Unless you’ve been on vacation up the Amazon, you know that young people in England have been rioting in the streets. In response to the police shooting of a young father, they smashed windows, burned buildings and looted stores. Their actions were both mindless and lawless. Not surprisingly, rightwing politicians and pundits there – and in the US – castigated the rioters in the harshest terms. These ungrateful offspring of the motherland were called thugs and scum, worse than feral animals. Their parents also came in for tongue lashings for having failed Parenthood 101.
Language can be revealing. The British governing class was clearly shaken by the large number of rioters and by the ferocity of their attacks on property. Prime Minister David Cameron called for a national “fightback” to quell further riots and punish offenders. He expressed cool contempt for all who linked the riots to his government’s draconian cuts in public services, and described the outbursts as “criminality, pure and simple.” Massive arrests and harsh sentences followed, and the jails are now overflowing. It was a clear and unmistakable signal not only to rioters but to the British public that, if necessary, government austerity would be backed by government force.
On this side of the Atlantic, former Reagan speechwriter and establishment guru Peggy Noonan quickly joined the fray. She too rejected any societal or governmental link and reiterated the standard conservative critique of the rioters. “The cause,” she wrote, “was not injustice.” Rather, it was “…greed, selfishness, a respect and even lust for violence, and a lack of moral grounding.” She added the ominous warning that “what we’re seeing on the streets of Britain right now is something we may be starting to see here.” Not a happy message for American millionaires who, according to polls, overwhelmingly fear “violence in the streets.” Presumably that would include the more than 60 percent of Congress who are millionaires or multi- millionaires.
When Noonan speaks the governing class tends to listen. She now writes for Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal where she briefs the financial elite on what to think about the state of the nation. She tells them how great they are, and goes to great length to re-enforce their so-called conservative values. We all know what those are: no corporate taxes, no social net, no government regulation, permanent war, and austerity for the masses. She peddles a free-market fundamentalism disguised and mislabeled as “conservative,” and she does it better than the talking ditto heads on television and in Congress. In this hallowed circle, corporations are not only people, they are the people. The rest of us are the little people, the ones who pay taxes. (Somebody has to do it.)
Noonan fired a warning shot across the bow of the ship of state. Perhaps she instilled a bit more fear in the hearts of our corporate masters. That would be fair. America’s little people live with fear everyday: fear of losing a job, or a house, or the opportunity to send their children to a decent school. Their fears are aggravated by an overall sense that things will only get worse. And how can things not get worse with cuts looming in education, health, libraries, pensions, and a host of other areas. Like our British cousins, we face a severe austerity that punishes the most vulnerable, squeezes the life out of the middle class, and rewards the mega rich by allowing them to accumulate even more wealth while evading the sacrifices imposed on everyone else.
So, it should surprise none of us when a grandmother and her grandchild are found living in a makeshift tent on the outskirts of York, SC. Waiting in line for hours, thousands of people in need of dental care overwhelmed a free clinic in Atlanta. Stories such as these are endless. Joblessness, child poverty, and homelessness are increasing while economists debate whether the nation is now in a double-dip recession. Tea baggers in Congress and in state legislatures – shock troops for the coddled mega rich – continue their slash and burn approach to governance. They either don’t know or don’t care that their fetish with the federal deficit translates into human suffering and anger and even death.
Peggy Noonan wrote some of Ronald Reagan’s most memorable speeches praising unfettered capitalism and denouncing activist government. (Biting the hand that once fed her, she described the mind of her old boss as “barren land.”) In her recent heads up to the mega rich, she characteristically was clear, simple and to the point. But in an important sense, her critique is as descriptive of the ruling classes as it is of youthful rioters. Scale matters. Who harms society more and is the bigger criminal, the kid who steals a pair of jeans or the hedge fund manager who steals millions?
It is the top echelon corporate and financial mega rich who have exhibited the real selfishness and greed. They, along with their lawyers and lobbyists, excel at white collar crime, looting the country by avoiding taxes and squeezing wealth out of the middle class. They also have a lust for violence that they translate into hard cash. Check out the video games, the TV shows, the latest movies, or the civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Most of the corporate and financial parasites who feed off the rest of us have no morals, only a false sense of entitlement. The few who purport to have morals hide them, conveniently stored away as if in a Swiss vault. The god they worship is the market, and it does not reward morality, only greed and accumulation.
We should import the British “fightback” that David Cameron called for and give it an American twist. Put Wall Street on notice that it must change the way it does business or risk the full wrath of Main Street. Then sort out the top 25 worst offenders among those who broke the law and caused the financial debacle of 2008. Prosecute them, and after conviction jail them. Put them in regular prisons, not federal Club Meds. But keep them away from any youthful looters who might also be doing time. No need to fully corrupt a future generation.