As a young teenager in proudly peaceable Canada during the romantic 1960s, I was a true believer in Bakunin’s anarchism. I laughed off my parents’ argument that if the government ever laid down its arms all hell would break loose. Our competing predictions were put to the test at 8:00 A. M. on October 17, 1969, when the Montreal police went on strike. By 11:20 A. M. the first bank was robbed. By noon most downtown stores has closed because of looting. Within a few more hours, taxi drivers burned down the garage of a limousine service that competed with them for their airport customers, a rooftop sniper killed a provincial police officer, rioters broke into several hotels and restaurants, and a doctor slew a burglar in his suburban home. By the end of the day six banks had been robbed, a hundred shops had been looted, twelve fires had been set, forty cartloads of storefront glass had been broken, and three million dollars in property damage had been inflicted, before city authorities had to call in the army, and, of course, the Mounties to restore order. This decisive empirical test left my politics in tatters…
Last October, when the coalition announced its proposal to cut £81 billion of government spending over four years, a friend of mine (and old-Left firebrand) rather wonderfully predicted “tanks in the streets.” He was convinced – and he was far from alone in this – that a return to austerity would see a return to the ideological agitation that ran through the 1970s and 1980s like a Greek chorus. Well, he got his riots, though not in the form, nor for the reasons, he so dramatically predicted. For the first time in my life, I saw scenes of violence on the streets of Britain that rendered the alarming image my friend had seized upon – the militarisation of the domestic arena – an all-too-real possibility. In previous, more ideological ages, the British rioted for Rights, and against injustice. In the post-ideological age, the British riot for…well, what exactly?
The confused multitude of responses to four consecutive night’s of mass-looting, vandalism, and arson – scenes of destruction that have now scarred several of England’s largest urban centres – itself highlights the difficulty and dangers of reason-seeking in the immediate aftermath of such disturbing and disruptive events. The shocking scenes of disregard for person and property has inevitably bought out the ‘hang-em-and-flog-em’ brigade. At the other end of the political spectrum, earnest liberals urge us to ‘pause’ to think about the ‘root causes’ and ‘underlying’ socio-economic tensions at play in the rubble-strewn and smouldering streets. On the Right, we are told that such behaviour is ‘pure criminality’ by the ‘mindless’ constituents of ‘broken Britain’. On the Left, we are offered a veritable smorgasbord of ‘root causes’ from government cuts to racism. There seems to me something wrong with all these interpretations.
We like our causes simple, which is unfortunate, as in the realm of human behaviour causality is anything but. Ideology is helpful in this regard, as it allows the ideologically-minded to neatly slot turbulent and troublesome events into a pre-existing framework of heroes and villains, cause and effect. So for someone like Ken Livingstone – one of the earliest to attempt to make political capital out of this nightmare – or Harriet Harman, it simply stands to reason that the looters, muggers, and arsonists are as angry as they are about cuts to Educational Maintenance Allowance and the trebling of tuition fees. For an old Marxist and race-warrior like Darcus Howe, the stop-and-search powers of Operation Trident have resulted in an “insurrection” – the (black) proletariat taking on the (presumably white) superstructure. For Cameron and his co-thinkers meanwhile, the lawlessness is proof positive of their ‘broken Britain’ thesis; of generational welfare dependency and an “entitlement culture” of “rights without responsibilities” resulting from a breakdown of the family and corresponding erosion of society’s moral codes.
The problem with these explanations lies in their partiality. From the Left the muck is spread so erratically it is in danger hitting everybody but the culprits, blurring into indistinction the line between personal and collective responsibility. (By far the most ridiculous response has been that of the hand-wringing “we’re all responsible” variety.) It seems to me a chronic tendency among the liberal-minded to assume that angry people are angry about the same things they are; ergo, the looters are inspired by everything from expenses-embezzling MPs to the bankers (after all, they “looted” on a grand scale, didn’t they?). From the Right we are told this violence is ‘pure’ and ‘mindless’, though this wont quite do either. Not only is it unclear what ‘pure’ criminality would consist of (nor what the ‘impure’ variety might look like), ‘mindlessness’ suggests automaton or zombie-like behaviour devoid of agency (and therefore, one would assume, blame). I suspect that Cameron is attempting to shift the balance of responsibility away from politics and onto the individual, but in doing so he is in danger of oversimplifying the complex confluence of factors that set the law-abiding apart from the willingly law-breaking. Furthermore, Cameron’s assertion that “pockets of our society are not just broken, but sick” seems to me not at all helpful. Medical metaphors about living, breathing humans unnerve me: ‘sickness’ implies ‘disease’, implies ‘a plague’, implies ‘eradication’ or ‘cure’. I suspect Cameron was merely playing to the gallery after days of seeming on the back-foot. Nevertheless, those who seem inspired in their public-order tactics by Syria – such as Kelvin MacKenzie, who said he was “in favour” of “shooting” the looters – don’t need encouraging at a time like this.
The political argument seems to me to be especially unconvincing. While I am no fan of Cameron or the coalition, to blame, as somehave, “the government” or “the Tories”, seems to me to be self-evidently absurd. It may be strictly true, as Ken Livingstone was quick to taunt, that the last time our cities went up in flames the Tories were also in power, but that cannot hide the fact that the mean-age of the trouble-makers – at least as reported – puts them as having spent their formative years under Labour’s enlightened governance. Earnest right-on bloggers may see in the rioters a powerless-underclass emerging from communities the powerful “were not watching”, but the truth of the matter is more ambiguous than that. Successive Labour and Conservative governments have, after all, shown a remarkably consistent obsession with the lower classes, an obsession only matched in its intensity by bourgeois fear/fascination and tabloid demonisation. Far from ignoring the underprivileged and marginalised, governments of all stripes have sought to engage the lower classes with a series of social reforms, enacting policy after policy, with the inevitably varying results ranging from the drastic to the disastrous. From the socialist’s utopian egalitarianism, to the Thatcherite’s rabid individualism, from New Labour’s seemingly constant string of white-papers about ‘Respect’ and ‘anti-social behaviour’, to Cameron’s ill-advised (and now rather ironic) ‘hug a hoodie’ campaign, government after government has sought its own fix for society’s ill-educated and unemployed. New Labour threw money at the problem: the coalition, in seeking to reverse those incentives, want to take that money away. The one uses the carrot: the other the stick. Nothing changes. Could it be – just a thought – that interference breeds as much resentment toward the state as neglect?
The economic argument is similarly fraught with contradiction. Those who have been quick to blame ‘the cuts’ fail to realise that ‘the cuts’ have barely begun. Public expenditure actually grew in the 12 months ending June 30th this year. This is partially explained by the faltering economy meaning less taxes servicing more debt, but it also shows the contraction in the public sector is, at least for the time being, less dramatic than some believe it to be. This doesn’t mean the state isn’t shrinking – it is – but that the ‘deep’ and ‘savage’ cuts warned of by Labour have so far been slow and incremental, rather than sudden enough and brutal enough to agitate a violent response in the way this formulation seeks to establish. Are we really meant to believe, as Ken Livingstone and others would have us do, that there is a connection between specific government policies – such as EMA, tuition fees, and cuts to public services – and the masked and hooded looters of JD Sports? The nature of the violence would suggest to me a rather different set of priorities from the acquisition of a higher education. I, for one, find it hard to credit this particular set of mobs with any such noble motive. The fact that they looted electrical stores rather than bookshops would indicate, to my mind at least, that these riots were not the work of young men moved to violence by the immanent closure of their local library.
Moreover, although recessionary economics are (with some justification) routinely held up as a major cause of societal instability, it is equally true that periods of economic growth can be just as destabilising. The jarring inequalities of today’s Britain, which many are fingering as a key factor in these disturbances, are in large part a product of the New Labour boom years of fiscal deregulation and easy credit. The key factor here is economic volatility; that is to say, the rates at which economies rise and fall. Seeing as global markets are inherently volatile, and that ‘boom-and-bust’ cycles would seem to be an ineradicable part of any capitalist system, such variables are always with us – riots or no riots. In our current climate, higher-taxes and rising inflation are squeezing the living standards of all but the super-rich, yet only a few thousand choose to riot. Similarly, there are two and a half million unemployed people in Britain. Even if we were to assume most of the rioters are unemployed – which at the moment is far from clear – that still means over 99% of the unemployed stayed away. Is the connection between economics and arson really so clear-cut as some are suggesting? In a deprived area like Tottenham the unemployment rate at the hight of the boom years was 19%. It now sits at 20%. Are we really so confident that the extra percentage point made all the difference between stability and chaos? Are the young men razing parts of London to the ground – to say nothing of our cities in the North and in the Midlands – doing so in response to the tosses and turns of fiscal policy?
Undoubtedly there exists an underclass in Britain, for generations badly served by education and employment, but we would do well to remember – particularly at a time when it is hard to generalise about the precise constituency of the rioters – that the underclass has been as much a victim as a perpetrator in this four-day rampage; which is to say, such wantonly destructive behaviour is as much a cause of poverty and deprivation, as it is a symptom. The last thing underprivileged areas like Hackney and Salford needed was smashing to pieces.
Nor does the racial argument get us very far. Although the shooting by police of a young black man in Tottenham began the train of events that led to wide-spread disorder, one should be exceedingly cautious about attributing the wider violence to the regrettable (and as yet not fully explained) demise of Mark Duggan – not least because the looters are obviously far from all-black. That there exists real tensions between London’s black community and the Met is well-attested to, and was reflected in the urge to protest peacefully following Mr Duggan’s shooting on Saturday. There are long-standing historical reasons for this tension, and it is fair to say such feelings probably contributed early on to the confrontations with police that followed the protest. Yet as the night grew more violent, that quickly changed: any concern for the troubling death of a young black man gave way to a more abstract and inarticulate rage directed at everything and nothing – shops were ransacked, buildings burned, cars torched. By the following night all thoughts of Mark Duggan had apparently receded to the back of the mind. As unrestrained violence broke out across several parts of London, it seemed more and more obviously the case that the mayhem had gained a momentum all of its own. Come the worst violence on Monday night, and I imagine most of those participating in the rampage would be hard pressed to even give you Mark Duggan’s name.
For a self-appointed spokesperson for black Briton like Darcus Howe, there may be no choice but to view this outbreak through the prism of previous racially-aggravated riots like Toxteth and Brixton. This failure of imagination not only ignores the racially-mixed make-up of the rioters and their actual behaviour (less “smash the state” and more “smash Miss Selfridge”), it also fails to take into account everything that has changed since the dark days of the early 1980s. Our inner cities have many problems, but Tottenham 2011 is not the same place as Brixton in 1981. Mr. Howe seems not at all bothered that the understandable grief, confusion, and anger that followed in the wake of Mark Duggan’s death has been ruthlessly exploited by violent youngsters on the make. He seems entirely unconcerned that important issues surrounding relations between London’s police and the black community have been side-lined and hijacked by people who probably wanted, more than anything, to fill their pockets. It is worth contrasting Howe’s response with the dignified and noble response of Mark Duggan’s parents, who saw no glory whatsoever in smashing up the community in their son’s name.
The more troubling conclusion to be drawn at this admittedly early stage, is that the riots may have had little to do with broader historical forces – of race, class, economics, and politics – and more to do with the fundamental nature of the human animal. More difficult to accept is the intrusive thought that these events, however disturbing, might have been fundamentally irrational, and therefore beyond easy rationalisation. Cameron is wrong to say this is “pure criminality and nothing more” – nothing happens without context – but how far such social and economic reasoning will get you is open to question. By far the most depressing aspect of this unprecedented week of carnage has been hearing from the faces in the rioting crowds. It is clear from the inarticulate and ignorant responses of those partaking in vandalism and looting that they don’t even really know why they are doing it, other than for the sheer thrill of it and the promise of free stuff. Excuses like “it’s the government’s fault” or “it’s the rich people” sound hollow and self-serving in the extreme. More honest has been the “police can’t do nothing” variety of response.
The level of control the state has over society and the individual in a liberal democracy like Britain is far weaker than many of us would like to imagine. The veneer we commonly call civilisation is extremely thin. Stability depends upon common recognition of a whole complex of societal conventions and restraints, both explicit and unconscious, concrete and abstract, legal and cultural. The ‘rule of law’ is a useful conception, but it is one we have to consent to, and we may freely choose to ignore it should those conventions break down, which they can, with terrifying speed. When wide-spread looting hit Baghdad following the fall of Saddam, I remember thinking and arguing that the same thing would happen to London should the authorities fall here. We had a tiny glimpse of that on Monday night, as the police effectively ceded control of the Capital to a violent minority who had realised, much to their delight, that no one was stopping them.
We want solid explanations for extraordinary events. Things don’t ‘just happen’. There must be ‘reasons’. Far harder to admit to ourselves is that young men enjoy violence, particularly when in groups. The phenomenon psychologists call “male coalitionary violence” – whereby groups of men band together to commit mutually-reinforcing violent acts – is a universal one that cuts across all boundaries of culture, race, and class. It’s high summer. The night’s are long, hot, and prickly. Anyone who has ever taken out their frustrations on an inanimate object could tell you how good it feels to break things. Realising that the police were unable to control them, and encouraged by the vivid pictures on the television news, any taboos about the sanctity of people and property had been suddenly, and tantalisingly, removed. People realised that if enough crimes were committed simultaneously the police were powerless to prevent them. In an intensely acquisitive society like ours, where status is accrued through the accumulation of material goods, it would be surprising if these loose and fast-moving gangs didn’t target high-end retail, whilst simultaneously drawing in opportunistic thievery and nihilistic yobbery.
Britain is no stranger to civil unrest. It has been correctly pointed out that our cities have a long and ignoble history of such riotous behaviour. This is not the first time looting has occurred in London, nor will it be the last. What does seem new to me though is the viral ‘flashmob’ quality of the burning and looting; the way in which modern communications technology has enabled trouble-makers to rapidly organise and dissolve fluid and loosely-structured networks of people intent on criminality. The reason the authorities have looked so far out of their depth over the past few days (as a friend of mine adroitly observed) is down to the reality that the looters had access to better technology, and therefore better intelligence, than the police. The fact that disturbances in London so spontaneously spread to other parts of the country, and with such speed, has been perhaps the most troubling aspect of these perturbations. I’ve seen riots before, but I’ve never felt the sensation that my country was out-of-control in quite the way I have over the past week. Any changes to policing and new public-order statutes will clearly have to reflect these developments.
At the time of writing a semblance of order has been restored to Britain’s streets by a large swelling of police numbers and the weather taking a turn for the worse. The post-mortems have begun; the blame being proportioned according to ideological bent. These debates will undoubtedly rage for years, but there are more immediate questions the citizenry deserve answered. The levels of policing used to quell the lawlessness are not sustainable in the long term. Before we draw concrete conclusions about the ‘reasons’ for this break-down in law and order, perhaps we should demand a clear and concise answer to the question: what about next time?