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: Time.com. Some of this post is taken from answers I wrote on Quora.