Last week London (among other British cities) faced a wave of terrible riots. Excited by the death of a minor criminal, they ended after 5 deaths, numerous injuries, 2000 arrests, and over £200 million worth of material damages. The riots have shown us that what sociologists thought possible in “failed states” only is thinkable in rich countries as well – chaos, looting, widespread violence… And all that without any political or social demands involved. A complete loss of control.
I am not an expert in this field. However, since experts have been surprised by what happened in London, it may nonetheless make sense to comment on the riots. Be it somewhat off-topic (although I am not sure whether it really is).
As far as I know, the London riots were started by youths from deprived communities. They were the ones who pillaged the first shops, threw the first stones and set fire to the first cars and houses. Nevertheless, very soon “ordinary people” followed. They took advantage of the chaos and themselves started to loot and steal. Both facts are very worrying and worth deeper reasoning.
Firstly, it is a sad fact that there are still deprived communities in our actually rich societies. There are a lot of people without proper education, without jobs, without normal relationships – mostly they live in modern ghettos, not closed physically, but all the more closed “mentally”. People living in these ghettos tend to feel marginalised, not to see themselves as a part of the society. Especially in the case of youths this can have terrible consequences. Since they have no jobs, they are bored. Since they possess hardly anything (materially as well as socially), they have not much to lose. At the same time, their surrounding (be it the media, be it other, richer people, be it advertising…) is calling for material consumption they cannot afford. And they don’t really feel as part of the society – so they have no (or very low) inhibition thresholds. Why should one care for the suffering of others if these others don’t care for his? Seen from this perspective, prime minister David Cameron’s plans to exclude the looters from the provision of social benefits appears highly counterproductive. And stupid, indeed. Exclusion cannot be cured by further exclusion. This is not to say that these people shouldn’t be brought to justice and penalized. They should. But not in the way the British government is proposing.
The second aspect of the London riots is even more distressing. “Ordinary” members of the British society took part in the “burning and looting”. In some sense, they did what one usually is supposed to do in our modern society – they kept consuming, merely in an area immune of laws and bare of conscience. They pillaged shops, stole cloths, electronics… In “normal world” they might have bought them. Last week they just took them. It was all about consuming and enjoying “freedom” – a seeming freedom from consequences and prosecution.
The striking fact is that there were no political demands those days in London. The rioters didn’t demand social justice, sound economic policy or anything. They just looted. They took what they wanted, enjoying that no-one were able to prevent them from that.
What follows from all that? What should be done? I don’t know. I don’t think that higher security measures – another proposal by Mr Cameron – are a remedy. As usually, they only treat symptoms, if anything – at the same time constraining basic rights. What we need is the treatment of causes. And I am afraid that the main cause of the London riots is our society.