|Western democracy in action - 84 year old woman pepper-sprayed by the police in Seattle protest.|
Remember the London riots? A week of smashed glass and free shopping across the big cities of England (Scotland was notably free of any trouble), coupled with assaults on passersby and the looting of peoples flats and cars. The Guardian has just run a fascinating series of reports into the motives of the rioters, many of whom clearly saw themselves at least justified in their actions by a political environment that permits politicians to survive their great expenses swindle with a handful of token sacrificial lambs, and bankers to be rewarded for greed, failure and deceit. As an earlier blog asked, what separated our rulers and rioters beyond a few shards of broken glass?
Yet how did this all start? Well, you should remember the shooting dead of Mark Duggan. The police failure to inform his family of his death and subsequent refusal to talk to them led to a demonstration which many see as the trigger for the riots.
It is bizarre how this aspect of the riots has become so downplayed. Instead, the riots have passed into the myth that those taking part were all young people involved in gangs - when in truth very few were gang members; there was a wide range of age groups involved; and most who took part did not have previous convictions.
What the statistics do show is that most were from poor backgrounds, many unemployed or in low wage jobs. And as any historian will tell you, throughout history, deprive people of any hope of a genuine stake in society, add grossly excessive inequality, and while your riots will not be spearheaded by the Vanguard of the Revolution, they will be prompted and justified by the ruling class' exploitation of those around them.
We have heard a lot from the Occupy Movement about the 1% and the 99%. And it is very true that a tiny, tiny elite control the bulk of the world's wealth. But while going for the 1% is pretty attractive - after all, by default, hardly anyone is one of them! Hell, we are nearly all part of the 99%. The implication then is that it is all the fault of the 1% - everyone else is clear.
And yet- consider this: to be in the top 10% of the income bracket in the UK, you need to earn slightly over £54,000 p.a. And the top 10% - some six million people- now own twelve times more than the bottom six million, a huge disparity, and around double the ratios to be found in France and Germany, who have a more socially oriented political settlement. British inequality has doubled in the last generation. In the times of plenty under neoliberal New Labour, the rising prosperity of the average person meant that the exponential rise in the wealth of the richest went unnoticed - Peter Mandelson was able to trumpet that Labour were "supremely relaxed about people who get filthy rich" (to be fair to Mandy, he did add "..as long as they pay their taxes" - though of course, New Labour made certain they had fewer and fewer taxes to pay).
But under the neoliberal austerity economics of the Con Dems in recessionary Britain, the excessive disparities in wealth are becoming more and more evident, especially as the richest continue to award themselves massive pay increases in spite of their telling everyone else to tighten their belts. In the USA, similarly with its full-on liberal capitalist ethic, the disparities are even worse - and the response, including the widespread deployment of vicious pepper spray against perfectly peaceful protesters (see the video below and the photo above), does not bear any explanation other than that the authorities are actively suppressing dissent of even the most mildly social democratic type.
And so, without a stake in society, what impulse is there to support and obey the rules of society? And what then is left to protect the rulers but the increasingly brutal force and more and more powers to intrude and intervene in people's lives - new laws, for example, will allow the authorities to enter peoples homes to remove political window posters deemed to be inappropriate if, for example, the leader of China is passing nearby and someone puts up a Free Tibet notice. We wouldn't want to threaten the terms of the trade, after all - the rich might be upset.
The recourse to increasingly militaristic crowd control tactics in pseudo-democratic capitalist states around the world is deeply unwelcome and a warping of good policing. More than that though, it is a real threat to democratic debate and freedom of speech.
The effects of pepper spray: