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 Forbes.com.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com 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.