It’s just over a week since the first riots erupted in London, and most of Britain is in no mood to understand possible social causes. Those who attempt to do so risk being shouted down – as I have – as “apologists” for mindless violence. Like a preacher at the pulpit, full of fire and brimstone, Prime Minister David Cameron spoke of a “sickness” in British society. “This is criminality, pure and simple, and it has to be confronted and defeated,” he told Britain’s Parliament. Social networking websites like Twitter abound with hatred for a so-called “feral underclass”.

The first poll on the violence revealed that nine out of ten advocated the use of water cannon; most wanted the army sent in; and one in three were calling for live ammunition to be used on rioters. After four days of rioting, Britain’s political centre of gravity has shifted several notches to the right.

With overwhelming demands for retribution, those who took part in looting are being shunted through the courts at lightning speed. Judges are imposing the harshest sentences at their disposal: one 23-year-old with no previous convictions was jailed for the maximum six months for stealing bottles of water worth £3.50. When David Cameron suggested that council tenants who had rioted could lose their homes, he was undoubtedly speaking to a receptive audience.

It may be verging on hysteria, but the fury is understandable. This was no noble uprising of the downtrodden against a government imposing the harshest cuts to public spending since the 1920s. Evidence of any overt political sentiment is sparse. An army of impoverished looters did not descend on London’s well-to-do districts of Knightsbridge and Chelsea in some crude attempt to redistribute wealth by force. Instead, rioters trashed their own communities, indiscriminately turning on chain stores and small family-owned businesses. Bystanders were mugged; passing cyclists were dragged from their bicycles. In some cases, people were burned out of their own homes.

Those terrorised were not the wealthy or powerful: they were people living in some of the most deprived working-class communities in Britain. “It’s poor people like us who suffer because of these riots,” one young woman told me in the centre of the London borough of Hackney, where some of the worst rioting took place on Monday. People in London, Birmingham, Manchester and other cities felt besieged in their own homes; shops were closed and boarded up; and – in many areas – normal life was suspended.

Unlike conventional riots, direct confrontations with police were largely avoided. Instead, many of the looters attempted to stock up on as many consumer goods as they could before fleeing. The loot of choice ranged from widescreen TVs, trainers to sweets. On the surface, this was closer to aggravated shoplifting than a violent outburst of frustration directed at the state.

With such an unsympathetic set of events, no wonder that those who wish to shut down the debate on the underlying causes have the upper hand. When I debated Peter Hitchens – the hard-line conservative brother of Christopher Hitchens – on BBC radio last week, he put the riots down to moral decline. That’s as popular an explanation as any. But, if the likes of Peter Hitchens win, then the events of last week are doomed to repeat themselves with an ever-increasing ferocity.

Any understanding of England’s August riots must start with the north London suburb of Tottenham, where the riots first exploded last Saturday. On the previous Thursday, the police had shot dead 29-year-old father Mark Duggan: despite initial suggestions that Duggan had shot at the arresting officers, it soon emerged that only police bullets had been fired. This was the latest high-profile example of a civilian being killed by London’s Metropolitan police in controversial circumstances – but what made it particularly explosive was that Duggan was a member of Tottenham’s black community. Young black men in particular feel aggrieved at perceived police harassment: and no wonder in a country where black people are 26 times more likely to be stopped and searched than whites.

But resentment at the police is just one ingredient in a toxic mix. Half of all children grow up below the poverty line in Tottenham. It has the highest unemployment rate in the capital: 34 jobseekers for every job vacancy. This is not to justify or to excuse what happened, but a community in which so many people live precarious lives and feel such a strong sense of grievance was always going to be a potential tinderbox.

The subsequent riots triggered by the unrest in Tottenham were more complex: there is evidence that they were partly organised, not least through Blackberry’s encrypted messaging service. Despite initial attempts by the far-right British National Party to scapegoat ethnic minorities, large numbers of white people were involved in the looting. But the profile of those arrested – over a thousand so far – is becoming increasingly clear. Half of those appearing in court are under 18 years old; most are under 23; the vast majority are out of work. The rioters are a small slither of Britain’s burgeoning young poor.

The situation facing young working-class people in Britain is undoubtedly bleak. The country’s economic crisis has driven the number of young people without jobs to record levels: more than one in five 18-to-24-year olds are now without work. A study by the Prince’s Trust in December 2009 found that unemployment at such a young age has profound emotional consequences, including depression, feelings of rejection, insecurity, and even suicidal thoughts.

But this was a crisis that set in long before Lehman Brothers collapsed. When British industry collapsed in the 1980s, millions of highly skilled, middle-income jobs disappeared. They were jobs that were well-respected, offered security and formed the backbone of local communities. Young working-class men did not have to excel academically to flourish: they could leave school at 16 and get a well-paid apprenticeship.

This is no longer the case. What little work there often is in many deprived communities is low-paid and insecure – like supermarkets and call centres. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that came to power in May 2010 abolished the Educational Maintenance Allowance – a payment to children from poor backgrounds to encourage them to stay in school when they turn 16; and trebled university fees to £9,000 a year, among the most expensive in the world. When working-class sixth-formers took to the streets to protest late last year, they were met with police batons, hours of containment – and were then ignored. For a large chunk of Britain’s youth, there does not seem much of a future for them to put at risk. It only takes a very small proportion of them to riot and loot to bring chaos to the streets.

Britain’s shocking levels of inequality must take partial responsibility, too. London is one of the most unequal cities in the Western world. The wealth of the top 10% is now 273 times that of the poorest. Britain’s capital is not like Paris, where the prosperous live in the centre while the poorest are consigned to the banlieue around the edges. In London, the poor and the rich often live on the same street, let alone the same neighbourhood. Riot-hit Hackney is one of the poorest boroughs in Britain, but it also features pockets of affluence. Upmarket organic stores and posh cafés can be found next-door to betting shops and pawnbrokers. On a daily basis, the poor have reminders of lives they will – in all likelihood – never have.

But it is the combination of inequality and consumerism that lies at the heart of the August riots. Britain is a hyper-consumerist society in which status has much to do with what you possess. Young people in deprived communities are as desperate as their richer peers to be part of a consumer society that is increasingly out of reach. These ‘consumerist riots’ could be seen as a perverse symptom of this.

It would be wrong just to look at the bottom, however. Britain’s Establishment has been rocked by a series of scandals since 2007 that has undermined its legitimacy. First, the widely reviled bankers brought the economy to the verge of collapse with their own greed; then politicians were found to have embezzled taxpayers’ money – sometimes spending it on similar widescreen TVs to those seized by the looters; and recently police officers have been exposed for taking bribes from journalists. Last week’s looting was more disorderly, but the example had already been set.

The risk is that these riots are a dark foreshadow of worse to come. Before the election, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg warned deep public spending cuts could provoke riots. In truth, the full impact of cuts has yet to hit. Benefit claimants have been increasingly stigmatised as the Government slashes welfare payments; before the riots, they were attacked as idle, but now feral and violent has been thrown into the mix. David Cameron has already indicated that one response to the riots will be a renewed determination to reform a welfare state that promotes “idleness”.

As the cuts hit, mass unemployment remains and even deepens, and the real income of the poor continues to drop, Britain’s divided society threatens to fracture even further. The August riots were frightening. But the disaffection that fuelled them is set to get worse. Social chaos is not inevitable in the coming years. But, after last week’s events, only a fool would rule it out.