Stop Blaming the Wealthy

The violence in England’s streets is no working-class insurrection but the uprising of the non-working, anti-working, would-do-anything-sooner-than-work class.

08.10.11 5:03 PM ET

London has finally stopped burning after four days of insurgency, but many other inner cities across Britain are still in the grip of arsonists and looters. The death toll rose to four last night, and it is astonishing that it's not much higher. The French Foreign Office has warned tourists not to visit Britain; Iran has denounced the Metropolitan Police for its so-called cruelty toward civilians. Meanwhile, every American I know is asking me how and why a country that less than four months ago celebrated the royal wedding so magnificently can have exploded like this.

The answer is not the one that Harriet Harman, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, came up with last night when she linked it to the tripling of university tuition fees and the reform of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, for which she was rightly (and magnificently) mauled by Education Minister Michael Gove. Nor is it about the parliamentary coalition's attempt to cut the deficit partly through spending cuts, nor, as one psychologist has tried to argue, because “it's the school holidays and the nights are longer.” (It's August; they're not.) The left is trying to pin the blame on unemployment, "social exclusion," police racism, and the greed of the rich, but none of these genuinely explain why our sub-educated, feral underclass have turned to incendiarism so enthusiastically this week.

Politics in general fails to explain it. “This is the uprising of the working class. We're redistributing the wealth,” said 28-year-old anarchist Bryn Phillips, as youths emerged from a store loaded with stolen confectionery. Yet the stores that are being ransacked are not generally owned by the multinationals that the anarchists so loathe, but of ordinary immigrants to Britain who saw the country as a place where their hard work would be respected and rewarded. Instead their shops have been torched.  Phillips is wrong, for in fact this is the uprising of the non-working, anti-working, would-do-anything-sooner-than-work class. It has been the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who has come closest to correctly analyzing the root cause of this insurrection against bourgeois values and respectability, when he said that those responsible had an “exaggerated sense of entitlement.” He was denounced by The Guardian newspaper and booed in the street because of it, but he is right.

Ever since the fall of Margaret Thatcher more than two decades ago, Britain has been a place where political leaders have constantly failed to ram home the vital message that the something-for-nothing society is as morally wrong as it is financially bankrupt. Every institution has stepped back from imposing authority, because it is seen as politically incorrect and “judgmental.” The police, who should have imposed curfews and deployed water cannon and rubber bullets on day one—as they have been routinely doing against rioters in Northern Ireland for decades—have behaved pathetically in the face of these riots, and have taken 111 casualties as a result. Their argument, that 8-year-old children have been taking part in the riots, is more an indictment on the parents who allow them onto riot-torn streets than a good reason not to reimpose order. With 768 people arrested so far and 105 charged, one hopes that the courts will hand down exemplary sentences to those found guilty, but the whole trend of the legal system in post-Thatcher Britain—with its overt championing of the rights of criminals over those of their victims—suggests this is unlikely.

Meanwhile, the Church of England has consistently failed to support the establishment and forces of law and order, feeling far more comfortable intoning liberal mantras about “marginalization” that effectively give the rioters an excuse to see themselves as Robin Hoods of society, even while they thieve from some family-owned corner shop. The BBC has dubbed these the “consumer-society riots,” as though other countries don't have a consumer society without riots. Similarly the “social-networking riots” is a misnomer, though it helps to explain how rapidly they have spread and how expertly troublemakers have been able to keep one step ahead of the police.

Add to all this a media that concentrate solely on criticizing unearned wealth to the exclusion of any commendation of earned wealth, and especially a film industry in which movies automatically equate wealth with malfeasance, and you have an Envy Society of people who actually want to pillage their more successful, hardworking neighbors.

Starbucks and Sony aren't the real targets of these riots; the Patel family from Pakistan and their open-all-hours corner shop are. Moreover, with the collapse of the 1960s and 1970s dreams of a multicultural society, and its replacement with an atomized, balkanized hodgepodge of different racial ghettoes across Britain's inner-city landscape, after 20 years of almost unrestricted immigration you have the perfect tinderbox for the kind of vicious urban nightmare that Britain has experienced this week.

The rioters have hugely enjoyed the past few days—“Good fun, yeah,’’ one of them told the BBC, “ 'course it is”—and they will be back again, unless and until British institutions regain their collective willpower and show that the bourgeois, Thatcherite values of hard work, law, and strictly imposed authority will be unashamedly and ruthlessly applied.