The series of riots that struck England in early August have provoked many reactions, much national debate and widespread international amazement. Across England beginning on the 6th of August four nights of widespread and rising public disorder saw five people killed, random violence of frightening intensity and mass looting in many towns and cities.
Emerging from nowhere these riots genuinely shocked the country - perhaps most of all because there seemed no guiding motive or burning issue of injustice. The sense of social crisis was exacerbated by a clear failure of police tactics, initially mis-classifying the event as a race riot and fearing to add fuel to the fire, Police adopted tactical containment strategies that contrary to strategic intention further inspired the sense of unprecedented criminal opportunity for others around the country.
Britons unused to the sense of widespread criminal licence (except in the more refined areas of finance and business) remain profoundly shaken by the riots rightly thinking that something new, indicative and dangerously prophetic had occurred. British politicians similarly struck by the gravity and scale of events realise that this is a defining event that could make or break public trust and have, with decidedly mixed results, desperately been trying to capture and represent the resulting public mood.
Broadly speaking the right has decried the moral depravity of the rioters and promised harsh punishment while the left accepting the clear criminality of the rioting has sought nonetheless to portray the disturbances as an incipient issue of social justice and pledged to investigate its complex causes. Interestingly neither side feels entirely comfortable with its initial analysis, in its more reflective moments the right feels rightly it is more than simple law-breaking, it considers family breakdown and the consequent loss of social morality as a prime causational factor; while the left in the face of the manifest criminality of the rioters' behaviour, has struggled with its instinctive intuition that the riots must either be a political protest at public sector cutbacks (unlikely since they have yet to take effect) or a direct result of social deprivation (as yet unclear given the range of those involved in rioting). Those unable to offer even this level of analysis claim to put the disturbances in their historical context placing mass disturbance within a normal part of the radical English tradition, even more avid defenders of the status quo argue that a tiny unrepresentative minority have been given undue prominence and opportunity by the 24 hour media cycle and modern social networks, and that while not quite much ado about nothing - things will soon return to normal.
30.000 Nihilists? But these riots represent a new sociological phenomenon (in London alone police estimate that up to 30,000 people were involved) and a new nihilistic normal one that reveals and reflects the profound social, cultural and economic shifts that have shaped Britain over the last thirty years. First of all the riots were new in that unlike the riots in the UK in the 1980's and some isolated incidents thereafter they were not characterised by any ethnic or localised concerns. Indeed it was their very ubiquity that was so unnerving - across the country gangs of predominately young unemployed men often with criminal records were able to facilitate using new media, a series of semi-organised disturbances for the purpose not of protest but of criminal gain. This activity drew into violent disorder a far wider section of British society than ever before (from school assistants to university students) to the opportunities offered by looting be it digital TVs or sports shoes.
But why would an unprecedented but nonetheless representative swath of British society suddenly behave in such a manner? An indication is to be found in what the rioters did and did not believe in - they clearly eulogised acquisition and sheer self-interest and eschewed ethics, community, and human regard. They believed in nothing but themselves and held themselves unconstrained by any moral limit and entitled to whatsoever they pleased. In a savage manner they were however merely acting out the values that now seem to govern and embody Britain - ruthless self-interest coupled to a rootless consumer nihilism.
Britain's political class seems uniquely ill placed to condemn such actions since it itself was hugely compromised in the recent political scandal over MP's expenses where some MP's have gone to jail and many including some currently in Government were compelled to repay thousands of pounds illegitimately claimed for expenditure on items very much like those prized by the looters. Moreover the British political class looks highly susceptible to both vested and monopoly interest - with News International for example manipulating both of the main political parties for insider advantage. Most British officials and advisers can barely supress a smile if one speaks of virtue or subjecting the rules of the game to value or principle. And nowhere is this more evident than in the City of London where the bigger the businesses is the more effective it is at avoiding tax, with Barclay's Bank embodying the get away with it if you can culture - paying in 2009 just 1% of its profits of £11.6 billion in corporation tax to the UK treasury.
In this regard the top and bottom of British society seem to exhibit remarkably similar values. Both undeserving rich and poor play the system and both see no reason why they should not. But this is hardly a surprise the rule for the last thirty years is that one rules the many by persuading them that the values of the self-interested few ought to be their principles as well. This moral and social collapse that has become so widespread that it seems entirely normal, it represents the final triumph of a value system that does not recognise any objective values at all: liberalism albeit in its most degraded libertarian form. Through a corrupted liberalism both left and right in unknowing but complicit agenda have participated in tearing apart Britain's social and economic fabric. Firstly and paradoxically left libertarianism used state welfarism to create autonomy in people it considered too uncosmopolitan, too dependent on each other and too defined by outmoded codes and values, as such it substituted the central state for the institutions and structures of working class communities. By making welfare and rights dependent on one way entitlement the state produced a dissociative culture that rendered superfluous all the bottom up organisation and structure of British working class life, making people and communities dependent upon state welfare rather than on each other. This has been most invidious in the war on the family – cultural libertarians on the left have followed Engels in deeming marriage to be nothing more than the bourgeois subjugation of women and state subsidy for those who wish to escape has increased dramatically. Since 1997, for example a single mother of two children has seen her benefits increase by 85 per cent. Whereas In the UK the tax burden placed on a one-earner family (two parents two children) on an average wage is 39 per cent higher than that on the same families in other OECD countries.
A changing society. The cultural and economic war on family life has had an obvious outcome. Children in the UK are now more than three times more likely to live in one parent households than they were in 1972, a third to a half of all UK children will at some point live in a lone parent family and a third of all British children are at any one time are living with just one parent. In 1971, less than 10 % of all live births in England and Wales were outside marriage, in 2008 45% of all births were outside marriage. This matters because unmarried parents have great trouble in staying together, by the time a child is 5 some 43% of cohabiting parents have already broken up - as against just 8% for married couples. Since 70% of young offenders come from lone parent families and a third of all prisoners come from families so dysfunctional that they were taken into care by the state - family structure is not something that the state can afford to be value free about.
The collapse in the family sponsored by the left libertarian mantra of choice, freedom and the massive extension of private autonomy has created widespread social anonymity and fragmentation - over 7 million Britons now live alone compared to three million in 1971. The attack upon structures that stabilise people and provide a necessary and secure footing has also been accompanied by a relentless assault on the principles that underpin these foundations be it those of faith, tradition or morality. A hostile technocratic amorality that removes culture, taboo and memory from public policy has been the hallmark of Labour's years in power.
Accompanying this cultural and social assault from the left has been a similar libertarian assault from the economic right. Under the rhetoric of free markets delivering mass prosperity - a rentier state has developed that has concentrated wealth and stripped millions of ordinary Britons of their capital denying them the path to assets, ownership and trade. The new road to serfdom for the bottom half of Britons has seem their liquid capital and savings vanish (in 1976 the bottom 50% had 12% of wealth excluding property in 2003 it was 1%) and the value of their wages as a proportion of GDP stagnate or decline
From the perspective of those who rioted perhaps the most evident indication of how the game has moved against them is migration. Thirty years ago poor unskilled working class kids could at least get jobs in shops or factories however under neo-liberal migration policies – these youths have been wholly outcompeted by hard working and or highly skilled new migrants, an astounding 99.9% of the rise of employment (not jobs) in Labour years is accounted for by rise in foreign-born workers.
In conclusion, the rioters are shamefully emblematic of modern Britain, their values have striking parallels with the UK's current elite not least because the creation of a morally denuded and economically marooned class at the bottom of society has been the outcome of an elite that has eschewed proper moral vision and embraced self-serving economics and the value system that endorses it: libertarianism under the guise of liberalism.