospects than their parents did. That’s what’s fueling this anger.”

The numbers support his analyis. London suffers from unemployment as high as 30%, concentrated in youth ages 16-24. In addition to the completely unemployed, the “inactive” population (young people who are not employed or actively seeking a job), is at 3 million. Analysis from the UK Office of National Statistics indicates that 2 of those 3 million are pursuing higher education because they can’t find a job.

No Hope or Change Either

And these young people will not find hope for the future in a booming economy: The United Kingdom’s economy is stagnating, with very slow job growth since 2008. This, combined with inflation and a corresponding rise in the cost of living, means that poor British people are being forced out of neighborhoods they can no longer afford.

Meanwhile, the Cameron-Clegg administration recently raised tuition fees in response to the UK’s own economic challenges, leading to significant protests in December 2010, some of which became violent. I’m not done yet. The UK government has also recently decreased welfare payments.

Wealth in the London area in particular is becoming more and more concentrated, ensuring that the poor are living with the constant juxtaposition of what they live without.

To summarize: the British poor are experiencing unemployment – without hope of new jobs on the horizon – while education is less accessible and their decreasing incomes represent ever-decreasing purchasing power. So what do they have to be excited about?

This feeling of disconnection from their communities, coupled with an apparently poor view of the government, means there’s little incentive not to riot when the situation is set alight with a violent incident like the Marc Duggan shooting.

Certainly I do not advocate violence, in any form. And the reckless destruction of their own communities is pointless, criminal and terrible. But those who would keep the peace should remember that resentment simmers, runs deep, and is rarely mollified by police action.

Ending these riots is not the same thing as preventing them from happening again. The former can be accomplished with guns, truncheons and tear gas – the latter will require building community, adding jobs and creating a growing economy.

Image credit: Some of this post is taken from answers I wrote on Quora.