THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Simon Waxman

Poverty’s boiling point

The US is creating the same conditions that fueled the London riots

Police stop and search youths in Birmingham, England on Aug. 8. Police stop and search youths in Birmingham, England on Aug. 8. (Getty Images)
By Simon Waxman
August 16, 2011

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AS DISORDER reigned in the streets of London and other British cities last week, Prime Minister David Cameron opined before Parliament, “We need to show [the world] that we will address our broken society, we will restore a stronger sense of morality and responsibility in every town, in every street, and in every estate.’’

Addressing a broken society is, indeed, what the British government ought to do, but restoring a stronger sense of morality has little to do with it. And not just because morality could be said to be lacking as much at the top as at the bottom, as the commentator Peter Oborne pointed out in The Daily Telegraph.

Oborne directs our attention to the hypocrisy of greedy people in government demanding elevated morals in the poor. But moral decay is a red herring. The root of this uprising is in economic structures that maintain the distinctions between tony Kensington and burning Tottenham.

The bottom isn’t in flames because it lacks morals. It is crying out because of persistent poverty. The explicit effects of economic inequality have struck again. Faced with a debt crisis born of the boom-bust cycle inherent in capitalism, the British government has a choice about how to distribute the pain. Should it tax the rich and restrain the greedy, the very people who produced the financial crisis whose fallout has withered government coffers? Or should it threaten and impose austerity measures that primarily affect the poor?

It should come as no surprise that the British government has opted to distribute the pain downward, much as the US federal and state governments now are. The rich have influence, and the poor do not. That is why economic inequality, not moral failing, is the illness in need of remedy.

Equally unsurprising is that this state of affairs has descended into violence. To say that the violence is predictable is not to condone it, but to suggest that its true sources are instantly recognizable. Again, there is no mystery here, nothing so vague and unconquerable as moral lassitude.

The fact is, the official channels of protest - against police abuse, which is a huge factor in generating anger among the poor; against the corrosion of social services or the threat of their corrosion; against rising costs for education and health care - are designed to be ineffectual. In the absence of massive, sustained mobilization - such as during the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement - there is simply no way for an individual to complain from below and achieve results. The better off maintain their position in part by keeping the poor in an equilibrium where they persist on just enough to avoid imperiling existing class and power discrepancies yet are not so downtrodden as to revolt. At the same time, the comfortable feel righteous about providing that minimal subsistence, because the ethos of capitalism enforces the notion that we deserve what we have, and what we give to others reflects private virtue. The rabble, in other words, should feel thankful for what they get.

But they are not always thankful, especially when the equilibrium is disturbed, and their meager slice of the pie is threatened. Without influence in government and media, the only voice left to the poor is either large-scale violent or nonviolent protest, but the latter is much harder to organize and demands committed leadership that does not just emerge overnight. One hopes that aggression gives way to a more Gandhian approach, but, as the more straightforward of two alternatives, violence was foreseeable.

As predictable as the violence is the response. When the poor lash out, the comfortable condemn their moral decay and decry their criminality. The problem is not located in the economic structures that make violence all but inevitable, but in the violent people themselves. The better off use the power of the state - whose violence, unlike that of the poor, is deemed justifiable - to force them back into alignment with the status quo ante in which they submit silently.

Conditions in the United States today are not so different from those in Britain; indeed, they may be worse because Britain’s history of rigidly enforced class structure means that some there at least recognize the debasement of the poor. We should heed the warning of the smashed windows, looted stores, and burning buildings of London. We won’t, of course.

Simon Waxman is managing editor of Boston Review.