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Why Should Rioting Young People Listen to the Elites and Mind a Social Order that Disempowers Them?

There's no simple explanation for the uprising in London and several other UK cities this week. But the riots mirror the state of working-class Britain.

After witnessing several nights of turmoil, the people of the United Kingdom are still trying to comprehend what just happened. There's no simple explanation for this apparently leaderless and rudderless uprising in London and several other cities. But amid the grim ashes and street clashes, the message of rage has seared itself into the public consciousness, rekindling an age-old tinderbox of class warfare.

Observers dismiss them as roaming bands of delinquents. Or they describe them as well-organized, tech-savvy flash mobs. They're portrayed alternately as greedy opportunists or as disaffected youth whose day-to-day misery goes ignored until a crisis breaks out. Reflecting the diversity of urban Britain, they are everyone and no one. And they're just kids.

Though the unrest initially grew out of a protest against police brutality in the poor, racially mixed enclave of Tottenham (where another famous riot took place in the 1980s), it's escalated to a level that many people couldn't imagine: So much breaking and burning happening in one of the most prosperous nations in the world.

Yet the riots bleakly mirror the state of working-class Britain. The initial demonstrations, over the death of a local young man, Marc Duggan, stoked long-simmering hatred for the police, who are notorious for mistreating black and Asian youth (as in U.S. cities).

At the same time, youth struggle with massive unemployment, especially in poor neighborhoods like Tottenham, and their government coddles big business while slashing basic welfare services. Though it's not inevitable that these trends will provoke disorder, it's clear that youth have little incentive to conform to a social order that makes them feel utterly powerless. Daily Telegraph columnist Mary Riddle warns that “In uneasy societies, people power – whether offered or stolen – can be toxic.”

Yet there's a palpable absence of a coherent left or labor movement to harness this aggression and channel dissent into positive action. A London-based branch of the union UNISON wrote on its blog on Tuesday:

People in working class communities have looked on with fear as riots destroyed local shops and left some people homeless. Clearly we don’t support opportunistic looting or for acts of random violence. However, if we are to avoid a return to the social unrest and public disorder seen in the 1980s, this demands a response from our community and its leaders which goes beyond mere condemnation.

We must ask why are our young people so angry and how can we unite our community?

The question of why cuts both ways: systemic ills are undeniably feeding into the unrest. But the assumption that rioting is simply a reflexive manifestation of despair reinforces the stereotype that “anti-social” behavior is endemic to poor youth of color. And while everyone is busy pathologizing youth, they'd do well to examine the prevailing societal attitudes that have quietly aided and abetted the rioters' “crime.”

There's a link between the madness unfolding in the streets and the grand delusion in Parliament that the poor are to blame for their own predicament—a deeply ingrained philosophy that was most recently encapsulated in the “ Big Society” austerity cuts.

Social historian Ted Vallance says that today's riots resonate with well-worn historical patterns of revolt against the establishment, from the mine worker strikes that helped topple Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath in the 1970s, to the scathing anti-Thatcher poll tax riot in Trafalgar Square. But Vallance also sees a lack of political valence in the current disturbances:

Damage to property has, of course, been a feature of many violent protests in Britain's past. The Suffragettes famously targeted gentleman's outfitters as symbols of patriarchal oppression. More recently, anti-capitalist protesters have often targeted major global brands such as McDonalds and Starbucks.