Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

British riots: Culture or poverty? Try dignity

By Jonathan Simon

British Prime Minister David Cameron's speech (listen to excerpts here) to Parliament yesterday on the recent rioting dripped with all the racially charged rhetoric of forty years of war on crime in both the US and the UK (read the Guardian's backgrounder by Nicholas Watt here):

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. In too many cases the parents of these children – if they are still around – don't care where their children are or who they are with, let alone what they are doing. The potential consequences of neglect and immorality on this scale have been clear for too long, without enough action being taken."

Cameron was clearly hoping that Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, would fall into some Michael Dukakis like time warp and begin to blame the rioting on Cameron's severe cuts in social spending. No such luck, predictably Miliband attacked instead on the New Labour ground that the coalition has imposed cuts on police budgets all over the country. Everyone seemed to agree that the police, perhaps aided by the army, were the thin blue line separating civilization from the chaos spread by the brawny spawn of the underclasses. Even the left oriented Guardian's writers have speculated on whether announced plans to reduce incarceration has sapped the deterrent threat of prisons (read Zoe William's interesting column discussing criminological views of the riots).

Observers should be reluctant to embrace either the view that rioting is the inevitable or at least direct result of increasing poverty on the one hand, or the product of a culture, i.e., practices of child rearing, which produce violent and narcissistic adults, on the other. The alternative view is well expressed in another Guardian comment by Seamus Milne (read it here) who notes that riots, unlike the dangerous classes, are not with us always, but why?

This time, the multi-ethnic unrest has spread far further and faster. It's been less politicized and there's been far more looting, to the point where in many areas grabbing "free stuff" has been the main action. But there's no mystery as to where the upheaval came from. It was triggered by the police killing a young black man in a country where black people are 26 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than their white counterparts. The riot that exploded in Tottenham in response at the weekend took place in an area with the highest unemployment in London, whose youth clubs have been closed to meet a 75% cut in its youth services budget.

For my money it is not poverty that links the cuts in social benefits, to rioting, but dignity, or one should say, indignity. While many of the cuts have yet to take place yet, the communication of who has standing in our societies has come through loud and clear. The world's leaders tremble over the narcissistic rage of bond holders whose pursuit of shameless risk free profits in investments they should have known were gambles, has placed them and the entire global financial structure in peril. But in Washington and London (and one suspects in Paris and Berlin as well) there is no element of urgency about the situation of communities locked into degrading helplessness by anomic and dysfunctional education and employment practices. It is this sense of relative deprivation that goes to the basic sense of dignity, the equality of which is essential to the survival of any truly democratic society. he reason young people, apparently of many races and in some cases classes, are so prone to riot, I would suggest, is not their lack of impulse control or high discount rate on the future, but their heightened sense of dignity/indignity.

In the meantime, it is not lost on those rioters that the deep financial crisis that has cast both the US and the UK into huge budget deficits was caused by behavior which has been frequently and obviously compared to looting. Where is Prime Minister Cameron's outrage at the poor parenting and deformed culture of his class peers in the executive suites of the top London and Edinburgh banks? Where is London Mayor Boris Johnson's statement that the City of London's efforts to aid corporate clients in avoiding lawful taxes (thus furthering the deficit crisis) was "criminality, pure and simple"? And while both Cameron and Johnson are invoking painful punishment to malefactors as the only sensible government response to rioting, there has yet to be a single prosecution in either the US or the UK for behavior involved in causing the crash (put aside criminals like Madoff whose crimes were discovered because of the crash). If there is a failure of deterrence, it is there.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.