When there's no future, how can there be sin?
Let's make something clear from the off. I have absolutely no idea whether Mark Duggan deserved to be shot dead or not. If the widespread but as-yet-unconfirmed reports that he fired a gun at police are true, he's certainly got nobody but himself to blame.
We live in a time when the police – and especially the Metropolitan Police – will kill you for getting on a tube train or for just going about your normal everyday business somewhere in the loose vicinity of a protest march, so pointing a gun (or even something that might look a bit like one) at them would be pretty much the textbook definition of asking for it.
Inner-city youths who speak Jafaican and think they live in a gangsta-rap video aren't a demographic I have a lot of natural empathy with either. But the enormously predictable outpouring of handwringing ("blah blah never any excuse for rioting blah blah") about the violence that erupted in Tottenham at the weekend misses the point spectacularly, and plays right into the hands of those who are currently engaged in stealing our country from us.
The most remarkable aspect of the riots is how recently they were foretold. Just one week beforehand, the Guardian carried a piece on cuts in Haringey, the London borough which encompasses Tottenham. It spoke of how the Coalition government's swingeing axe on public services had resulted in the mass closure of youth clubs in the area (described by one academic as an "annihilation"), throwing thousands of already-disadvantaged and poor young people out onto the streets with nothing to do except cause trouble.
These cuts are only the beginning of the punishment of the poor for the crimes of the political and financial classes who have ruled the UK for the last three decades, and I'm not going to go into a lot of detail about the carnage that's about to befall the public sector – the chances are you can see it already in your own community, whether it's in the form of closed libraries or voluntary organisations who've packed up through the withdrawal of municipal funding or whatever.
The chilling thing about the Coalition's austerity measures, though, is that they're a one-way street. It doesn't need a cynic to see that the attack on public services is one the Tories have been waiting many years for an excuse and an opportunity to undertake. Even if they lead to an economic recovery – something that looks less and less likely with every passing moment – can you picture the day when George Osborne says "Okay, that's that all sorted out, now let's restore the funding to youth clubs in Tottenham", rather than, say, finally getting on with abolishing inheritance tax for the rich?
Politics in Britain used to operate like a pendulum, swinging from left to right on a roughly 10-year cycle that had its problems (like incoming governments spending their first couple of years undoing the actions of their predecessors) but at least ensured the country never lurched too far to either extreme. New Labour destroyed all that, and now the pendulum is broken and lopsided, tethered to the right of the spectrum. Everything we let the Coalition throw on the public-services bonfire now, we lose for a generation – or perhaps forever. Because who can we vote for who'll bring it back?
And in that situation, when the comfortable middle classes react with boilerplate rent-a-quote fury to the rioting of the disenfranchised, the only rational response is "What else are they supposed to do?"
Under the neoconservative capitalism practiced by both Tory and Labour governments over the last 30 years, the poor and working classes saw their position get steadily worse even when the economy was booming. Now that the economy is a disaster zone and the chickens of unlimited credit are coming home to roost with a vengeance, it's the poor who're going to bear the brunt of it. And if they don't want to accept that role meekly and obediently, what are their options?
Peaceful protest doesn't work. The best it can hope for is to be ignored, as when the biggest protest in national history – that against the war in Iraq – had precisely no effect on anything. At worst, the police will provoke violence with intimidatory tactics, use that violence to justify brutal reprisals, and the justice system will hand down draconian sentences for trivial offences and devote vast amounts of resources to vindictively prosecuting entirely non-violent action. Sometimes they'll even drag brain-damaged casualties to court to accuse them of damaging police truncheons with their heads.
So when democracy can't help you (or isn't interested in trying), and protesting peacefully achieves nothing except getting you kettled and beaten up and thrown in jail, what's left?
It seems unlikely that events in Tottenham this weekend were very closely linked to the death of Mark Duggan. If not him, some other spark would have lit the kindling. Britain is undergoing the final stages of The Great Division, a process started by Margaret Thatcher and enthusiastically continued by Tony Blair, whereby society was deliberately and knowingly divided once and for all into haves and have-nots, defined by property ownership.
The fate of the latter is to be forced further and further out of main population centres by rising rents and prices and cuts to housing benefits, condemned to get up at 5am every day and spend two hours travelling from their shared home to a no-rights service-sector McJob (or more than one, or if they're even unluckier a compulsory workfare placement) paying a sub-living wage, getting home at 9pm too exhausted to do anything but collapse in front of mind-numbing TV and look forward to another day of misery. Meanwhile, the property-owning majority (who manage to hold onto their jobs) will continue to sail through the global economic crisis largely unscathed, enjoying the benefits of record low interest rates as they pay off their mortgages.
If the left thinks the austerity drive will eventually unite the population in anger and sweep the Tories from power it's horribly mistaken, because these people will fight tooth and nail to stay in the upper tier, above the terrifying seething pits of poverty. The right-wing press has been feeding them poison about the poor for years – they're all welfare cheats, living on benefits in houses you couldn't afford – and they will damn the poor to hell to protect their own relative prosperity.
The kids in Tottenham can see their future. It's that of a neo-feudal slave-labour underclass, with rapidly-closing escape hatches that dwindle in number every day, and with what little they have now being taken away from them to feed the rich, because a capitalist economy only works – CAN only work – if the rich keep getting richer and the poor get poorer. (Next time you see someone on the news talking about "growth", that's what they mean.) Blair and Brown's perverted, sick mockery of Labour disguised the truth for a few years with borrowing, to finish Thatcher's work by ensuring the new middle class grew large enough to become self-perpetuating, but now even the pretend money has run out.
This wasn't like the tuition-fees protests, where people gathered from all over the country to make their voice heard in the centre of power, and where those who wanted to use the event to make trouble had plenty of time to plan it. This was people smashing up their own neighbourhood, and that's something you only do when you're desperate and out of options.
The poor have nobody to vote for. Nobody speaks for them in the halls of democracy. Their futures have been sold out from under them in the form of a crippling debt burden, PFI bills and unaffordable education (whether through tuition fees or the loss of EMAs). They have no reason to believe in a better tomorrow, and no means to influence it. They've been left to rot, and vilified as feckless scroungers into the bargain. Before you condemn them, answer this question: what do they have left but bottles and stones?