THE LONDON RIOTS AND CAPITALISM'S CONTRADICTION

In the recent London riots, two young English youths were interviewed on camera and made interesting comments.  One girl, who was drinking from a bottle of purloined wine, said:  “We showed the police and the rich people that we can do anything we want.”  Her friends and accomplices were nodding in agreement.  Another young man said he and his friends were angry because they had wanted to go to university, but recent changes by government had prevented this. 

Anger seethes in the hearts of the dispossessed in many parts of the world, from Cairo to London.  I see this as a result of capitalism’s contradiction, the disparity between the theory of its proponents and the reality of siphoning by the rich.  In theory capitalism is supposed to be the flood of wealth that raises everybody’s boat; while in fact some people get rich and many get left behind.  Furthermore, recently wealth has been increasingly accumulating in the hands of those who are already wealthy and some rich have become the super-rich.  This has been occurring at a time when many people have come to realize that they are locked out of having the things they see advertized on TV, jobs and the promise of higher education.  The satellite TV programs and social media have shown many locked in poverty that some are living charmed lives unavailable to them. 

The anger remains sub rosa until sparked by an event such as the self-immolation of Mohsen Bouterfif in Algeria or the killing of Mark Duggan, a father of four in London.  The rich and the governments they support are out of touch with the people.  In America things are also not copasetic.  Politicians on both sides of the isle seem more interested in being reelected or moving on to plus jobs after making the right connections in Washington than helping the people cope with the economic downturn.  Partisanship is strangling democracy.  Yet the people can see that they are being harmed by the actions of the wealthy and well-placed.  In a recent CNN poll, people were asked: “Should the Deficit Reduction Bill include taxes on business and higher-income Americans?”  Sixty-three percent said yes.  Again, they were asked: “Should the Deficit Reduction Bill include taxes on middle class and lower-income Americans?”  Eighty-seven percent said no.  Yet this is precisely what government has done, given the recently inane move to the right conservatives under the influence of a small minority of Americans who are well off and who want to protect their privileges.

We can expect to see more riots worldwide if the rich don’t address growing poverty and misery being produced by their insensitivity and greed and their support of office-holders who pass laws and make policies to help the rich get even richer.

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Comment by Eugene L. Mendonsa on August 14, 2011 at 11:42pm
thanks Nikos.  That explains it so I now understand your approach.  You probably are aware of this book but I read it many years ago and was impressed by it.  It is called: The Seven Cultures of Capitalism: Value Systems for Creating Wealth in Britain, the United States, Germany, France, Japan, Sweden and the Netherlands.  Not all capitalism is the same and ipso facto globalization with not be preceived nor felt the same in different cultures.
Comment by Eugene L. Mendonsa on August 14, 2011 at 1:40pm
Nikos, can you expand on your comment: "After all the globalization problem is mainly cultural."  I do not understand what you mean.
Comment by Keith Hart on August 13, 2011 at 11:58am

Thanks for the link, John. This is the most inspiring commentary I have seen yet. The number of quotable quotes are legion. But here are a few that turned me on:

"The best way to rob a bank is to own one."

The bedrock of an enlightened social contract is, crudely, that rent-seeking is punished, and creating enduring, lasting, shared wealth is rewarded and that those who seek to profit by extraction are chastened rather than lauded. Today's world of bailouts, golden parachutes, sky-high financial-sector salaries — while middle incomes stagnate — seems to be exactly the reverse.

An enlightened social contract is not built on subsidies or "handouts" — whether to the impoverished, or to the pitiable welfare junkies formerly known as "the markets." It's built on a calculus of harm and benefit not just accepted by a plurality of its citizens (versus a tiny Chalet-owning, caviar-gobbling minority at the top) — and also a calculus that can be said to meaningful in the sense that it results in real human prosperity. Without such a bargain to set incentives and coordinate economic activity, even the mightiest, proudest societies will find themselves as bent old men on an endless plateau, searching for a lick of shelter as the typhoon bears down.

The eye of this perfect storm is extreme income inequality that makes the Glided Age look Leninist: London's the most unequal city in the developed world. It's a place where seeing dozens of supercars in a row makes tourists gawp, but rarely causes residents to raise an eyebrow...

Entrepreneurship is about as British as fish and chips are American.

The UK proudly passed perhaps the world's most severe shock and awe austerity package — dramatic cuts across the board — to the shock and disbelief of many economists, who predicted that it would throw thousands out of work and cripple demand in the middle of an already precarious economic situation at precisely the time the economy needed it least.

What happens when a nation willfully ignores perhaps the most fundamental lesson of economics, and hopes rent-seeking will equal real prosperity? This does. What happens when a nation either loses, or prevents, a stabilizing middle class? This does. What happens when a government — any government — gets so out of touch with the governed? This does.

I'd say that a social contract fit for the future has probably got to be eudaimonic, centered on the right to have the capacity to create — and the responsibility to pursue — lives lived meaningfully well. A social contract built not merely on the promise of more, bigger, faster, cheaper, nastier (whose hidden boilerplate terms and conditions include polarization, alienation, and stagnation) — but on the promise of smarter, healthier, fitter, humbler, closer, safer, truer, wiser.

This is an inherently divisive topic. Let's try to be civilized — and let's try not to caricature one another's differing perspectives in the comments. Let's shoot for the moon — let's learn from each other, instead.

 

What a star!!

Comment by John McCreery on August 13, 2011 at 5:44am
See the following from the Harvard Business Review.

http://blogs.hbr.org/haque/2011/08/the_great_splintering.html
Comment by Eugene L. Mendonsa on August 12, 2011 at 3:39pm

It frightens me when a smart person like Keith Hart writes: “I think we can expect this economic collapse and the regime of inequality that produced it to end in war, but what kind(s) of war?”  Certainly with the political economy of capitalism we get governments that listen to the moneyed class and not the people.  Slogans like "an economy for people not profit" fit nicely on a protester’s placard, but how do we stop the profit train?  To continue the analogy, perhaps the train will develop untenable mechanical problems and stop of its own accord?  Or again, perhaps it will run out of fuel?

 

Comment by Keith Hart on August 12, 2011 at 1:27pm
This article from Open Democracy explicitly places the English riots within a global comparative framework, including Chile and Israel, but also far beyond them.
Comment by Keith Hart on August 12, 2011 at 10:42am

There is a very good article in the Financial Times today comparing London 2011 with the Paris riots of 2005. (Non-subscribers to the FT get 10 free articles/month). The progressive and enlightened character of the piece contrasts quite sharply with the xenophobic mutual disdain that usually marks media commentary by one country on the other.

"Reality has struck with a vengeance. We are both in the same boat; both “dancing on a volcano” of social injustice. It is as yet unclear whether the French have derived the right lessons in the aftermath of their 2005 riots. Today, in some suburbs of Paris, the rule of law no longer prevails, and more explosions are likely to occur. If there is an early lesson to be derived from the British events it is that, in the current context of deep economic and social crisis, a sense of growing inequality can lead very quickly to unstable situations. The riots in Britain do appear less socially and economically motivated than was the case in France. Even so, both cases show you can only ask for sacrifices from your citizens if they feel that these efforts are going to be equally shared. If not, beware the social explosions that will surely follow."

I am heavily involved right now in research and writing on South Africa's political economy. The class divide between a multi-racial elite and a hopeless poor, black majority has never been wider. The only sticking plaster appears to be a lingering faith in the ANC government's mission, but that is coming unstuck in the shape of the ANC Youth League's Julius Malema's demand for nationalization of land, mines, banks and much else.

Did anyone notice the huge demonstrations in Israel against the cost of living (one slogan "an economy for people not profit")? Not to mention Syria, the Tea Party's antics, the unravelling euro, stock market collapse etc. I think we can expect this economic crisis and the regime of inequality that produced it to end in war, since the main lesson of these events is that the existing political structures have no answers. But what kind(s) of war?

The English economy (and I really mean London) was the most committed to the financial boom and one of the biggest losers when it went bust. Also you don't get to have one of the three biggest empires in world history without a strong streak of brutality and violence in the culture. The English riots are not going to be the end of it.

By the way, Eugene, in relation to your main thesis, the attempt to legitimize plutocracy sometimes goes by the name of "trickle down theory". This has been shown to be false. The other day i came across its counterpart, "trickle up theory". The main difference is that the second works.


Comment by Eugene L. Mendonsa on August 11, 2011 at 1:43am
Thank you Phllip.  I taught my first anthro class in 1967 and retired from academia 4 years ago and have been interested in political economy and related political and economic issues since then. 
Comment by Seba RP on August 11, 2011 at 12:28am
I consider the following to be relevant in nowadays democratic free-market states as cause for riots and violence;
- The domesticated man:
The notion that I have to wait for the mana to come from the sky and save me instead of hunt or try to find water seeds and grow my own food. That is, the domesticated animal which is modern man loses his aptitude. A hungry poodle will only cry in order to get food. I believe the same applies here.
¿Why doesn’t the poodle attack his owner for food then?
- Constant state of need:
Nowadays, there is a growing medical need. New diseases appear as life span increases. The price of medical attention, a quality one, is really high. Same applies to education and safety. The perception of a lack in these issues is magnified through media. I’m familiar with rural people and their connection to needs is in another order. Their acceptance to life issues is also different. Facts are accepted as such, in a stoic manner. I can assure that this story would be different if a continuous reminder of the lack of something would be always present, as in media for us all.
- One-Way path:
Once the type of social manifestation which is riots and protests is constituted, seems that is transversally one of the few “legal” channels that people posses to show their discomfort. So I also think that sadly, it is a social tool where everything converges. Minorities converge in riots.
You can find in these riots, many people that would be fighting each other in any normal day. Here, they converge. The common factor must be trans-individual to overcome differences and even more, unite people in an action that they wouldn’t do alone.
- Common-Factor:
If a man enters an office where 3 other men are sited, probably the only way to break the ice can be by talking about some issue important in the Media or by talking about how hot is the secretary next door. I think that immediate link between individuals can´t be an elevated one. It is usually, sexual desire, prejudice and violence.
We’ve integrated a violence response to keep ourselves alive. Modern man has ceased to master his violence because he has ceased to believe that it is a constant part of his perfect world. When different people have to be united suddenly, it can be, in my opinion, only be through immediate responses such as euphoria, desire and violence. In an hinduistic perspective, only through attachment actions which are part of the modality of ignorance.
Comment by Philip Swift on August 11, 2011 at 12:17am

Eugene,

 

Unfortunately in ignorance of your own fine blog here, I've just posted one myself on the subject of the riots in London. You articulate much of what I wanted to say, though with considerable more passion and eloquence! 

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