On the day London was awarded the 2012 Olympic Games, we played The Clash’s “London Calling” on a radio show I co-hosted in Athens. The song — about a world slipping toward some kind of destruction — was played by a lone guitarist at a recent event to mark the one-year countdown to the English capital hosting the world’s biggest sporting event. A few days later, its lyrics — such as “London calling to the underworld/Come out of the cupboard, you boys and girls” — proved an appropriate soundtrack to possibly the worst civil unrest, rioting and looting the city has ever seen.
It seemed a delicious irony that an e-mail informing me about ticketing arrangements for the 2012 Olympics should arrive in my in-box on Tuesday afternoon, as London and other cities braced for a fourth night of rioting. But there is nothing amusing in seeing the city you were born in being ripped apart a few weeks after the city you live in suffered the same fate. I can feel nothing but sadness at seeing areas I know well, places where friends live and a neighborhood where my father ran a business for more than two decades being decimated by youths who appear to have no comprehension of the damage they are wreaking on communities.
Feeling anger for the misguided actions of these young people is the easy part, though. Trying to appreciate the wider context of what is happening is a much bigger challenge. The Guardian’s Dave Hill, who commentates on issues affecting London, sums it up well: “Condemnation on its own is far too easy — so easy, in some mouths, that it becomes a sort of narcissistic vigilantism: my condemnation is bigger than your condemnation; your smaller condemnation condemns you as a secret non-condemner and therefore a closet excuser and justifier, etcetera,” he writes. “The other problem with condemnation unadorned is that it’s a dead end. You condemn. Then what?”
This is a process that Greeks are very familiar with. Each public disturbance ends with the two major parties, PASOK and New Democracy, falling over each other trying to condemn the violence in the strongest terms while condemning the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) for not condemning it enough. Beyond that there is nothing. No attempt to evaluate the causes, to distinguish between criminal behavior and legitimate anger and to address the problem. Greece’s politicians produced the same dead-end reaction following clashes in central Athens during anti-austerity protests last month as they did in December 2008 when protests, riots and looting followed the murder of 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos by a policeman.
The riots in London and other English cities were sparked by the police shooting 29-year-old Mark Duggan in apparently questionable circumstances. It is one of several parallels that can be drawn between what is happening in the UK and Greece. Of course, there are differences. There is a racial element to the UK riots that is absent in Greece, disenfranchised British youth are part of a more violent culture than their Greek counterparts and they have been raised in a much more consumer-driven, celebrity-led, politically sanitized environment. It’s telling that their method of lashing out has been to steal electronic gadgets and clothes, which have become the only recognizable currency for those who live in the shadow of the real economy.
“These are riots of defective and disqualified consumers,” writes sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, an emeritus professor at the University of Leeds. But the sociological aspects of the current unrest require deeper study. Conclusions will be drawn when the dust has settled. For now, we need to look at the economic and political underpinnings of the dissatisfaction, if not necessarily the actual disorder.
After all, it was ahead of the general elections in the UK last May that Liberal Democrat leader — and soon-to-be deputy prime minister — Nick Clegg said the UK faced Greek-style “economic, political and social disruption” if the new government could not “find a way to persuade people” to accept drastic public spending cuts. It appears that he was right.
It’s when you look closer at the politico-economic environment that you see some connections between Britain and Greece. Both countries have embarked on a strict, and some would say rash, course of austerity to address burgeoning public debt and deficits. Greece had a public deficit of 10.5 percent of GDP last year, Britain’s was 10.4 percent. The UK has a much more manageable debt (80 percent of GDP in 2010) than Greece’s, which could be double Britain’s next year. However, British Chancellor George Osborne has opted for deep spending cuts as a way of ensuring the UK’s public finances don’t veer out of control. The problem with this, as we have seen in Greece, is that it has a social impact. Politicians and economists can talk about “trimming the fat” from the public sector but austerity measures also cut into vital services.
In Greece, hospitals and schools are being merged and municipalities have been forced to stop hiring short-term contract workers. In the UK, the youth service budget, which finances youth centers and careers advice in deprived areas, has been cut by 75 percent. Funding for universities and Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) for youths from poor families to stay in education have also been reduced. And underlying all this is unemployment. Youth unemployment in the UK at the end of January reached 18.3 percent — its highest level since 1992. In Greece, the jobless rate for the 15-24 age group reached 43.1 percent in April. The aspiration that our economic system likes to espouse is vanishing into thin air.
“It is no coincidence that the worst violence London has seen in many decades takes place against the backdrop of a global economy poised for free fall,” writes Mary Riddell in the Daily Telegraph, arguing that a fundamental shift in policy has to be considered. “Meanwhile, the view is gaining ground that social democracy, with its safety nets, its costly education and health care for all, is unsustainable in the bleak times ahead. The reality is that it is the only solution. After the Great Crash [in 1929], Britain recalibrated, for a time. Income differentials fell, the welfare state was born and skills and growth increased.”
It should be added that only the US spent more taxpayers’ money than Britain — which invested 850 billion pounds — on propping up failing banks during the financial crisis. Meanwhile, the same taxpayers saw the bankers award themselves a reported 7 billion pounds in bonuses this year. Just as provocatively, Greeks are paying for the country’s high cost of borrowing and bailout loans but fail to see anyone being punished for the looting of the Greek state over the years. That authorities will spring into action to chase looters on English high streets or fend off hooded youths in front of the Greek Parliament but do little to hold to account those responsible for wasting or plundering millions is utter hypocrisy and creates fertile ground for growing anger.
This is where politicians have to step in. They are in a position to restore some fairness and to find a way of marrying the benefits of the market with the needs of the people. For too long these needs have been neglected by a political elite that has been caught up in serving its friends and basking in power rather than focusing on public service. This is as true of MPs’-expenses-scandal-Britain as it of cash-for-contracts-Greece. British Prime Minister David Cameron described the rioters as “people allowed to think that the world owes them something, that their rights outweigh their responsibilities, and that their actions do not have consequences.” He could well have been describing the attitude of his colleagues in Westminster and beyond.
Ruling parties in both countries have spent too long pandering to the small percentage of “middle ground” voters who decide elections. As a result, the current generation of young Britons has no channel of political communication. It doesn’t receive any messages from the political system, nor does it have a way of sending them back, or at least it does not know how to form its concerns, frustrations and hopes into political thought. It’s one of the reasons why youths are using the blunt, abusive language of looting and vandalism to express themselves. There’s a similar problem in Greece. The disconnect between the country’s youth and the political system was glaringly obvious in December 2008. And it’s clear from recent protests, including those organized by the Indignant movement, that there are many young people who want to express themselves politically, who want to have an impact but can’t find the channels to do so.
Turning this generation away from political involvement would perhaps be the most damaging consequence of the crisis. There can be few more demoralizing and infuriating things than seeing an imbalanced and unfair system flourish around you while you are unable to do anything about it.
“Even if the current UK riots have no overt political motive, it is facile to deny there is a socioeconomic dimension to the riots; few Londoners are entirely surprised by events of the past few days,” writes the Wall Street Journal’s Simon Nixon, pointing to the squeezed middle classes and the lack of jobs for the “underclass” as signs of globalization’s “dark side.”
“This is reflected in the vast global imbalances that have accumulated over several decades,” he writes. “A global market-based system based on the consent of individual national governments can never be perfect. The inevitable compromises mean there will always be winners and losers.”
The people we are seeing on the streets of London and other cities are the biggest losers of all. The danger for Greece is that its increasingly disaffected youth will soon see no hope of being on the winning side either.
“When you take away hope, when you see nothing but unemployment for you and your friends going forward for months and months, possibly for years, people lose faith in their society,” economist Joseph Stiglitz told the UK’s Channel 4 on Tuesday. “Our market economy is not working and our governments are not succeeding in helping the market economy do what it has to do. And in too many countries, they’re actually going in the opposite direction and showing very little compassion.”
There is a constant that is as true in London as it is in Athens and any other city around the world. If the balance in a country’s economic policy is tilted totally in favor of pleasing markets, helping financiers and accommodating investors rather than also doing the same for its people, then it’s bound to lead to a disjointed and dysfunctional society.
This is the message from London that we need to hear, especially those in Greece, which is in its second year of austerity and is embarking on a daunting privatization program. If we listen closely, we might even catch the final words to the song by The Clash: “I never felt so much alike.”