Welcome to the post-modern riot. The riots that broke out in London have been remarkable on a number of fronts. One was to be reminded of Britain’s long history of class conflict, something that has not been evident as mob action for a quarter of a century. An entire generation of Britons have lived without experiencing anything that would recall the Peterloo massacre or the crushing of the Yorkshire mining unions. The other is the curious agenda of most rioters. While they were drawn from the underclass, mostly working class whites and blacks, they had no political agenda. Their definition of inclusivity was access to branded consumer products ranging from gaming machines to high-end footware. Banks and ministries, icons of capitalism and government, were largely ignored. Finally, the speed with which the riots spread, popping up in exactly the places where the police were not, reflects the challenge law-and-order authorities face in an age of smartphones and social networking websites.
Britain, like many Western nations, has seen its economy metamorphose over the past several decades. What was once the great manufacturer of the world has become a hub of financial and publicity services. Those who once worked assembly lines became minions for low-end service providers. These sectors have been devastated by the global financial sector with consumer demand contracting. Faced with debts, the Cameron government has promised massive cuts in welfare expenditure. While these deficit-reducing actions have yet to take place, one has to presume they fed into a sense among marginal urban youth groups that the system had little concern for their condition. This sense of exclusion helped at least prepare the ground for the street anger that exploded following the police shooting of a Caribbean man. But in the same way that class has become a much fuzzier concept in the 21st century, an unusual number of rioters come from walks of life normally associated with sturdy burgher values.
These riots, like a summer storm, will probably disappear as quickly as they came. They will bruise but not wound the Conservative-led coalition government. But it is clear the sense of economic uncertainty, coupled with an evident leadership deficit, that pervades much of the world has put many societies on a short fuse. The trigger could be austerity in some countries, inflation in others, but the shock and awe that PM Cameron is experiencing could well befall almost any government in the world today.