People try to kick in the window of a jewellery shop near the Bullring shopping centre in Birmingham, England, as violence spread outside London. Image Credit: EPA

I am often asked, when in the US or Europe, whether I feel frightened while travelling through such obviously dangerous places as Afghanistan and Kashmir. It's hard for me to explain, and so I never confess, that I feel more insecure on the streets of Tower Hamlets, a London borough just south of Tottenham and Hackney, the epicentres of London's riots.

Tower Hamlets has among the highest rates of poverty, unemployment, overcrowding and crime in Britain. But it is not a ghetto. Segregation is more insidious, and inequality has shrewd disguises, in what is also one of London's most diverse boroughs.

Among the rundown, gang-infested council estates, the bingo halls, betting shops and working-class pubs, there are wine bars, boutique shops, cafes and studio apartments costing more than half a million dollars. Bankers as well as artists, designers and other well-paid members of the creative class have turned pockets of Tower Hamlets into London's answer to Manhattan's East Village.

With their obvious education, wealth and mobility, these gentrifiers pay an indirect ‘inequality tax' in the form of routine burglaries, muggings and occasional physical assaults. I hear sirens in Tower Hamlets more frequently than in any other part of London. Teenage boys and young men in hoodies take evident pleasure in the fear they provoke in passers-by, whom they taunt or abuse, depending on their mood.

White, black and Asian, these menacing youths, who seem to have been released from any obligations to family or community, have long reminded me of the dystopian vision of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. It wasn't surprising, then, that last week many of them took advantage of a peaceful protest against the killing of a man by the police to go on a looting spree.

Politicians and pundits from the left now blame the rioting on the British government's savage spending cuts to public services. Their counterparts on the right point to the welfare state and the liberal-left encouragement of single mothers. But the recent mayhem speaks of a broader and irreversible Americanisation of British society in the last three decades, as the imperatives of a global market economy overtook those of society.

Britain, of course, is the original home of the free market. As the first country to industrialise, and to have an enormous comparative advantage, it inevitably adopted laissez-faire policies in the mid-19th century. The harsh effect this had on the working classes and the poor was gradually softened by such Victorian institutions as compulsory education, trade unions and social-service societies.

The political and economic catastrophes of the first half of the 20th century buried the idea of the self-regulating market; and a new national consensus was built around the welfare state after the Second World War. This all changed starting in the 1980s as successive British governments, Labour as well as Conservative, struggled with high inflation, falling industrial productivity and conflict.

The illusion that the nation could be saved only through immersion in a self-stabilising market economy hardened into a revolutionary ideology, embraced by both major parties, that has shaped today's Britain. In that sense, if Tony Blair and David Cameron are "sons of Thatcher," as the journalist Simon Jenkins puts it, the rioters of today are the grandchildren.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who famously proclaimed "there is no such thing as society", rapidly privatised state-held assets including railways, steel mills, airlines, coal mines and telecommunications providers. She decimated many public services that tended to the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in Britain.

More importantly, Thatcher abandoned the idea of full employment — a precondition of the welfare state. She did not stop at defanging trade unions and reducing labour's bargaining power. She ushered in policies that reduced hiring costs for employers, giving workers the dubious gift of endless mobility and a downward race for wages.

The enduring effects of this radical socioeconomic engineering are now visible in Britain, not least in some of the world's highest levels of inequality. As more contract and part-time work appeared, the old bourgeois ideal of a stable career disappeared.

An underclass consisting of the unemployed and unemployable grew and grew, even as the old working class fragmented. More policing and imprisonment become the easiest way to deal with rising social problems; Britain now has more people in prison per capita than any major western country apart from the US.

British conservatives today speak a lot of the Big Society. But they remain blind to how a culture devoted to social and economic individualism undermines the traditional institutions that they pay ritual obeisance to, such as marriage.

The "broken Britain" lamented by Prime Minister David Cameron now has more teenage mothers, babies born outside marriage and binge drinkers than any country in Europe. The rioting was but a part of a larger social breakdown. I know I'd feel much safer in a mosque in Kashmir than on the streets of Tower Hamlets.

— Washington Post

Pankaj Mishra is the author of Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond.