The Power of Inequality…

So many questions arise when considering the riots that have engulfed Britain over the last four days… Who’s to blame? Why are they happening? What can be done? When will they stop?

I’ve witnessed a multitude of responses to these questions in the press, social media, conversations with friends, family and colleagues. One of the most common has centred around the condemnation of the rioters, who in the eyes of many are clearly the ones to blame. While on the face it this would seem like a common sense answer I would contend that this is an all to lazy response that ignores anything other than the immediate reality on the ground. And if we want to find answers to the questions about how to make sure this doesn’t happen again we need to look at the events in a broader context…

One of the features of modern Britain is our embrace of individualism, it pervades all elements of our culture. It centres around the idea of personal responsibility and self reliance within an environment that offers individual freedom. It extols the virtue of free choice and light touch regulation, it lies at the core of consumerism (the right to choose what we want to consume and how we want to consume it). Yet it is this pursuit of this agenda that lies at the very heart of the breakdown in society that has led to the riots.

Politically individualism is embodied by the Conservatives and it enshrined in two key principles they pursue relentlessly, both of which drive inequality:

  • Free-markets – though “free” is used under advisement this principle centres around the idea of minimising regulation of the mechanisms employed to facilitate the sale and purchase of commodities. The idea being that this provides the most efficient way of allocating available resources. However, another key feature of this arrangement is the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few; as the old saying goes, money makes money… And the more you have the more you’ll make. The bi-product of someone making loads of money is that it is at someone else’s expense.
  • Low flat rate taxes – low taxes mean a smaller government, this is desirable in the eyes of conservatives as it believes the individual is better placed to figure out how best to spend the money they have available. However, this ignores the fact that some services governments provide are there to level the playing field (e.g. social housing, healthcare, education, etc…). Flat rate taxes are supposedly fair as they apply the same level of taxation to all. However, if we reflect on the inherent unfairness of free-markets flat rate taxes only exacerbate the gap between the haves and have nots.

We can choose to reject either one or both of these ideas at the core of individualism, but if we continue to accept both the level of inequality will only continue to rise. And it is inequality that lies at the heart of the matter.

What evidence is available to support the view that inequality lies at the heart of the riots? Looking specifically at the prominence of rioting itself we can look to other developed nations and their position in terms of inequality there is startling evidence to support the contention that the riots should be expected in countries such as Britain. Take the USA (the most unequal country in the developed world) do you think this could happen there? Well, there are 10 riots recorded in the US in the last decade alone! What about Japan (one of the most equal societies in the developed world)? The last riot in Japan was in 1970 (ironically it was in protest at the US military presence and was put down by US military forces). More generally the impacts of inequality in society are set out pretty definitively in The Spirit Level (by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett), it shows the impact of inequality on society (NB Britain is one of the most unequal societies), as well analysing the underlying behaviours that inequality creates.

Accepting that the riots are a result of the gross inequality in Britain, there is still a question about whether or not the riots actually represent a form of protest. Many hold the view that the riots are simply a result of opportunism and group-think, refusing to countenance the possibility that there is any political basis for the rioting. If we look back to the 1980s to find the last time there were riots of a similar nature in Britain in Toxteth and Brixton many people including the media recognised they were at least in part political protest. So what differentiates these riots in the eyes of the world?

Clearly the nature of the riots is different, looting is wide spread, and there is little or no dialogue with the rioters. However, there are good reasons the mode of rioting is different, the participants in the Brixton and Toxteth riots were drawn from a much heterogeneous set who were able to articulate their grievances about unemployment and heavy handed police tactics. Today’s rioters do not seem willing or able to articulate a similar message, but should we therefore assume there is no reason for their actions beyond opportunism and thuggery? After all their reality is rather different. Remember most of the community in Toxteth had been skilled manual labourers from the docks and manufacturing who were part of an established community; whereas today’s rioters are the product of generations of long-term unemployed, living in atomised communities with only minimal education. As a result they are unable to articulate their anger other than the wanton destruction of property and conflict with the police. But despite the justifiable objection of wider society to the rioters means we must recognise their anger is authentic and justified.

So what is to be done?

If we are to follow the individualist’s agenda we find a dearth of solutions. Perhaps we could lock them all up as they refuse to follow societies norms? This doesn’t sound like a particularly practical or effective solution. It doesn’t address the underlying causes and the idea of prison as a deterrent doesn’t seem particularly credible given our ever increasing prison population. Other solutions available to individualists seem few and far between, although I’d be happy to hear from any readers with any ideas of this particular oeuvre.

The alternative… We could consider targeting deprived communities, providing funding for eduction and training, provide financial support community based groups (remember funding has been cut by more than 50% for most of these organisations). More radical solutions might include:

  • Government sponsored set-up of new green industries in former industrial town and districts, creating jobs and a hub for communities to gravitate to; or
  • A social housing programme to address the chronic shortage of housing for the disadvantaged (currently 16,053 households are on council house waiting lists in Haringey with only 740 new lettings becoming available per year).

 

But what of the cost? Well its a pretty simple equation, you can spend the money and avoid having your property damaged and enjoy feeling safer and more secure, or you can choose not to spend it and face an increasingly uncertain and insecure future. Perhaps the time has come to recognise that even our own interests are best served by some compassion and altruism for other?

I’ll leave you with a quote from someone who understood what’s happening better than most and a couple of recommendations for some reading on inequality…

 

‘When you cut facilities, slash jobs, abuse power, discriminate, drive people into deeper poverty and shoot people dead whilst refusing to provide answers or justice, the people will rise up and express their anger and frustration if you refuse to hear their cries. A riot is the language of the unheard.’

- Martin Luther King Jr.

 

Recommended reading…

Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists – Daniel Dorling

Chavs – The Demonisation of the Working Class – Owen Jones

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4 Responses to The Power of Inequality…

  1. Don Mac says:

    I wouldn’t necessarily use inequality in the context of free markets and distribution of wealth without considering recent immigration (within 3 generations), cultural differences and race have been fundamental in most of inequalities in the UK and USA – esentially being brought in originally to the jobs no one else wanted to do. Using Japan as an example as an equal society is skewed due to the lack of immigration and the cultural idiosyncrasies that have been honed with very little external interference in Japan over 1000s of years. If you plonked a whole community of afro Caribbeans, Philippinos or Indians into Osaka then you may see the similar results. If I was going to use an example of an equal society ( or a relatively better model than us) I would look to Sweden and Denmark.

  2. Murray McRobie says:

    Interesting but to reply, where to start?.

    I have made many comments and read those of others on facebook and already read a number of articles in the Guardian and Daily Telegraph and BBC website and elsewhere. No doubt analysis will go on for days.

    I would agree it is sensible to ask the questions, Who’s to blame? Why are they happening? What can be done? When will they stop?.
    I have been slightly surprised by some of the comments I have read on facebook of a fascist hard line approach. Maybe that is just an initial reaction.

    The rioters are really just mass looting thieves, opportunistic, with little or no political motivation or goal in mind. I don’t even really think it is a cry for help. More likely they just don’t care, they have nothing to lose or they perceive it that way. The nature of rioting is that the safety of numbers and herd mentality spurs on those involved. I personally witnessed the Poll Tax riots in Trafalgar Square and the West End in 1990. But while there was some looting back then it was limited and there did seem to be a purpose – to abolish the Poll Tax. It was primarily political with lots of broad support – in the idea even if not the method. The recent/current riots seem to be all about acquiring goods from JD sports, Footlocker and mobile phone and electronic shops.

    So why do those young people, and they do seem to be very young, feel such despair that they don’t give a shit?.

    I would agree inequality is a big factor.Further is that fact that widening inequality leads to more crime in general. However, I think the big thing is that these people just don’t feel part of society, part of the wider community. They are frustrated at having little money in our very consumerist society.

    The solution. Jobs. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/8689622/Rioters-need-jobs-says-Carpetrights-Lord-Harris.html
    I think employment is very much a political issue. It occurs to me could easily be much lower if that were of the highest political priority, which it presently isn’t but should be. In my view it could be made much lower by some major changes to the tax and benefit system and real support for small business. Ian Duncan-Smith is quite right that it is a scandal that people are very often better off on benefits than in a job. But the thing is they shouldn’t merely be better off working, they should be much better off. After-all, you are really only working for the difference between what you would otherwise get. That is, if you are only £10 better off you in reality working 35 hrs or whatever for £10. This really is a major scandal and is the reality for many people. Of course I accept there are many benefits from employment than just the income received. This is the whole point – employed people feel they are doing something and are part of something, job satisfaction and social interaction.

    I would go further and say that the riots are all part of the culture of greed that is part of the present day UK – the flip side of the same coin of mega bonuses and greater than ever pay differentials.

    Interesting the number 2 news story of recent days has been the economy and the markets. Growth forecasts have been slashed and there is every chance of a double dip recession. The share-market has fallen markedly and there are major concerns about Government debt in the Eurozone in particular.

    That is, while these riots may well be over there maybe more to come.

    We live in interesting, if slight scary, times.

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