I was visiting the US for the first time when the Brixton riots happened, so there's some element of déjà vu as I wonder what future historians will make of our current curiously British evènements. Perhaps it’s too early to say anything until after Thursdays grève generale, but here goes.
No excuses — Violence against innocent people and gang thuggery is a matter for the full rigour of the law, and no amount of sociologizing it away will help its innocent victims — vulnerable people of all ages whose lives are tarnished by fear, who have nothing to gain from what is going on, and whose anxieties and issues are of no interest to the probably surprisingly small gangs driving all this.
I feel very sorry for members of the Police Service, no crew of plaster saints, but by and large good and decent people whose function in British society seems to be either lightning conductors or ham in the sociological sandwich.The only thing worse for them to be seen to be dong than nothing, is anything; and everyone's a ruddy expert on what they ought to have done. So I'll rejoice in my ignorance about the localities and pragmatics, and just voice what I know the vast majority of people will offer, thoughts and prayers for those at the sharp end of sorting the whole bloody mess out.
Some historians of France point out that rioting in nineteenth century Paris sometimes happened because ripping up pavé stirred memories of earlier and more stirring times — a ghost image in the collective mind that bubbled up surprisingly often when the forces of law and order were out of town. But that of course is the French for you.
The adjective the English use is “mindless.” On one level it's true, of course. Generally low levels of intelligence are at work here, and misdirected youthful testosterone, catalysed by a desire for significance on any terms, no doubt. However, as a sage churchwarden used to remind me frequently, things do happen for reasons. Reasons do call for understanding. It seems there’s a youth and gang culture in some urban areas that is deeply disturbing and needs to be understood then challenged at a very basic level.
Two big historic structural questions marks lurk in the background.
One is about social purpose. In the last century, young men derived a sense of larger purpose from progress, then Empire, then war, then having saved Freedom, then the white heat of technology, then help yourself loadsamoney Thatcherism, then celebrity, then... ? There's a vacuum out there. Some wheels are wobbling on the axle if not clean off the wagon.
If the only point of being alive is to have designer things and feed your face and get away with it, and that’s pretty much the only public belief we own up to, people without stuff will pinch it when the constraints come down. Looting offers a radical form of selfishness, banality and materialism. British secular society is profoundly uninspiring. People see those in high places helping themselves, and leaders who have abandoned as obsolete the notion that “Thou shalt not steal” as part of the bedrock of life. If it is no more than a quaint conviction for a minority of religious people, here’s one result.
Secondly, the more unequal a society becomes, and we are currently shooting inequality rates that take us back to the nineteenth century, the more frustrated everybody becomes at one level or another — a point well made by The Spirit Level. Subterranean violence, born of boredom, social humiliation and frustration, will out in bad ways as well as ambitious ones.
When it does criminal behaviour should, of course, be met with the full rigour of the law. But is it too much to hope that someone will pick over the history of the past few days sometime when it becomes possible to do this, address the Moral Vacuum it indicates, and draw from it raw materials for a strategy of reinspiration as well as anger and mere containment?