Saturday, August 13, 2011

Divide and Conquer: Who Benefits from the UK Riots?

After the fires, the looting and the deaths, now the backlash begins.

More than 175,000 people (at the time of writing) have put their name to the following on the government's official e-petition website:   

"Any persons convicted of criminal acts during the current London riots should have all financial benefits removed. No tax payer should have to contribute to those who have destroyed property, stolen from their community and shown a disregard for the country that provides for them."

Apart from the obvious difficulties in implementing such a proposal, and ignoring the social consequences were it implemented fully, the petition reveals one of the legacies of the recent riots. Working people are being divided from one another, this in-fighting taking the place of united political action against the consolidation of economic power by those at the top of the social system.

On any other quiet news day in the middle of the summer silly season, the revelation from The High Pay Commisson that FTSE 100 directors in the UK received pensions of up to 29 times the rest of the workforce would have become the day's top news story. The BBC story, buried on its web site among the wall to wall coverage of last weekend's looting, notes that the Commission's report

"comes at a time when many employee pension schemes are being closed or becoming less generous. The HPC said about 97% of FTSE 350 firms have kept open company-sponsored schemes for directors, but only one-third have stayed open for workers."

The HPC's report is simply another illustration of the reality of vast economic and social inequality in Britain. Consider the following highlights of a 2010 report based on statistics from the Department of Work and Pensions:

  • the richest 10% of the UK population have seen their incomes increase by 37% in the preceding decade
  • the poorest 10% have experienced a decline in their incomes by 12% in the same time period
  • four-fifths of income increase over the last ten years has gone to those with above-average incomes (two-fifths has gone to the richest tenth) 
  • the richest tenth earn 31% of total UK income (the poorest tenth earn 1%)
  • Inner London is the most economically divided region of the UK

Against this economic backdrop, the sight of workers (or unemployed) destroying their own communities and targeting fellow workers by stealing from them is a classic example of the alienation of labour, defined as "the estrangement of people from their humanity." 

The rising anger among these same communities is being turned , understandably,  towards the looters, with increasingly extreme voices calling for punitive action beyond the due process in the courts.

Meanwhile, the millionaire politicians and their billionaire financial backers remain largely unaffected  by the recent riots. Just 7 per cent of the public interviewed for a Channel 4 survey thought that the chaos was triggered by social inequality and 5 per cent blamed Government cuts.

It is likely that the cuts agenda will survive the rioting, albeit with some modification around police funding. Beyond that, the government's position will remain intact, with the in-fighting taking place among those currently bearing the largest burden of the current crisis in developed capitalism.

Other beneficiaries of the riots include the police. It will now be politically impossible to follow through on cuts to the police, despite the fact that one of its officers pulled the trigger on Marc Duggan, though he had not fired a shot - the spark which set off the initial protest in Tottenham.

Less tangibly, the large-scale calls from working people for retribution against the looters is creating a climate in which the call for "strong law and order" will increasingly be heard. This climate will benefit those seeking "stronger leadership" in government. Historically, when such sentiments take root in a nation, they can often pave the way for the emergence of extreme parties who promise to end the lawlessness. 

Which is why, one of the best responses working people can do in the aftermath of the riots, is continue to work and campaign for greater fairness in society, and for structural changes that will reduce the unacceptable levels of economic inequality that have emerged in the UK in recent years.  

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