Illustration by Paul Davis
Illustration by Paul Davis

I am often asked, when in the U.S. or Europe, whether I feel frightened while traveling through such obviously dangerous places as Afghanistan and Kashmir.

It’s hard for me to explain, and so I never confess, that I feel more insecure on the streets of Tower Hamlets, a London borough just south of Tottenham and Hackney, the epicenters of London’s riots.

Tower Hamlets, where I often go to work in a friend’s apartment, has among the highest rates of poverty, unemployment, overcrowding and crime in Britain. But it is not a ghetto. Segregation is more insidious, and inequality has shrewd disguises, in what is also one of London’s most diverse boroughs.

Among the rundown, gang-infested council estates, the bingo halls, betting shops and working-class pubs, there are wine bars, boutique shops, cafes and studio apartments costing more than a half-million dollars. Bankers as well as artists, designers and other well-paid members of the creative class have turned pockets of Tower Hamlets into London’s answer to Manhattan’s East Village.

With their obvious education, wealth and mobility, these gentrifiers pay an indirect “inequality tax” in the form of routine burglaries, muggings and occasional physical assaults. I hear sirens in Tower Hamlets more frequently than in any other part of London.

Teenage boys and young men in hoodies take evident pleasure in the fear they provoke in passers-by, whom they taunt or abuse, depending on their mood. White, black and Asian, these menacing youths, who seem to have been released from any obligations to family or community, have long reminded me of the dystopian vision of Anthony Burgess’s “A Clockwork Orange.”

No Political Aims

It wasn’t surprising, then, that last week many of them took advantage of a peaceful protest against the killing of a man by the police to go on a looting spree. They have no political aims -- apart from affirming their right to sport the latest bling. As one woman bravely berating a mob this week in Hackney pointed out: “We’re not fighting together for a cause, we’re running down Foot Locker.”

In their indifference to the common good and single-minded pursuit of brand names, the looters hold an unflattering mirror to many other depoliticized consumers in Britain. Their small regard for authority could only have dwindled sharply in recent months when one British institution after another was revealed as ethically deficient: the members of Parliament caught charging home improvements to the taxpayer, the journalists hacking phones, the senior politicians and police officers prostrate before Rupert Murdoch, and the bailed-out bankers with their unrepentantly high bonuses.

Politicians and pundits from the left now blame the rioting on the British government’s savage spending cuts to public services. Their counterparts on the right point to the welfare state and the liberal-left encouragement of single mothers.

But the mayhem this week speaks of a broader and irreversible Americanization of British society in the last three decades, as the imperatives of a global market economy overtook those of society.

Britain, of course, is the original home of the free market. As the first country to industrialize, and to have an enormous comparative advantage, it inevitably adopted laissez-faire policies in the mid-19th century. The harsh effect this had on the working classes and the poor was gradually softened by such Victorian institutions as compulsory education, trade unions and social-service societies. The political and economic catastrophes of the first half of the 20th century buried the idea of the self-regulating market; and a new national consensus was built around the welfare state after World War II.

No Welfare State

This all changed starting in the 1980s as successive British governments, Labour as well as Conservative, struggled with high inflation, falling industrial productivity and conflict. The illusion that the nation could be saved only through immersion in a self-stabilizing market economy hardened into a revolutionary ideology, embraced by both major parties, that has shaped today’s Britain.

In that sense, if Tony Blair and David Cameron are “sons of Thatcher,” as the journalist Simon Jenkins puts it, the rioters of today are the grandchildren.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who famously proclaimed “there is no such thing as society,” rapidly privatized state-held assets including railways, steel mills, airlines, coal mines and telecommunications providers. She decimated many public services that tended to the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in Britain.

More importantly, Thatcher abandoned the idea of full employment -- a precondition of the welfare state. She did not stop at defanging trade unions and reducing labor’s bargaining power. With one eye on her friend and ideological ally President Ronald Reagan, she ushered in policies that reduced hiring costs for employers, giving workers the dubious gift of endless mobility and a downward race for wages.

The enduring effects of this radical socioeconomic engineering are now visible in the U.K., not least in some of the world’s highest levels of inequality. As more contract and part-time work appeared, the old bourgeois ideal of a stable career -- one still alive in European countries that have not wholeheartedly embraced Anglo-American capitalism --disappeared. An underclass consisting of the unemployed and unemployable grew and grew, even as the old working class fragmented.

A Hobbesian Task

More policing and imprisonment become the easiest way to deal with rising social problems; Britain now has more people in prison per capita than any major Western country apart from the U.S. During and after Thatcher’s years in power, state expenditure on law enforcement rose exponentially.

But, as the riots revealed, the police cannot perform their Hobbesian task of staving off the brutish state of nature if there are not enough informal keepers of public order such as intact families, not to mention bus conductors, park keepers and truant officers.

British conservatives today speak a lot of the Big Society. But they remain blind to how a culture devoted to social and economic individualism undermines the traditional institutions that they pay ritual obeisance to, such as marriage. The “broken Britain” lamented by David Cameron now has more teenage mothers, babies born outside marriage and binge drinkers than any country in Europe.

As the political economist Karl Polanyi pointed out, “ultimately, the control of the economic system by the market is of overwhelming consequence to the whole organization of society: It means no less than the running of society as an adjunct to the market.”

Not surprisingly, even state primary and secondary schools in Britain changed their traditional function, as one sociological survey of the impact of Thatcherism put it, from “pedagogically oriented social control” to “competitively oriented -- and socially divisive -- acquisition of knowledge and skills.” This type of education now helps weed out the no-hopers, relegating them early to the swelling ranks of the losers of globalization.

High public spending on welfare benefits has long disguised the reality of stagnant wages for the squeezed middle class in Britain. A high level of consumption enabled by cheap credit, and a salacious entertainment culture, has also helped keep many politically quiescent.

The days of easy borrowing are coming to a close; but the mobs marauding through such chain stores as H&M, Orange, Foot Locker and Tesco have found a better way of remaining part of the consumer culture. As two female looters told the BBC, they have shown “the rich” and the police that “we can do what we like.”

It would be a mistake to regard this as an empty boast; there is more violence ahead. Certainly, the looters are only the latest, if the most shocking, symptom of a socioeconomic crisis much deeper and less manageable than Britain’s notorious “winter of discontent” in 1979.

This week’s rioting was but a part of a larger social breakdown. Over the years I have felt a sneaking sympathy for those lower-middle-class British Muslims in long pious beards or headscarves who resist assimilation into what they see as a godless culture of greed and consumption. Their stern notions of morality in public and private life are not mine. But, as the rioters pursue the logic of laissez-faire into pure nihilism, I know I’d feel much safer in a mosque in Kashmir than on the streets of Tower Hamlets.

(Pankaj Mishra, the author of “Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Pankaj Mishra in London at pmashobra@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.