Monday, 15 August 2011

Three Questions about the riots

There seem to be broadly five different types of explanation for the rioting and looting that began in London,and swept across England last week (neatly summarised, although classified differently, by the BBC). There is what we might call the ‘hard right’ account, exemplified by Daily Mail columnist Max Hastings, which see the violence and disorder as the inevitable consequence of unchecked cultural decline. Liberalism’s erosion of the institution of the family and of discipline in schools has produced this amoral, feral youth. The ‘hard left’ narrative also sees the roots of the riots as cultural, but emphasises consumerism as the malign influence on society. Because British society links possessions so closely to status, it should be no surprise that people are willing to go to extreme lengths to obtain the things that confer high status.

By contrast, what I have dubbed the ‘soft right’ and ‘soft left’ focus on politics. The less subtle leftist accounts link the riots directly to current government policies, such as raising university fees and cutting EMA (c.f. Harriet Harman and Ken Livingstone). More nuanced versions of this argument point to the sense of hopelessness and lack of opportunity felt by those on the margins of society. The soft right story is the mirror image of this argument: the government has not been too harsh, but too generous, creating an unwarranted sense of entitlement, which has led to violence now it has inevitably been frustrated.

Finally, there is apparently apolitical ‘no-nonsense’ version of events: plenty of people are opportunistic and enjoy creating disorder and getting something for nothing. The riots gave them a chance to indulge these impulses without fear of retribution, and so many took it. We should not seek any deeper explanation for these events beyond the observation that ‘rioting is fun’.

All of these accounts are plausible enough, but they must not be mistaken for anything more certain than speculation. Far too often they draw on (at best) anecdotes or (at worst) brute prejudice. This is understandable, given the obvious difficulties of discerning the facts on the ground. But over the next few weeks and months as the picture becomes clearer, there are three main questions that need answering if we are to adjudicate between these competing claims.

Who were the rioters?
A number of these arguments depend crucially upon claims about the identity of the rioters – claims which are rarely backed up by evidence. For example, Max Hastings claimed of the rioters that “Most have no jobs to go to or exams they might pass. They know no family role models, for most live in homes in which the father is unemployed, or from which he has decamped.” He just assumes that the only people capable of carrying out such acts must be from his self-designated ‘underclass’. He gets away with it because there is no way to verify whether or not a majority of rioters and looters were in fact unemployed or from single parent families.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that those involved were far more diverse than Hastings imagines: people of different ages, races and backgrounds. But without harder statistics we cannot tell whether the middle class rioters like the ballerina and the organic chef are exceptional.

What were their targets?
Sean Carey insists, in support of his anti-consumerism theory that “by and large the focus has been on breaking into major electrical retailers like Currys and Dixons, mobile phone chains like Carphone Warehouse, supermarkets including Tesco, jewellers, and top-of-the- range "casual" and sports clothing stores”. Carey is cannier than Hastings, acknowledging exceptions, such as the looting of an independent children’s party store, and suggesting only that this is a ‘by and large’ tendency.

But how can we be sure that this is not just coincidence? Perhaps those are the sorts of shops that happened to be close at hand in city centres. Again, how can we distinguish exception from rule?

At the very least, this analysis is limited. While it can explain why items like phones and trainers were looted, it cannot account for petty thefts and vandalism. Unless we have an idea of what proportion of thefts were of status symbol goods, we can’t appreciate how significant this limitation is.

What were their motivations?
The fundamental question that everybody is trying to get the bottom of is why this happened. The most straightforward way is to ask those involved. Many people have already decided that it cannot have been a deliberate political action, but just selfish wanton criminality. How can they know this without asking people whether they intended this as a political gesture? If these acts are a protest against government cuts, surely people will claim credit for them as such.

The trouble is that we cannot take these motivations at face value. On the one hand, people may lie or misrepresent their motivations to try and excuse or justify their actions. Political protest is a lot more heroic than random violence or greed, and most people prefer to think of themselves as heroes. Moreover, people may not understand the deep lying roots of their motivations. They might tell us that rioting seemed fun or that this was a good way of exorcising frustration, but they might not understand what it is they are so angry about.

All of the proposed explanations of the causes of the riots depend on particular perceptions of the facts of the case. Many of these facts are far from clear. Until somebody systematically collects and examines the evidence, nobody will be qualified to reach any definitive conclusions. It seems to me that a public inquiry is the necessary first step of this process. Hopefully it will go part way to answering the questions I’ve posed here.

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