These riots reveal some unpalatable home truths

There's nothing like fear and hatred to sharpen the senses. The riots have shown Britain some unpalatable truths about itself, making it impossible to hold on to a certain Whiggish story about social progress which, in the teeth of the evidence, we have persisted in telling about ourselves.

As the violence unfolded in Tottenham, it appeared to be following a familiar pattern. A young black man is killed by the police. The "community" protests. Violence ensues. By Monday, that story had definitively broken down. The crowds burning cars and breaking into shops were, as a friend drily put it, "a triumph of multiculturalism". Clearly another explanation had to be sought.

Suddenly we are talking again about class. The fantasy of classless Britain has floated around in our national consciousness at least since the 1980s, when it was supposed to be made flesh by mass home-ownership and the chance to own shares in BT. In recent years that fantasy has been sustained by cheap credit, which has offered the illusion of material prosperity to a nation that privately has long known it was falling behind.

In a society that has abandoned or devalued most forms of mutual assistance in favour of a solipsistic entrepreneurialism, it's hardly surprising that, faced with the end of the good times, people help themselves. Fear and greed are our ruling passions. That's true of the kids smashing shop windows to steal trainers. It's also true of the MPs fiddling their expenses, the police officers taking backhanders, the journalists breaking into phones. Why wouldn't they? Why wouldn't any of us? The example has been set by our new masters, the one per cent for whom and by whom we're governed. The ability of powerful actors in the financial markets to socialise risk while privatising profit appears, to the financial peasantry, indistinguishable from organised crime. No reason for the rest of us to stand on ceremony.

One may object to this rhetoric (bankers = looters) on the grounds that markets have social utility, or that bankers don't beat up shopkeepers (they don't have to) and sometimes give to charity. One may also feel that any attempt to understand the rioters' motivations risks shading into justification. The strongest objection to any argument based on social conditions is the oft-made one about individual responsibility: whatever the prevailing economic or social situation, not everyone chooses to behave in a particular way, whether that's insider trading or knocking over Evans Cycles. However, it's hard not to think we've made a culture in which the strong and swift are encouraged to feel they bear no responsibility towards the halt and lame. Now, as the wheels fall off the global financial system, fear and greed are free to roam unchecked, without bothering to mask their faces.

The average Briton is a frightened, precarious and lonely little entrepreneur, jealous, not just of the banker living high on the hog, but of the "good immigrants", the Sikhs and Turks and Bengalis standing shoulder to shoulder outside their shops and mosques and gurdwaras, ready to repel attackers. Strapped for cash and stripped of organic community (leaving aside the question of whether that ever existed), we're left to clothe ourselves in the rags of class identity and class hatred. The poor hate the rich and the "feds" who enforce their laws. The rich hate the poor, who frighten them.

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised to see a large number of supposed social liberals revealing their true colours on Monday night, tweeting and bleating for curfews and water cannon and rubber bullets. Early in the evening, watching social media, I was seeing variants of the same joke: "I'm in Chiswick/Hampstead/Dulwich Waitrose and there's a RIOT! They've run out of POLENTA!" The smug sense of disconnection (this is nothing to do with me, or my comfortable middle-class life – it is an affair of the poor, in places I choose not to go) was soon replaced by panic. "WHERE IS THE ARMY?" Screw civil liberties, time to declare martial law. How easy it would be to install fascism in this creaky little country! No need to torch the Reichstag – all you'd have to do would be to burn a few more sports shops.

It was galling to watch people who had recently praised the street fighters of the Arab spring finding their inner Mubarak, people who had been shocked (shocked!) that Middle Eastern dictators would switch off the internet, now calling for BlackBerry Messenger (which they'd just found out about) to be shut down. One might applaud the community spirit of the riot cleanup people, but feel uncomfortable about the motivations of the blond broom-carrier pictured wearing a tank-top with the hand-drawn slogan "looters are scum". It's OK to call people scum this week, particularly while demonstrating one's own civic virtue. Go on, blond lady, let your hate-flag fly.

Soon enough the gutted buildings will be demolished and the 24-hour courts will wind down, and we will try to pretend we didn't let our hoods slip, revealing how frightened of each other we are. Once, a powerful woman told us there was no such thing as society and set about engineering our country to fit her theory. Well, she got her way. This is where we live now, and if we don't like it, we ought to make a change.

Hari Kunzru, the author of the novels Gods without Men and The Impressionist. He lives in Hackney, east London.

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