There can be a thousands reasons for events like the rioting in England and, besides, most people just want to call it angry lawlessness, lock the rioters up and be done with it.
The exact details of these particular riots are the proper business of reporters, commentators and law enforcement in the UK, but we should know something, in general, about the roots of discontent that can cause an eruption on this scale. These events should not come as any great surprise, aside from the scope of the lawlessness being witnessed. The historical roots go way back.
In the 1930s and particularly after WW II, the European nations, with England on the side riding its island nation, made a deal with the population. The governments were deathly afraid that communism would sweep Europe and put them out of power. The rich were concerned that their money, their land and all their wealth would be taken from them and many of them might also be killed. It was serious business, in other words.
The idea of communism (as opposed to the reality) had a strong, broad appeal, particularly if you were working in a mine somewhere barely making enough money to live and risking your life every day while the ďupper classesĒ road around in big cars, sent their kids to the best schools and never needed for anything. The idea of rising up and taking over was spreading, so the governments, one by one, instituted the welfare state as a quiet counter attack.
The basic bargain is this: you stay where you are, spend your life in the working class, work reasonably hard and well, and you will get free health care, a comfortable and fearless retirement, lots of vacation time and lots of other benefits. In exchange, the rich got to stay where they were and pass down the benefits to their children and their childrenís children. Peace prevailed. Until American pay scales skyrocketed for the top people, the average worker in Europe had it better than many CEOs here: four, five or six weeks vacation per year. Health care. Early retirement and a host of other benefits (I once met a telephone company worker in England who was being paid about 1 1/2 of his normal salary to stay on past retirement. In the US, they gladly kick older workers out.)
People in Europe generally donít aspire to rise much above the families and class they were born into. Only people of truly exceptional talent and brains, plus luck, are ever likely to take big steps upward in wealth and social standing. As a result, Europe lacks a lot of the creativity, energy (and random violence) we have in the US. If you are a waiter in Europe, you make peace with that and do the job your whole life, thinking about retirement as early as 55, so that a person could spend 30 years or even more on a government pension enjoying grandchildren, spending time at the beach and just messing around with his or her mates. That would represent almost half of oneís life, if adulthood is measured by the age of 18.
Okay, its 2011. That deal is breaking down. It canít be extended to more people and the number who have benefits now, like government paid or assisted housing, needs to shrink because of the worldwide recession and because the economies arenít growing fast enough to support new retirees or people on welfare. The result, fairly simply, is rioting.
On the Euro scene, people are much more wards of the state than we are here. They look to the government for just about everything. The idea that you need to get out and accomplish something on your own is less important because, in part, the government and the system has been telling you all this time just to stay where you are. Now, young men between 20 and 35 are finding they canít stay where they are, they canít do anything, plus everything to help them is being cut back.
Does this mean burning down stores and houses and engaging in street battles with police is alright? No, but such violence is typical of a society where the social bargain is breaking down. To some degree, the same thing has happened here, but people are hanging on the best they can and blaming themselves for their troubles rather than the government. Thatís what we generally do in America. People who once lived on two incomes now live on one or the combination of two part time jobs and they wait for better days.
The shock of the great recession has meant that too many changes are taking place too fast in the UK and in some countries in Europe. The Republicans in the US want to apply that same shock here by slashing Federal spending and concentrating on the debt over everything else. We are not Europe and most economists believe that our debt problem can be handled with care, consensus solutions and some sacrifice, but the Republicans insist on shock, in part, because they believer their upper income supporters wonít suffer, the rest of us will.
The UK could be in for a lot more trouble ahead. Its society has changed drastically so that it is no longer such a homogeneous place. The mix of cultures, outlooks and aspirations is combining with economic problems to cause a storm of protest that is not yet under control.