I keep hearing comparisons between the London riots and riots in other European cities - window-smashing in Athens, or car bonfires in Paris. And there are parallels, to be sure: a spark set by police violence, a generation that feels forgotten.
But those events were marked by mass destruction; the looting was minor. There have, however, been other mass lootings in recent years. There was Baghdad in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion - a frenzy of arson and looting that emptied libraries and museums. The factories got hit, too.
Back then, the people on cable news thought looting was highly political. They said this was what happened when a regime had no legitimacy. After watching for so long as Saddam and his sons helped themselves to whatever and whomever they wanted, many regular Iraqis felt they had earned the right to take a few things for themselves.
But London isn't Baghdad, so surely there is nothing to learn there.
How about a democratic example, then? Argentina, circa 2001. The economy was in free fall, and thousands of people living in rough neighborhoods stormed foreign-owned superstores. They came out pushing shopping carts overflowing with the goods they could no longer afford: clothes, electronics, meat. The government called a "state of siege"; the people didn't like that and overthrew the government.
Argentina's mass looting was called El Saqueo - the sacking. That was politically significant because it was the same word used to describe what that country's elites had done by selling off national assets, hiding their money offshore, then passing on the bill to the people with a brutal austerity package.
Argentines understood that the saqueo of the shopping centres would not have happened without the bigger saqueo of the country.
But England is not Latin America, and its riots are not political, or so we keep hearing. They are just about lawless kids taking advantage of a situation to take what isn't theirs.
This is said in all seriousness. As if the massive bank bailouts never happened, followed by the defiant record bonuses. Followed by the emergency G8 and G20 meetings, when the leaders decided not to do anything to punish the bankers, nor to do anything serious to prevent a similar crisis from happening again.
Instead, they would all go home to their respective countries and force sacrifices on the most vulnerable by firing public sector workers, closing libraries, rolling back union contracts, carrying out rush privatizations and decreasing pensions.
This is the global Saqueo, a time of great taking. Fuelled by a pathological sense of entitlement, this looting has all been done with the lights left on, as if there were nothing at all to hide.
Of course, London's riots weren't a political protest. But the people committing nighttime robbery sure as hell know that their elites have been committing daytime robbery. Saqueos are contagious.
The British Tories are right when they say the rioting is not about the cuts. But it has a great deal to do with what those cuts represent: being cut off. Locked away in a ballooning underclass with the few escape routes rapidly sealed off.
At last year's G20 "austerity summit" in Toronto, cop cars burned. It was nothing by London 2011 standards, but it was still shocking to us Canadians. At the time, many of us pointed out that the pricey new arsenal police had acquired wasn't just meant for the protesters in the streets. Its long-term use would be to discipline the poor, who in the new era of austerity would have dangerously little to lose.
This is what David Cameron got wrong: you can't cut police budgets at the same time as you cut everything else. Because when you rob people of what little they have, you should expect resistance - whether organized protests or spontaneous looting.
And that's not politics. It's physics.
This column was first published in The Nation. www.naomiklein.org, twitter: @NaomiAKlein