The seriousness of the recent riots across England has inspired a period of serious reflection. The search for the reasons why has looked instinctively to deep-level problems, with heavy-faced politicians and commentators alike theorising over social deprivation, financial exclusion, latent criminality, pervasive greed, moral atrophy, heinous influences, bad grammar, poor parenting, the enervation of authority, the erosion of community, unemployment, recession, and the all-encompassing concept of a broken society. While these represent various political and ideological positions, what is striking is that almost all the explanations on offer are characterised by a brooding introspection (that the problem must be within us), and a focus on long-term issues. The sense is that, be it through poverty or the corrupting touch of welfare, Britain has been grinding darkly year after year toward this dire and profoundly inevitable conclusion. Fittingly this is to be met, as we are beginning to see in the court results coming through, with the handing out of equally grinding and long-term custodial sentences.
The most natural response to something extremely surprising, as the rioting indeed was, is to declare immediately that it was always going to happen and a long time coming. It’s an emotional, if rather irrational way to recapture our balance after taking a destabilising hit. We feel we need to reinstate big causal links, and so start drawing them out from the richness of history.
Accordingly an assumption has been made that the riots were somehow a necessary expression of where society was heading. This feels so right it is probably politically unacceptable to suggest otherwise (and certainly few politicians would let slide so prime an opportunity for rhetoric). However from the standpoint of logic it is less tenable. For one the starting point of the riots, the police shooting in London of Mark Duggan, was itself something of a freak event which might easily not have happened (fatal shootings by the Metropolitan Police are marginal occurrences, averaging one a year over the last decade with a majority of white victims). The rioting that then followed rapidly lost touch with the Duggan incident as it spiralled across ethnicities and regions with no particular relationship or common grievance. Within a few days kids in Manchester were stealing ice-cream — clearly cued by the events in London, but not out of feeling for the deceased, and most likely unaware even of who he was.
It was this quality of fast random propagation that both made the rioting so difficult to police and propelled it to a national-level crisis. There was no coherent political motivation at work to suggest where the rioting would develop next, rendering it impossible to contain. Nor was there any significant organisation to crack — and while much has been made of the involvement of gangs, these were operating on a local level with no leadership to mastermind events from one city to the next. In fact for the gangs it was all something of a distraction from their core activity of gang warfare, as they agreed to lay aside territorial disputes to rove freely for the period of the rioting. Indeed it was the rioting itself, rather than a separate cause, that proved to be its own driver as well as a remarkable uniting force, bringing together not only gangs, but what in other contexts would be considered a laudably heterogeneous mix of ages, ethnicities and walks of life. For a brief but distinctly magical spell these divergent groups gathered in the sway of one of the most powerful, and in this context most undermentioned social forces: fun.
Opprobrium has been rained down on the rioting from all sides, but what this misses is the sheer exuberance of it all — the fact that for those involved, for a few days, it was hugely thrilling and enjoyable to smash in shop windows, take stuff, and set things on fire.* Rioting was kicks of the highest order, and it was this, in combination with chance, mass opportunism and multiple local networks all firing simultaneously that drove its flash blooming across the country.
These characteristics start to make the rioting look much more like a contagion phenomenon, akin to an internet craze, than the product of inexorable socio-political forces. Contagion phenomena tend to be quick, light, unexpected, and in an important sense unnecessary or non-inevitable — i.e. they are the kind of things that may have happened, and even on a large scale, but could very easily not have done. As such they tend to elude the slow grinding approach that conceives of society as a giant history-making machine, with inputs and heavy levers that fully and proportionally determine the narrative being pushed out. And while after the event it is always possible to reverse-engineer a mechanistic historicist or Marxist interpretation, it may be that with the rioting these are meaningless in the same kind of a way that they are when applied to the question of why Jonathan the turtle-loving zombie boy has garnered over 31 million views on YouTube. You can look at the surrounding economic and political context, you can look at the biography of Jonathan himself, you can look at the aesthetics of how the clip was shot and delve endlessly into the demographic and psychological make-up of the clip viewers, but ultimately it’s a spurious endeavour because even with all this information, you would never have been able to predict with any certainty before the event that the Jonathan clip would prove contagious. As it happened it did, but it may equally have gone nowhere.
Digital-era contagion-style blooms of information and behaviour patterns played a clear role in the rioting, and considerable attention has been paid to the use of Blackberry Messenger among rioters, as well as (new) old familiars facebook and twitter. It is likely more traditional media made a significant contribution too, with the BBC hosting a field day in footage of kids smashing in windows and insulting the police (while the police for their part looked on and sent each other radio messages, presumably to the effect of, “They’re, er, smashing in the windows and, er, calling me a cunt.”) Watched breathlessly around the nation, this livefeed demonstration that rioting really was possible and available as a fun activity no doubt inspired other kids to embark upon riots themselves, and so the bloom opened in new areas, bringing on more footage, more blooming, and so on.
Contagious crazes, especially among young people, are nothing unusual or even new (digital communication serves to power up the speed and scale but not the nature of the exponential law). However they are generally not very transgressive. Little prime ministerial agony is spent over which particular yo-yos are being bought in droves, or which websites swarmed, but a craze for rioting in the UK seemed wholly unprecedented. What this fails to acknowledge however is that the last year has proved to be an exceptionally fertile period for contagious rioting if you only zoom out a little on the planet.
Austerity measures across Europe have inspired mass demonstrations — replete with violence, looting, smashed windows and torched buildings — in Greece, Spain and Italy (alongside significant unrest in a host of further countries). Belfast, no stranger to the lick of the flame, though for completely different reasons, saw in June the worst sectarian rioting for over a decade. And of course this is all taking place before the giant backdrop of protests, rioting and outright civil war that has swept across the Middle East. While the politics is wholly dissimilar from region to region, what is consistent is the infectious realisation among people, and young idle men in particular, that it is terrifically exciting to gather in the streets and challenge the dominant social order. This has led in effect to a rioting epidemic, with spores borne on the khamsin spring wind from Egypt out across the globe.
In one sense it is rather sad to see how a particular activity —transgression against the existing law and order — can be stripped of ideas and transposed so easily from one context to another, such that the noble youth of the revolution in an Arab police state can turn into the looting mob of a late capitalist western consumer society. More ironic than sad is the fact that the genuinely transformative zeal of the Middle East uprisings should be replaced by such extreme political conformity among the British rioters. For if the riots in Britain expressed anything, it was simply a recapitulation of the most obvious and normative consumer desires. Rather than seeking to confront the authorities (indeed the police later complained of how hard it was to manage a riot of which they were not the focus), the rioters made for stores packed with trainers, mobile phones and plasma screen tvs — among the most representative consumer goods of the consumer society they were attacking. Not only this, but they were the precisely the specific consumer goods that producers would deem most suitable for them. Overwhelmingly rioters looted the very goods that businesses want them to want in an expression of sedulous allegiance to mainstream marketing. This was underlined by the chain retailer JD Sports which, a few days after suffering multiple raids from youths in adidas hoodies, took down the particle boards covering their windows to replace them with giant poster advertisements displaying … youths in adidas hoodies.
For the most part the youths were doing exactly what society expects them to with the sole transgressive feature being not paying, leading to the characterisation of the riots as “shopping with violence”. The modern shopping aspect is further accentuated by the fact that the rioters manifestly already owned many of the things they were looting. The windows of trainer stores were kicked in by kids wearing notably robust pairs of trainers. The looting of phone stores was organised by kids communicating on their Blackberry phones. The theft of flatscreen tvs was spread by kids watching the theft of flatscreen tvs on their flatscreen tvs. And so on. The point being that the rioters rioted not for want of a pair of shoes, but for want of more shoes.
This suggests two things. Firstly, and for all the destabilising feelings the riots have kicked up, they cast a deep-level vote of confidence in favour of the dominant ideology. The basic consumption economy system, which works on the principle of people wanting to shop for more, could barely be more stable than if, when lawlessness does break out, it is used simply as an opportunity for people to do essentially what they would do anyway if they only had a little more money (i.e. go to the store, get more of the products that are marketed to them). Secondly, the riots express a peculiarly rich world form of deprivation, in which it is becoming increasingly apparent that in a society driven by people wanting more, however much the people on the bottom layer have (and irrespective of no longer being hungry, bare, homeless etc.), the mere presence of those with a little more than them is enough to ensure discontent. Essentially, all the consumer items in the world will not be enough to satisfy the people with the least consumer items.
All of this leaves Mr Cameron in a quandary. In the wake of the riots he wants to reform Britain’s broken society from within, but the act of rioting most likely blew over from abroad, and the desires driving the rioting go down to very foundations of the society itself. Indeed they are the same ones being so ardently looked to to pull it through the larger crisis of the economic recession. He may find that like a broken tooth, it’s the brokenness of it that’s holding it together.