• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author
Article

Rioting in England: was it just a bad dream?

British society finds it hard to acknowledge the scale of the social and moral disintegration of many of its communities.

Some people, especially those who live in the communities that were affected by rioting and looting, understandably want to forget about this frightening experience and move on. A friend who was on Wood Green High Street as shops were being looted tells me that what really frightened her was not the casual manner in which people trashed things, but the community’s pretence the next morning that things were back to normal. Her neighbours treated the event as a singular act of midsummer madness, a kind of a bad dream. It was as if many locals found it too difficult to think about the scale of the crisis confronting their neighbourhoods, because to do so would force them to face up to the precarious circumstances of their own existences.

The riots may have come as a surprise to the chattering classes, but, sadly, many people know only too well that their daily lives always contain a potential for violence that can explode at any time. They intuitively grasp that the menacing gestures made by groups of people living in their midst can swiftly mutate into acts of low-grade violence. These groups of mainly young individuals are not restrained by the usual social conventions, for the very simple reason that they have no stake in the society that produced them. Their elders lack any influence over their conduct and lack the confidence and authority necessary to restrain their behaviour.

Throughout England, a palpable sense of ambient fear pervades many urban neighbourhoods. Often, this fear has no distinct name yet it directly shapes the habits and behaviour of a significant section of England’s urban population. It fosters a diffuse climate of insecurity, which effectively forces the elderly off the streets. Others learn to accommodate to this reality by adopting a defensive approach whenever they leave their houses. They avoid making eye contact with local troublemakers and mind their own business. For many, putting up with incivility and allowing antisocial acts to go unchecked is the price they pay for avoiding trouble. Being careful, making the best of a difficult situation, makes sense for people who live in these kinds of communities. And individuals who feel that they have no choice but to put up with habitual antisocial behaviour are unlikely to be surprised when such acts take on a more destructive form.

Turning a blind eye to certain forms of conduct is an understandable response on the part of those who feel they are isolated and unlikely to gain the support of their neighbours. The erosion of communal bonds has diminished the capacity of even the bravest individual to stand up to antisocial behaviour. There were small pockets of resistance to the rioters, among Turkish and Asian communities and in a handful of white working-class communities,but this was not a widespread phenomenon. It is the perception that they are on their own, that they are intensely isolated, that led many residents of riot-afflicted communities to breathe a sigh of relief the next morning, in the hope that things were now ‘back to normal’.

In contrast to the residents of these communities, policymakers and commentators regard the riots as some kind of a mysterious eruption unconnected to anything that is going on in England’s imploded urban communities. Those who lack a sensitivity to the realities of English urban life are now at the forefront of inventing spurious causes and explanations for the events of last week. The search for a context for the riots overlooks a simple truth: that the normalisation of uncivil and brutalised conduct always contains the potential for outbursts of a more general disorder. Until we have the final assessment of the meaning of the August riots, it is most useful to locate its genesis in the acquiescence of community life to everyday, routine forms of threatening behaviour.

Where is the anger?

There have been many references to the ‘anger’ that ostensibly drove ‘angry youths’ or ‘angry young men’ to participate in rioting and looting. The use of the adjective ‘angry’ gives the impression that there is some specific issue or event which provoked people to explode with rage. So Paul Rogers at Open Democracy claims that ‘many of those involved belong to a generation of 16- to 30-year-olds who are experiencing or facing unemployment and life-prospects that are far more limited than their elders’. He believes that ‘their frustrations are further exacerbated by real anger at the ostentatious wealth of elites, especially bankers’.  A columnist for Al Jazeera says the riots are a response to the austerity measures faced by ‘disenfranchised youth’ and cites Klara, ‘an activist with Occupied London’, who claims there is ‘a bubble of anger and anxiety and oppression that has to be burst’.

In the conventional imagination, anger and violence are closely linked with one another. But an act of destructive violence need not be fuelled by anger, specifically by anger at some strongly felt act of injustice. In a brutalised environment, acts of violence often have a banal, going-through-the-motions character. Indeed, what is striking about the August riots in England is the relative shallowness of the anger of the participants. In Tottenham in London, the epicentre of the riots, the family protesting against the police shooting of Mark Duggan were likely to have been angry. But by the time other community inhabitants had got to Tottenham Hale Retail Park to pick up their freebies, their anger was running thin. The systematic looting of shops occurred in a relaxed, almost casual manner. There was not even a hint of a riot in nearby Wood Green Shopping City. The total absence of the police meant that the looting could be carried out in a relatively laid-back, care-free fashion.

It was not the spread of anger which led to the outbreak of rioting invarious London towns and then in other English cities, but rather the growing conviction that looting was an exciting and low-risk activity. For many of the participants, acts of mass looting represented simply a new and more ambitious variant of the kind of antisocial behaviour that already prevails in their communities. Certainly by this stage any association of rioting with anger about injustice was conspicuous by its absence. One of the most distinctive features of the riots was the shallowness of the emotions and the flimsiness of the sense of grievance that drove them. Indeed, it is the seemingly routine and instrumental turn towards looting and destruction of property that gives this episode a uniquely disturbing dimension. Many of the participants in the riots were already accustomed to this kind of behaviour, and did not require a new boost of angry energy to get stuck in.

But we are all rioters!

That insecure residents of out-of-control housing estates helplessly accommodate to their predicament, treating the riots as a fleeting episode, is an understandable part of their survival strategy. Unfortunately, however, a reluctance to acknowledge the seriousness of the problems in these urban communities also afflicts the political establishment, where social amnesia seems to have become almost pathological in recent days.

Many policymakers and media commentators seem frightened to acknowledge the scale of the problems brought to the surface by the riots. The clearest symptom of this collective act of self-deception is the attempt to redefine the specific form of destructive conduct we saw in the rioting as simply a variant of a generalised problem of greed in modern society. The most hackneyed exponent of this viewpoint has been the Labour leader Ed Miliband, who blamed the ‘me first’ culture for the riots. Typically, he depicted the riots as urban youths’ version of the irresponsible acts of greedy bankers and dishonest MPs who fiddle their expenses.

Miliband’s rebranding of violent rioting as simply another expression of a ‘me first’ culture might look like a sociological explanation for Britain’s political predicament. But in truth, by conflating all forms of behaviour – from kids eyeing up iPods to bankers hustling for bonuses, from MPs fiddling their travel allowance to unemployed dads dreaming of winning the lottery – Miliband is eroding what is distinct about each. A ‘me first’ attitude does not motivate people to destroy their corner shop or burn down their neighbour’s home. To talk about hedge-fund hustlers and those who mug elderly people in the same breath might sound very sensitive and democratic, but it actually constitutes a dishonest caricature of how the world works. The reason most people rioted was not because they had become unusually greedy, but because they have become accustomed to a life unrestrained by adult authority – parents, teachers, neighbours – or by social conventions.

The speed with which the riots have been reinterpreted as expressions of the problem of greed is truly amazing. A hundred years from now, historians reading commentaries in the English press from August 2011 will draw the conclusion that we were all rioters. ‘Britain’s riots are the consequence of a greedy society’, asserts Seumas Milne of the Guardian. The coupling of greed and rioting has become an almost mystical chant, with no pressure on the advocates of this theory to establish a causal link between these two things. The principal aim of the greed/rioting arguments is to treat literally every form of objectionable conduct as an expression of the same impulse. Journalist Patrick Kingsley indulged in a particularly mendacious form of this methodology, when he questioned London mayor Boris Johnson’s sharp criticism of the rioters on the basis that Boris once ‘had a relaxed attitude to a bit of property-trashing in his Oxford days’ – that is, he was a member of the posh and occasionally rowdy Bullingdon Club. From this perspective, the antics of drunken university students are the moral equivalent of groups of masked youths who attack a bus in Peckham and systematically intimidate the passengers caught up in the affray. We are all rioters now.

This loss of perspective, this inability to isolate the specific features of what constitutes a riot, is by no means confined to Miliband and his allies in the press. For example, Peter Oborne of the Tory-leaning Daily Telegraph also claims that the rioters ‘are just following the example set by senior and respected figures in society’. According to Oborne, it is the moral confusion of the elites that is to blame for the riots: ‘The culture of greed and impunity we are witnessing on our TV screens stretches right up into corporate boardrooms and the Cabinet. It embraces the police and large parts of our media. It is not just its damaged youth, but Britain itself that needs a moral reformation.’

Oborne no doubt has a point about the moral disorientation of the establishment, but it is not useful to reduce all the evils afflicting society to one generic cause. Indeed, this obsessive desire to spread the blame actually serves as a displacement activity, distracting attention from the very difficult and disturbing issue of community implosion. This evasive strategy is most strikingly communicated by the Daily Mail, which appears to have an almost voyeuristic fascination with the ‘middle-class rioter’. Its headline, ‘The middle-class “rioters” revealed’, conveys the impression that what is at stake is a general problem of pure greed. It emphasises this point by highlighting that, ‘shockingly’, among ‘those in the dock accused of looting, are a millionaire’s daughter and a ballet student’.

Constant references to the millionaire’s daughter, the now infamous Laura Johnson, promote the impression that it is the general culture of greed that caused the recent disturbances rather any specific issue to do with the disorganisation of urban community life. No doubt there were some middle-class rioters who attached themselves to what they perceived to be a low-risk but high-excitement recreational activity. But they played the role of scavengers who joined in after the event, rather than being the initiators of the riots. Confusing community implosion with the irresponsibility of thrill-seeking middle-class kids obscures the various drivers of modern-day antisocial behaviour.

There is actually no logical link between ‘me first’ consciousness and rioting. Selfishness may not be a morally worthy characteristic, but it should not be pathologised as a destructive disease. There is an important distinction to be made between the all-too-human trait of acquisitiveness, a desire to have things, and violent and destructive behaviour.

Greed: confusing the symptom with the cause

The constant reference to greed is underpinned by society’s current unease with human aspiration and ambition. Time and again, social commentators claim that we live in an unusually greedy era. Some go so far as to claim that social inequality in Britain is at an unprecedented level. These claims spring from an outlook that is uniquely uncomfortable with the display of individual ambition. It is difficult, if not impossible, to establish whether we do indeed live in an unusually greedy epoch. People have always envied the possessions of their neighbours and many of them sought to accumulate property by any means that they could. It is unlikely that human beings have lost empathy and compassion for others and have become entirely addicted to possessions. What has changed is Western culture’s attitude towards consumption and wealth. Consumerism is held responsible for the slow destruction of the planet and is frequently indicted as a marker for crass and immoral behaviour. Increasingly, greed is depicted as a kind of transcendental evil.

No doubt consumption has become more important than it was before. But it is not greed but rather the search for identity that leads youngsters to desire a particular brand of trainers or jeans. The association of consumption with individual identity is not the cause of today’s profound problems, but rather a symptom of them. The reason consumption has emerged as an important site of identity formation is because other, more basic sources of identity have become exhausted. This is especially true of the identity that people often derived from their work and the community. In neighbourhoods where the world of work is an alien phenomenon and where community bonds are increasingly feeble, young people are unlikely to gain much of an identity from either of those two sources. In such circumstances, sporting a fashionable brand of trainers says more about a person than his or her family or neighbourhood affiliation.

So the problem is the emptying out of community life and its disorienting impact on young people. It is not the human aspiration of greed but rather Britain’s culture of welfarism that has fuelled the current round of antisocial violence. The usual problems of urban poverty have been aggravated by the peculiar form of state assistance given to these communities. Those without resources and the means of survival deserve support from the rest of society, of course. However, in Britain the provision of welfare has mutated into a culture that encourages people to regard their circumstances not as a temporary phase but as a way of life. The problem is not the provision of social benefits, but the normalisation of welfare dependency as the defining feature of people’s lives. Claiming resources from the state is unlikely to constitute a desirable form of identity. Is it any surprise that youngsters prefer to be known for the fashionable gear that they possess?

The culture of welfarism has had the perverse effect of eroding community life. Its most disturbing effect is social fragmentation. Typically, the breakdown of community is most striking in relation to the loss of authority of older people over younger generations. For it is young people who are most affected by the destructive consequences of community implosion. Denied any positive ideal of what it means to belong to a community, many young people are spontaneously drawn towards prevailing forms of antisocial behaviour. Those who are involved in ‘recreational’ rioting are not abnormal feral youngsters, but people who simply have no stake in their community. They might belong to gangs that are associated with a distinct geographical territory but their gang identity does not have any wider community-related significance. Historical experience shows that urban gangs often take their own ‘manor’ very seriously; in contrast, today’s highly atomised groups of rioters have little inhibition about burning down the corner shop that services their own families.

It is not surprising that so many commentators and policymakers have opted to denounce human greed instead of acknowledging the difficult issues associated with the explosion of urban violence in England. Yet cheap moralising about greed simply mystifies the issues at stake. Arguably, this act of political evasion represents a greater threat to society than the damage caused by the rioters. For if society continues to ignore the problem and fails to acknowledge the huge challenges it faces, then it will create the conditions where urban violence can become even more normalised and more threatening. What is required are policies that encourage communal self-reliance and solidarity through challenging the institutionalisation of welfare dependency. What we need is not more pervasive policing, but the establishment of local authoritative institutions that can take responsibility for the security of local residents. Only they can restrain antisocial behaviour and encourage young people to develop a stake in the communities that they inhabit.

Frank Furedi’s latest book On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)

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