Why London's burning?

Britain is now a more fractured place, with various groups feeling utter marginalisation and even oppression.

The Conservatives are back in power, but it would be foolish to suggest that the blame for the current upheavals should be laid at their doorstep alone. The Labour Party, or ‘Tory-Lite’, was in government for 13 years and moved so far to the right that it deserted its traditional core of working class voters.

If many ordinary folk in Britain now feel they have no political voice, they may well be right. While most people involved in the turmoil are not overtly politically conscious, perhaps the best way to articulate their various frustrations, as far as they are concerned, is to take the streets.

Such images of the violence may be shocking, but, in a way, those images are symptomatic of what Britain has become. Modern Britain has always been a country heavily divided along class lines, and economic and social policies of the last few decades have served to accentuate such divisions. 

In 1981, class and racism were key factors underlying the turmoil. But, what we did not have back then is the type of paranoia that has followed in the wake of Britain’s involvement in illegal wars in Asia. The intelligence agencies have been for some time intensively monitoring Muslim communities. Britain is now a more fractured and intolerant place, with various groups feeling a sense of utter marginalisation and even oppression.
It’s not just Muslims who need to worry, though. Britain has been gradually turning into a police state for quite a while, with security agencies having increasing access to all kinds of personal data. From cradle to grave, officialdom is watching, listening, tracking and prying. 

Excessive monitoring began in the 1980s when a section of the population became surplus to requirements. At that time, British society underwent a structural adjustment of privatisation and welfare cutbacks and outsourced much of its manufactured industry. A permanent underclass emerged, and a deregulated finance sector became a key driver of the economy. And we know how that panned out.

With a weak economy, public service cutbacks and people being saddled with debt to bail out the banking sector, ordinary folk in Britain are now feeling the pinch. 

Neo-liberalism came along with rhetoric about personal freedom, and it has of course made us free—free to be monitored and surveyed by the state like no other country in Western Europe, free to pick up the tab for the failings of financial capital, and free to build up the greatest amount of personal debt in Europe.

Little surprise

Maybe there’s not much freedom in an open prison, and those who have taken to the streets perhaps, more than most, know this too well. For many, what is currently being played out on the streets of Britain comes as little surprise. It only takes one incident to ignite a wider sense of resentment. We saw this in Tunisia when a market trader was killed. In London, currents events appeared to have been triggered by the police shooting of a young, black man.

However, if you were to tune in to the media, you would be forgiven for thinking all had been well in the state of ‘merry old England’. For years, the mainstream media has sought to gloss over the genuine nature of Britain’s social and economic problems by parroting platitudes about ‘our’ culture being diluted, bombers wanting to kill us, or services being over stretched due to an influx of immigrants. Politicians and the media have for some time been using fear and paranoia as a proxy and distraction.

Britain has become a society of me-first acquisitive individualism, the effects of which are so graphically witnessed in many towns and cities today —a descent into drugs, alcohol and crime, community breakdown, fear for personal safety and a range of other social problems.

In an age of rampant consumerism, is it any wonder that so many people who are subject daily to images and messages of acquisitive materialism and who experience blocked opportunities feel resentful and angry? In an age of neo-liberalism, social breakdown, imperialist wars and extensive surveillance, is it any wonder that there is a price to be paid?

News reports concentrate on how all of this plays out to an international audience, given that London is about to hold the Olympics next year. Isn’t it terrible they say that an international football match has had to be held between England and Holland has had to be cancelled. And what about the England-India Test match. Will it or won’t it go ahead? You see, for years, such issues are what have really mattered to ‘middle England’. Not the disturbing plight of large sections of its fellow citizens.

While some of the images of violence are sickening and need to be condemned, the media would do well to focus more on the underlying causes of the trouble and hold politicians to account over why a significant proportion of the population has been increasingly marginalised. Instead, what we hear from the media and various political and economic leaders is the ‘wanton vandalism’ of those hell bent on destroying the fabric of society. However, it was they who helped destroy it in the first place.

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