This last weekend looting and burning developed amongst groups of predominantly young people in London and then spread throughout other UK cities, before massive police presence on the streets led to an uneasy peace. The ability of the looters to stay ahead of the police during the disturbances has been attributed to their use of the encrypted Blackberry Messaging Service, hitherto thought of as a business device.

The government initially concentrated on the individual criminality of the participants and eschewed wider social explanations. More recently they have ventured into explanation. The generally ‘broken’ society which the government inherited, we are told, has sick pockets of individuals who act entirely selfishly, with no sense of the consequences for others.

It is true that those on the street have acted criminally with apparently selfish motives. Faced with cuts that have hit the poor disproportionally they have not shouted for social justice in front of government buildings or put them to the torch. Instead, operating between greed and fear, they have taken what they saw to be due to to them, randomly redistributing wealth, and destroying assets and livelihoods in the process. They will rightly face the consequences of their actions.

There are many ironies in this situation and more hypocrisies in the government’s position. The cuts are not only threatening some of the services and support for the poor but also reducing the size of the police force. Police morale is also low because of their perceived inaction (at best) or bribetaking (at worse) in the NewsCorp phone-hacking scandal. The NewsCorp press and their tabloid competitors have helped to resurrect the Victorian notion of the feckless and undeserving poor which have had such political utility as social and economic inequality grew, and grew more evident, in our big cities.

The cuts in government spending are of course in large part a consequence of the financial crisis, and the financial crisis is largely a consequence of banker behaviour. Operating between greed and fear, they have taken what they saw to be due to to them, randomly redistributing wealth, and destroying assets and livelihoods in the process. In contrast to those caught on the streets, banker behaviour has been seen to evade responsibility, and systems in place allow its repetition.

It is naive to think that all this went through the minds of the London looters before they took to the streets. It is also fair to mention that the start of their unrest, in Tottenham, was caused by a police shooting in murky circumstances, in a part of London with a history of bad police-community relations. Yet if we are preaching ethics and the need for social change we should look honestly at the whole social balance sheet, and embrace much more radical change.