Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Why do citizens get angry in democracies? What the riots in Britain tell us

When something ominous happens somewhere, we ask ourselves: Can that happen to us? We felt that the blood-splattered Arab Spring would not happen in India because we had legislatures, courts and media through which the steam of public anger could be let off.

But Greece and Spain and England are citadels of democracy. Eruptions there should make us, especially our rulers, think. There was an astonishing similarity between Greek and Spanish protests. The main feature of the popular mood in both countries was anger. Protesting Greeks called themselves the Indignant Citizens Movement. In Spain they called themselves the indignados. People feeling angry about their elected governments. Sounds familiar?

It was for the same reasons, too, that the Greeks and the Spaniards were angry: governmental incompetence leading to economic mess. Greece was on the brink of bankruptcy and was forced to take extremely unpopular austerity measures. Spain had to do the same with corruption adding to the problems. When public spending was cut and taxes raised, life became unbearably hard for the ordinary people and the poor. Protestors cried for “true democracy” saying that “the political class no longer represented the people”. Sounds familiar?

In the continent protestors held up placards proclaiming “The Power of Non-Violence”. This is where England was different with wanton violence quickly deteriorating into looting. Usually in such situations the dispossessed ransack supermarkets for food items. This time thieves were on the march for luxury items – plasma TV, hi-fi sets, branded sports shoes, ladies' bags.

Obviously freelance thugs and organised gangs were taking advantage of a sudden outbreak of anarchy. But how did such an atmosphere develop? To know that, we need to look at the broader picture. Then we will also see some similarities between England and Greece-Spain.

Britain is the most socially unequal country in the developed world. The Tottenham area where it all began is part of a borough that has the fourth highest level of child poverty in London. Unemployment rate there is double the national average. Liberal immigration of East Europeans after the Berlin Wall collapse disrupted the labour market and added to tensions already existing.

And don't forget the Metropolitan Police's reputation for racial profiling. London is not as bad as Los Angeles in this respect, but it is bad enough when blacks and ethnic minorities are always the ones who are routinely stopped and searched on the streets. Immigrants from the Carribean are always on the black list.

The latest riots cannot be described as racial. Indeed no demands were raised, no cause espoused. It was just a case of excited youths taking possession of what they could not get otherwise. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to ignore the role played by social tensions and economic disparities – and these are always mixed up with race.

The breakdown of traditional values is a factor too. How big is the population of single mothers, to take just one example, and what kind of upbringing do their children get? There is a lost generation out there, easy prey to drug pushers and looter gangs. Some welfare programmes for marginal people like them were cut recently in the name of cost saving.

How disruptive is the gap between the very rich and the very poor? In egalitarian Norway the recent massacre was something that united Norwegians against a mad man and his mad ideas. It did not provide an excuse for gangs to take to the streets and plunder.

Such fundamental issues do not seem to be engaging the attention of the leadership in Britain. The Prime Minister is talking about banning the social media. Perhaps the basic problem in all societies is leadership. As in Greece, Spain and England, so in India: There is no leadership that can understand, let alone cope with, the tensions that beset the people. The political class has lost the way, and lost the people's trust. Warnings are blowing in the wind.