Someone asked me yesterday if the economy had anything to do with the London riots, or if it was just about race and tensions with local police. I don’t see why it has to be any one thing, but if you ask me, yes, the economy – and particularly the austerity measures in Britain – play a role. It breeds a certain despair that comes with a lack of opportunity or social mobility. And that feeds right into unrest. Richard Sennett and Saskia Sassen tell this story today in the New York Times:

Kingsland Road resembles the bustling, ethnically mixed streets of Brooklyn. During the day, it is a home of sorts for unemployed young men with nothing to do; Britain’s youth unemployment rate is currently over 20 percent. During the economic boom a decade ago, though, nearly as many were out of work, and they did not all turn to crime.

To counter the risk that they might, there were storefront drop-in centers for young people in the neighborhood; these places are now shutting down, as are other community services, like health centers for the elderly and libraries. Local police forces have also been shrinking.

All are victims of what people in Britain call “the cuts” — the government’s defunding of civil-society institutions in order to balance the nation’s books. Before the riots, the government had planned to cut 16,200 police officers across the country. In London, austerity means that there will be about 19 percent less to spend next year on government programs, and the burden will fall particularly on the poor [...]

In attempting to carry out reform, the government appears incompetent; it has lost legitimacy. This has prompted some people living on Kingsland Road to become vigilantes. “We have to do things for ourselves,” a 16-year-old in Hackney told The Guardian, convinced that the authorities did not care about, or know how to protect, communities like his.

Britain is characterized by extreme inequality, particularly in the urban centers, and low social mobility. You could just as easily be talking about the United States. And while we may not have seen the same type of unrest as in London over the past week, the flash mobs beating up people in places like Philadelphia may stem from the same ennui and even despair. And remember, our austerity is yet to come.

Derek Thompson thinks that London won’t be the last city to burn, and I have to agree. The elite failure over the last decade has spurned a backlash. We’ve seen it in Britain and Spain and Greece; it arguably animated the Arab uprising, motivated by high commodity prices and an underclass of educated youths. The global recession has left pockets of this underclass all over the world. They are angry about their lack of opportunity and they are ready to act.

British Prime Minister David Cameron’s first solution may be to shut down social media to stop the communications among rioters. He could alternatively consider some economic opportunity for an entire generation of frustrated youth.