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Two intellectually lame commentators August 13, 2011

Posted by larry in economics, social policy.
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Recent comments on the riots and their social and political consequences have shown some of the country’s more prominent commentators to be intellectually limited in their ability to provide relevant incisive analysis.  Two that failed last night on Newsnight were Gavin Esler and David Starkey.  Starkey was shown up by a young author who was both more incisive and more insightful about what was going on than Starkey.

Esler, in a report on the riots of the past few days, singularly failed to provide a socio-political context that would facilitate an intellectually reasonable framework that would enable placing the events in a viable interpretive context.  By contrast, Hari Kunzru achieved this in the first paragraph in an article that came out in today’s Guardian.  While Esler moaned about how we have seen how we may not be able to rely on the police and politicians in general and basing his comments on the delay in the police response and political posturing, Kunzru wrote this:

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.”(These riots reveal some unpalatable home truths)

David Starkey’s sound bite of the evening was to characterize the riots as “shopping with violence”.  While there may be some truth in this, his attempt to explain the events as somehow a consequence of black culture, including rap, infiltrating white working class neighborhoods received short shrift from the other two contributors, notably the young author of Chavs, Owen Jones.  Jones, when Starkey allowed him to speak, ably undermined Starkey’s interpretation of the events, an interpretation that showed him to be out of touch not only with reality but with a reasonable explanatory framework.  His familiarity with historical analysis failed him utterly here.

Neither Starkey not Esler mentioned the elephant in the room, which is the austerity program initiated by Osborne and the coalition in the context of bankers robbing their clients, many of whom are regular taxpayers, and getting away with it while awarding themselves bonuses in the process.  Starkey thought it important that no one broke into the banks or government buildings.  While this is of some importance, his slant on it was completely improbable, suggesting that it showed that general discontent about social inequality was not a root cause of the rioting but simple criminality and a desire to acquire consumer goods.

Criminality was the abiding message of Cameron’s response to the rioting as well.  While there was a good deal of criminal behavior involved, and hundreds of people have been arrested and charged, the implicit context which is being presupposed in this simple characterization fails to distinguish the looting  that has taken place during the past few days and professional criminality.

Polly Toynbee, like Kunzru, provided an excellent counter argument to the bankrupt mainstream characterizations that have filled the airwaves (Moral outrage at rioters fixes nothing: the only remedies are liberal). She argues that the only realistic solution that will work, in the long term, is a liberal social approach that takes into account the deep causes of the malaise that has been evident on the streets of the UK in the past week and a half.  She is only one of many to point out that consequences of the austerity cuts, leading to removal of the EMA and social council cuts are one of the real causes of the social unrest.

These are only the most recent clash of comments devoted to the social problems and its evident repercussions that have been aired.  Osborne claims general support for his austerity program, but this support is largely from those who benefit from this program.  He is certainly losing support from anyone who can disentangle themselves from the ideological framework, neoclassical economic theory, that informs his stance.  Unfortunately, I must defer comments on this issue to another time.

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