You’ve got to hand it to Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron. He’s got ruling class chutzpah and a sound politicians’ instinct for whom to beat up on – those who can least defend themselves. He isn’t too proud to recycle vicious and timeworn upper- class claptrap when it comes to explaining (away) the recent riots in England. He isn’t bashful about denouncing the moral sickness of his nation’s most disadvantaged even as England’s rich and powerful loot the treasury and underwrite a vapid culture of mass consumption and top down corruption. And he isn’t too nationalistic to refrain from kissing Uncle Sam’s racist and repressive rear end when it comes to fashioning an authoritarian response.
“This is About Culture”
At first, Cameron didn’t wish to discuss the riots’ cause with any pretense of sophisticated comprehension. “This is criminality, pure and simple," he angrily pronounced. Remembering that venerable bourgeois theories on the squalor of lower classes and races allowed for a “sociological” perspective consistent with the habit of repression, however, Cameron went “deeper” to what he and much of England’s elite consider the true heart of British darkness. He told an emergency session of Parliament that the source of the riots was the diseased “culture” of the rioters, a product of weak families, cultural permissiveness, and the welfare state’s entitlement mentality. “There are pockets of our society,” Cameron proclaimed, “that are not just broken but, frankly, sick…the root cause of this mindless selfishness is a complete lack of responsibility in parts of our society, people allowed to feel that the world owes them something, that their rights outweigh their responsibilities, and that their actions do not have consequences…..Territorial, hierarchical and incredibly violent,” Cameron intoned, the rioters “are mostly composed of young boys, mainly from dysfunctional homes…This,” Cameron ads, “is not about poverty, it's about culture. A culture that glorifies violence, shows disrespect to authority, and says everything about rights but nothing about responsibilities.”
Cameron denied that recent government austerity measures contributed to the riots to any significant degree. The government’s only culpability was that it responded with inadequate methods and insufficient force. “There were simply far too few police deployed on to the streets,” Cameron complained. “And the tactics they were using weren't working." The British leader expressed determination to deploy a higher police presence of 16,000 officers on London streets through the weekend. He said he would consider calling in the army in the event of future violence.
Goaded by public opinion data suggesting that many British citizens share this perspective but find his response inadequate, Cameron moved last Monday to bolster his law-and-order credentials. He went to a youth center in Whitney to deliver a speech promising to address the “slow-motion moral collapse” of certain elements in what he calls “broken Britain.” Cameron said the riots reflected a culture in which people and parents fail to take responsibility for their actions. He claimed that government has made it harder to impose discipline and that fear of "stigmatizing" people by forthrightly addressing sensitive topics like single-parent families has undermined efforts to confront terrible behavior. "In this risk-free ground of moral neutrality there are no bad choices, just different lifestyles," Cameron intoned, adding that "'Live and let live' becomes 'Do what you please.'” He spoke in ominous terms of "Children without fathers, schools without discipline, reward without effort, crime without punishment, rights without responsibilities, communities without control….Family and parenting is where we've got to start," he said.
Having once spoken of the need to understand delinquents (“hoodies” in British parlance), Cameron now ordered an "all-out war on gangs and gang culture." Calling for the expansion of his National Citizenship Service “to instill a sense of civic responsibility,” Camerson denounced health-and-safety and human-rights regulations for "twisting and misrepresenting human rights in a way that has undermined personal responsibility." His government is thinking about “shaking up the welfare system” and has suggested cutting off benefits to rioters and their families.
Cameron looks to the United States for solutions. He told Parliament he would “consult American cities” like Boston for “inspiration” when it comes to dealing with the “sick pockets.” He mentioned former Los Angeles, New York and Boston Police Chief William Bratton as a person who could give useful advice. Never mind that American cops employ significantly more-aggressive deadly-force tactics than are typically used by their British counterparts (there have been 17 police gun killings in Los Angeles alone in the first eight months of 2011) and that the recent British unrest broke out first in north London after police shot dead a young black man (Mark Duggan) –one of many incidents in which poor and minority citizens have died at the hands of British police in recent years. Or that the killing of a young man by police has long been the most common ignition point for urban riots.
Who Broke Britain?
Never mind that community leaders and activists across the United Kingdom report that persistent steep economic inequality, deepening poverty, stark reductions in public services by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government (with only weak criticism from the “opposition” Labor Party), and relentless joblessness in abandoned inner-city communities fueled the mayhem in London, Birmingham, Manchester and other multi-ethnic cities. Those isolated communities are victims of “the cuts” — Britain’s savage “de-funding of civil-society institutions in order to balance the nation’s books,” thrown off by financial crisis and bailouts. “In London,” liberal sociologists Richard Sennett and Saskia Sassen note in the New York Times, “austerity means that there will be about 19 percent less to spend next year on government programs, and the burden will fall particularly on the poor.”
And never mind the surreal contradictions involved in denouncing the egocentric moral illness of impoverished slum-dwellers in a county in country where top lawmakers and police authorities have been ensnared in expenses and bribery scandals, and where top bankers receive huge bonuses as taxpayers bail out the very financial institutions that did so much to cause the economic crisis while austerity is imposed on the working and lower classes. Yes, there are narcissistic, amoral, “sick pockets of society” – in the wealth and power elite – that have “broken Britain” in the long neoliberal nightmare of ever more rapacious and unmitigated, soulless capitalism – the very profits system that generated the fetishized mass consumer attachment that many critical observers detected in the British rioters’ looting of retail stores. The noxious ethos of that system is carried to its European extreme in modern capitalism’s birthplace, England, where the top 5 percent owns 40 percent of the nation’s marketable assets (see http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/stats/personal_wealth/13-5-table-2005.pdf). The philosophy underlying such concentration of wealth was once aptly summarized by what the 18th century British philosopher and economist Adam Smith called “the vile maxim of the masters of mankind”: “All for ourselves, and nothing for other people.”
Not So Novel Neocon Nonsense, Neoliberal Wisdom
Cameron’s take on the recent British violence is remarkable for its utter lack of originality. The initial reaction of the American political and intellectual establishment to the black ghetto uprisings that rocked the United States during the 1960s was quite sympathetic to the people trapped in that nation’s slums. The reports on the causes of the riots released by commissions called by President Lyndon Johnson correctly emphasized institutional racism, joblessness, and poverty as the core causes of the violence. They acknowledged white participation in the creation of the modern ghetto and called for the expansion of welfare measures to prevent future outbursts. But, alongside such accurate assessments, U.S. conservatives developed an “alternative” explanation that placed responsibility on the alleged inner pathology of ghetto dwellers and the purported permissiveness of liberal anti-poverty programs. As the progressive U.S. urban studies scholar Stephen Macek notes in his important book Urban Nightmares: the Media, the Right, and the Moral Panic Over the City (2006). “The right’s account of the burgeoning urban crisis – which conspicuously avoided mention of white racism or structural changes to the American economy – gave conservatives a distinct political advantage in appealing to an alarmed white suburban populace. And it contained the seeds of the reactionary perspective on the cities and their problems that has dominated public conversation for the past two decades” – since Reagan.
That perspective – faulting the shiftless, “undeserving” poor and liberal elites for licensing anti-social “underclass” behavior – became conventional U.S. wisdom in the ongoing neoliberal era. In the dominant public discourse of this era, the nation’s pervasive inequality structures “collapse,” in the words of the prolific left U.S. social critic Henry Giroux, “into power-evasive strategies such as blaming minorities of class and color for not working hard enough, refusing to exercised individual initiative, or practicing reverse racism.” This discourse works “to erase the social from the language of public life so as to reduce” inequality and poverty to “private issues [of]…individual character and cultural depravity It “disappears” the structural-economic realities behind inner city poverty and urban disparity by reflexively blaming these problems on the internal dysfunction of the individuals living in poor urban neighborhoods. “Human misery is defined as a function of personal choices,” consistent with “the central neoliberal tenet that all problems are private rather than social in nature.” Government efforts to meaningfully address and ameliorate (not to mention abolish) sharp societal disparities of race and class are deemed alternately futile, counterproductive, and inappropriate. The alleged terrible threat to cohesion and decency posed by single-parent families – a grave “social problem” discussed by conservatives with no reference to the liquidation of livable-wage employment for lower class fathers – became a central pillar in dominant right narratives on dangerous city masses.
This vicious take on the urban poor is itself less than novel. It updates longstanding aristocratic and bourgeois contempt for the “moral depravity” and “filth” of urban lower classes. Blaming the herded urban proletariat for its plight and refusing to acknowledge the responsibility of structural forces and the privileged is of course an ancient intellectual practice amongst the Western ruling classes. So is the claim that dedicating resources to easing the urban masses’ predicament will only further encourage the bad behavior of atavistic, violence-prone lower classes (“thugs”) and the insistence that the best response to the “many-headed [urban] monster” is state repression in defense of “decent society” and “civilization.” The alternative to repression, establishment philosophers have long argued, is a sickening slide into the anarchic “state of nature” warned against in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan and William Golding’s reactionary novel Lord of the Flies (1954).
The American Model
The terrible results of this mindset run amok are on display in the U.S., the world’s leading incarceration state and the industrialized world’s most unequal nation, where the top 1 percent owns more than 40 percent of the wealth, the top fifth owns 84 percent, and the bottom 40 percent owns 0.3 percent, next to nothing. The poverty-ridden “land of freedom” and self-declared homeland and headquarters of democracy is home to 2.3 million prisoners (two thirds of whom are minorities in a 72 percent white nation) and marks at least 1 in 3 of its adult black males with the crippling lifelong stigma (amounting to what the black legal scholar Michelle Alexander calls “The New Jim Crow”) of a felony record. The nation’s young urban black males are regularly and routinely harassed by police in jobless, de-industrialized ghettoes and briefly attend quasi-militarized public schools that feed mass prisons that have become a leading U.S. rural industry and a “normative” part of life experience for an ever rising share of black and Latino Americans. One in every 31 adults, or 7.3 million Americans, was in prison, on parole or probation, at a cost to the states of $47 billion in 2008, according to the Pew Center on the States. The federal government and the fifty states together spend more $54 billion each year on the continuing racially disparate “War on Drugs” that has done so much to drive mass imprisonment in the U.S. The same number of Americans now resides in prison as in public housing – a grand neoliberal accomplishment!
The Anti-Government Myth
It is important not to misunderstand this tragic neoliberal denouement as the victory of an “anti-government” mindset that seeks to shrink the state. “America,” Sennett and Sassen recently editorialized in The New York Times, “is in many ways different from Britain, but the two countries today are alike in their extremes of inequality, and in the desire of many politicians to solve economic and social ills by reducing the power of the state.”
Reducing the power of the state? As a reader to the Times wrote eloquently in the paper’s letters’ section, “the increase on both sides of the Atlantic in state surveillance and extraordinary security measures suggests no reduction in state power. What we are seeing is a reduction in state responsibility to help ensure healthy and sustainable societies.” (NYT, August 11, 2011). The problem is not that government’s power is being cut back. As s Dr. Adolph Reed Jr noted five years ago, it is that government’s functions are progressively concentrated, a on “making war,” “enhancing opportunities for the investor class,” “suppressing wages for everyone else,” and “suppressing dissent.”
Anti-government rhetoric is often a ruse, particularly in the hands of the privileged. State- capitalist elites within and beyond England and the U.S. only want to shrink what the left sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called the left hand of the state – the parts of the public sector that serve the social and democratic needs of the non-affluent majority. Under the corporate, imperial and neoliberal wisdom that reigns across the all too narrow ideological spectrum in both the U.S. and the UK, the right hand of the state – the portions that serve the opulent minority and dole out punishment for the poor and enemies of empire and inequality at home and abroad – remains well fed. Indeed, the repressive arm of the state grows in proportion to government’s shedding of its social-democratic protection and inclusion roles, as social control comes to rely more heavily on the iron fist of repression that never disappeared beneath the velvet glove of the welfare state.
Paul Street ([email protected]) is the author of Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008, described by John Pilger in 2009 as “perhaps the only book that tells the truth about the 44th president of the United States”) and The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010). Street’s sixth book, co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio, is Crashing the Tea Party Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Boulder, CO Paradigm. 2011).