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America’s Age of Austerity May Look a Lot Like London’s

The scenes of violence that emerged from London last week—the burning buildings and rampant looting, the police and firefighters under attack—were undeniably upsetting, but that’s not to say they were unfamiliar. The riots not only bore a strong resemblance to several recent instances of violent crime in the United States, they hearkened directly to the incendiary outbursts of racial violence that plagued this country from 1965 to 1968—from Watts in Los Angeles, to Detroit, to the H Street corridor in Washington D.C. But if the expressions of unrest are following the pattern from that previous era, the policy responses likely won’t be—and that bodes poorly for any hopes of sustainably ending the violence sometime soon. 

Governments of the 1960s and 1970s were quick to respond to their restive populations with renewed investments in the social safety net and in low-skill job programs. Cash was channeled from the federal government to beleaguered cities through programs like the Neighborhood Youth Corps, a government job program for 16 to 21-year-olds; Job Corps, which trained youths of the same age; Model Cities, a program of grants to cities distributed locally by boards made up of representatives from poor neighborhoods; and Community Action Programs, which were used to hire organizers to encourage political activism in such areas. Higher courts ordered, and a government regulatory apparatus enforced, tough civil rights and affirmative actions remedies. Government at all levels began hiring greater numbers of blacks and other minorities into secure civil service positions with reliable access to upward promotion.

Today, our public officials are more apt to respond in a spirit of moral condemnation than social generosity. On August 11, when British Prime Minister David Cameron went before parliament to address the unrest, he offered only outrage. “It is criminality pure simple,” he said. “We will not allow a culture of fear to exist on our streets.” It’s a response that strongly resembled the speech given by Michael Nutter, the African-American mayor of Philadelphia, on August 7, in response to a recent spate of street violence there. “If you want to act like an idiot, move. Move out of this city,” he told the congregation at Carmel Baptist Church. “We don’t want you here anymore.”

There are a few factors contributing to this impoverished policy response. The first is that we are living through an age of austerity. England’s conservative government immediately adopted sharp spending cuts and tax hikes upon taking office. The cuts reduce housing and welfare benefits for the poor and eliminate government jobs. In the United States, the most immediate effects of austerity are being felt at the state level. A July 28 survey by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found 38 of the 47 states that finished budgeting had enacted “deep, identifiable cuts in K-12 education, higher education, health care, or other key areas” in setting spending for fiscal year 2012. Social condemnation is a conveniently cheap solution at a time of dwindling tax receipts.

Our contemporary belt-tightening, however, is also matched by a constriction of society’s moral imagination—an ethical corollary to our fiscal impoverishment. That’s most acutely apparent in attitudes towards race. In the 1960s and 1970s, white Americans were acutely aware of the legacy of injustice inflicted on African Americans, from slavery to Jim Crow. Now, the civil rights movement is largely a spent force. Polls show a growing belief among whites that anti-white discrimination is as strong or stronger than anti-black discrimination. Take, for example, a recent survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, which asked respondents whether they agreed with the statement: “Today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.” White respondents were almost evenly divided—48 percent agreeing, 50 percent disagreeing. 

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the statement received its strongest support from those identifying with the Tea Party (61 percent), Republicans (56 percent) and white evangelicals (57 percent). The Republican Party in the U.S. has accordingly aligned itself dogmatically against any support for spending to boost minority employment. (Even the Obama administration has generally acceded to an agenda of deficit reduction without tax hikes. Though the unemployment rate for 16 to 19 year old American blacks was 39.2 percent in July, 2010, compared to 23 percent for whites of the same age, no government-supported job programs are in sight.) Moreover, these issues of race track closely with immigration policies. State legislatures from Arizona to Georgia are passing tough anti-immigration laws, a reflection of growing white majoritarian opposition to new claimants for government benefits and resources.

The same populist anger is reflected in all austerity-stricken societies. Even in European countries with long traditions of multiculturalism, right-wing parties are on the rise. The murderous rampage committed by Andres Behring Breivik in Norway in July in the name of white supremacism was enabled by the harsh rhetoric not only in online forums, but mainstream publications. The resentment against immigrants is palpable even in proudly tolerant Amsterdam, where a resident recently complained to a New York Times reporter about her non-Dutch neighbors: “He doesn’t work. I work. I work all shifts. I pay taxes. I work for them.”

Where the riots of the 1960s were a challenge to the prevailing spirit of optimism, today they are of a piece with our cultural pessimism. Our age of austerity is not only a time of low economic growth and high unemployment—it is a time when most people sense that there’s simply not enough to go around. The middle and working classes in the West are sensing, not incorrectly, that the globalized economic order is leaving them behind. As Tom Friedman noted recently, “for the 50 years after World War II, to be president, mayor, governor or university president meant more often than not, giving things away to people. Today, it means taking this away from people.”

As long as this age of austerity endures, the West won’t make much progress—economically or socially. Optimism will remain the scarcest resource of all. And the only thing we might have an abundance of, unfortunately, is the sort of violence we saw last week in London.

Thomas Edsall is author of the forthcoming book The Age of Scarcity, to be published by Doubleday in January.