Nobody really knows why high streets around London and elsewhere in the country have descended into a maelstrom of looting and fireraising over the past few days. While generally trying to condemn the violence the effort to avoid glib political point-scoring about public spending cuts has been too much for the likes of Ken Livingstone and Diane Abbott. Similarly, it has been a godsend for those who want to argue that some people are just born criminal, thereby ignoring any possible environmental causes or contributions to the disorder.
Of course Tottenham and the other affected areas in London have high levels of economic deprivation, but it is hard to understand how this can be the whole answer. Tottenham itself is an area built to provide affordable housing for the Victorian working classes with good transport links into central London – unlike, for example, the Lancashire Mill Towns which have similar deprivation levels, the exhortation to “get on your bike” should be an easy one to follow there. There are no good reasons why anyone from Tottenham, were they to wish to, could not aspire to make something of their lives when they live within such easy reach of the prospects of what is still one of the wealthiest cities in the world where hundreds of thousands of people have travelled to with that purpose in mind from all around the UK and the world. Some have pointed to this being a problem in itself with the schools having so many children who do not have English as their first language and so on. Yet, other reports of the disturbances show that it is many of the immigrants in these areas who have stood most resolutely to protect the lives, businesses and homes they have built up against the threat of the looters and burners. There have been no easy wins for people like the BNP to chalk up.
The issue of moral deprivation is a more difficult one. Tottenham has very high levels of families where children have little contact with their fathers. Some of those children may fill the gap of a structured and caring upbringing by finding alternative social structures like gangs. Perhaps some of the youth centres being closed in the area might have provided an alternative structure, but that is on the assumption that they were able to stamp out the gang culture within their clientele without excluding the particular children who most needed that alternative. I’m mildly sceptical about this as if they had been that successful in changing attitudes and aspirations rather than merely corralling children off the streets for a while the revertion to barbarism would not have been so abrupt.
Unlike previous riots there does not seem to be any particular unifying purpose behind the events – the looters aren’t saying that they must liberate laptops from Currys to make up for the loss of the Education Maintenance Allowance or that setting fire to a carpet shop and the dozens of flats above it is a meaningful response to not getting an immediate response from the Police to questions about what led to Mark Duggan being shot.
Perhaps JG Ballard could have constructed a narrative for the events, but the spontaneous uprisings and street violence in Millennium People still had a coherence to it. The peculiarity of it all can be seen in the way that the normally odious Richard Littlejohn has managed to write fairly unobjectionably about it – http://bit.ly/nNqyzM . The only real unifying factor now seems to be the fact of the thing – that large numbers of young people have decided that they can go on the rampage with relative impunity. None of them could think that this will improve the areas they live in or the prospects for them or their friends. Could they?
One thing it should do is lead to more sympathy for the Police and an understanding of how thankless a task they have on their hands. They can’t just wade in for fear of turning abstract hatred for “the feds” (sic) into a concrete one. They can’t just sit back and let things take their course because the majority of people in the affected areas don’t support the violence and are ultimately its main victims. More people will support the actions of the couple who made tea for riot police in this photo http://bit.ly/oM5JEG than the rioters. Thankfully it also seems that there are many people willing to give up their time to help clean up their ravaged streets in the spontaneous clean-up campaign.
These small individual acts of decency and kindness are the ones that ought to be remembered, not the incomprehensible rage of mad crowds. That kindness and decency is the glue that still holds society together, not the platoons who are already descending to push their own agenda in terms of “communities” and increased spending on pet projects.
There will have been multiple causes and contributions to the events of the past few days. Each may be capable of being addressed, although some might just be too hard (for example, Jared Diamond has suggested that the root cause of many cultural collapses is overpopulation – but if this is a possible contributory factor to the current problems we face the solutions might just be too unpalatable). Too much of an attempt to understand the irrational may take us too far towards finding it to have a degree of reason and justification that it simply does not bear. Just as there is little to be gained by a close textual analysis of Anders Breivik’s manifesto, so too is there little point in trying to create a neat explanation for the riots. The riots need to be condemned, contained and closed off. The perpetrators need to be seen as that and not transformed through good intentions into victims.