Luke Bretherton says irresponsibility at the top is just as much to blame for the riots as that of the rioters themselves
David Cameron said the rioters represented ‘pockets’ of society that were ‘sick’.
His analysis was both wrong and worryingly misguided. To say someone is sick is to suggest they are not responsible for what is happening to them.
Of course the use of medical analogies to diagnose what ails the body politic is an ancient one. But to understand what was going on in the riots we must turn to another ancient metaphor, one found in the stories of Cain and Abel and Romulus and Remus, namely, fraternal rivalry.
When my two boys were toddlers, if one had a toy, the other desired it and after a while, if he could not get it by legitimate means he would snatch it.
To add injury to insult, and with a certain frenzied and spiteful glee, he would then thump his sibling from whom he stole the toy. The anthropologist Rene Girard calls this process ‘mimetic rivalry’.
It is beyond simple envy. It is a deep desire sparked by copying what another has or does. In wanting what the other has, we seek to affirm our own worth and value.
The ‘shopping with violence’ we saw in the riots was the outworking of a consumer culture in which self-worth is measured by material gain and identities expressed through brands.
It is a culture where desire for what others have not only drives the whole economy but mediates social relations: what we gossip about, watch on TV and how we spend our leisure time mostly revolves around consuming and observing what others consume.
The rioters wanted to participate in what they felt excluded from and given the opportunity took it by any means necessary. But like all projects of self-justification, it is not enough to get what you want, there is a need to hit back at what made you feel bad, held back or deprived in the first place. Hence the arson and the attacks on the police. Mimetic rivalry eventually spins out of control, until it leads to violence.
But if this all sounds a bit over theorised, we should not forget that for some rioting is fun. Studies of early modern English riots – an equivalent time of rapid social change – suggests that among a range of factors, some of which included genuine grievances, was the fact that many taking part were bored young men looking for something to do.
Rioting was a laugh, a way to vent frustrations and circumvent the normal boundaries that limited their actions. Most riots were not proto-revolutionary protests but carnivalesque upsurges that made the fools kings for a day.
If the lists of those arrested are anything to go by, most of those taking part were foolish young men aged between 17-25. This is the same demographic who take the most illegal drugs, who drink to excess the most, and whom we send to fight our wars.
They are risk takers who don’t consider the consequences. It is the same high risk, short-term thinking and wantonly destructive behaviour we saw among the (mostly male) bankers who traded away our future and indebted us for a generation.
We are a society that rewards one ‘pocket’ of self-interested risk takers for privatising profit and socialising the cost, but is busy incarcerating another ‘pocket’ for the same actions.
But the identification of irresponsible and destructive risk taking in many sections of society suggests a further problem with Cameron’s analysis of the riots.
Alongside mimetic rivalry, Girard points to another social process we saw in the riots: scapegoating. As the righteous anger and fear erupted, society sought to heal the social fabric in the face of its violent rupture by heaping all the blame on certain groups: parents, feral youth, gangs, and in one particularly shallow, but nonetheless troubling case voiced by David Starkey, black youth culture.
Society could then form a solid phalanx, re-affirming its own values and innocence in contradistinction to the irresponsible actions of scapegoats who were condemned as outside of ‘normal’ behaviour.
Scapegoating seems to shape the government’s whole response to the riots. But in scapegoating particular groups, we seek to avoid taking responsibility.
And this gets to the heart of the problem: the refusal of all involved – rioters, government, the police and society in general – to take responsibility.
This is a profound malaise at the heart of our body politic. As Peter Oborne pointed out in one of the most perceptive comments on the riots, the riots were of a piece with the irresponsible actions of bankers, politicians, the police and journalists who think they can bend and break the law, acting with impunity and with no regard for the common life we all share and on which they themselves depend.
Those guilty of criminal acts must be made to take responsibility and be taught and set an example of how to act otherwise. But to do this we must all take responsibility for creating a culture that lauds as rational self-interest desiring what others have and using any means necessary to get it; treating others with contempt in order to get ahead; taking risks without considering the consequences for others; and not taking responsibility for polluting, destroying and desecrating our common life, on which all our flourishing depends.
Thankfully, we saw signs of an alternative culture to the one displayed on the streets of our cities and in the boardrooms of the City, one that is not hell bent on sacrificing all we hold dear to the maw of mammon.
Those who came together to clean up, support those in distress and defend their neighbourhoods from attack invested in building a common life before self-aggrandisement, took personal responsibility, and did not leave it all up to the state or the market to decide. Rather than hide away in gated communities, they valued cooperative action and mutual support.
They met public squalor with public spirit. These citizens point to the virtues and values we must foster if we are to heal our body politic and inhibit both low morals in high places and heightened immorality in ordinary places.