Riot Reflections 4: A view from the United States

Geoff Davies argues that the riots are the product of an aggressively capitalist culture

There is a passage in the Jack London novel The Iron Heel, set in politically volatile America of the 1920s, where a wealthy industrialist is debating Ernest Everhard, a socialist leader. The industrialist, an ‘oligarch’, sees the threat that the disaffected majority poses to the power of his kind – the elite – and realises there is no winning argument he can make to Everhard to defend the system or to justify the fundamentally unfair situation the working classes find themselves in. So he falls back on the inescapable fact of power and who holds it:

“We have no words to waste on you. When you reach out your vaunted strong hands for our palaces and purpled ease, we will show you what strength is. In roar of shell and shrapnel and in whine of machine-guns will our answer be couched. We will grind you revolutionists down under our heel, and we shall walk upon your faces. The world is ours, we are its lords, and ours it shall remain.”

As a Welshman living and working for a large labour union in Ohio I work daily with the kind of  people that politicians in America, and increasingly in the UK, refer to as “the squeezed middle class”. As the resident ‘Brit’ many people, including my Republican neighbours and relatives as well as progressive union colleagues, have approached me to discuss the recent riots and looting in England.

As they talk about the unrest, eyeing me warily, they have a range of reactions. Chief among them is disbelief that British people would ever behave in such a way, and that the police cannot prevent these things from happening. When they learn that the majority of British police are not armed they throw up their hands, “Well of course!” they cry. “Of course, this is going to happen if they are not armed!” This is the view of progressive union men and women.

However surprised they are they are also resigned to the fact that this kind of thing is inevitable. They feel this resignation because they see it in their own society. They see reflected in their own cities exactly what is going on in the poorest parts of Britain.

There are normal ‘folk’, and by that I mean ‘working class’ people, who are thwarted and squeezed at every turn. These folk attended poorly-funded schools, which turn out kids with a terrible education, who get terrible minimum-wage paying jobs, and live in terrible neighbourhoods. But they are proud, and so they work. They work very hard.

They are exhausted every day by an aggressively capitalistic culture that views them only as consumers. Their government wants them to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps – which, of course, is physically impossible – and work harder to succeed.  Their justice system presumes them to be criminals, while their political system consistently fails them.

And then, when everything goes to pot, those who are least well off are told that government has to tighten their belts. So they should do without, squeeze just a little bit more, and cut the services they rely on, “The country must live within its means,” they are told, “just like you do with your budget at the kitchen table every week.” Meanwhile, those who have the most sacrifice the least, due to the prevailing wisdom that taxes on the wealthy should be kept low to spur economic growth.

Does this sound familiar?

The problems of inequality might be similar, but the difference here, at least in conservative Ohio, is that people know what the consequences of their actions will be when it comes to civil unrest. The people believe that the police have a duty to keep order – and support them in however they carry that out – with the arsenal of weaponry that the modern American cop carries on his belt. A telling report I heard on National Public Radio (which subscribes heavily to the BBC world Service) interviewed teenagers on the street in Birmingham asking them why they were looting.  They couldn’t be sure why they were rioting and looting, or what their ideas were. What they did know was that it was an opportunity to get stuff they couldn’t afford, and that there would be very little in terms of consequences from the police. After all, if caught, it was their first offence. You would not hear this from American teenagers.

There are two major concerns that should arise from the events and the reactions of the last couple of weeks. Firstly, that the rioting and the looting has resulted in public outcry due to the damage to property and society’s sensibilities.  This will detract from the underlying reality that people are increasingly frustrated with the system they live in. If you have a job it is a system that requires you to work all hours available, leaving no time to be meaningfully involved in society. If you don’t have a job your prospects are equally bleak.  As a consequence people have become so disaffected that they take no part in the political process whatsoever. Their demands are then sporadically expressed in the only way left to them, after which they will be labelled ungrateful and worthy of suppression.

Second, and more dangerous, is that the tougher police powers demanded to deal with these situations will become the norm. Just as a strong and often violent response to civil unrest is the norm in America, so it will become in Britain.

I heard on the BBC World Service the other day that British police have been authorized to use rubber bullets. If the fundamental unfairness of our system is left unaddressed something more serious than a couple of Sainsbury’s being burned down is going to happen.

While campaigning in rural Ohio in the 2008 Presidential election I met a middle aged white man, sat on his porch, and we chatted about the similarities of the politics and economics of America and Britain. After a while he leant in towards me and said, “Things have to change, and if they don’t, eventually, folk are going to make it change.” Ernest Everhard’s response to the wealthy industrialist in The Iron Heel is as blunt and equally inescapable: “We shall give you an answer in terms of lead. Power you have proclaimed the king of words. Very good. Power it shall be.”

Geoff Davies is a union organizer in Columbus, Ohio.

One thought on “Riot Reflections 4: A view from the United States

  1. There is no animating vision for the lumpenproletariat in either US or UK. In Jack London’s day they believed in socialism. Now they don’t because everywhere it was tried in resulted in environmental degradation and no increase in prosperity or fairness. That god failed and the throne is empty. A few inarticulate riots do not make a revolution.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy