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

Why London’s burning

There are riots and there are riots. Experience shows that mass violence can erupt in the most unexpected of circumstances.

In recent decades people have rioted because their football team has lost a match or because their livelihood was threatened by the invisible power of market forces.

Thirty years ago in the UK, black people took to the streets to protest against what they saw as police violence and racial injustice. In recent years small-scale rioting followed demonstrations against globalisation or the rise in university fees. What these episodes had in common is that they represented a response—direct or indirect—to some issue or cause.

The riots that have engulfed England during the past week are very different. While the first riot in Tottenham emerged from a protest march in response to the police shooting of a local man, the copycat riots across the country appear to have no purpose. This is a kind of grotesque recreational sport that provides a wider focus for the pre-existing anti-social and destructive impulse of groups of young people who inhabit geographical spaces that cannot be called communities.

It is all too easy to simply condemn rioting. Many accounts of such events are often informed by the personal prejudices of the commentator. As a sociologist I am aware that comprehensible protest is often devalued by authorities who are hostile to its objectives. Time and again rioting is wrongly blamed on outside agitators. The spreading of such violence is often described as the copycat effect.

Others fall into the very different trap of endowing urban violence with intrinsic social and political meaning.

Such commentators will describe this violence as a form of rational behaviour of the dispossessed and insist that it is the only way those without a voice can make themselves heard.

None of the conventional sociological explanations—from the Left or the Right—can satisfactorily account for the present riots in England.

The riots that erupted in Tottenham, north London, and then spread to other parts of this metropolis before erupting in other English cities are the consequence of a unique form of community disintegration. This process of disintegration has been made worse by unhelpful forms of government policies, which have sought to evade the issues at stake.

The eruption of the riots and its swift expansion to other parts of England has been blamed on the role of social networking applications. Digital technology did play a role in providing rioters with an organisational tool.

But a far more important factor has been the role of the police or, more specifically, the disorganisation of the institutions of law and order.

In recent years on my travels throughout Europe I have frequently come across urban decay and poverty. Every large city has its share of marginalised neighbourhoods. In such areas, petty crime and drug dealing is rife and respect for prevailing social norms is minimal. However, in comparison with England such neighbourhoods have a relatively smaller social weight. Moreover, unlike England they still manage to retain a semblance of community life. Even the banlieues of Paris have a discernible code of behaviour and sense of community. Although life is far from pleasant for the inhabitants of German, French or Dutch marginalised neighbourhoods, it is not nearly as atomised and fragmented as in England.

The problems that afflict urban ghettos and housing estates of English towns are far more extensive than their counterparts in western Europe. The most striking manifestation of this malaise is the feeble quality of community life. When the riots first broke out in Tottenham numerous critics of the police claimed that local people felt aggrieved because the forces of law and order did not “talk to them”. Many observers stated that the police did not talk to the community. Now it is possible that the police were not brilliant at communicating or lacked sensitivity to local circumstances. But the question that needs to be posed is, who is the “them” that they would talk to?

Most individuals purporting to be community leaders are self-appointed careerists or employees of a state-sponsored quango. In any case they represent only themselves and are as isolated from “them” as anyone else. That there is no one to talk to or negotiate with is symptomatic of the problem of neighbourhoods without neighbours, and of locations where a geographical designation is denuded of communal content.

There are many factors that led to the implosion of numerous English urban communities. Industrial decline and loss of traditional manual working-class jobs had a significant effect on parts of urban England during the past four decades. However, the usual problems of urban poverty have been aggravated by the peculiar form of state assistance to these communities. Those without resources and means of survival deserve support from the rest of society.

However, in Britain the provision of welfare has mutated into a culture that encourages people to regard their circumstances as not a temporary phase but as a way of life. So the problem is not the provision of social benefits but the normalisation of welfare dependency as the defining feature of people’s life.

One former youth worker tells me “this is about the cuts”. Now and again you hear deluded individuals hinting that the riots are “payback” for the government’s proposed cuts in state expenditure. From their standpoint, the violence sweeping English towns and cities is “our” equivalent of the demonstrations against austerity measures in Athens and Madrid.

Perhaps there is a link between Europe’s debt crisis and rioting in England, but it isn’t what critics of austerity measures suspect. Decades of wasteful and totally purposeless expenditure on bureaucracy-led welfare programs have had the perverse effect of demoralising their target population. Billions have been spent on measures that foster irresponsibility. So the riots are not so much about the cuts but about corrupting community life through promiscuous spending.

The normalisation of welfare dependency has been actively promoted by advocates working inside and outside the public sector. There are numerous institutions that assist people to claim the maximum amount. Claiming has become a term that connotes the possession of an awareness of “rights” as well as negotiating skills. The principal outcome of the advocacy of claiming is the legitimation of a way of life. From this perspective, improvements to one’s quality of life depend on enhancing one’s claiming skills rather than through work and effort.

Some conservative critics of the welfare state object to the dependence that those living on benefits have on public institutions.

However, such dependence is only a part of the problem. A far more important consequence of the normalisation of welfarism is that it undermines the everyday social and cultural bonds that link members of a community. Historically, those suffering from poverty would develop institutions of self-help and organisations of solidarity. Today, such organisations are conspicuous by their absence. Why? If people are encouraged to rely on state assistance in a one-dimensional manner, they have little incentive to help one another. As far as the people of Tottenham or Liverpool’s Toxteth are concerned, their communities’ effort has little to do with the quality of their lives. Despite their common experience of poverty and marginalisation, people have little incentive to improve their circumstances through joint effort.

The British culture of welfarism has had the perverse effect of eroding community life. Its most disturbing effect is the unusual degree of social fragmentation. Typically the breakdown of community is most striking in relation to the loss of authority that older people have towards the younger generation.

For it is young people who are most afflicted by the destructive consequences of community implosion. Denied any positive ideal of what it means to belong to a community, numerous young people are spontaneously drawn towards prevailing forms of anti-social behaviour. Those who are involved in “recreational” rioting are not abnormal feral youngsters but young people who simply have no stake in their community.

They may 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 the highly atomised groups of rioters today have little inhibition about burning down the corner shop that services their own family.

In an imploded community, even family life is threatened by the imperative of atomisation. Youngsters who have little respect for their own family and parents are unlikely to take wider norms of civic behaviour seriously. That is why so much of the rioting by youngsters is the consequence of years of uncontained behaviour.

The implosion of community life is not a problem of which policy-makers are unaware. From time to time officials attempt to initiate projects that aim to enhance what they call “community resilience”. Previous governments have promoted what they called policies of “inclusion”. But what all these initiatives had in common was to bypass the problem of a welfare culture. Money devoted to community projects and initiatives served to employ a handful of otherwise unemployed people but did nothing to strengthen communities. Why? Because communities evolve organically in response to problems that mean something to local residents. They cannot be constructed from above, especially by institutions that have been complicit in eroding the independence of community life in the first place.

The consequence of such policies has been to evade the problem they were meant to address. Instead of developing resilience, communities have been enfeebled.

But why now? In principle these riots could have erupted any time during the past decade.

The reason it has happened now is because of the high public visibility of the demoralisation of the British police. The British police force is not above criticism; it has a sad record of operational screw-ups and of making a bad situation worse. However, in recent years the morale of the police has been severely undermined and it is not an exaggeration to state that they have lost much of their coherence as an effective force.

Even the mildest form of policing of public events is regularly criticised.

Police tactics, which are far more restrained than they were 30 or 40 years ago, are frequently denounced as brutal. In recent months rioters in London and Bristol must have drawn the conclusion that their activity bears only a minimal cost.

Consequently, the public profile of public-order policing has become increasingly defensive and operationally inept. The failure of London’s Metropolitan Police Service to prevent protesters from rampaging through the street of the capital in recent months—most vividly illustrated by its inability to protect the car in which Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall were travelling—has been noted by people throughout the land. In such circumstances many young people have drawn the conclusion that taking on the police is no big deal and that rioting is its own reward. So the rioting that broke out in Tottenham is merely an escalation, albeit a significant one, of the disturbances that have occurred during the past year.

There is no short-term solution to the implosions of community life. Decades of misguided government policies have undermined its fabric. The challenge is to ensure that young people are forced to understand that their future depends on their own effort and achievement, and that the best way forward for them is to develop a stake in their community. What’s required is an acknowledgment that the previous policies have failed to recognise the malaise that afflicts English cities. What’s required is a system of welfare that encourages young people to develop their own resources to make their way in the future.

Contact me

If you want to get in touch or keep updated with my activities, either email me, connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter.