England Is Burning: Will the U.S. Follow Suit?

August 8, 2011 Topic: Globalization Blog Brand: Jacob Heilbrunn

England Is Burning: Will the U.S. Follow Suit?

High unemployment. Credit-rating downgrade. Market nosedive. All signs point to Americans emulating their British counterparts.

England is aflame. There are many explanations for the violence and arson that has now spread from London to Birmingham and Liverpool. But the explanation of one rioter that this is Britain's version of America's Tea Party is the most alarming. The blunt fact is that this is the latest attack on established elites. At least some of the violence can be traced to the austerity program that the United Kingdom has instituted and that is being exploited by professional anarchists who are using social media to outwit  the authorities. The result is a kind of wilding in the most immiserated areas of London and other cities.

England is supposed to host the Olympic Games next year. But what happens if London looks like a war zone? Prime Minister David Cameron may well have to call in the military to contain the rioting and looting by hooded youths. A sign of how serious the situation has become is that Cameron has already had to cut short his vacation at a luxurious villa in Tuscany. The police seem unable to contain the violence. No, this won't look like Syria. But it is a further sign of the corrosion that is taking place in western democracies.The anger may be amorphous, but it isn't going away. 

Rioting is not new to England. The Lord Gordon riots, for example took place in 1780. Lord George Gordon led a mob to parliament to petition it against any steps toward Catholic emancipation. Gordon, a fanatic, reflected the anti-Popish sentiments that were prevalent in England. Charles Dickens used the riots as a central part of his powerful novel Barnaby Rudge, probably one of the greatest depictions of mass hysteria ever penned. In 1981 the Brixton riots shocked England.

The riots today do not have a theological character but are most likely being exploited by criminal thugs. And there is clearly an element of class warfare, which is what the Tea Party reference indicates. Hostility, frustration, a sense of aggrievement—all have combined to form a dangerous cocktail. The response will be a turn to the right in England—a desire to crackdown on the hoi polloi that threaten the middle class. 

So far, America has avoided the kind of violence that is spreading in England. But given the unemployment rate and the rage that seems sure to develop as Americans realize that high unemployment is not a temporary phenomenon but a more permanent condition—even as President Obama implausibly claims that the U.S. remains a "triple AAA country"—the surprising thing would be if England is an isolated case. In other words: we've been warned.