Monday, August 15, 2011

The Response to Disorder in Britain: Punishment Uber Alles

The recent disorder in London and other English cities with massive looting, destruction and arson was indeed a frightening and disturbing phenomenon,and there is a need for us all to think about how and why this happened and to come up with new ideas of how to create a better society in the future that will not be ripped apart by such violent expressions of mass discontent and anger. I am however even more disturbed by the response of British authorities, particularly that of the British Prime Minister David Cameron, than I am by the violent disorder itself. The PM has made clear that his number one priority is to punish, as harshly as possible, as many of the participants as possible. His attitude suggests no attempt to reflect on why these riots took place, only to use force to beat down what he seems to perceive as an antisocial element in British society. His solution to social disorder is punishment and oppression, nothing else. What I find scary is how common this approach is in many places in the world, especially the USA. In fact, Cameron seems to want badly to bring in a former US police commissioner,of Boston, NYC and LA vintage, to apply American-style policing to Britain, which has typically had a more gentle and less aggressive approach.

Cameron seems to feel that once enough force has been used to beat down and imprison enough people, everything will be fine and the UK can return to business as usual. His demeanor is very much that of the privileged upper-class creature that he is, someone upset that the less privileged lower classes would dare to act up and disturb the happy existence of the "right kind of people" like himself who would never dream of smashing in a storefront to grab a television or fighting against the police, because they have plenty of money to buy anything they would like to own, and have never had a bad experience of the police because they live in nice,upper-class neighborhoods where the police are courteous and friendly.

Cameron has one very good and very big political reason to stick with this "punish the miscreants" approach and disdain any discussion of trying to understand the disorderly poor. During the little more than a year that he has been in office, the British government has slashed social services to the poor, increased college tuition costs almost threefold, and called for a turning away from large government programs to a more locally-oriented, volunteer-based approach to social ills in Britain. This British version of the "austerity" policy which is also being applied to Greece and now, one fears, America, has not produced the glowing economic and social results that were promised. British economic growth has been close to zero for the last year, unemployment remains very severe, and people have either lost or are fearful of soon losing government services that they have long depended on and which may be particularly critical in a time of such difficult economic conditions. Therefore, when British cities descend into fiery fury after one year of Cameron's policies, which have given little hope to those at the bottom of the society,the question naturally arises as to what extent the government's essentially anti-government, anti-helping-the-poor policies have contributed to the frustration and rage that erupted in the streets the first weekend of August. By focusing all attention on the "lawbreakers" and "thugs" involved in the disorder, Cameron clearly hopes to sidestep any discussion of whether his policies are the wrong response to the current stagnation affecting economy and society in Britain.

There is a huge imbalance here, and indeed a huge irony. The horrible economic conditions that we are all suffering under now, the very poor most of all, of course, were not created by government spending or social programs, which now are being cut cut cut in so many countries as a kind of mass human sacrifice that will steal the health, security and futures of many. The disastrous economic conditions and the social destruction that has followed in their wake were also not caused by rioting hoodlums stealing televisions or young people starting fires. They were brought about by the sociopathic greed of large banks and financial service companies, led by the kind of people who Cameron would no doubt love to share a bottle of fine wine with in a swank London dinner club, who played dangerous games with the world's finances, such as the bundling of mortgages and debt on the international financial market in a highly deceptive and irresponsible manner, that led to a near-collapse of the world financial system. THE PEOPLE WHO LED THESE COMPANIES ARE CRIMINALS, and so are many who worked under them and aided and abetted their shamefully profitable crimes. THESE PEOPLE HAVE CAUSED MORE HARM TO THE WORLD THAN EITHER THE MAFIA OR AL-QAEDA. EVEN SO, THEY HAVE NOT BEEN PUNISHED, except for Bernie Madoff. In fact, they received huge government assistance to repair their companies and restore them to super-profitable status. Meanwhile, millions of others lost their jobs, their homes, their retirements, their savings, their futures, with no help from the government to match that generously bestowed upon the financial services "nobility."

The message to the privileged members of the wealthy upper classes is: Don't worry. You can be a greedy, deceitful sociopath, you can play games with other peoples' life savings and investments and home ownership, you can cause massive destruction of people's lives, what amounts to a kind of financial mass-murder, AND YOU WILL NOT BE PUNISHED. YOU WILL BE CODDLED. YOU WILL BE PROTECTED. And then, as governments fall into financial difficulties due to the drop-off in revenues brought about by the financial meltdown, the response is NOT to ask the rich to contribute more to help government maintain services to those who now need them even more than before. No! Are you crazy? That would be ridiculous. The obvious, indeed the ONLY possible response is to strip down all government programs that help the poor, which are of no use to the privileged upper classes, and then, if the lower classes dare to rise up in anger, BEAT THEM DOWN with maximum force and THROW THEM IN JAIL. They are dangerous lawbreakers, even though the damage done by the looters and rioters is far less than what was done to the world economy by the the nicely-dressed, albeit sociopathic financiers, bankers and hedge fund managers in the years leading up to the financial collapse of 2008.

The corporations and the super-rich are UNTOUCHABLE. It is only the poor that should be punished, and oh, how people like Cameron LOVE to punish the poor. Better than viagra, wot?

We have come to a point where many people, and I know this is true of many of the politically conservative college students that I teach in the USA, truly believe that the best way to respond to any kind of social unrest is through police suppression. Just beat them down and arrest them. The best a police state?

The liberal-leftist alternative, to try to prevent social unrest by providing MORE, not less social services, and reducing the huge wealth gap that afflicts many societies by taxing the very rich to provide more services to the very poor, is seen as LAUGHABLE by many conservatives. The idea that the poor could be helped by government programs is seen as foolish. That includes a rejection of food programs to feed the poor, housing programs to shelter the poor, education programs to educate and elevate the poor, mass transportation programs to make it easier for people who cannot afford cars to get around, government support for rebuilding run-down neighborhoods, providing work-opportunities for socially useful things like infrastructure reconstruction and helping the poor start businesses. All this is seen as wasteful; spending money on more and more police and prisons, however, is seen as a good investment, a wise and prudent use of taxpayers' money.

This is the dilemma. I cannot speak for other countries or even for other parts of the USA, but I know that in my neck of the woods, many people no longer believe in using government power to help people, only to punish them. As long as that mindset remains popular, politicians like Cameron will be able to win election and preside over a transformation of our societies into police states, creating a kind of apartheid world where the people with wealth use massive force against the poor, who will increasingly rise up in violence and disorder out of their ever-growing despair and frustration. The poor are being put into a vise where their insides are being squeezed and crushed, with no hope of assistance from the government that is supposed to represent them. Can you blame them for rising up?

1 comment:

Maelstrom said...

Thoughtful discussion on the Open Society Foundation blog.See the link of links to the left,or go to:

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