Tomorrow you're homeless, tonight it's a blast

A furniture store burns in croydon In 1982, the Dead Kennedys released the song "Riot". If there is such a thing as a 'public rage' sub-genre, this track represents its creative peak (other notable entries: The Clash's "Guns of Brixton" and Sublime's "April 29, 1992 (Miami)"). Among Riot's more timeless observations is the basic irony of the unrest we're seeing in the UK right now: you can't ever really get at the people you're angry with, so you just end up burning down your own neighbourhood.

The self-defeating nature of riots is apparent to most observers, from San Francisco punk bands to politicians to the hapless residents of London's besieged communities. When the smoke clears, nothing has changed, and you've probably provoked a police rampage for your trouble. Riots also cause a visceral and negative public reaction that obscures the animating grievances behind the violence. This is particularly true in North America; the civilian population of Canada and the United States has no living memory of war, and are taken aback by visible evidence of the barbaric flip side of human civilization. The resulting public backlash is unfortunate, as it prevents some important questions from being asked.

I'm not going to try and justify the riots or the actions of the rooters. Violence is indefensible in most cases, and never more so than when the victims are innocent. The herd behavior that characterizes urban riots is also distasteful, as is the greed displayed by the looters. But I reject the suggestionthat the riots are just meaningless, random violence. There are reasons the riots happened, even if the rooters aren't conscious of, or even interested in, them.

All the things that prefigure a riot - lack of social trust, status anxiety, willingness to do violence - are all strongly correlated to income inequality. Nations or communities with high disparity between the very rich and the very poor are more violent, and inequality in the UK has increased significantly over the past 30 years.  An unemployed, racially marginalized young male in Tottenham is likely unaware of the dynamics of income inequality, but his daily lived experience of his own poverty relative to the great wealth on display is humiliating. This humiliation becomes rage all too easily.

So, he riots with his mates. He burns the businesses and homes of him neighbours, steals the things he could not afford, and maybe ends up with a criminal record. This archetypical rioter hurts only himself and his fellow travellers, and never comes close to revenge on the real culprits, or even a real understanding of who they are: those who recklessly exploited the economy, bankrupted the state, and now force the middle and working classes to pay for their mistakes through austerity budgets, higher taxes and fewer services.

Nobody seems all that interested in asking questions about these hidden circumstances. Those who are to blame for creating a tinderbox of anger in these neighbourhoods are only too happy to help deflect further inquiry away, so we don't catch a glimpse of the legitimate complaints behind a monstrous display of violence. And sadly, through it all, London burns.

UPDATE: This article makes a great case for why The Specials' "Ghost Town" is not only a fine piece of public crisis music, but also one particularly relevant to the UK riots.