By Steve Hynd
David Cameron has to maintain that the unrest has no cause except criminality � or he and his friends might be held responsible.
It is essential for those in power in Britain that the riots now sweeping the country can have no cause beyond feral wickedness. This is nothing but "criminality, pure and simple", David Cameron declared after cutting short his holiday in Tuscany. The London mayor and fellow former Bullingdon Club member Boris Johnson, heckled by hostile Londoners in Clapham Junction, warned that rioters must stop hearing "economic and sociological justifications" (though who was offering them he never explained) for what they were doing.
When his predecessor Ken Livingstone linked the riots to the impact of public spending cuts, it was almost as if he'd torched a building himself. The Daily Mail thundered that blaming cuts was "immoral and cynical", echoed by a string of armchair riot control enthusiasts. There was nothing to explain, they've insisted, and the only response should be plastic bullets, water cannon and troops on the streets.
We'll hear a lot more of that when parliament meets � and it's not hard to see why. If these riots have no social or political causes, then clearly no one in authority can be held responsible. What's more, with many people terrified by the mayhem and angry at the failure of the police to halt its spread, it offers the government a chance to get back on the front foot and regain its seriously damaged credibility as a force for social order.
And yet several studies show that there is a clear and definable link between austerity programs and social unrest. The latest is by economists Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth (PDF, also via Kat). They looked at a century of social unrest for the period 1919 to the present, to examine the extent to which societies become unstable after budget cuts. Their conclusion is that "austerity has tended to go hand in hand with politically motivated violence and social instability" and that there is "a clear positive correlation between fiscal retrenchment and instability".
Which leads us to wonder if the "British Spring", as it has been sarcastically termed, might be a harbringer of an American one.
This could all translate to the US fairly easily. The political discourse in America is such that the country is almost certainly moving down a path of austerity. Even President Obama and Nancy Pelosi concede this, though they try to mix in some hearty references to "shared sacrifice." That might do some good, but probably not much. Although the Democrats constantly stress the need to close off tax loopholes and have the richest pay their "fair share," the Republicans outplay them every time. Besides, a top earner paying two percent more in taxes isn't going to quell the bottled fury of someone who feels the whole system has nothing to offer him.
By, say, the summer of 2014 either the cuts will already be hurting, or the rhetoric of cuts will have suffused the air. That will almost certainly be the case no matter who is President. The conditions will be ripe, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may yet get his chance to joke about "American Spring."
Anti-austerity rioting and protests, along with often-violent pushback from authorities, have been an epidemic in North Africa and Europe this year. By 2014, they may well be and epidemic in the poorest parts of the U.S. too.