London Calling 2011

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.

11 thoughts on “London Calling 2011

  1. why you are afraid that the main cause of london riots is our society? if a society is the reason of a riot there is something wrong. the most of the humans are not free, our society isn’t fair and there is no solidarity by the ritch. what we have to lose?

  2. In one of my comments earlier I mentioned Britain of the past and present. As much as I like Britain of the past I am not so sure about Britain of today. In one of our newspapers there was an interesting article by an Indian analyst : “The rioters in England are “Thatcher’s grandchildren””. The title says almost everything. A number of years ago, while being in Britain I heard an opinion that Margaret Thatcher would be judged harshly by the history. A food for thought.


  3. @Magnus:

    Why I am afraid that society is the problem? Because I don’t believe that we are the poor suppressed ones. When I say that society is the problem, I think that we are. Society is made by people. Not by corporations, bad politicians and so on. It is made by people. The consequence from this is that it is people who must change. Unfortunately, I don’t see much will to change among us.


    Yes, I can remember what you have written. However, I don’t think that Britain is unique in any meaningful way. The problem is more general and thus much more severe. They way modern society functions is, as I see it, the source of such tragedies. Be it what happened in Britain, be it Breivik, be it what happens in the Somalia region. It is not the only source (especially with regard to the hunger in Africa), but you can trace many other aspects back to the general constitution of modern society.

  4. it’s right that the society is made by people, but nobody can change the humans. you only can change their behavior and the most important tool to regulate it are the laws written by the politicans. thus you can say: in a democratic society the majority of our politicians and those who vote them are the problem. but this is no reason for the minority to do nothing against our goddamn society made by the majority, because if we don’t do anything it’s possible that the riot becomes a revolution and i’m no really friend of revolutions.

  5. Societies do change, however, rate of that change together with the consequences differ from place to place. In my view, Britain is an interesting case of a self disciplined and wealthy society loosing its bearings over a relatively short period of time. Somehow some societies are better in managing change than others. At the same time it is difficult to compare what happened in Norway with the events in Britain – the end result could be similar but the background is rather different. There is a good chance that Britain will see the riots again while Norway might not see a similar accident for a very long time. Time will tell.


  6. @vandermerwe:

    At the same time it is difficult to compare what happened in Norway with the events in Britain

    OK, let’s stay in Britain. I think, Britain gave us an interesting (and, for that matter, terrifying) example of where consumer society together with alienation, deprivation and isolation can lead. I wouldn’t be surprised if something like that happened elsewhere in the “developed” world. However, it happened in Britain. We may learn something from that, or we may ignore the deeper causes. The choice is ours.

  7. @Magnus:

    I don’t think such riots could end in a revolution. A revolution has per definitionem the aim of changing something. London rioters didn’t want to change anything – even more, as I believe, they did exactly what they learn in their everyday life. The only difference was that they did it in a somewhat uncontrolled way.

    nobody can change the humans. you only can change their behavior

    In the long term, this is the same. If people don’t want to live in a particular way, no politician and no law can force them – they are going to be voted off/changed.

    As I see it, the vast majority of our society stands for what I am criticising, i.e., consumption, short-sighted self-interest seeking, a tendency to exclude those who don’t “fit” etc. So, you are right that there is a minority seeing this with criticism. But, and that is what I am afraid about, it is a very small one. Small minorities generally have 3 possibilities: assimilation, isolation or revolution (however, history has shown that no. 3 doesn’t work). The fourth possibility is that the majority changes. But here the small minority hasn’t much influence.

  8. you must see the london riots in context to the onther protest in the world. young people in greece, spain, israel, egypt, chile and also in london last year go on the streets, because they are disaffected with the politicans. all of them are the vicitms of neoliberalism. the only difference between this protests and the riots in london is that the rioters are not that much enducated to know what they want. and i think this is the danger. if you know why you are disaffected and what you want, you can change something, but if you don’t know anything the danger is huge that they follow someone who has simple explaination and simple solutions. humans don’t change themself: if the democracy has no success, they want a strong person on the top of the nation. it is not only a capitalism crisis, it is a democracy crisis aswell, like in the beginning of the 1930s and we know the history…

  9. The London riots were not a protest against capitalism or anything else. And exactly this makes them so terrifying: there were no political background there. You are also wrong in assuming that the “protesters” (rioters) were uneducated – as I wrote above, “uneducated” youths from deprived communities only started the riots. But soon they were joined by students, youths from “good families” and other ordinary people. This wasn’t a protest against capitalism/consumerism, it was its terrible manifestation.

    Of course, people tend to believe populists. Democracy may well be in danger – on the other hand, while there are antidemocratic tendencies in some countries (e.g., Hungary), in others it looks different (e.g., Italy, where Berlusconi finally loses ground). I don’t think Hitler will happen another time (what you seem to suggest). Not in the near future at least.

    Humans do change. Even societies do change. The problem is that one cannot influence it much. Or even anticipate the changes.

  10. it seems that you don’t understand what i mean (my english is a catastrophe). i try it another time:
    the rioters in london are the losers of the society and they noticed that, but they don’t know why, they don’t know the reasons and they don’t know a solution. it doesn’t metter what education achievement they have and what social backround, they don’t discern the context between consumption society and their situation. but they want a better life. this is the relation to the other protests in the world.
    i want to suggest is that a revolution is possible if the democracy is fragile. and a nationalistic revolution is more realitic than a socialistic or communistic one, because the people notice the bad influence of globalisation, finacialmarket and euro crisis. therefore they prefer nationalism and this trend is clear apparent in europe and also in the usa.

  11. On the contrary: I have understood you (your English is acceptable – and mine is far from perfect, too). I just think you are wrong.

    Your point is that it were some “losers” of the society who did the riots. They didn’t know why they feel as losers but had the need to “let go” the bad emotions coming from that feeling. And with this I disagree. Of course, I don’t know what there happened in reality – I wasn’t there. But after having read a bit about the riots, I believe that most of the rioters didn’t do what they did because of any “suppression” or “deprivation” feelings or whatever. It was striking that what they primarily did was to steal. As I (try to) understand that, it was just another act of consumption – though an extreme one. Instead of consuming in a “civilized” way (going to a shop, taking something from the shelve and paying for it), they seized the opportunity to “skip” the paying part (as well as the choosing/deciding part). They just took what they wanted and went away.

    Others destroyed/burnt automobiles, homes etc. But when asked by journalists, they said that they just wanted to show the police that they can do what they want (a girl cited by the BBC). I think, trying to interprete this as an upheaval against the state/society/system, is somewhat naive.

    You are right that there is a tendency toward nationalism (and other kinds of parochialism). But this was always so in times of a crisis. People soon give attention to “not-in-my-backyard” policies and parochial demarcations and scape-goat seeking. But I would be cautious before linking this with the London riots.


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