Civil disturbances never have a single, simple meaning. When the Bastille was being stormed the thieves of Paris doubtless took advantage of the mayhem to rob houses and waylay unlucky revolutionaries. Sometimes the thieves were revolutionaries. Sometimes the revolutionaries were thieves. And it is reckless to start making confident claims about events that are spread across the country and that have many different elements. In Britain over the past few days there have been clashes between the police and young people. Crowds have set buildings, cars and buses on fire. Shops have been looted and passersby have been attacked. Only a fool would announce what it all means.
We can dispense with some mistakes, though. It is wrong to say that the riots are apolitical. The trouble began on Saturday night when protesters gathered at Tottenham police station to demand that the police explain the circumstances in which a local man, Mark Duggan, had been shot dead by the police. The death of a Londoner, another black Londoner, at the hands of the police has a gruesome significance. The police are employed to keep the peace and the police shot someone dead. This is a deeply political matter. Besides, it is conventional to say how much policing in London has changed since the Brixton riots of the early eighties – but not many people mouthing the conventional wisdom have much firsthand experience of being young and poor in Britain’s inner cities.
More broadly, any breakdown of civil order is inescapably political. Quite large numbers of mostly young people have decided that, on balance, they want to take to the streets and attack the forces of law and order, damage property or steal goods. Their motives may differ – they are bound to differ. But their actions can only be understood adequately in political terms. While the recklessness of adrenaline has something to do with what is happening, the willingness to act is something to be explained. We should perhaps ask them what they were thinking before reaching for phrases like “mindless violence”. We might actually learn something.
The fierce conflict remains ahead
The profusion of images that modern technology generates makes it even more difficult to impose a single meaning on a complex event. Those who live in terror of a feral underclass and those who are worried about the impact of fiscal austerity on vulnerable communities can find material online that confirms their world-view. There will be a fierce conflict in the weeks ahead as politicians, commentators and others seek to frame the events of the last few days in ways that serve their wider agenda. The police, for example, will call for increased budgets to deal with the increased risks of civil disorder. In this sense, too, riots are inescapably political events.
There are signs too that technology is allowing individuals to intervene in the process by which meaning is assigned to social events. When disorder broke out in France in 2005 in somewhat similar circumstances the political right was the major beneficiary. Sarkozy’s rise from interior minister to president owed a great deal to his role in expressing the anxious aggression of a mass constituency that often lived far away from the burning cars and public buildings.
In London today people were on the streets tidying up the damage. The hashtag #riotcleanup on Twitter is being used by councils and residents to coordinate the work. The decision to act in this way, to make the streets a little more safe, to reclaim them for peaceful sociability, steps away from the temptation to condemn the violence or explain it in terms that inevitably simplify or distort it. Those who come together like this will be less likely to conclude that the country is on the verge of chaos, less likely to call for harsh measures and the further erosion of liberty in the name of security. It is the one shrewd thing one can do in present circumstances and it is to be celebrated.
So there is no single meaning in what is happening in London and elsewhere. But there are connections that we can make, and that we should make. We have a major problem with youth unemployment. There have already been cuts in services for young people. State education in poor areas is sometimes shockingly bad. Young people cannot afford adequate private housing and there is a shortage of council-built stock. Economic inequality has reached quite startling levels. All this is the consequence of decisions made by governments and there is little hope of rapid improvement. The same politicians now denouncing the mindless violence of the mob all supported a system of political economy that was as unstable as it was pernicious. They should have known that their policies would lead to disaster. They didn’t know. Who then is more mindless?
The global economic crisis is at least as political as the riots we’ve seen in the last few days. It has lasted far longer and done far more damage. We need not draw a straight line from the decision to bail out the banks to what’s going on now in London. But we must not lose sight of what both events tell us about our current condition. Those who want to see law and order restored must turn their attention to a menace that no amount of riot police will disperse; a social and political order that rewards vandalism and the looting of public property, so long as the perpetrators are sufficiently rich and powerful.
Dan Hind has worked in publishing since 1998 and is the author of two acclaimed books: The Return of the Public and The Threat to Reason. He is this year’s winner of the Bristol Festival of Ideas Prize.
Follow him on Twitter: @danhind