Anarchy in the UK

by Eric Murphy

International events don’t usually fall under the Minnesota Daily’s purview (thus only a blog post to discuss this), but given the many virtual eye-rolls and gut-reactions of disgust I have seen about the London and United Kingdom riots on Twitter and news story comment sections, the issue deserves some deeper analysis instead of immediate, superficial reactions.



Most people’s initial reaction to the riots–which started in Tottenham on Saturday as a peaceful protest (which later grew violent) against police who had shot and killed a local man–was to call the rioters thugs and hoodlums and to condemn the riots as “needless opportunistic theft and violence,” as Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg did. But to dismiss the riots and rioters in this way is a mistake. While the riots have been minimally premeditated and do not seem to be organized toward any definite political cause, this does not mean they have no message. Just because there is no organization to give the press and public a reason for the riots does not mean there is no actual reason or that they are mindless.


At the most basic level, the riots are a way for the powerless to get a taste of power. The attacks have generally been directed at the people, institutions, and forces that have made them feel powerless and have excluded them from “normal society.” For example, the police are authority figures who, I think the rioters would argue, target minorities and poor communities far more than they target whites and the relatively better-off. The reasons behind this targeting (and behind poor and minority communities potentially resorting to crime more often, thus leading to more targeting) are a level deeper.


Essentially, unfettered captialism and the government have barred them from participating in normal society. Between gradual globalization and the global economic meltdown in 2008, jobs have fled. These events left communities like Tottenham even more destitute than they already were. The failure to regulate the banking, housing, and financial sectors and the explosion of cheap labor from free trade agreements have left the middle classes and lower classes with much less, or nothing at all. Piling on, British Prime Minister David Cameron pushed an austerity program that including cutting almost half a million public sector jobs and public assistance to the marginalized groups that are now rioting. So yes, the rioters do tend to be from the margins of society, but they didn’t wind up there by choice; the excesses of capitalism, free trade without rules, and the government itself forced them there.


This explains the attacks on shops that have been prevalent in the riots. If attacks on the police are symbolic attacks on government authority which has been used to oppress, attacks on shops and looting are attacks against the system of capitalism itself. Capitalism by its nature sets up barriers to wealth: the concept of property is that somebody owns a given thing and that everybody else does not. Looting is a way for those who own and have nothing to get something. The available legitimate means, i.e. capitalism and the government, have failed the looters, so they must resort to illegitimate means. Incidentally, this is the reason police tend to target poor and minority areas: those who have been marginalized from society are forced to resort to criminal activites like selling drugs in order to survive. The police further marginalize them by marking them as criminals and thugs, and the tension builds.


So Clegg’s characterization of the riots as “opportunistic theft and violence” is probably about right. But it is also an oversimplified dismissal of the riots as wild, unruly youths misbehaving simply because they can or because they are somehow intrinsically “thugs.” The theft and violence are not happening for no reason; they are happening because the economic system and government have failed to give the rioters acceptable standards of living. So now those rioters and looters are taking the only other approach they think has a chance to give them that: theft and violence.


–Eric Murphy