What caused the riots? It’s more than just the economy, stupid.

by Stephen Tall on August 11, 2011

Aditya Chakrabortty has a pretty compelling article in today’s Guardian scrutinising the political responses to the past few days’ rioting under the concise headline, UK riots: political classes see what they want to see. He summarises the binary analysis that has dominated:

If you’re a leftwinger, the causes of the violence and looting are straightforward: they’re the result of monstrous inequality and historic spending cuts; while the youth running amok through branches of JD Sports are what happens when you offer a generation plastic consumerism rather than meaningful jobs.

For the right, explaining the violence is even simpler – because any attempt at understanding is tantamount to condoning it. Better by far to talk of a society with a sense of over-entitlement; or to do what the prime minister did and simply dismiss “pockets of our society that are not just broken but, frankly, sick”. You can expect to hear more of the same rhetoric in today’s debate in parliament, especially from backbenchers on either side.

He then points out the obvious — ‘Offering up a single explanation for the violence and looting that began in one London borough on Saturday and has since spread as far as Birmingham and Salford must be a nonsense’ — before noting that the underlying causes of the disturbances are not hard to fathom:

Many economists have spent the past few days passing around a paper on the Hindu-Muslim riots in India in the 80s and 90s. Written by Anjali Thomas Bohlken and Ernest John Sergeant in 2010, it finds that “just a 1% increase in the [economic] growth rate decreases the expected number of riots by over 5%”. Recessions are good for riots: perhaps no surprise, there. What matters, they argue, is when people suffer abrupt drops in living standards – and that goes for Hackney as well as Athens.

That point is rammed home by a new paper from the economists Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth. Titled “Austerity and Anarchy”, it should be essential reading for all those who want an academic take on what spending cuts made in Whitehall might mean on their local high streets. Ponticelli and Voth look at social unrest across Europe from 1919 to the present – and find a clear link between “fiscal retrenchment and instability” that goes beyond the misery caused by recession.

The point is, in a sense, pretty obvious: when the economy dives so do the hopes of many of those affected. That this is accompanied by an austerity programme — albeit one which will see public spending continue to grow throughout the lifetime of this parliament, from £669bn (2010) to £770bn (2015) — accentuates that sense of hopelessness, of despair. This has found an outlet in this week’s violent looting spree.

Does that mean we can easily brush off this week’s turmoil as an inevitable outcome of economic distress? That would be too, too easy.

Look at Spain, a country whose economy is in a far worse plight than the UK’s, with youth unemployment (ie, the number of under-25s out-of-work) at an absolutely staggering 46% (compared to 20% in the UK).

Yet contrast this week’s nihilistic pillaging with the Spanish reaction, the 15-M Movement, a peaceful but deeply political response which started in Madrid (pictured) and spread to 58 cities across the Spanish regions. Just a couple of weeks ago, the 15-M Movement delivered its demands for far-reaching reform to Spain’s political and financial system direct to the outgoing Socialist premier, Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

It’s a far cry from raiding Foot Locker.

As Chakrabortty notes:

London in the early 80s was marked out by a generation of black and Asian politicians who were able to serve as interlocutors for their communities. Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng and others were not Labour frontbenchers and often to the left of Michael Foot and the party leadership: they were able to serve as credible representatives of areas in turmoil. David Lammy is an admirable MP, but he does not have the same heft. Which is partly why this week’s disorder has often seemed so apolitical.

True, it has been apolitical. But what has perhaps frightened most of us has been the casual disdain for common humanity: violence has not been targeted against ‘the establishment’, but against anyone who happens to be in the way, even if they’re an ordinary member of the local community.

This was purposeless lawlessness. And there’s little point in blaming today’s current crop of politicians, of whichever hue, for that state. This is a deep-seated problem in our society, a failure of families and community and the economy and politics.