Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Comments on the London riots

I have a mind that continually seeks answers, and have therefore had an interesting time looking for answers to the London riots. The question is - why are people rioting?

Clearly there was a legitimate protest last week about police violence and the shooting of a man. But why would that lead to people completely unrelated to the event participating in social media facilitated rioting and looting?

Last night’s 7.30 report had a good interview with a former UK police advisor who pinpointed a growing pool of disengaged citizens, perhaps from families with generational unemployment and council housing – a pool of people with nothing to lose who are attracted to the excitement of the riots and the opportunity to be part of something, since they have never themselves felt like part of society.  This seems a reasonable explanation to me, but doesn't really help explain what type of actions government might want to take in the future to help avoid the situation.

Tyler Cowen links to some academic studies on the economics of riots, noting the importance of opportunity cost, chance of punishment, ethnic and cultural diversity, but not of poverty.

Here are some reader comments from Bristol West’s Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Williams’ blog that I found had some interesting angles. (ht:Chris M)

  • The main thing to come out of this for me is how out of touch with today’s youth, and particularly the ‘lost’ youth, the government is. It’s not only the greed that caused this. It has as much to do with fun. These people were visibly enjoying themselves, it’s like heaven for them. Violence, hate and destruction are an intrinsic part of their lives. They love it, and the inability of anyone in power to understand why is why the problem will never go away.
  • It’s the way this round of civil unrest has a weird consumerist spirit that seems genuinely unusual. Reports of looters standing around deciding what shops to kick in based on what stuff they want; of kids trying on different pairs of trainers in a kicked-in JD Sports before picking which ones to take. Even while burning buildings, smashing cars and attacking police, the looters retain a well-disciplined sense of their need to make ‘wise’ consumer decisions, and remain obedient to market-based desires.
  • As usual an MP with no regard for considering who might be at the root of this unrest ie the bankers, politicians and big businesses who dont pay their taxes and make us all look like fools while they live in their Surrey mansions. How about, just for once, coming up with some policies that help people to make a contribution to their comminities instead of slashing jobs and services to pay for the failing of the banks. These people are angry,frustrated and have had enough of being told what to do by people whose only interest is serving themselves.
  • They are only out clashing with police and looting shops because they have nothing else to do, and nowhere else to go. The riots are caused by ruthless austerity measures that mean their voices are drowned out. It is hypocritical for you to blame them for starting these riots when it was really your coalition government. You say we “need to have a good hard look at the direction in which our society is heading.” Damn right we do. The way your government is going, this cry for help from the deprived may become a lot more common.
  • “A riot is the language of the unheard.” —Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • so 30 years of boardroom pay rises of 60-80% per annum, funded by “efficiency savings” i.e. sacking much of the work force, along with no wage rises for those at the bottom of the corporate structure “lucky” enough to still have their jobs – would have absolutely nothing to do with all this at all? i guess the sight of wealthy bankers ruining the economy and causing people to lose their jobs and homes being repossessed while they retire at 50 (sir fred goodwin) with £1million+ per year pensions is setting the right example? if the system is seen to be corrupt, greedy & there is no hope even given to those at the bottom, while they are constantly taunted by glamorous billboards advertising the latest “must haves” in a consumerist society, things they can never afford, who can be surprised when the first opportunity is taken, and any excuse will do, to just say sod it, and take what you can. god helps those who help themselves – just ask any burglar. and burglars are pretty much what the boardroom giants and bankers are. does sir philip green and other wealthy people even pay tax? i think not.


  1. Interesting to see how people make the moral leap from something being "unfair" to deserving violence....

    Society MAYBE "unfair" but looting & random violence can't be tolerated!

    Also interesting comment regarding choosing the 'right' shoes...

  2. Yeah, I agree. This quote stuck with me

    “A riot is the language of the unheard.” —Martin Luther King, Jr.

    It seems that people don't really know how to be heard, but know how to be violent. Imagine, the disillusioned, unemployed mob whinging to the media - "the system is not fair!" That's won't get anyone's attention.

    I also have a personal view that quite a bit if this is to do with identity - the rioters identify with last week's protesters, especially the 'us v them' mentality.

    Another view I have is that although we all have choices if we start life in disadvantaged circumstances, it is hard to even know what choices exist, let alone drop the identity of 'victim of the system'.

    There is alway the view that the English with riot with any excuse - have you seen the crowds at the football!

  3. I wonder if the Canada riots of '69 can shed any further light?... http://ti.me/nbminl

    I do think any society has the capacity for bursts of anarchy.

    I don't like the 'victim' talk. It may be a current failing of society for people to feel like that - but for it to be linked with riots ALMOST lends credibility to the mob.

  4. Cameron, I just don't think Martin Luther would have thought anything nice about these people, bashing kids, breaking into restaurants. They are just a55hol3s pure and simple. Any hand wringing about them being innocent is like being sympathetic to "Alex" from A Clockwork Orange.

    I think history will reveal them being nothing more than kids who have been brought up to believe they can do what they want with impunity. They are laughing at us, yes it is US and THEM.

  5. I am not trying to say nice things about the rioters, just that if you are looking for answers, there unfortunately might not be any simple ones.

    I totally agree that this is mostly opportunistic, self interested 'joy rioting'. But to take advantage of the opportunity to riot, you really need to have nothing much to lose.

    Hence, when there is a large pool of people with nothing much to lose from rioting, you will find it popping up with seemingly little to provoke it.