The riots that swept England in early August shocked the country, mainly because there seemed to be no guiding motive or burning injustice. In fact, these riots represent a new sociological phenomenon — one that reflects the profound social, cultural and economic shifts in Britain over the past 30 years.
The August riots were new in that gangs of predominately young unemployed men were able, using new media, to launch a series of semi-organized disturbances for the purpose not of protest, but of criminal gain.
But why? Because in a savage manner, they were acting out the values that increasingly seem to govern and embody Britain: Ruthless self-interest coupled to a rootless consumer nihilism.
That’s hardly a surprise: The governing orthodoxy for the last 30 years has been that the few on top rule the many at the bottom by persuading them that the values of the wealthy are the best for the entire country. In modern Britain, the bigger the business, the more effective it is at avoiding tax. If that’s the rule for the rich, logic dictates it will set the values for the poor.
British politicians are ill-placed to condemn such actions since they themselves were hugely compromised in the scandal over the expenses claimed by members of Parliament — often for items very much like those prized by the looters. Moreover, the British political class looks highly susceptible to vested and monopoly interests. News International, for example, has been shown to have manipulated both of the main political parties for insider advantage.
Thus the top and bottom of British society seem to exhibit quite similar values — both play the system, and both see no reason why they should not. They represent the final triumph of a value system that does not recognize any objective values at all.
On the left, libertarianism used state welfare to give autonomy to people it considered too dependent on each other and too defined by outmoded codes and values. In so doing, it rendered superfluous all the bottom-up organization and structures of British working- class life, making people and communities dependent on state welfare rather than on each other.
This has been most invidious in the case of the family. Cultural libertarians on the left have followed Engels in deeming marriage to be nothing more than the bourgeois subjugation of women. Since 1997, for example, a single mother of two has seen her benefits increase by 85 percent. At the same time, the tax burden placed on a one-earner family (two parents + two children) on an average wage is 39 percent higher in Britain than that in other O.E.C.D. countries.
The result is that children in Britain are now more than three times as likely to live in one-parent households than they were in 1972; a third to a half of all British children will at some point live in a one-parent family; and a third of all British children at any one time are living with just one parent. In 1971, less than 10 percent of all births in England and Wales were outside marriage; in 2008, 45 percent of all births were.
This matters because unmarried parents have great trouble staying together. By the time a child is five, 43 percent of unmarried parents have broken up, versus 8 percent for married couples.
Over 7 million Britons now live alone, compared to three million in 1971, creating widespread social anonymity and fragmentation. Since 70 percent of young offenders come from one-parent families and a third of all prisoners come from families so dysfunctional they were taken into care by the state, family structure is not something the state can afford to ignore.
The erosion of family structures has been accompanied by a similar libertarian assault from the economic right. Under the rhetoric of free markets delivering mass prosperity, a rentier state has developed that has concentrated wealth and stripped millions of ordinary Britons of their capital, denying them a path to assets, ownership and trade.
The bottom 50 percent of the British population had 12 percent of liquid wealth, excluding property, in 1976. By 2003, that share had fallen to 1 percent, shutting the path to prosperity for those at the bottom. An O.E.C.D. survey in 2010 found that Britain has the highest correlation between parental income and outcomes for children, and therefore the lowest rate of social mobility in the developed world.
From the perspective of those who rioted, perhaps the most evident indication of how the game has moved against them is migration. Thirty years ago unskilled working-class kids could at least get jobs in shops or factories. Today these youths have lost out to new migrants — an astounding 99.9 percent of the rise of employment (not jobs) in Labour years is accounted for by foreign-born workers.
In conclusion, the rioters are shamefully emblematic of modern Britain. Their values have striking parallels with Britain’s current elite — not least because the creation of a morally denuded and economically marooned class at the bottom of society is the outcome of an elite that has embraced self-serving economics and the value system that endorses it: libertarianism under the guise of liberalism.
Phillip Blond, director of the think tank ResPublica and the author of Red Tory: How Left and Right have Broken Britain and How we can Fix It