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Look Out, Here Comes the ‘Feral Underclass’

Research & Commentary
August 13, 2011

by Sam Pizzigati

What made last week’s London rioting all the more ‘achingly sad’? The rioters weren’t challenging greed. They were celebrating it. Do we understand why?

Oppressed people riot. Oppression and rioting have gone together for millennia. But the young rioters last week in London didn’t seem oppressed. They struck many appalled onlookers, the world over, as just plain greedy.

That world would watch endlessly looped “images of giddy youths hauling flat-screen televisions out of plundered shops.” One young rioter had “looted so many sweaters from a high-end London store she tottered under their weight.” Another threw a champagne bottle at police.

The morning after one night’s looting, a clerk at a plundered high-end boutique told reporters the looters obviously knew their way around.[pullquote]Last year, amid an austerity that chopped away at every public good, the private wealth of Britain’s 1,000 richest soared 30 percent.[/pullquote]

“They went straight upstairs where we keep the expensive stuff,” she explained, pointing to where the store kept its £300 — nearly $500 — jeans.

What may have begun “as an outburst of anger against police violence,” most observers agreed, had “morphed into an orgy of nocturnal ‘shopping.’” The rioters — “self-centered, marauding thugs,” the National Post sneered — hadn’t “even bothered to come up with a slogan or a decent chant.”

“At bottom,” Guardian political analyst Michael White sadly concluded, “these were not riots for social justice, but for Nike shoes.”

Britain’s top politicians, the architects of an austerity that’s aggravating social injustice in the UK, cut short their vacations to pound home this image of the riots as “mindless violence” — and discourage any other interpretation.

Prime minister David Cameron dismissed the turbulence as “criminality, pure and simple” — “as if any attempt to understand what’s at the root of all this rage,” the Nation‘s Maria Margaronis astutely noted, “would imply condoning it.”

Conservative London mayor Boris Johnson, for his part, warned against any move to make what he called “economic and sociological justifications” for the violence. Any linking of the violence to broader social realities, a Daily Mail editorial thunderously agreed, would be “immoral and cynical.”

Any response to the riots that ignored broader realities, countered critics of the UK’s ongoing austerity, would be the real immorality. These critics noted that almost a third of London’s boroughs have 20 people chasing every open job, that a tripling of tuition fees has left UK colleges unaffordable for wide swatches of British youth, that local rents for modest flats have far outpaced inflation.[pullquote]Last week’s rioters, a leading British left think tank has observed, seemed to have no greater ambition than ‘to own.’[/pullquote]

This squeeze, the critics stressed, stands in ever-sharper contrast to the excess at the UK’s economic summit. Last year, amid an austerity that chopped away at every public good, the private wealth of Britain’s 1,000 richest soared 30 percent.

These rich, as Daily Telegraph chief political commentator Peter Oborne put it, have been nurturing “an almost universal culture of selfishness and greed.”

“It is not just the feral youth of Tottenham who have forgotten they have duties as well as rights,” he noted. “So have the feral rich of Chelsea and Kensington.”

“Feral politicians cheat on their expenses, feral bankers plunder the public purse for all its worth, CEOs, hedge fund operators, and private equity geniuses loot the world of wealth,” added the eminent British geographer David Harvey.

“Does anyone believe,” Harvey continued, “it is possible to find an honest capitalist, an honest banker, an honest politician, an honest shopkeeper or an honest police commisioner any more? Yes, they do exist. But only as a minority that everyone else regards as stupid.”

But last week’s riots, progressive analysts lamented, represented more a tribute to dishonest “feral rich” values than a challenge. Those squeezed the hardest, posited commentator Tom Fox “should be uniting against the greed and recklessness of austerity, not replicating it.” Yet the rioters, a leading British left think tank observed, seemed to have no greater ambition than “to own.”

Why this absence of political ambition? What explains the rioters’ genuflection at the altar of “crude materialist, market-driven hedonism”? To zone in on the answer, we need to step back and remind ourselves how strikingly unequal distributions of income and wealth impact how we interact with “things.”

In relatively equal nations, societies where minor differences in income and wealth separate social classes, people typically do not obsess over “things,” the baubles of modern life. The reason? If nearly everyone can afford much the same things, things overall tend to lose their significance. People in more equal societies will be more likely to judge you by who you are than what you own.

The reverse, obviously, also holds true.

“As inequality worsens,” as Boston College economist Juliet Schor has explained, “the status game tends to intensify.”

Sign up for To MuchThe wider that gaps in income and wealth go, the greater the differences in the things that different classes can afford. In markedly unequal societies, things take on ever greater significance. They signal who has succeeded and who has not.

In London, the developed world’s most unequal city, these signals may dominate daily life as ferociously as anywhere else on Earth. Their incessant repetition drowns out the socially cohesive signals that people see and hear and feel in more equal societies, the sense that “we’re all in this together.”

“Let this week be a wake up call,” London’s Compass think tank observed right after the heaviest rioting. “There is more to clean up than broken shop windows.”

Sam Pizzigati, the co-editor of Inequality.Org, also edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality published by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies. Read the current issue or sign up here to receive Too Much in your email inbox.

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