The first year of Cameron’s coalition was marked by austerity; massive inequality; rapid impoverishment of millions of people; corruption in the media, police and politicians; destruction of public services. Its second year looks set to be marked by massive industrial action and open conflict with the state in the poorest parts of British cities by the people with least to lose. That is the significance of the riots that have been taking place in London.
The immediate causes were two actions by the police. The first of these was the killing by armed officers of Mark Duggan and the subsequent treatment of his family. A justifiably angry demonstration gathered outside the local police station on Saturday. It was the police behaviour then that detonated the riot, a fact that has been omitted from virtually all the subsequent reporting.
As this eye witness account makes plain the police attacked a 16 year old girl with batons. This video clip captures something of the violence of the police behaviour. It was virtually inevitable that aggression of that sort would provoke a paroxysm of rage among the local community.
Neo-liberalism’s chickens are coming home to roost. Haringey council’s £41 million cuts devastated the borough’s youth provision. Only last month the local MP David Lammy demanded government action to deal with a 10% rise in unemployment in Tottenham was now has 10,514 people seeking work. Local residents have been saying in interviews that thousands of people in their late 20’s have never been able to find a job. It’s no surprise then that the shops selling designer sportswear, mobile phones and state of the art TVs and MP3 players are being looted by people who know that they’ll never earn enough to buy these things. The capitalists can’t have it both ways. On one hand they say you need these things for status and to feel fulfilled and on the other most of the jobs on offer pay poverty wages on short term contacts.
By contrast the very rich have never had it so good in living memory. The High Pay Commission reported on August 8th that executives in FTSE 100 companies received average annual pensions worth around £175,000. The average British pension is a paltry £5,860 and the Con Dems want to make working people poorer still. At the same time they are hell bent on transferring vast sums of money to the 300 000 people who pay the top rate of 50% tax on earnings over £150 000. London Mayor Boris Johnson has called for it to be scrapped and his millionaire chum George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer has said he wants to get rid of it.
These things may not have been on the minds of the teenagers who were grabbing £100 trainers from JD sports. What they did know was that there are people out there who have wealth and privilege and are using their power to keep millions of people poor. A riot is a spasm of destructive anger and inarticulate protest but it is one of the ways the voiceless make themselves heard. In the autumn the unions and the radical left have to make their voices heard and start rolling back the Con Dem offensive against our class.