Thursday, August 11, 2011

Not A Legitimacy Crisis, Yet

So, yesterday, I wrote a bit about the British riots to highlight some pretty good working-class British protest music. I didn't really spend a whole lot of time on the post, because my main concern was music, not the British riots. After some time to think, though, I think some general observations are in order.

First, like Great Britain, the broad public is fed up the apparatus of the state. In Britain, however, the reach of the welfare state - from housing assistance and the National Health Service to unemployment benefits - was far larger. The decision by the Conservative government of Prime Minister David Cameron, working without a clear majority (he rules in tandem with the Liberal Democrats, the tattered remnants of the great 19th Century British Liberal Party that hasn't had a significant presence in British government since the end of the First World War), to introduce extreme austerity measures at a time when the British economy, like much the rest of the world, bumbles along, has created far deeper tensions and resentments against authority than in the US. When a still-unclear incident in the Tottenham section of Greater London started a protest against the use of deadly force by police, the peaceful protests turned, once the sun went down, to angry riots. The riots have spread from Tottenham to various other sections of London as well as the cities of Birmingham and Bristol.

Yesterday, during an emergency sitting of Parliament, PM Cameron made clear his position - he was doing what Hosni Mubarak did not do; he was calling in the police to stop "mindless violence and criminality" (one got quite tired of hearing this stupid, mindless phrase, as if repeating it made it true). While we push for reform in Arab states where youths socially, economically, and politically disenfranchised by despotic, sometimes kleptocratic, regimes have taken to the streets - even taking sides in the Libyan Civil War - when similar conditions create similar reactions in Britain, it seems the ruling classes are happy with bullets and batons, with ignoring the realities that created the conditions. That fascist groove thing, it seems, is back in a big way.

The unfolding fake crisis over the debt-ceiling revealed our entire political class for what it is - tone-deaf, ignorant of basic economic realities, and not averse to thinking it possible to drain the water from a sinking boat by drilling a hole in the bottom - and the resulting crash-landing of public opinion regarding the institutions of governance has been met with chirping crickets. The right has been intellectually and morally, not to say politically, bankrupt for over a decade, holding on by sheer force of will to a nihilistic desire for power for its own sake. What people mistakenly call "liberalism" in the US accepts the basic framework set out by the right, but only wishes to use better PR to achieve, roughly, the same ends.

The problem should be clear enough. The real solutions to the ills that beset us are well-known. Paul Krugman, perhaps our most intelligent, most persistent, and least regarded (in official circles) political commentator, has said that over and over again: We know what needs to be done to solve the interlinked economic and fiscal problems we face. Those solutions, however aren't so much unknown as a priori ruled out of the realm of political possibility. So, we drift along, neither major party enjoying anything like support, certainly not confidence. Yet the American people, certainly as beset at the British, are not quite ready to hit the streets. Not quite.

My guess, however, is that if we continue with fiscal austerity as summer shifts to fall, then winter, without any serious improvement in the economy (and, no, there won't be because I do not believe in the economy fairy sprinkling confidence dust in our eyes; if we all clap our hands, things will still suck), we might just see isolated incidents in some urban centers. Detroit, perhaps; Los Angeles, certainly. Once it becomes clear that there are no more attempts to address the issues the people understand are central - jobs, jobs, and I should mention jobs - what is now a loss of confidence may well turn in to a crisis in legitimacy.

Unlike all Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and even, now, Israel, where the people have taken to the streets to demand state action for the benefit of all, we won't read too many pundits talking about an "American Spring".

Virtual Tin Cup

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