The Riots: Why is The Economist confused?

I am sitting on the South Bank (London) right now, working at a Giraffe (are those in the States yet?) and waiting for a play – tonight I see London Road, a play about a serial killer of prostitutes in Ipswich in 2006, a musical with book and lyrics taken entirely from interviews of witnesses, Anna Deveare Smith style, if you remember her incredible first play about the LA riots.    

It’s the first time I have been to London since the riots.

And now comes my full and heavy heart spilling over about the riots. 

When I lived in West Hampstead/Maida Vale/Kilburn – leafy North London - in 2006, I was pushing Owain in his stroller home from nursery one summer evening.  We walked past a gang of, as they say, youths, who were harassing a blind guy walking along with his seeing eye dog.  There were three of them, and one articulate one was explaining to the blind guy how he had a knife and was going to gut his dog right there on the sidewalk.  I pointed out to Articulate Thug that it really wasn’t an impressive act of bravery to harass a blind guy and/or kill his seeing eye dog.  At that, all three thugs ran up to me and spat in my face.  (I called the police:  useless.  They told me not to wipe the spit off.  Morons.)

The thugs were shaking with rage.  I still can see the closeup of a throbbing neck vein and the erratic hopping run down the street.  I could feel their rage standing near them.  It was a forcefield.  Like physics, like psychosis, it was an unarguable fact. 

This is the rage that was rioting.   

Yet the coverage provided by that touchstone of reasonableness, The Economist, my faithful Friday night date spoke not of the rage.  It said only that it was confused and depressed that the urban youth of Britain had no morals and did not feel they had a stake in the future, at least not enough of one to refrain from looting.  Those editors said they were confused. 

I’m not confused.  It’s all so clear that it hurts.  Really, incredibly obvious.  We raise these kids on a diet of consumerism, on enforced obsolescence of technology and the essential nature of the next new thing.  Then we give these kids no real prospects of being in a position to acquire these things, because the state education competes so ineffectively with private education that sending your kids to a state school is in most cases dooming them to a working class, or lower middle class life.  And when those kids take to the streets and get unruly, instead of forcing the police to interact and deal with them, we demonize them further by giving the police ASBO power – essentially non-judicial authority to put under house arrest unruly youth who have been convicted of no crime.  Then the police kill an innocent man, the second that we know of this year, and refuse to explain their actions at a peaceful protest.  Then there is rioting.  Not such a confusing unfolding of events. 

Now the government is talking about punishing this rage with yet more stupid laws.  To me this is like punshing psychosis.  Sure, some people were in it for the blackberries and the sneaker/trainers and property laws were broken, but punishing the rage misses the point and misses the big picture.  It’s weak and cowardly to focus on the hoards and their property crime.  Much bigger and braver and more important to ask ourselves why – attempt to clear up that confusion   When they rioted in LA, there were reasons.  When they rioted in Paris in 1789 there were reasons.  And there are reasons why they riot now.

The most succinct summary of those reasons was provided by my husband:  a fish rots from the head down.  The government does not have moral authority nor does it deserve our respect.  The government is more interested in preserving its cosy relationship with Murdoch and taking care of the banks.  The people in government are more interested in tinkering with their expense accounts for their own personal gain.  When police are regularly bribed by journalists, who regularly Christmas with the Prime Minister, who has rarely lived or worked beyond that rarified Eton/Oxford air, isn’t the state rotten beyond all respect?   Yes.  And the profit motive – not even efficient profit for the state, just creating more profit and more growth for the wealthy – that mandate of the state has become the mandate of the people, absorbed down to their very pores.   We as a species are affected by each other like this, like this always.  When the leaders act only for their personal gain at the expense of their institutions, it filters through. When the train prices go up but there are no more or better trains, when the economic development private initiatives created by the government to generate wealth only go to wealthy people, when a 25 year old banker on Wall Street gets a bonus of $22 million and an office manager I know commutes 2 hours each way every day for a salary of £19,000 per year, and the government only subsidizes the former’s salary, believe me, the message is getting through.  Robbery has been in fashion for a long time.

My generation is a terrible failure.  Our great legacy will be the extensions we built on our houses during the property boom.  Our great legacy will be Sex and the City and the mass fetish of fashion.  Our great legacy is that we have let our human organizations –the market, the state, the church – bloat bigger and fatter for the benefit of the few, for our own comparative advantage.  And corporations, sovereigns and religions spoil the earth and disrespect the rule of law.  And the Economist is confused? 

I remain an ardent fan of democracy and capitalism and – to a lesser extent -- organized religion.  All I want is for all to function clearly under the rule of law.  I keep posting this on my blog bur nothing is happening.  It’s enough to make me want to take to the streets.

But I have two children.  And I am interviewing architects for my own extension.  I want a guest room for when my parents come to visit!  My condemnation of our generation – which was first presented to me by my old friend Steve – is perhaps mostly a condemnation of myself.  Now, my husband tells me I will go mad again if I pursue this, so I’ve been warned.  But every time I see a child walk by this South Bank, I wonder what it will look like when they are forty-four.

I remember again my father in the car in the summer of 2009 when people were on the streets following the Iranian election.  I was upset about this woman, Neda, who was shot.  My Dad, ever clear-eyed and reasonable, pointed out that tyranny is only ever defeated by blood.  His generation knows and accepts this, that some things are more important than guest rooms.   His generation – Warren Buffet’s, I might add – his generation felt ok about paying taxes.  I remember coming to understand with some horror when my first paycheck arrived one summer the tax I was paying.  My father took me outside immediately and pointed at the road.  The government pays for that, he said.  And the sidewalk.  The fire hydrant and the fire department.  The police and Judge Githler and the school.  The library and the playground.  Denison Park Pool.  And for Mrs. Mitford to buy groceries now that she is old. 

I feel ashamed that I work at a corporation when I see how much structural damage has been caused by them and when I think about how much the world needs the activism of stakeholders like me.  But I do think that it is working at Skadden and then in my current job that helps me understand the underpinnings of the problem.

The underpinnings make it more difficult.   At least my dad’s generation – children during WWII – had an external manifestation of tyranny. An army marching across Europe.  Ours is within ourselves and our own organizations, a swelling, an obesity in our own institutions, a tumorous tyrannical working of tax code and derivative trade so that banks can and must do whatever they want, period.  A tumor fed by the best and brightest out of our universities, because of its promise of wealth so much greater than any other field.  But wealth without honor – paying taxes is defeat – wealth without fairness, wealth without kindness. 


  1. "Punishing the rage misses the point and misses the big picture.  It’s weak and cowardly to focus on the hoards and their...crime.  Much bigger and braver and more important to ask ourselves why – attempt to clear up that confusion."

    Very well said, and it reminds me of what the progressive left in the U.S. said after 9/11. While so many simply tossed out racist stereotypes about Islam, some of us pointed out that the people who are angry with us have their reasons, and we may bear some responsibility for those reasons.

  2. Is it not sometimes a case of "If you ain't got nothing, you ain't got nothing to lose?"

    Another great and poignant lyric "If I hadn't seen such riches, I could live with being poor."

    The trappings of western society are rammed into our ears and eyeballs from every direction. The "must have it now" generation. The feeling that retail therapy will cure our dismay, will sate our cravings.

    Of course, it never does. Contentment comes from within.

    The core of the rioters - the ones hellbent on destruction - are not content. As you say, they have Rage. Inarticulate rage, rage from deep within. Rage born in the same simple manner as the rage of a toddlers tantrum.

    The idea that possession is contentment. To own the car, to have the girlfriend, to wear the bling - the thought that this brings respect and power.

    I guess, in a simple way, it does. Having wealth allows escape. But there's no guarantee it will bring contentment.

    The rage expressed was shocking and blatant, it seemed to have no meaning, no direction, no great cause.

    This is what frightens me the most about our current times. There's a general malaise, an undercurrent of desperation, a feeling that there's no alternatives.

    World markets are failing, there seems to be no solution to the failure, yet, as you say, all we seem to care about is the extension on the house.

    Life goes on and we must seek solace with our family and friends, enjoy the simple aspects of life - the free ones. Love, friendship, companionship, talk.

    Perhaps that's another reason there's such rage amongst the rioters - that solace is missing from their lives...


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