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UK Riots 2011 -- A "Social Revolution" Yet to Take Place

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Message Prakash Kona

In the chapter titled "Third World," the historian Eric Hobsbawm writes in his autobiography Interesting Times that, "Columbia was, and continues to be, proof that gradual reform in the framework of liberal democracy is not the only, or even the most plausible, alternative to social and political revolutions, including the ones that fail or are aborted. I discovered a country in which the failure to make a social revolution had made violence the constant, universal, omnipresent core of public life."

This is the sad truth of an empire that, a little more than sixty years ago, was reduced to ruins in a matter of thirty years or so and forced into a process of third "worldization," with its government and people pitted against each other. It needs a life as long as that of Hobsbawm to notice rapid changes that are strikingly historical and yet unpleasant in terms of the role they play in day-to-day life.

In a way, there is a sinister resemblance between the Norway attacks in July and the UK riots just now. Both have the look of being predetermined and waiting to happen. Somebody had to throw the match for the leaking fuel tank to catch fire and explode. It could be as simple as that. In all such cases of violence of a larger kind which have the apparent look of "suddenness," there is no doubt the tacit support of a significant section of the masses, no matter how hard the corporate-driven media might try to make it look like this is the work of a few fringe "criminal" elements. That's definitely not the case. Both the Norway attacks and UK disturbances are expressions of individual and collective bitterness and hatred towards a non-responsive and indifferent government that does not hesitate in using violence against them to keep a semblance of order.

In the case of the UK, the difference is that the riots had a forewarning. When the vehement student tuition fee protest was ignored towards the end of the last year, the government created the conditions for these riots. I was surprised, then, that the government dared to ignore a protest of that magnitude -- something that would've scared those at the helm of affairs in a poorer nation as well. When it did ignore the warning, it clearly demonstrated to the person on the street that it would not relent to popular pressure and was determined to go against the will of ordinary Britons. When a normal person is violent, it is usually because all avenues to dialogue are closed, and he or she wants you to hear them out. In cases where it is carefully thought out, the violence turns into revolutionary action. In any other case, the very fact that all customary restraints are broken down is a sign that there is nothing to stop people on the streets from turning into mobs out of anger and frustration. The looting is a symptom of a larger malaise that stems from the fact that most people -- consciously or unconsciously -- feel unjustly treated.

This is a serious reminder to the David Cameron government on two counts. One, they -- this includes the other European governments as well -- better wake up and provide welfare measures to a large number of people, especially working class Whites who feel grieved by the fact that they're being completely neglected in their own country along with the ill-founded perception that the government sucks up to immigrants, in addition to moving the jobs abroad at their expense. The truth is that the foreign policy pursued by Western governments is a treacherous one where corporations draw the blood of cheap third world labor and make massive profits. The multinational companies are colonial in character and not bound by rules that operate in Western liberal democracies. The terrible abuse of workers who get paid enough by local standards to barely survive will simply not be accepted in a developed nation. "Immigrant" is another word for cheap labor, and the devastation caused by outsourcing to bodies of the third world poor is not a guarded secret as such.

I can see where men like Anders Brevik, responsible for the deaths of 70 innocent lives, come from. They're victims in a way no different from rioters on the streets of London and other cities. They feel their way of life has been threatened and the government is prejudiced against them. They're not completely wrong in feeling that way. An enlightened government needs to understand, assuage and respond to their grievances through positive and inclusive means that will give them a chance to get an education and live a decent life. Economic reservations have to be made in terms of jobs and other benefits to local citizens who come from deprived backgrounds. That's a practical solution. The world is not a global village and the locals are as local as ever before. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with prioritizing their interests and giving consideration to their feelings.

Two, there is no point in pursuing a policy of vengeance. The arrests and harsh punishments meted out to rioters only convinces the people that the intentions of the government are malafide. As such, every section of British society -- ranging from students to workers -- has serious doubts about the credibility of the Tory government. The punishments will add to their disastrous resume as the party in power. The violence could temporarily be suppressed, but if the government has the slightest imagination, it should know that they will not be seeing the last of either the riots or the rioters.

Back in the 1920s when the young John Steinbeck was ready to embark on his life as a writer, he received a piece of advice from his teacher who asked him to go to Europe since he had no money. She told him that "in Europe, poverty is a misfortune, but in America it is shameful." Globalization, in the last couple of decades, has ended up making the whole world ashamed of being poor. And with the weakening of conventional social bonds across the planet, the poor are condemned to isolation in addition to the burden of poverty. The result is endemic violence which is "the constant, universal, omnipresent core of public life." While this is painfully accepted as a fact of life in most parts of the third world, we're getting to see more and more of it in the nations of the first world as well.

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Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is currently Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.

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