London Riots: Its the Economy, Stupid (Not a Clash of Civilizations)

The unfortunate riots in Tottenham in London tell us a great deal about the problems of immigrant communities, and what they say to us most eloquently is that people want to be treated with justice. They want to be treated in accordance with a rule of law, and not singled out for extra policing on the basis of racial profiling. The demonstrations were set off by the police shooting of an African-Carribean man, and came in part in protest against the constant pat-downs to which African-Caribbeans are subjected by police.

African-Caribbeans are the least organized ethnic community in the United Kingdom, as Paul Gilroy has also noted, and are the least represented in politics and in the media. They suffer from high unemployment, and are particularly youthful (most of the some 200 demonstrators who have been arrested are teenagers).

Muslim-haters, exemplified by Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik, have long attempted to conflate immigration issues with Islam and culture. In essence, they have a “clash of civilizations” theory of why immigrants are, as they insist, unassimilable into white, Christian, European societies. Muslims, they charge, are committed to un-Christian values and their own code of law, the sharia (which they will, the haters argue, attempt to impose on white Christians). In fact, large numbers of European Muslims are de facto secular, and even among the religious there is no appetite for having non-Muslims live by Muslim law (many would find that idea sort of blasphemous, since Islam makes a place for religious pluralism). And, besides, 2-5% of the population, many of them without citizenship or unused to voting if they have it, cannot impose anything on anyone. The sharia hysteria is a deliberate ploy to stir up hatred by well-funded bigots.

When riots broke out in Paris in 2005, the Muslim-haters, such as Fox Cable News, blamed Islam. But there too, the issue was not religion, as almost all French recognized immediately. The issue was youth unemployment.

Likewise, the Tottenham riot was not about culture. African-Carribeans are Christians and are not pushing for a Talmud or a sharia. (Some Muslim communities may get caught up in the wave of rioting, but as I will argue, it will be because of issues other than their religion).

It is not completely clear what is driving the looting that has come in the wake of the rioting. It could just be opportunism (a wave of looting once swept New York City just because the lights went out because of a problem in the electrical grid). Some of the arson seems mindless, but then the US saw similar things in the late 1960s. When people hate their lives, they sometimes lash out, even at the few nice buildings in their neighborhood. The looting may also be organized crime (and some of the arson and sabotage may be intended to cover for looting and burglary by these gangs). The looting is not the main issue, in any case; it is rather the demonstrations and riots that have created the conditions of which looters have taken advantage.

Muslim immigrant communities are not distinctive in their problems (nor in their successes) from other immigrant communities. It isn’t about a clash of cultures or civilizations. It is about access to the mainstream economy, employment, and, as I said, a feeling of being treated fairly by the government and the society–a feeling that the law applies equally to everyone and is applied in a transparent and even-handed way.

Britain is capable of achieving the rule of law for all its citizens equally (the rule of law is something the British have been especially good at through history, and they have bequeathed the world many good institutions and much good thinking on this subject). African-Caribbeans maintain that they haven’t been equal before the law with other Britons. Of course, they also need jobs, and job training. But the problem of equal treatment under the law is the one that needs to be addressed most urgently.

29 Responses

  1. Dear Professor Cole

    It is far more widespread that Tottenham.

    The Telegraph provides a map showing incidents of looting and disorder in London.

    link to telegraph.co.uk

    Further incidents have been reported in Birmingham, Leeds and Bristol.

    Police are being authorised to deploy water cannon and report the use of armoured vehicles as a successful technique.

  2. Dear Prof. Cole,

    The looting and arson are most likely a provocation by the security agencies employed in order to justify the use of force against the demonstrators. This strategy has been used widely by the police and security appatarus around the world. It allows the governments to put away the arrested participants under the criminal law (as criminals) rather than as political prisoners, as it may in fact be.

    • “It allows the governments to put away the arrested participants under the criminal law (as criminals) rather than as political prisoners, as it may in fact be.”

      The shame of it all, as the British police arrest all those “political prisoners,” carrying their looted flat-screen TVs, cell phones, and bottles of booze. Political prinsoners, indeed!

  3. As a matter of fact, the first people who joined the riots after the Caribbean community seem to have been Hasidic Jews. There’s a huge Jewish community in Tottenham. Everybody else joined in soon enough.

    As to the motivation, there’s the report of some journalist asking a young black guy what they hoped to achieve by rioting, and he replied, “Well, you’re talking to me, aren’t you?”

  4. “Not likely. The fire is in the minds of men and not in the roofs of houses.”

    the possessed (part 3,chapter 2), f.dostoyevsky

  5. “It is not completely clear what is driving the looting that has come in the wake of the rioting.”
    May be the public lost respect for the police because their involvement with Murdoch

    • Maybe they feel that the ballot box is pointless when Labor has already sold out to the Neocons, and the Liberal Democrats have now sold out to the Tories very cheaply, and the Tories are now plotting to dismantle national health care and no one is doing anything to stop them.

      Who is on the side of these poor Britons that Standard & Poor’s would allow to win an election?

  6. Dear Juan,

    I am a keen and regular reader of your blog, which I find well informed and one of the few clear and reasoned voices on many issues. However, your comment on the riots in London, where I live, fall wide of the mark.

    The looters do not fall into a particular category of race or religion. The shooting dead of an Afro-Caribbean has not sparked rioting by purely Afro-Caribbean communities but many communities, none of which are being unduly targeted by police. It is platitudinous to say that Afro-Caribbean communities want to be treated fairly – so does everyone and the statement insinuates that they are not because of their race, which is not the case. The victim of this isolated shooting happened to be Afro-Caribbean and that tells us no more about police tactics than if he happened to be gay or over 6ft. Similarly, the botched shooting of de Menezes in 2005 did not illustrate a discrimination against Brazilians.

    To say that the riots can tell us anything ‘eloquently’ about socio-economic issues is an odd claim. And, in a short article on your blog, invoking Muslim-haters is totally irrelevant and does nothing but cloud the issue. I tend to agree wholeheartedly with your opinions on how Muslims are persecuted but such views have no place in a post about the London riots. The last two nights in London have been plagued by mindless thuggery which was not preceded by peaceful protests or demonstrations. Far be it from me to speculate on the causes, it is clear that this is criminality that cuts across religion and ethnicity, and to use the looting to fuel arguments on race or religion is misguided.

    Yours,
    James

  7. Didn’t we just have a ‘wave of lawlessness’ in the U.K.? The Murdoch scandal exposed a police force that declared the sudden mysterious death of a main whistle-blower and journalist ‘not suspicious’ the day before the Murdochs testimony before Parliament (while the leaders of the police force were resigning for failing to investigate obvious crimes), testimony by James M. that was declared to be lies by credible high-profile witnesses,and so on.
    The example of the ruling class running rampant with such vulgarity hardly sets a tone of respect for law and order. So the ‘thugs’ who can’t get a job, can’t join a youth basketball league, are seeing paths to education cut are having a ball grabbing the goodies, the supposed carrots to enter a maze of indebtedness. It’s not really justice, no, its just more lawlessness in a context of lawlessness.
    London, after all, is just a pile of loot, Elgin Marbles and all…

    • “London, after all, is just a pile of loot, Elgin Marbles and all…,” writes Andrew.

      I totally agree that London is a pile of loot including the word “LOOT” that English language adopted from India.

      I would like to add just one more item “The Jewel in the Crown –KOHINOOR, among millions of other items.

      More about Kohinoor Diamond in the following link.

      link to deccanherald.com

  8. Another set of riots are going on in Israel. There was a post this morning on dailykos.com about the decades of corruption in their government. I didn’t realize that it was this bad.

    If what the author says is correct, and I don’t know enough to verify and don’t have the time, the country could unravel very quickly.

    Israel has been a major political player in the US. These changes could thus have an effect on what goes on here.

    Here is the dailykos link.

    Juan, if this post on dailykos is accurate, you might post it on your web page.

    link to dailykos.com

    **
    Another topic but related to economics and government. The well known blogger from Michigan, Marcy Wheeler now has her own blog. Many of her posts involve civil liberties. But this one is about the take over of governments by the corporations. This is happening through out the world as the global corporations, supported by military might, try to manipulate the global economy. In a way this idea has been building for some time, but her post cristilized it for me.

    link to emptywheel.net

    On her blog she posts summaries of the days news. She notes that every day she posts a link abou the decline of the american empire.

  9. Has the previously undeclared class war in the West broken out? I’m not sayin’, just askin’….

    • As one wag put it: “will NATO now intervene on behalf of the British rebels?”

  10. Dear Professor Cole

    Now the talk is of Rubber Bullets.

    The Army however is not being urged to deploy.

  11. Although I most certainly sympathise with those who are suffering from social conditions that are both abhorrent and ineffably dour; surely one must also acknowledge that the way in which one responds to such tawdry conditions (irrespective of whether or not they have truly been imposed from above, and I firmly believe that they have been) is wholly under the control of those who happen to reside, or merely find themselves, within them. For, as I am given to believe, being a native of a city that has, rather unfortunately, suffered from comparable conditions in the past, namely, Belfast, and with parents who lived during the height of that which is still known as the troubles, one must, as my parents did, positively distinguish between the legitimate responses to injustice exhibited by civil rights movements, and the illegitimate use of violence, that, as per the historical record, tends to beget its own kind (violence surely cannot be the best way to campaign for the creation of new jobs, and or, beneficial infusions of much needed Keynesian stimulus). The rule of law, in other words, is difficult to impose, if such a thing should be imposed, upon those who are, as evidenced by their actions, currently lawless (although, almost needless to say, such things are incredibly complex).

    One hopes however that those members of the communities in question, that is to say those involved in, and affected by, the recent riots in London and elsewhere, who do indeed wish to pursue legitimate goals; that is to say, as per your formulation, equality before the law, and not senseless insurrection, are not drowned out by those whom, with no regard for their fellows, perniciously shout the loudest. Ultimately, even though it is a useful conceit, we mustn’t be too eager to speak of the desires and wants of entire communities, as if they were entirely homogenous, lest we run the risk of inadvertently legitimising the language employed by those who seek only to spread both hate and injustice.

    One hopes, in any case, for a peaceable solution, if such a solution is possible.

  12. I think the riots measure the degree to which a belief has crept in to common perception that says, “Lawlessness is the rule. Lawfulness is merely the perception .” I would think this is exacerbated by Rupert Murdoch’s essentially lawless media empire. Note how the rioters are young enough to have their world view substantially influenced by Murdoch’s media.

    • I forgot to add …

      Many times when people give in to mass hysteria, it is those with outer-driven mores that do, i.e. the one who do as others do. It would seem the Muslims in particular and those with a more highly developed inner moral;ity in general would be least likely to riot.

  13. They (the authorities) take away hope.

    There are few jobs — and less promised in the future. Unemployment is already rampant.

    Now they are taking away housing subsidies, health care, educational opportunities, welfare, food and the other basics necessary to survive. This is all in the name of paying rich bankers whose greed has brought our society to the point of collapse.

    And they (the authorities) cannot understand why people react!

  14. There seems to be very little righteous anger motivating the rioters, apart from some of the early ones.

    The problem is, I think, that you get subcultures – across ethnic and religious lines – that have grown up with no faith in their prospects, the system, the government, and no faith that any of that can be improved. Possibly with good reason, possibly not. They don’t yearn for a better world, because they don’t believe in a better world – at least not for them.

    So, they seek extremely short-term rewards. Many newspapers write that they target stores that sell “chav” labels. They don’t let anyone but advertisers tell them what’s worth seeking in life.

    I don’t think moral outrage gets us anywhere. What we have to ask is how did this subculture come to exist. Do we, as Theodore Dalrymple, blame the welfare state? Do we blame Thatcher’s legacy? Family politics?

    It’s anyway where the discussion needs to go. Yeah, the looters are assholes, but pointing out that obvious fact does nothing.

  15. Prof Cole wrote: “But the problem of equal treatment under the law is the one that needs to be addressed most urgently.” Maybe so, from the safe zone where you reside. I suspect the people in the middle of the conflagration think stopping the violence and the looting what needs to be addressed “most urgently”.

  16. in addition to all of the above
    I can tell you if you have watched British TV, listened to radio or looked at social media for the last few days, that there is something verging on hysteria, where any attempt to explain why the poorest and most downtrodden in British society are in open revolt is somehow seen as an effort to excuse or justify the violence.
    One thing is clear, the right in this country are on the move, there are right wing vigilante thugs on the streets of a few parts of London, the police have somehow (at least partially) restored they’re reputation after the news of the world affair (there is this sort of fawning praise for them as though they were batman or something, it’s as if they’re blundering and provocations didn’t do a lot to cause this in the first place)
    Dan Hind astutely compared this climate to how sarkozy used fear of the riots in the banlieues of Paris in his rise to power. There is talk of water cannon and plastic bullets, whatever happens I think in the fallout form this Britain will not learn the lessons of the perils of social exclusion and high unemployment (among other things) and will be a more divided and unpleasant place to live.

  17. The cause of these incidents is related to the economic crisis, the need to contain a viable production system that exploits, poisons us by suffocation and lack of values ​​that dehumanizes us every day … The commitment by the top leadership, government, military, police, continue their policies of privileges, waste and handling.
    Of course there are vested interests behind. When chaos increases and you are seeing more and more that arises it constantly in the measure to justify their actions with biological weapons that decimate the entire planet.
    The rest of humanity will be helpless if it still lives in his delusions of magical virutual reality, seeking pleasure, looking for fun, and desiring of living in a constant state of being.

  18. A sensible voice on the British riots: Dr Clifford Stott

    link to youtube.com

    Britain’s policing is “by consent”. Compare the Occupation of Wilmington.

    “Distance weaponry”, i.e. water cannon, is not a good idea.

    The police must have the support of the people. The West Indian community, where the trouble started with the killing of Mr Duggan (who appears to have been armed) is a tough assignment, in my opinion. I used to teach in South London and they were obviously the most difficult ethnic group to manage in class. Not PC perhaps, but a fact nevertheless.

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