English riots

And so it continues. Round here, the police helicopters were out all night, and I can still hear sirens now at half past nine in the morning. The news is showing photos of devastation across England. As far as it’s possible to tell from the news reports and the word on the ground, the riots are about getting rich by looting shops, attacking the police and the fire service, and setting fire to things – including cars, shops, and houses with people inside them. The police are reporting that many of those arrested are people known to them as petty criminals. The few brief interviews with rioters shown on the news (and there really aren’t many) confirm the impression that the looters consider themselves to be gangsters – a criminal ‘class’ out to get what they can, with little respect for anyone or anything. Groups of people have been trying to defend their neighbourhoods – often, although not exclusively, people who arrived here as immigrants in the not too distant past. Three such men were killed last night when rioters drove a car into them in Birmingham. They had just left a mosque. Others, of many different backgrounds, have been organising to clear up the mess.

There is, of course, much speculation about the causes of the current riots. I suspect Daniel Hind, writing for Al-Jazeera is right when he says ‘civil disturbances never have a single, simple meaning…only a fool would announce what it all means’. But at risk of being a fool, it seems there are one or two remarks one may make.

First, those who claim the rioters have a political agenda are surely wrong. Whilst I don’t think that having a political agenda is an easy thing to capture (I doubt, e.g., that it must involve having explicit political motives and a detailed understanding of why one is doing what one does – which of us ever has such self-knowledge of, or control over our own actions?), I suspect it must involve at least some sort of political consciousness, which it’s not clear the rioters possess. People are rioting because breaking things is fun, and looting is a quick way to make some cash.

But second, those who think the rioters are merely mindless thugs, and there is no political dimension to the riots are surely also wrong. The rioters are (wannabe) gangsters, from some of the poorer neighbourhoods. It’s fairly easy to predict – if you know a city – where there will be rioting. And let me give you a clue, no-one’s predicting riots in the nicer suburbs. It’s no surprise either when the police announce they’ve arrested people from neighbourhoods x, y, and z because x, y, and z are poorer, rougher places.

So what does this mean? One part of the answer seems to be that to people in poorer, rougher areas, being a gangster looks like an attractive option. Not only is it attractive, it’s also a live option. What makes it an attractive and live option is surely that (i) one’s other prospects are bleak, (ii) one has been conditioned since birth (like everyone else living in a consumer capitalist society) to want the latest whatever, and to believe that one has the right to have it; (iii) one is surrounded by others living the gangster lifestyle. The roots of (iii) are no doubt fiercely complicated, but surely there’s some importance to the fact that being poor is stressful, stress breaks families apart, dysfunction creeps in, and once there, it reaches down the generations.

Things will no doubt become clearer with time. But for now, on behalf of all the families, shopkeepers, and other folk battening down the hatches after dark, let’s hope it’s true that the rain is coming, and rioters don’t like getting wet.

A few sensible stories:
Aljazeera, Telegraph, Nomadic Utopianism.

30 thoughts on “English riots

  1. Amy Goodman will be covering the events and political situation in Britain on today’s segment of her show: the War and Peace Report 8 EST in North America at Democracynow.org

  2. I think these riots are not too surprising. The level of alienation and lack of community connection with many people is significant. I also see this where I live in Las Vegas. I wonder, when this spontaneous looting and violence will happen in American cities that are already plagued by violence and crime. The level of income and social disparities we are seeing in the “industrialized world” is sobering. The rich are getting richer and everyone else is getting poorer. So, is it surprising there are people out there that are angry and full of hate?

  3. It depends on what you mean by ‘not too surprising’. It seems obvious in one sense that inequality breeds trouble. (Although I suspect that’s too simplistic – let’s not forget that folks at the top of the pile have been doing their own kind of looting recently.) But it’s quite another thing to see the world on one’s doorstep literally go up in flames as it’s suddenly overtaken by packs of looters. I think it is surprising how quickly and violently the peace can be shattered.

    Also, it’s not clear how much anger is involved. There’s some in some places, I grant you. But in other areas – round here, for instance – there are a lot of bored fourteen year olds out on the streets carrying knives, looking for something to break. It’s not clear that they’re angry. It’s more the case that they’ve got nowt else to do, everyone else is doing it, it’s fun to break things, and they’ve no sense of a nice future awaiting them.

  4. I think it’s also surprising to all the folk who’ve been living law-abiding and impoverished lives for ages. They’ve never taken to the streets in a frenzy of fire-bombing and looting, despite living similarly downtrodden lives. This again suggests that the simple thought – people are pissed off because they’re poor – needs quite a bit of nuanced qualification before it approaches something like an explanation. One suggestion I favour, as suggested above, is the input of consumer capitalism and the way that it instils righteous greed in all of us living under its spell. This surely has some role to play in the looting at the top end of the food chain too.

  5. The amount of damage done to the property of struggling people is so awful. I think part of the problem must be assigned to psychological mechanisms that in fact many or most of us possess to some degree. One Monkey’s mentioned – the fun of destroying things. Bon fires, fireworks, etc, call on this, I’d bet. But the thing is that the rush one can get can lead one to want more, while to get the rush one may have to up the violence. Another thing is that many human beings are spontaneous imitators – in fact, I am to a degree that can get embarassing, so I am not trying to make some sociological point about the underclass.

    To some extent the roots of the looting lay in many of us. Near me is a hyper expensive mall, the Houston Galleria. As things are now, in stores like Neiman Marcus or Tiffany’s, expensive items are all locked down or locked away. The rich can also feel entitled to others’ things. I’ve wondered over the last several days what would happen if, say, a power failed at the Galleria left all the doors open and many of the cabinets accessible. There are poor people around the Galleria, but there are plenty of reasonably to very well off people. How long would the merchandize stay in the stores? There are empirical questions here, but I certainly wouldn’t bet that the underclass or the professed criminals would take it all.

  6. Just to explain the point of the scenario: it is psychologically quite possible that if some small group started to grab things from NM, the rush and the tendency to join in would carry quite a few of the non- underclass on in to grab what they can

  7. Yes – I agree with your point. But still, the looters here have been predominantly (exclusively?) poor.

  8. Monkey, I have been concerned that the rioters have been explained in terms that emphsize their distance from us good and sensible folk. I think it might be important to see that they may not be that different.

    There’s been a theme in recent discussions of virtue ethics that says the idea of a permanent character is largely mythical, and that we need instead to concentrate on the environmental features that lead to virtuous behavior. I’m not sure that’s right for character, but the positive recommendation is surely right.
    Now in fact a lot of discussion is about the rioters’ environment. At the same time, a lot of effort seems to me to be put into making them seem Other. I think there are reasons to worry about that, not least that their status as The Other may be part of the problem.

  9. I’m not sure I agree with the claim that lots of effort has been put into making them seem Other. Pointing out that they’re predominantly from poor areas only makes them Other if one is not poor and living in a poor area oneself. But perhaps you have other examples in mind?

    A worry that perhaps counters yours is that focusing on the imitating effect – as some news reports here have done – allows people to overlook the striking inequalities that are surely playing some role in the riots.

  10. Momkey, I meant to add in the imitative element, not to focus on it. It might be useful to see these riots as more like whirlpools than might at first seem. That means that sheer physical proximity can be a factor that doesn’t depend on how others are led to loting.

  11. The amount of wealth that has been redistributed to the very wealthy in recent years is now hitting the streets in Europe with gangs of alienated youths with no prospects for a decent life. I believe there is just so much people are willing to tolerate, particularly when you have brainwashed them on the virtues of consumerism yet the people rioting and looting do not have any cash to purchase these products, and do not have the ability to get jobs that provide the means to be part of a consumer driven society and economic model.

  12. After the 2010 earthquake in Chile, there was looting by poor and middle class people. I don’t know if the rich looted, but being the owners of the biggest retail chains, chains which loot the consumers through credit schemes, why would the rich need to loot themselves?

    I didn’t loot. There was no looting in the lower-middle-class neighborhood I live in. I have no car and, in any case, I’m wary of supermarket and store cameras, which did lead the arrest of some looters. What’s more, I’m old and unable to fight my way to the good stuff through my fellow looters.

    However, while I would never loot the small neighborhood stores near my home and perhaps would even defend them, if the opportunity arises and I think that I can get away with it, I would have no scruples about looting the big supermarkets or retail chainstores.

  13. First, let me just say that while the riots in Manchester were going on in earshot, I was having fun commenting on a post on this very blog. Thanks to our hosts!

    Second, the most interesting thing I’ve read re: the riots is this post: http://mindhacks.com/2011/08/10/riot-psychology/ and the linked too paper. The “Elaborated Social Identity Model of crowd behaviour” is really interesting and, apparently, fairly well empirically supported. I think it offers a lot of promise for feminist theory (which perhaps is taken up by some theorists already!). The relationship between the idiosyncratic and the (various) group aspects of self construction seems quite promising:

    The ESIM has as its basis the proposition that a component part of the self concept determining human social behaviour derives from psychological membership of particular social categories (e.g., a policeman or demonstrator). Consequently, as well as having an idiosyncratic personal identity (i.e., an identity as a unique individual), crowd participants also have a range of ‘social identities’ which can become salient within the psychological system referred to as the ‘self’. Collective action becomes possible when a particular social identity is simultaneously salient and therefore shared among crowd participants.

    Thus, in contrast to the ‘classic’ account, being in a crowd does not entail a loss of identity so much as produce a shift in the focus of self definition among crowd participants away from unique individual attributes to the more shared, group-based defining attributes of the crowd. Moreover, acting in terms of a social identity means that there will be an increased tendency among those in the crowd to adhere to the norms, values and ideology of that social category

    http://bit.ly/p2HU8G (page 6)

  14. Ask not why They riot in the streets but why We (in the ‘nicer suburbs’) don’t. Opportunity costs. Rioting, looting, rape and pillage, getting pregnant at 14–these are all thing’s we’d do if there weren’t costs–not getting the degree, not getting the good job, not getting a nice house, wardrobe, travel and all the other perks of being upper middle class.

    The surprising phenomenon isn’t their rioting and looting but the fact that it isn’t more widespread–who wouldn’t do violence, trash the neighborhood and steal if there were no costs? I would: I’d be smashing in shop windows and grabbing electronic equipment; I’d be out in that street party drinking myself silly, setting cars alight, and if I were bigger, getting into fist fights. Violence and anti-social behavior are fun, and natural–no explanation needed.

    When there are no opportunities, there are no opportunity costs so might as well have fun. It’s not explicitly political, but it’s a response to the clear perception of a political agenda that means there’s nothing to lose. Might as well have fun now.

  15. This seems to vary with the idiosyncracies of individuals more than rational choice theory would suggest, however. For example, it is a stereotype that adolescent white girls in the U.S.A. shoplift. I was an adolescent white girl in the USA, lo these many decades ago, but I was never tempted, not even remotely, not even when it was perfectly clear I could shoplift. A columnist recently alluded to this stereotype, a woman who acknowledged she’d shoplifted as a kid, and she asked (paraphrasing): Who hasn’t thought about it? And I thought: Me, for one.

    It’s just an anecdote, so ymmv, but my point remains, not every person, in any locale that has suffered looting, loots. Not every poor person who could steal, steals. And it’s not always due to fear of getting caught.

  16. You kidding? I shoplifted like crazy. In college I stole most of my books from the college bookstore. Until I got caught and the manager told me “we can’t afford you.” And then I had a moral revelation. But basically I was a juvenile delinquent. I also got into fights.

  17. Harriet – that’s part of the ‘gangster’ explanation and the idea that there’s a link to having no future. No future means no consequences – nothing it’s worth being good for.

    But I don’t think it’s true at all that we’d all be doing it if we thought we could get away with it. The majority of folks over here – from every neighbourhood – are not out rioting!

    (And there were no copters or sirens out here last night – seems like the rain really did keep rioters off the streets.)

  18. Interesting article, Bijan, although way too quick to dismiss the social factors, in my view. Yes, they’re the old, boring explanations. But those old, boring things are the ones we never get on top of.

  19. Hi Monkey,

    I don’t think they dismiss social factors per se. It’s important to note that that work is very specifically about how crowd dynamics work in occurrent events, not how social factors support dispositions for those events (cf the Austerity and Chaos paper making the rounds for the other view).

    Generalizing the ESIM to more stable social components of identity would be really interesting.

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