Richard Sennett (sociology professor at NYU and LSE) and Saskia Sassen (sociology professor at Columbia) have an op-ed in the New York Times this week that purports to explain the causes of the riots in London and the lessons from them for the US. It is muddle-headed, and indicative of liberal prejudices today.
The article begins by blaming Prime Minister David Cameron's austerity program and "the cuts":
Britain’s youth unemployment rate is currently over 20 percent. During the economic boom a decade ago, though, nearly as many were out of work, and they did not all turn to crime.
To counter the risk that they might, there were storefront drop-in centers for young people in the neighborhood; these places are now shutting down, as are other community services, like health centers for the elderly and libraries. Local police forces have also been shrinking.
All are victims of what people in Britain call “the cuts” — the government’s defunding of civil-society institutions in order to balance the nation’s books.
I don't agree. But hold on, say Sennett and Sassen, it's really not about the cuts:
An old-fashioned Marxist might imagine that the broken windows and burning houses expressed a raging political reaction to government spending cuts — but this time that explanation would be too facile.
Oh, ok, referencing the cuts is "too facile". So what's the real reason? Well, after some words about a change in the British national temperament, the authors say... it's the cuts:
Mr. Cameron was good at selling people on the idea of cutting costs, but he has failed to make the case for what and how to cut: efforts to increase university fees, to overhaul the National Health Service, to reduce the military and the police, even to sell off the nation’s forests, have all backfired, with the government hedging or simply abandoning its plans.
In attempting to carry out reform, the government appears incompetent; it has lost legitimacy....Britain’s current crisis should cause us to reflect on the fact that a smaller government can actually increase communal fear and diminish our quality of life.
Sennett and Sassen were right when they said blaming the cuts was facile - and that's what makes their article facile, and just plain wrong. The cuts did not bring about the riots. As the Economist correctly noted, “The much-heralded cuts have only just started: public spending is still higher than it was a year ago.” (Hat tip to Daniel Ben-Ami - see his excellent demolition of economic explanations of the riots put forward by liberals here).
In fact, it is too much government - rather than too little - that is behind the rioting. Or, to be more specific, it is the type of government policy and intervention in the UK that has been deeply problematic. As Brendan O'Neill (here), Frank Furedi (here) and Kenan Malik (here) have argued, the vast expansion of the British welfare state into the most intimate areas of personal life - from personal finances to parenting to citizenship classes - has corroded social ties. The result is a section of the population that has no sense of community.
Sennett and Sassen make reference to police's insufficient response, and how "vigilante action" stepped in. They mention that there were too few police to deal with a situation in Hackney (the Dalston area where, as it happens, I used live), and how their numbers have been shrinking. But generally the real problem was not too few police - there were plenty according to reports - but how they failed to step up and stop the rioting (explained by Mick Hume here).
The authors view the rise of so-called "vigilantes" as negative: "a street patrolled by citizens armed with knives and bats...is not a place to build a life." But in reality their emergence is an encouraging development, as it indicates a desire for people to take responsibility for their communities.
In conclusion, Sennett and Sassen go on to make matters worse by attempting to draw lessons for the US. And their big lesson is...don't follow the Tea Party!
Americans ought to ponder this aspect of Britain’s trauma.... The American right today is obsessed with cutting government spending. In many ways, Mr. Cameron’s austerity program is the Tea Party’s dream come true. But Britain is now grappling with the consequences of those cuts, which have led to the neglect and exclusion of many vulnerable, disaffected young people who are acting out violently and irresponsibly.
Is this the best they can do? What nonsense. I know that it is almost obligatory for American liberals to lay every problem at the doorstep of their bogey-man, the tiny Tea Party, but even by their standards this is a huge stretch.
In fact, it might be worth considering whether the conditions for similar outbursts exist here. Indeed, group attacks are increasing: for example, violent "flash mobs" in Philadelphia have increased. In late July about 30 youth came together via social media and converged at a mall to beat up two people at random in Center City (near Philadelphia). Mayor Michael Nutter has established a curfew and denounced the mobs, calling on parents and kids to take greater responsibility. And Philadelphia is not alone - such attacks can be found across the US.
While a disturbing trend, such flash mob violence doesn't add up to the scale of the UK riots. You certainly have atomization, social alienation and a lack of true community in America. But there are two important factors at work in Britain that don't seem to be as strong here: first, while welfare dependency exists, government welfare policy has not been so widespread and intrusive as in Britain; and second, the police here do not seem as demoralized as they are on the other side of the Atlantic.
The situation in the US does bear watching. If something similar to the London riots emerges, one thing will be for sure: the Tea Party will not be to blame.