The old chestnut about living in interesting times may not actually be a Chinese curse, as today's urban folklore claims, but it certainly comes to mind when glancing back over the smoldering wreckage of the past week. In the wake of a political crisis here in America that left both sides looking more than ever like cranky six-year-olds, a long-overdue downgrade of America's unpayable debt, and yet another round of fiscal crisis in the Eurozone, stock and commodity markets around the globe roared into a power dive from which, as I write this, they show no sign of recovering any time soon.
In England, meanwhile, one of those incidents Americans learned to dread in the long hot summers of the Sixties-a traffic stop in a poor minority neighborhood, a black man shot dead by police under dubious circumstances-has triggered four nights of looting and rioting, as mobs in London and elsewhere organized via text messages and social media, brushed aside an ineffectual police presence, plundered shops and torched police stations, and ripped gaping holes in their nation's already shredding social fabric. It seems that "Tottenham" is how the English pronounce "Watts," except that the fire this time is being spread rather more efficiently with the aid of Blackberries and flashmobs.
Government officials denounced the riots as "mindless thuggery," but it's considerably more than that. As one looter cited in the media said, "this is my banker's bonus"-the response of the bottom of the social pyramid, that is, to a culture of nearly limitless corruption further up. It bears remembering that the risings earlier this year in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere began with exactly this sort of inchoate explosion of rage against governments that responded to economic crisis by tightening the screws on the poor; it was only when the riots showed the weakness of the existing order that more organized and ambitious movements took shape amid the chaos. It's thus not outside the bounds of possibility, if the British government keeps on managing the situation as hamhandedly as it's done so far, that the much-ballyhooed Arab Spring may be followed by an English Summer-and just possibly thereafter by a European Autumn.