Rioting Brits have arguably lit bigger flames in the blogo- and twitter-spheres than they ever did in the real world. Certainly other development bloggers have seen fit to comment and draw parallels so I shall make no further apology for contributing my own tuppence worth. Some random reflections below:
Was David Cameron channelling Bashar al-Assad?
The various descriptions by British politicians of all stripes of these riots as nothing more than wanton criminality sounded eerily like any number of dictators from the Middle East and Africa. Ominous threats to crack down on the use of social media sounded deeply hypocritical from a government that has only recently supported their use to energise protests across the Arab Spring.
Two key differences: Britons enjoy the right of peaceful protest which too many oppressed countries honour only in the breach, and the rioters had no discernable political platform, being apparently more interested in looting expensively branded footwear and mugging a blameless Malaysian student than advancing any political message.
Beware the mob
Just because the rioters had no explicit political aim to promote does not mean there is no political problem. As the Economist points out, these riots are a manifestation of deep structural problems within British society, and an underclass with little stake in the modern social order.
The Roman governing classes feared the mob like no other political force. It remains a latent threat in all modern societies. We can be thankful that good policing is generally able to keep a lid on things, but when cracks suddenly and unexpectedly widen, whatever the trigger, the mob may spill forth.
Rarefied discussions of opportunity costs and other economic theory may provide us an intellectual handle with which to attempt to understand the social dynamics of rioting, but would be unrecognisable by the rioters themselves, presumably earning the same scorn that they have shown for many other social norms that we take for granted.
Social and material inequality lay at the root of any riot, whether political or purely criminal. It is a timely reminder that whatever the laws might say about inviolability of property rights and the challenges of designing taxation regimes to attract increasingly footloose multinational corporations, that all societies must address fundamental issues of equity and opportunity else, eventually, the mob will over take us.
Poverty and inequality tend to be much more readily apparent in developing countries, where the veneer of upper and middle classes is much thinner. I think many developing country leaders are acutely aware of this; populist politicians and policy-making are more prevalent here for a reason!
Not so saintly now, eh?
Talking to a friend here I was shocked at quite how shocked they were at the riots. Not that I wasn’t shocked myself, but my friend was shocked that even any such underclass existed in Britain. She alleged that whilst American popular culture (mainly TV and cinema) is often prepared to show the warts and all side of American life, British cultural exports tend to be rather more sanitised. The evidence advanced for this boiled down to the less than convincing Law and Order TV series versus the British sitcom Keeping Up Appearances. I think this apparent contrast has rather more to do with consumption choices (both by the viewer and TV channels’ purchasing policies) than any conscious effort to portray Britain as a quaint land of tea and scones with the vicar.
Nonetheless, I was disturbed at the implications of this view of Britain. I expect some schadenfreude from developing country officials used to being lectured at by DFID et al, but that it should extend more widely was particularly disappointing. Perhaps I just shouldn’t be quite so naïve …
Someone still wants our politicians, though
Depressing in a similar but opposite way was this bit of Tanzanian graffiti seen by Swahili Street:
Better the colonial, than the native born kleptocrat.
This is no time to go getting misty eyed about the colonial experience, which was constructed atop a fundamentally racist world view, and lumbered us Brits with the challenge of having to face down riots both at home and abroad. Nonetheless it is an instructive reminder to the new governing classes. If your father was dirt poor, and you are still dirt poor, and when the establishment permits someone to grab your land from under your nose, does the skin colour of your rulers matter?