The U.K. Riots And The Coming Global Class War


The riots that hit London and other English cities last week have the potential to spread beyond the British Isles. Class rage isn’t unique to England; in fact, it represents part of a growing global class chasm that threatens to undermine capitalism itself.

The hardening of class divisions    has been building for a generation, first in the West but increasingly in fast-developing countries such as China. The growing chasm between the classes has its roots in globalization, which has taken jobs from blue-collar and now even white-collar employees; technology, which has allowed the fleetest and richest companies and individuals to shift operations at rapid speed to any locale; and the secularization of society, which has undermined the traditional values about work and family that have underpinned grassroots capitalism from its very origins.

All these factors can be seen in the British riots. Race and police relations played a role, but the rioters included far more than minorities or gangsters. As British historian James Heartfield has suggested, the rioters reflected a broader breakdown in “the British social system,” particularly in “the system of work and reward.”

In the earlier decades of the 20th century working class youths could look forward to jobs in Britain’s vibrant industrial economy and, later, in the growing public sector largely financed by both the earnings of the City of London and credit. Today the industrial sector has shrunk beyond recognition. The global financial crisis has undermined credit and the government’s ability to pay for the welfare state.

With meaningful and worthwhile work harder to come by — particularly in the private sector — the prospects for success among Britain working classes have been reduced to largely fantastical careers in entertainment, sport or all too often crime. Meanwhile, Prime Minister David Cameron’s supporters in the City of London may have benefited from financial bailouts arranged by the Bank of England, but opportunities for even modest social uplift for most other people have faded.

The great British notion of idea of working hard and succeeding through sheer pluck — an idea also embedded in the U.K.’s former colonies, such as the U.S. — has been largely devalued.  Dick Hobbs, a scholar at the London School of Economics, says this demoralization  has particularly affected white Londoners. Many immigrants have thrived doing engineering and construction work as well as in trades providing service to the capital’s affluent elites.

A native of east London himself, Hobbs  maintains that the industrial ethos, despite its failings, had great advantages. It centered first on production and rewarded both the accumulation of skills. In contrast, by some estimates, the pub and club industry has been post-industrial London’s largest source of private-sector employment growth, a phenomena even more marked in less prosperous regions. “There are parts of London where the pubs are the only economy,” he notes.

Hobbs claims that the current “pub and club,” with its “violent potential and instrumental physicality,” simply celebrates consumption often to the point of excess. Perhaps it’s no surprise that looting drove the unrest.

What’s the lesson to be drawn?  The ideologues don’t seem to have the answers. A crackdown on criminals — the favored response of the British right — is necessary but does not address the fundamental problems of joblessness and devalued work. Similarly the left’s favorite panacea, a revival of the welfare state, fails to address the central problem of shrinking opportunities for social advancement.  There are now at least 1 million unemployed young people in the U.K., more than at any time in a generation, while child poverty in inner London, even during the regime of former Mayor “red Ken” Livingstone last decade, stood at 50% and may well be worse now.

This fundamental class issue is not only present in Britain. There have been numerous outbreaks of street violence across Europe, including in France and Greece. One can expect more in countries like Italy, Spain and Portugal, which will now have to impose the same sort of austerity measures applied by the Cameron government in London.

And how about the United States? Many of the same forces are at play here. Teen unemployment currently exceeds 20%; in the nation’s capital it stands at over 50%. Particularly vulnerable are expensive cities such as Los Angeles and New York, which have become increasingly bifurcated between rich and poor. Cutbacks in social programs, however necessary, could make things worse, both for the middle class minorities who run such efforts as well as their poor charges.

A possible harbinger of this dislocation, observes author Walter Russell Mead, may be the recent rise of  random criminality, often racially tinged, taking place in American cities such as Chicago, Milwaukee and Philadelphia.

Still, with over 14 million unemployed nationwide, prospects are not necessarily great for white working- and middle-class Americans. This pain is broadly felt, particularly by younger workers. According to a Pew Research survey,  almost 2 in 5 Americans aged 18 to 19 are unemployed or out the workforce, the highest percentage in three decades.

Diminished prospects — what many pundits praise as the “new normal” — now confront a vast proportion of the population. One indication: The expectation of earning more money next year has fallen to the lowest level in 25 years. Wages have been falling not only for non-college graduates but  for those with four-year degree as well.   Over 43% of non-college-educated whites complain they are downwardly mobile.

Given this, it’s hard to see how class resentment in this country can do anything but grow in the years. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke claimed as early as 2007 that he was worried about growing inequality in this country, but his Wall Street and corporate-friendly policies have failed to improve the grassroots economy.

The prospects for a widening class conflict are clear even in China, where social inequality is now among the world’s worse . Not surprisingly, one survey conducted  the Zhejiang Academy of Social Sciences   found that 96% of respondents “resent the rich.”  While Tea Partiers and leftists in the U.S. decry the colluding capitalism of the Bush-Obama-Bernanke regime, Chinese working and middle classes confront a hegemonic ruling class consisting of public officials and wealthy capitalists. That this takes place under the aegis of a supposedly “Marxist-Leninist regime” is both ironic and obscene.

This expanding class war creates more intense political conflicts. On the right the Tea Party — as well as rising grassroots European protest parties in such unlikely locales as Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands — grows in large part out of the conviction that the power structure, corporate and government, work together to screw the broad middle class. Left-wing militancy also has a class twist, with progressives increasingly alienated by the gentry politics of the Obama Administration.

Many conservatives here, as well as abroad, reject the huge role of class.  To them, wealth and poverty still reflect levels of virtue — and societal barriers to upward mobility, just a mild inhibitor. But modern society cannot run according to the individualist credo of Ayn Rand; economic systems, to be credible and socially sustainable, must deliver results to the vast majority of citizens. If capitalism cannot do that expect more outbreaks of violence and greater levels of political alienation — not only in Britain but across most of the world’s leading countries, including the U.S.

This piece originally appeared at

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and an adjunct fellow of the Legatum Institute in London. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.

Photo by Beacon Radio.

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Not correct

Kotkin's argument isn't entirely sensible. His reasoning is this:

a) The new economy will throw millions out of work.
b) These work-deprived people will riot in the streets.

But this isn't the way the world works. The new economy is "new" precisely because it is more productive. And increased productivity makes us richer - not poorer. Therefore, there is no way that the "new economy" is going to impoverish millions - at least not in the long term.

Example: In the 19th Century 90% of Americans worked in agriculture. Now barely 3% do. Does that mean the remaining 87% are unemployed? Hardly.

Today, we have 30% or so of the population still working in manufacturing. Automation is rapidly taking over that work - and increasingly only the cheapest labor in Laos or someplace can compete against the machine. Soon only a small percentage of our population - 2 or 3% - will work in manufacturing. Will this make us poorer? Hardly. The cost of manufactured goods will decline to the cost of raw materials and retail - not more.

A few years ago it was still useful to learn calculus and differential equations. Today, Mathematica sells software for $1.99 that does all of that better than any human being. Hence most math education today is a waste of time, and accordingly many people who use math-like skills will be unemployed. I'm looking at you, engineers, lawyers, doctors, computer scientists. Will this make us poorer? No way. The cost of these services will decline to the cost of electricity needed to run the computer.

Short term the dislocation may make Kotkin's argument temporarily true. But long term increased productivity makes us richer - not poorer. Kotkin has got it wrong.

By contrast, Tyler Cowen argues that we're not productive enough, or in his phrase "we're not as rich as we thought we were." That, he claims, is the cause of our current difficulty - not too much productivity. Sadly I think he may be right.

Daniel Jelski

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This is a smart blog. I mean it. You have so much knowledge about this issue, and so much passion. You also know how to make people rally behind it, obviously from the responses.
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These are excellent points,

These are excellent points, and I agree with most of your comment. Except for the paragraph about knowledge economy services being taken over by computer.

First, about mathematics. Mathematical software is most effectively used by those with deep mathematical understanding, and not at all the the mathematically illiterate. Mathematical software can assist in computation and verification, but cannot reason or create. Mathematics is a language, with whole subareas the size of freshman calculus expounded in new research literally every day. Much of the mathematics from traffic analysis to theory has simply not been invented yet, let alone digested, codified, and programmed into a computer by a brilliant human.

This is good news, too. While IBM's Watson may be unbeatable at Jeopardy, it's not much better than a bright individual with resourcefulness and internet access, and overall much less adaptable. Likewise with Deep Blue. True, it beat the world champion at the time, Garry Kasparov. How? With blindingly fast computational abilities, but more importantly, under the instruction of some other grandmasters who (conveniently ahead of time) hard-coded human earned chess knowledge in algorithmic form, as rules without reasons.

Software is incanted by humans, not the other way around, let loose aping only the instructions given them by their human masters. However clever those instructions are, they have an expiration date.

By example: I may consult medical software, but I will not trust a doctor without fives senses, human intangibles, adaptability, inventiveness, and a thinking process which is patently non-algorithmic. Such a doctor would rise on the shoulders of truly innovative medical software, not be replaced by it.


I'm not saying all math education is useless - but most of it is or will be. When I was in school we learned how to calculate and give change - and I recall grocery clerks doing arithmetic in their head. Now almost nobody does arithmetic anymore - it's all computerized.

When was the last time a human had to solve a quadratic equation for anything other than a school exercise?

How many jobs are there even today that really require a human to do integration by parts?

Yes - there will always be a few high-end, creative jobs that require human beings to know math, but the notion that every college student somehow needs to take algebra or calculus - sorry, that's just not necessary anymore.

My understanding is IBM built Watson to do medical diagnoses. It won't replace ALL human doctors, but it will probably render a lot of them fairly useless - nobody will need a specialist anymore. You will need a GP trained in careful observation and who knows how to use Watson, and you'll still need the surgeon. You will definitely still need the nurse. But the specialist who has spent years memorizing symptoms and treatments of various diseases - that person is obsolete.

Daniel Jelski