Rebels Without a Cause? What We May (Not) Have Learned from the London Riots


It’s perhaps too soon to work out what the hell really happened in London last night, or why. I stayed up til 2am following the news and the Twitter feeds, and I have to say it was one of the saddest nights I’ve ever spent in the capital.

There has already been some debate about the reasons for all of this, but I wanted to put a bit of a marker down on a couple of things that those on the outside may not have realised. I’ve lived in London for nearly 20 years, taught teenage Londoners for nearly 15 of those, and teenagers who I could well imagine getting involved in these ‘riots’ for nearly 10. I don’t claim some special knowledge, but I do feel I can tell the difference between one kind of fight and another.

1. This was not about race

Already people have been talking about ‘reclaiming London from the foreigners.’ Total nonsense. The looting and violence that took place was committed by blacks, whites and asians, and we mustn’t let idiots from the far right take advantage.

2. This was not about the shooting of Mark Duggen

The violence that sparked off in Tottenham at the end of last week was about the understandable anger that that community felt over the police’s handling of the Duggen case. The Metropolitan Police screwed up. They should have been open with the family, they should have listened to them and not left them outside for hours with empty promises of meetings with high level officers. And they certainly need to start telling the truth about what happened that night, and whether Duggen did fire his weapon, which is now doubted.

But the violence that kicked off in different areas of London last night was not about that. The people who were out looting were not out there expressing anger at their treatment by the police.

3. This is partly, but not wholly, about disenfranchisement

Mary Riddell has written a powerful piece in The Telegraph examining some of the reasons behind the violence, in which she says this:

The real causes are more insidious. It is no coincidence that the worst violence London has seen in many decades takes place against the backdrop of a global economy poised for freefall. The causes of recession set out by J K Galbraith in his book, The Great Crash 1929, were as follows: bad income distribution, a business sector engaged in “corporate larceny”, a weak banking structure and an import/export imbalance.

I do agree with this, but only in part. What I think Riddell has failed to factor in is the viral nature of the looting. I mean viral in every sense: this spread through social networks, but it also spread – as I’ve seen violent action spread in classrooms and playgrounds countless times – through the spirit of the mob.

In playground violence you do get those at the centre who will spark something, but the vast majority who get caught up in things would never, never do so without the mob. They get caught up and excited and act not from some anger or frustration of their own, but by proxy. Yes, they will use the excuses that they’ve heard and quote things about police attitudes and Mark Duggen and the rest, but the hard truth is that most of the people out on the streets were there for a bit of a laugh. They were there because other people were there, who were there because other people…

Without doubt we have to deal with inequality, with the bastards at the banks who have got away with a different kind of violent theft. But we must understand that much of this was far away from these triggers. People set fires because they saw that other people in other boroughs had. People turned over cars because they saw others had. There’s been lots of talk of these people being on benefits and having no jobs and all the rest. But I am absolutely certain that the demographic, if you really analysed it, would be kids from pretty decent homes, kids still in education, kids with parents in good trades. Yes, there will be those who see their futures as bleak, but I honestly don’t think that this is all about that.

The video above has rightly provoked complete disgust, but I think it’s significant because it goes some way to showing the complete lack of cause among people involved. There’s no sense of camaraderie, of a spirit of protest or some aims in mind. This was excitable people caught up in collective madness – in the sociological sense.

What do we do?

I think it may be too early to tell, but I feel that needs to be a careful response from parents, a thoughtful response from the media about how best to calm the situation and not further enflame it, and a community response (which I’ve already seen) to get out, clear up and stand up and be counted and show just how much the majority care for their community and one another. The political response – deep reflection on the nature of our inequitable capitalist system and our obsession with the banks – also needs to start right now.

Certainly, this should give the Labour party food for thought. Stop running to the middle, and let’s have decent policies to improve the lot of the poorest:

The failure of the markets goes hand in hand with human blight. Meanwhile, the view is gaining ground that social democracy, with its safety nets, its costly education and health care for all, is unsustainable in the bleak times ahead. The reality is that it is the only solution.

That, would you believe, is from Riddell in the Telegraph too. And if the Telegraph is saying that we need to divert more money into expensive public sector services, it’s time to sit up and listen, and lobby Cameron and Osbourne to think again on these deep cuts.

I’ve just been listening to the news, where teenagers who were involved in disturbances last night have been justifying their actions. ‘We just want to show these rich people who own these businesses that we can do what we like.’ ‘Yeah, we just want to show the police that we can do what we like.’ The response when asked if it will happen again tonight? ‘I hope so!’ I think this gets to the heart of the matter. There has been much talk of alienation from communities and how we’re in ‘Broken Britain’ – and I think there is a very serious political responsibility that Cameron has to take for talking this up into a self-fulfilling prophesy. Children will do what is of expected of them – good or bad. But I think the key alienation here is not from person to person, but from the self itself. The lack of self-knowledge and understanding shown by these responses is so very sad, and the core question must be how we can help our young people to discover who they are, and what their place is.

This, I think does boil back down to a capitalist problem. People are so busy having to work to make the money to buy the house to get the nice things because everyone says that this is where value lies… so there is no time to spend being with children, who are sat in front of TVs and games where they are told again and again that the way to be valued is a) to have loads of stuff and b) in GameWorld™, you just smash shit up without thought for the consequences to get what you want. And that, I’m afraid, is exactly what they did when they finally turned off the TV and did something.


8 responses to “Rebels Without a Cause? What We May (Not) Have Learned from the London Riots”

  1. Thanks – very much appreciate your insights and think they’re pretty much spot on. I am wondering how much the spirit of consumerism is linked with this: in Brum by us the main targets included Armani, the Adidas store and various electronic goods and jewellery shops.

    It’s not a ‘quick win’, but surely now more than ever there’s a need to promote a different way of living that doesn’t exist for the buzz of the next purchase?

  2. Absolutely. Absolutely. It is the death-wish, the dead materialism and selfishness that is the dark heart of capitalism that this is all about. And thus it goes very very deep.

  3. I found this piece pretty helpful:
    Personally I’m dreading the next round of nonsense from Gove who is bound to further discredit qualifications that young people have worked hard to achieve. How long will we be able to celebrate results this year before we are told that they are largely worthless and it’s only a few selected (selective?) GCSEs that really count and only a few A levels etc etc. And we wonder why young people feel desperate about their future.

  4. Donald Ray

    I tend to agree that a feeling of disenfranchisement brought on by income inequality, economic hardship, unemployment and the dismantling of the social safety net was a contributing factor but certainly not the only factor. I also see this as a failure of the Left to educate about the reasons for the overall situation and to harness and channel that energy and anger into effective social and political action. Contrast what was happening in London this weekend with what was going on in Tel Aviv for instance. I am not familiar enough with the political landscape of Britain to fully understand the reasons for that failure but I suspect that an unrealistic expectation of progressives that Labor is going to address these issues in an effective way, unless they are held to account and made to, is part of problem, just as progressives in the US are finally being disabused of this same idea about the Democratic Party. I think we have a great deal of work to do too in the peace and justice movements, which for me as a Christian includes the Church, to provide education and training in the philosophy and practices of nonviolent civil disobedience and direct action.

  5. Kester
    I think you completely nailed it in the last paragraph.
    Too much time without proper parent engagement.
    Too much TV, Video, Videogaming, Film, Book etc. media that reinforce the myth of redemptive violence and that you can do what you like without repercussions.
    The kids are partially responsible, the parents are culpable but society at large and western consumerism, materialism is the place where the real blame lies.
    It reminds me of a story by Slavoj Zizek:
    A man thinks he is a grain of seed. He is promptly taken to the mental institution where the doctors eventually convince him that he is not a grain of seed but a man. But, just when he’s apparently cured – convinced that he is not a grain of seed but a man—and permitted to leave the hospital, he comes back instantly, trembling with fear: there is a chicken outside and he is afraid the chicken is going to eat him. “Come now,” says the doctor, “you know full well that you are not a grain of seed but a man.” “You and I know that,” the patient says, “but does the chicken know?”
    We have to convince the ‘chickens’ – society as a whole that a new car or bigger house or fancy clothes will not make us happier or more fulfilled.

  6. Making Concrete

    Right wing tosh – “It’s the video games” – I read the same story in the Daily Mail about Grand Theft Auto yesterday. Video games are played by many millions of people, across all classes, and most of them don’t end up looting – would you like to provide one shred of evidence for your claim? Do you even play computer games? I always find it highly ironic people condemning technology while on a blog – or maybe it is okay for the middle-class to play games, but others can’t. Armchair sociology at its absolute worst.

    As is this, “But I am absolutely certain that the demographic, if you really analysed it” – well, no, people on the ground are saying something quite different – . You are just, quite literally, pulling this out of thin air and I think deep down you know it. The same for this “There’s no sense of camaraderie” – actually, a lot of people on the ground have witnessed the exact opposite, this is why it is difficult to police because kids keep their mouths shut. Indeed, there seems to have been a suspension of the normal gang territorial warfare over this, for the first time in years. More to the point about this having nothing to do with Duggen, if you read any of the BBMs going around you’ll see that much of it is motivated by hatred of the police for their daily surveillance.

    Funny how you posted a piece a few days ago about piracy, but then moved to condemn when real looting by the poor and disenfranchised is underway that is indeed a result of the ‘blocking’ of an economic system based on ruthless inequality. This is not to say that this isn’t an ambiguous phenomena (for one, no one likes to see people leaping from their homes in flames – indeed, I’d say no one wants these riots at all in an ideal world), which has many causes and motivations, that are not evenly spread geographically. But essentially, if you want to embrace certain political language, then you might want to consider what this actually looks like – it is a far more messy reality than it appears in high theory. And you might also want to consider the real causes before spouting rubbish like this.

  7. i am surprised that you have, as yet anyway, reflected on the riots in light of your piracy project. there seems to be a significant disconnect between the kind of moral outrage you display in the post above and the understanding, verging on glamorization, you afford the somali pirates. are we not more free in the light of the riots, as you suggested in your piracy posts? should these riots not be in some sense welcomed as highlighting the ‘shadow side of the system’?

    Or are you retreating in the face of the destructive reality of piracy in your home city to a classic champagne socialism….

  8. There seems to be a significant disconnect between the kind of moral outrage you display in the post above and the understanding, verging on glamorization, you afford the somali pirates… are you retreating in the face of the destructive reality of piracy in your home city to a classic champagne socialism?

    Not at all. I’ve been away for a couple of days, so haven’t posted, but I will be doing so (probably tomorrow morning now) on precisely this issue. There is nothing that has happened in London that has made me retreat on pirates! And is there nothing to ‘understand’ about Somali piracy? When the head of the Department for International Development for Somalia tells you that he completely understands what drives people to piracy in the Gulf of Aman, one can only agree that there’s something there to be thought through.