The riots: a little post-hoc pontification

It would appear that there is a class of people in the UK who will riot in order to acquire attractive high street consumer goods by looting, and infuse that activity with setting fire to shops, properties and vehicles. Hurling bricks and missiles at the police, and running from them fast, would seem to be de rigueur. Our Tory prime minister sees this entirely as criminal behaviour. He points to robust policing, if necessary involving water canon and plastic bullets, as the solution to the problem.

I agree that the behaviour is totally unacceptable; I find it shocking and worrying. I accept that so-called robust policing should be able to suppress such behaviour but I am not at all sure that it will address the underlying problems.

My watercolour sketch of the burning bus

There will always be some inequalities of wealth, status and power in a society based upon economic capitalism. Unfettered channels of upward and downward mobility should ensure that, roughly speaking, the folks who put a lot of effort into the system will be rewarded more than those who do not. However, in order for this to be acceptible everyone needs to be broadly in agreement that the system works and is not too unfair. If those that ‘have’ allow those that ‘have not’ to drift too far into abject poverty and do not enable them to work within the system in order to gain the just rewards of fruitful labour, then there is likely to develop an underclass for whom there is little hope of success. If people live in ghettoes where nobody works, and most families have not seen a member in gainful employment for more than a generation or so, then it would not be surprising if a general malaise and dejection set in. Everyday such folk will be bombarded with advertisements on TV exhorting them to buy consumer goods which they have no hope of acquiring through legitimate means. For them, society has very little to offer. If they have so little hope, and scant material wealth, they may well begin to feel that they have very little to lose by breaking the rules of the society from which they feel excluded.

I turn now to the macro economic situation. The United States has a debt crisis, as do many  countries in Europe. What has been happening over the past several decades is that manufacturing has shifted from West to East. Compared to the West, the standard of living in many Eastern countries has been very poor. However, this had enabled manufacturing to be carried out with relatively low labour costs. Hence, multinational corporations would typically shift their operations Eastwards, in  order to generate more profit. This is very important to them because above anything else they subscribe to capitalism and a big profit enables them to reward their shareholders maximally.

The sort of people who have been rioting will not be the ones who own shares and get dividends from profit-making companies. The best they could hope for would be to sell their labour for money. Marx regarded profit as creaming off money that should have gone to the labour force. Now, I can see that in the past the labour force, by organising into powerful trades unions, could fight to get a fair balance. If they fought too hard, they would price themselves out of business. Unfortunately, their idea of someone living on a subsistance wage was somewhat higher than that which was the case in the East. The industrial revolution, proudly developed in England over several centuries, looks like becoming the post-industrial phenomenon within a decade or two.

The people who, in the past,  fought for better wages for the less well-off in our society were by-and-large people with strong socialist principles. However, they were definitely within the English society and, through the Labour movement, they had representatives in parliament to argue their case, even if they were not always happy with the way that was done. It is unclear what moral or political stance the current combatants espouse. Well, I wonder if they would even understand the meaning of the last sentence.

Shipbuilding, coal mining, steel making, and heavy engineering no longer provide the industrial backbone of this country. That work now tends to be done in the East. The English Tories seem to think that England can make up for the decline in manufacturing through value-added activities and frequently they will point to the City of London as a shining example. I do not deny that the City of London provides good jobs and incomes for many people. Lots of them live in nice houses in the Home Counties and commute to work, at some considerable cost to themselves, on a daily basis. These are not the people who have been rioting.

In the 1960s I worked both in chemical factories and also in a large steelworks. The staff, be they managers, engineers, accountants, designers, chemists, or whatever, were generally highly qualified; some had university degrees and others had gained very demanding professional qualifications. I don’t think the rioters will have had these sorts of qualifications; few of them will have come from the middle classes.

The work force was more varied. The most demanding way to learn a trade was to complete a 5 year apprenticeship. Usually the emphasis was on practical skills, as opposed to theoretical understanding, although clearly there was plenty of that too in becoming an electrician, for example. There were, however, plenty of jobs that did not require qualifications. Some of these required a good physique and strong muscles, but not all did. There was much scope for the solitary pen-pusher. Indeed, there was always a need for people who lacked qualifications to take care of some of the odds and ends that had to be dealt with in the factory, even if that amounted to not much more than keeping the place clean and tidy.

What I am saying is that most of the factories I saw back then needed a full range of workers, of all sorts of different abilities. The factories were thus able to draw widely across all sections of the community. It is these sorts of factories that have closed down, and with the closures has gone a way of life where all citizens, regardless of their ability, had a reasonable chance of gainful employment.

I accept that, within many families, there was a domestic division of labour. Some women stayed at home to care for children and elderly relatives. I do not want to go into the feminist issues surrounding housewifery just now, since that would take me into another area of discussion – I do accept that there were problems in this domain.

Democracy breaks down when the better-off members of the population cannot find ways to provide those who have low status, little wealth and negligible power with reasonably acceptable conditions for living. In my view, that means the opportunity to work , the means to buy the necessities of life and a few affordable luxuries, and hope for the future.

The bankers threw us into financial crisis and it would seem that that happened largely as a result of their own selfishness,  foolishness, and greed. The austerity measures, currently in place, are going to hit the poorest most heavily. For those who have nothing, taking away what local authorities could provide will seem like the last straw.

The riots may be regarded as a sign that the capitalism of economic greed is rupturing democracy in England. Paradoxically, this will not be good for the Eastern manufacturers, since their Western market will dry up if Western society melts down. The difficulty for the West is that it is now paying for its negligence in terms of fostering the education necessary to support an acceptance of moral values in a multi-cultural society. The fact that many of these youngsters would appear to have parents who could not care less does not help. So, across the party divides, I feel it harks back to the eras of Thatcher, Blair and Brown; that is where we have to point the finger,  but whether Cameron will do better I very much doubt.

Civilisation would appear to be under threat from its malcontents.

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