One day, thirty years ago, we had to abandoned our work in Whitechapel, in London’s East End. Rumor had somehow reached us that ‘they’ (rioters) were coming. Whitechapel market had closed, the streets were empty. People had retreated to the balconies of council flats. I cycled to Hackney, fetched my daughter home from school and found my neighbours on the pavement. ‘They’ were now said to be advancing across London Fields, the nearby park. For an hour or so we exchanged rumors and debated whether to fight or flee. No-one ever arrived.
Last Monday I spoke on the phone with my daughter, who still lives in Hackney. Her voice was unsteady. She had just come home from her work, opposite Stoke Newington Police Station. Quite suddenly she had found herself cycling between lines of police emerging from black armoured vehicles she’d never seen before, and kids throwing stones at them, which missed her only by chance.
The riots of the 1980s in Britain were in the early years of another Tory government that was ‘not for turning’ in the face of another economic recession. The intervening years have been divided equally between Tory and Labour governments. They have brought us to the point where neither has slightest idea what’s going on. Both are in agreement, nonetheless, that economic chaos has nothing whatever to do with social chaos. In London at least, the ideological disputes of the 1980s have been replaced by the unyielding demands of the 2012 Olympics.
Well, I for one have little difficulty understanding what’s going on. I reckon it takes a very pampered kind of idiot to have no idea. You can’t have someone like Bob Diamond prescribing austerity for everyone else while paying himself million-dollar bonuses for helping to bring Barclays Bank to the verge of ruin. You can’t have hedge-fund insiders trousering billions by speculating on economic collapse. You can’t have governments ruled by venal credit-rating agencies like Standard and Poors. Or you can, but not without encouraging everyone else to behave in much the same way. And you must anticipate the same result if you pursue one mob that might be suspected of looting a shoe, while rewarding another mob that has been brazenly looting an entire economy.
Of course we can expect no remedies from those who can’t recognize the disease. But remedies are to hand all the same, and relatively simple too. There must be a Green New Deal that sets us all to work on a sustainable social and economic future. There must be an international reserve currency to replace the US dollar, and an independent credit-rating agency to replace the likes of Standard and Poors. There must be taxes on speculation, and on corporations where they make their profits. Finance must be taken under the democratic control on which it relies. For starters.
You might be surprised by how many people agree with some of this. But you’d not be at all surprised to learn that most of them think it’s impossible, given the political state we’re in. Well, oddly enough, that’s exactly the conundrum that’s now bugging free markets. They’re not so sure that the people of Greece, or Spain, or even the US (let alone Britain) can be forced to knuckle under on their behalf, let alone by governments that free markets themselves are bankrupting.
Since austerity is all free markets now have to offer, it is easier to see another course. Besides, as the saying goes, there is no alternative.