A Recipe for Riots – London Edition

Aug 09, 11 A Recipe for Riots – London Edition

The news and blog world are going ablaze about the London riot (pun intended). Scores arrested! Police injured! Looting rampant! All true, but all completely normal for England.

There is a very powerful tonic in having a large population of unemployed youth with too much time courtesy of generous welfare and parents who don’t overly care what they’re up to. With the right circumstances this will almost inevitably result in widespread riots. Of course the police are entirely correct to respond harshly to the thuggery, and there are the normal introspective gazes into London’s undertones of xenophobic strife and lax immigration policies. But these factors simply contribute layers on top of the primary recipe for rioting.

There are three major ingredients which are needed to have a good old fashioned riot and looting spree like this: A good culture of rebellion, some sprinkling of socio-economic inequality, and a sufficiently squishy form of state coercion.

The culture of rebellion is probably the most important. In western societies there is a good reason why anti-establishment bands and writers get so much purchase from the youth. It’s because they play up the youth’s natural inclination to find a simplistic and impassioned voice against authority, whether parents or state or something in between. Foster that for a period of adolescence and you have an entire demographic ready for riot.

Of course the resistance and hostility to authority is not a particularly western thing, but the access to a pop culture scene that nurtures this is generally more freely available in the west. For immigrants living in London, this alone is a powerful tonic, creating a generation of coddled yobs hostile to the state which has ironically been responsible for their access into western society to begin with. Sure, the non-integration of immigrants can be blamed, and one can point out that foreigners in the UK are generally hostile to western cultural tropes, but looking at the images of brand name-clad youths setting shops on fire and getting bitten by police dogs leads me to suspect that more western pop culture is soaking into foreign youth than we’d expect. From Rage Against the Machine, the Beatles and Howard Stern to Greendayand the “don’t give a shit” mentality of hipsterism and other sub-cults, this stuff is a powerful motivating tool.

The second ingredient, socio-economic inequality, is somewhat of a no-brainer. When the haves disapproves of the have-nots and their violent thuggery, it serves only to widen the divide between the two. Poor, young, unemployed folks will always feel the pinch before the middle class. In this context the riots have stemmed from one part of that inequality – police shootings of a black person – and developed into another – the state cuts to social welfare. That is the pretense of the riots, but when you look at the demographic of the folks rioting, I suspect the kids burning cars and breaking shops are doing it simply because it’s fun. Kids love to break things. They love to see things burn. And if you don’t have a parent to tell you no, you’re going to invite your friends around to join in. In this sense the police are acting as the state’s (read: parents’) ‘wooden spoon’ and are duly instructing the kids on their ill-behaviour. As long as these kids have that guise of inequality to hide behind, they feel a sense of legitimacy to their shenanigans. A sense of shame, I suspect, never entered their pubescent heads.

And lastly is the squishy form of state coercion. Eventually the London Police will restore order and trounce enough kids on the head with their billy clubs to dissuade the majority from further rioting. But it is not the same kind of authoritarian policing we see in the Middle East or Asia, where the police (and indeed army) will simply shoot you if you misbehave. Thus the youth are able to hurl rocks and debris at well-padded riot police without any thought of major damage to their own lives. Some will be beaten with clubs, and some bitten by dogs, but the vast majority will simply have a great week of it, lobbing things at adults/authority figures until their mates get bored and go home, or the police make it impossible to gather in large enough groups for any sort of serious rioting. If a heavier hand were used, the negative cost to the state would be higher than the utility of ending the riots quickly. By using a relatively-soft form of policing, ie non-lethal riot police, they are able to somewhat contain the violence without have bodies piling up on either side. I suspect in this sense the British Police have learned from their Ireland escapades the value of being less-hostile to public disorder.

And there we have it! Combine all these factors and you are guaranteed to have seasonal riots. Whether it’s a police shooting, a melting economy or simply a lack of anything else to do, riots are an inevitable part of a liberal democratic state. It’s happened in the USA, it happened in Canada when they lost the hockey, and it’s happening in London. The ridiculous amount of sensationalism we now see by media probably has a lot of South Africans wondering what all the fuss is about, seeing as we experience these kind of riots in townships virtually on a monthly basis. But rest assured this is nothing new, and certainly not any more exceptional than any other riot we’ve seen in the west.

Image by william_79

  • Stuart Theobald

    John,
    Just a thought on your comments on xenophobia.

    My observations have been that the violence has been perpetrated primarily by local, british-born  youths. In fact, as seen in some Turkish and Pakistani neighbourhoods, the immigrants have come out to defend their property from the looters. Immigrants are often the owners of the stores that have been targeted by the gangs. Unlike some other cities, London does not have substantial immigrant ghettos of unemployed foreigners. London’s immigrants tend to be productive and working, and often don’t have access to council housing. So all your stuff about xenophobia is just wrong. There may be a racist response to the violence because it does appear that many of those involved are young black youths. But to equate being black with being foreign is a very 19th century attitude.Where you do touch on some points that I think are correct is that youth marginalisation and unemployment is a major contributor to the problem. To the extent that the welfare state contributes to this is certainly an important question, but one I think is very complex. The welfare state does expend significant resources on social inclusion. In Britain, unlike cities such as Paris, neighbourhoods are quite integrated – housing estates are found in the middle of Chelsea. Social services in London spend a great deal of effort on youth development schemes. The standard right-wing response, however, is that such welfare interventions serve only to lessen the personal responsibility citizens carry to ensure their own positive contribution to society. This is of course a tension – welfare provision serves to incentivise a lack of personal responsibility but on the other hand further state intervention is proposed as the mechanism to correct it. Finding the right way through this tension is highly complex.Ultimately your point on the “fun” of it is I think the most important. Most of these kids are motivated by the vision of a spend-all-you-can trip to Currys in an orgy of group madness. We should be asking questions of how the social structures in British communities have failed to act on the social psychology at work here. There are no authority figures in communities that have been able to stand as a reality check for these kids. I don’t know how much of an issue inequality and “state coercion” is. In my experience, London has very little visible inequality. Compared to SA it is minimal. The policing is anything but coercive – most police are unarmed and trained to not respond physically to physical threats. This view of policing as a voluntary engagement with a community is rather unique in my experience and is a quintessential part of Britishness. Generally I suspect the benefits of it are more than the costs. Benefits are a sense of empathy and comraderie between the police and many communities. The costs are that social unrest can spread and get out of control more easily. Had rubber bullets and water cannons come out last night, things would probably have been brought under control much more quickly.Anyway, my main point is that this has nothing to do with immigration or xenophobia. 

  • John

    I mostly agree that it isn’t about xenophobia, so I’m not entirely sure what “all my stuff” about it was? Unless this is based on one sentence and a meta tag? The entire point of this was to highlight how this is less about the issues which are dominating folks’ thoughts (xenophobia and immigration and such) and more about youth venting their anger, as they have for decades before and decades to come. I don’t think xenophobia is completel dismissable though. Even assuming your point that there are few unemployed and poor immigrants living in London were true, that has little bearing on the perceptions of xenophobia which are coming out in the news at the moment.

    As for London being a bastion of equality, I must disagree. There is a large body of literature explicitly stating how outer areas of London, particularly the Southern and Eastern areas, are populated by the poor and unemployed. It would stand to reason that included in there are immigrants, would it not? If there are zero immigrants living in these areas, that would potentially imply a large attitude of intolerance towards them. Either that or the areas are so crappy that not even foreigners less-familiar with London’s neighbourhoods would settle there.
    Personally I think the police are showing amazing restraint. This will probably change though, once the parliament are done deciding on what to do.

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