The Economist fears “Anarchy in the UK”

The Economist, sacred guardian of the neoliberal order, fears “Anarchy in the UK” in an Aug. 9 commentary:

There is something deeply disturbing about the idea that your own city is out of control. There have been riots in London before but usually these have been confined to a single area—Brixton and Tottenham in the 1980s. These disturbances were in multiple locations, familiar names to all Londoners—Camden, Clapham, Croydon, Ealing, Hackney, Peckham and Woolwich—as well as other big cities such as Birmingham and Liverpool.

Listening to the radio last night, one was struck by a consistency of tone—gangs of youths roaming the streets, looting shops and starting fires with the police unable to cope—while the individual reporters were taken aback by the fact that their own neighbourhoods, the ones in which they worked, shopped and lived, were out of control. The usual caveats need to apply: 99% of Britain was at peace last night and, thankfully, no one was killed. Other countries have had similar outbreaks of violence in the past (France in 2005 and 2007, for example) that have died out after a few weeks.

The initial disturbance may have been provoked by a Rodney King-style episode in which a young black man was shot dead while a passenger in minicab. But it is hard to believe that nine out of ten of those involved in the trouble last night could have named the young man involved (Mark Duggan). This episode seems to have been driven by the “buzz”: the chance to rule the streets for a brief moment and to enjoy the gains that flow from looting; flat-screen TVs and alcohol.

One must therefore beware of pat explanations: if, as is suggested, some of the rioters were communicating with each other by Blackberry message, the idea that abject poverty was the root cause must be open to doubt…

Isn’t it interesting that the economically comfortable are always willing to dismiss an economic motive behind popular insurrection in their own country? This BBC interview with Brixton-based Trinidadian writer Darcus Howe provides a very different perspective. Asked if he was “shocked” by the riots, he says “No, not at all”—leading the interviewer to bait him, “Does this mean you condone what happened in your community last night?” Howe portrays the usual mixture of economic despair and systematic abuse and humiliation at the hands of the police leading to an inevitable explosion. “I don’t call it rioting, I call it an insurrection of the people,” he says, and links it to what “is happening in Syria.” (The Telegraph notes that the BBC later apologized to Howe for portraying him as a “rioter.”)

In another BBC interview which a poster to YouTube says was “scrubbed” from the Beeb’s website, an eyewitness describes another little-noted event that apparently sparked off the violence—when a “young female” approached the police lines in London after the slaying of Mark Duggan to demand an explanation, and was “set upon with batons”…

Of course, some think the BBC is being too sympathetic to the “rioters” or “insurrectionists” or “protesters.” From The Guardian:

The BBC’s head of newsgathering has admitted that the corporation should not have described the London rioters as “protesters” after Saturday night, when a peaceful demonstration provided the initial spark for three days of escalating disturbances across the capital.

The BBC was criticised on Tuesday for continually referring to the looters and rioters as “protesters” – three days after the peaceful protest over the death of Mark Duggan in Tottenham.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s The Media Show, Fran Unsworth conceded that its presenters should have dropped the term earlier.

“I think it was probably OK [to use the term “protesters”] on Saturday when the whole incident started off in a peaceful protest in Tottenham,” Unsworth said. “But since then I don’t think we should have been using ‘protesters’, clearly they are looters and rioters and that’s how we should have been describing them.”

We don’t doubt that there’s lots of stupid nihilistic violence going on in England now—just as there was some in Egypt during the protests that brought down Mubarak. But that doesn’t mean there is no political content to the “riots” (or “insurrection” or “protests”). Back to The Economist. The commentary concludes:

From the point of view of this blog, the implications are political and financial. There has been a kind of smug British attitude towards the problems of Europe—”those rioting Greeks with their corrupt economy”—that ought to be challenged. There was talk, as recently as yesterday, of Britain as a safe haven: a big economy with an AAA rating and a liquid bond market. London has been advertised by estate agents as a bolthole for wealthy Europeans to buy property; that appeal might look a little hollow today.

The much-heralded cuts have only just started: public spending is still higher than it was a year ago… The temptation to buy off trouble—more money on police spending, youth employment programmes—will be high. The image of London round the world has suffered, something that will put off not only tourists but those who are considering buying the pound or UK government bonds. And, at a time when consumer confidence was already shaky, the images of unsafe streets will surely weigh on domestic activity, if only for a short while.

We aren’t so sanguine about the “short while,” but note that after dismissing an economic motive in the “riots” (or “insurrection” or “protests”), the commentary appears to conclude that they should be seen in the same light as the global econo-protests that have raged across Europe this year and recently spread to Israel… And even though few are making the connections, we can probably also include the Arab Spring as a part of this wave (even if its economic roots have been largely downplayed in the world media), as well as the recent youth unrest in Chile and elsewhere in Latin America…

See our last post on anarchy in the UK.

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