LONDON (Reuters) - Young, lacking opportunity, angry at the system and organising phenomenally fast over social media, London’s rioters show some of the same characteristics as the pro-democracy demonstrators of the “Arab Spring”.
But while those in the Middle East have marched in the hope of positive change, Britain’s violence has been almost nihilist, focused on looting and a quick burst of the sort of publicity and power inner-city youth feel they have long been denied.
Across the world, the financial crisis may leave a whole generation of young people with opportunities that fall well short of their aspirations, perhaps to the point where they might even abandon hope for the future at all.
In the developed world, the crisis means they almost invariably face fewer and less well paid entry-level jobs at every level, from graduate openings to factory work. Benefits and educational support are also being cut.
In the developing world, economic opportunities might still be rising but expectations may often have risen faster. Now, the downturn leaves them ever more unfulfilled. In ageing economies, the young may also have to fund rising social bills.
Whether that sense of disenchantment fuels political protest, extremism or simply random crime and contempt for the law, the running battles, destruction and arson in London — among the worst seen in Western Europe in decades — suggest politics and protest could get uglier in the years to come.
“It’s very sad to see. But kids have got no work, no future and the cuts have made it worse,” Hackney electrician Adrian Anthony Burns, 39, told Reuters.
“These kids are from another generation to us and they just don’t care. You watch, it’s only just begun.”
The sort of near-spontaneous riot that began in Tottenham on Saturday is far from new. Similar grievances helped kindle unrest in Paris’s poor peripheral suburbs in 2005, “service delivery” riots in poor South African townships and other occasional urban protests from China to Latin America.
But two dynamics in particular may be now acting as a powerful accelerant — the rise of social media that allow rapid organisation putting authorities on the back foot as well as economic shifts that worsen pre-existing hardships.
In North Africa earlier this year, the last straws were rapidly rising food prices and then anger at authority encapsulated by the self-immolation of a Tunisian vegetable seller. As governments tried to crush the protest with force and Internet controls, they merely fanned the flames.
In Britain, pre-existing social problems were compounded by initial austerity measures — including shutting down “non-essential” public services such as youth clubs — and then fury at a perceived attempted cover-up of a police shooting.
A blizzard of social media incitement — primarily using Blackberry smart phones and their semi-encrypted messaging system — and wall-to-wall media coverage then look to have sparked copycat rioting as surely as satellite TV and Twitter coverage of Egypt’s protests sparked similar events elsewhere.
“It does look as though social media is changing the balance of power between the state and the individual, whether that is manifested as regime change in Cairo or looting in Tottenham,” said John Bassett, a former senior official at the British signals intelligence agency GCHQ and now a senior fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute.
“We have a rising generation that’s pretty universally at home with it and another generation of law enforcers and government officials who are much less confident in this world.”
In the decades of boom, governments tended to respond to unrest by either ramping up spending on security forces or ploughing money into affected areas afterwards.
For many countries, such approaches are now much more challenging as they also struggle to placate markets demanding austerity. In Greece, Spain, Italy and elsewhere, young people in particular have been at the forefront of protest — although without the scale of violence and destruction seen in London.
Some point to what might be even a generational rise in social anger.
“What you have underlying all of (these events) is the same feeling of malcontent particularly among the young, who are the ones with the energy to get out and riot — it’s not just Britain,” said Louise Taggart, Europe analyst for London-based consultancy AKE. “If the authorities do not address the issues behind this, there’s a very real risk will see more.”
Those in power still have some options. London’s police have already appealed to the parents of young rioters to rein in their offspring. Some experts say working through pre-existing family and community leadership structures may be the best hope, but that fundamentally much more is needed.
Social media itself might offer some short-term solutions. Londoners used Twitter to organise spontaneous “riot cleanups” on Tuesday, while another website put up pictures of alleged looters for the public to identify.
One clear lesson of the “Arab Spring”, it seems, is that crushing unrest through use of force may simply not work. Even the killing of hundreds or more by Syria’s security forces has not been enough to stem the pro-reform uprising there.
“The government must engage the youth through social media and community representatives,” said Peter Buzzi, a social psychologist and behavioural economist with experience in Britain’s inner cities now working for psychology consultancy A Sense of Self.
“It must offer a message of hope and engagement... Many of today’s problems are reflective of a lack of genuine socio-economic and cultural integration ... which has led to deprivation and de-facto ghettoism.”
In the shorter term, police, businesses and politicians may have little choice but to brace for greater urban unrest.
Events such as London’s Olympics next year or Britain’s upcoming political party conferences — all in urban centres — will have to take into account the risk of sudden flash riots.
“There are economic and political causes to this, but you can’t really call this political,” said Carina O’Reilly, European security analyst at IHS Jane’s.
“It’s nihilistic and criminal. You’ve got young people — often very young people — who are angry and poor and have discovered they can do this and get away with it.”
Editing by Mark Heinrich