Stuff on riots

August 9, 2011

The Age of Hyper Imitation

We may be seeing a new strain of mass behaviour, one that results from the meeting of two factors, one social and the other technological. On the one hand, large numbers of people who are floating free from wider communities and who are thus both less bound by their norms and more vulnerable to influence from people with whom they have no enduring relationship. On the other, technologies that instantly transmit information to participants about what others are doing, supercharging the feedback loops and obliterating their sense of individual responsibility.

When you’re not part of a community you are more likely to join the herd.

The underclass lash back

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. After the Great Crash, Britain recalibrated, for a time. Income differentials fell, the welfare state was born and skills and growth increased.

That exact model is not replicable, but nor, as Adam Smith recognised, can a well-ordered society ever develop when a sizeable number of its members are miserable and, as a consequence, dangerous. This is not a gospel of determinism, for poverty does not ordain lawlessness. Nor, however, is it sufficient to heap contempt on the rioters as if they are a pariah caste.

One of the most tragic aspects of London’s meltdowns is that we need this ruined generation if Britain is ever to feel prosperous and safe again. If there are no jobs for today’s malcontents and no means to exploit their skills, then the UK is in graver trouble than it thinks. Mr Osborne may congratulate himself on his prudence, but retrenchment also bears a social cost. We are seeing just how steep that price may be.

Not protest in any meaningful sense

But if it were just criminality it would be less worrying than it is. What has horrified so many people, apart from the recklessness and the callousness involved in the actions of the rioters, is the threat to civil order and the seeming inability of the police to contain it. On the other hand, though various grievances may well be at work here, they can’t be construed as a sufficient cause of what is happening since such grievances might have been channeledotherwise and more positively.

The most interesting paragraph I’ve read about the situation comes from Kenan Malik, who tries to move beyond the opposition criminality / result of social exclusion.

There is clearly more to the riots than simple random hooliganism. But that does not mean that the riots, as many have claimed, are protests against disenfranchisement, social exclusion and wasted lives. In fact, it’s precisely because of disenfranchisement, social exclusion and wasted lives that these are not ‘protests’ in any meaningful sense, but a mixture of incoherent rage, gang thuggery and teenage mayhem. Disengaged not just from the political process… there is a generation (in fact more than a generation) with no focus for their anger and resentment, no sense that they can change society and no reason to feel responsible for the consequences of their actions. That is very different from suggesting that the riots were caused by, a response to, or a protest against, unemployment, austerity and the cuts.

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