criminal, not political

“… it’s just about possible that you could see your actions refashioned into a noble cause if you were stealing the staples: bread, milk. But it can’t be done while you’re nicking trainers, let alone laptops.” (Here.)

Facebook buzzed yesterday over whether the riots could be called anarchism, and decided a better term was nihilism. I wondered whether an even better term would be anomie, and now Zoe Williams makes just that point.

“I wasn’t convinced by nihilism as a reading: how can you cease to believe in law and order, a moral universe, co-operation, the purpose of existence, and yet still believe in sportswear? How can you despise culture but still want the flatscreen TV from the bookies? Alex Hiller, a marketing and consumer expert at Nottingham Business School, points out that there is no conflict between anomie and consumption…”

There’s no cause, there’s no ideology, there’s no sense in it. Violence in a political cause you can understand, even if not excuse, but this is violence for its own sake. The “riot girls” video which has stayed firmly in the BBC’s top ‘most watched’ lists shows clueless teenagers, drinking stolen wine all night, treating it all as a bit of fun, and witlessly blaming variously “the government” (careless as to what party is even governing) and then “rich people”! but entirely lacking in any perceivable, far less coherent, justification. Obviously there are social and political and moral factors which can be identified by analysts looking on and can contribute to an explanation, but what’s motivating these people is no political project, no social ideology, no moral grievance.

“… these are shopping riots, characterised by their consumer choices: that’s the bit we’ve never seen before. A violent act by the authorities, triggering a howl of protest – that bit is as old as time. But crowds moving from shopping centre to shopping centre? Actively trying to avoid a confrontation with police, trying to get in and out of JD Sports before the “feds” arrive? That bit is new.”

They barely deserve to be dignified by the title riots. It’s empty, casual, self-indulging lawlessness, and simple moral wrong.

17 thoughts on “criminal, not political

  1. Oh, just seen a link on FB to this –

    – where I totally, totally agree with the point down towards the end: these are our people, not a strange and exotic other species. It’s not “society” versus “them”. But our social structures are in themselves always fragile, and as the moral core empties out, the surprising thing is not that society starts to disintegrate but the magnitude of our collective complacency in assuming the structures will somehow just remain intact regardless.

    It’s the shame of it, as Seraphic has been saying (and I still want to pick up on her recent essay, except that whatever I was going to say about British religiousness last week barely sounds adequate any more).


      • More on ‘”them” vs “us”‘ –

        by and large, whether the columnist is a bleeding-heart liberal or a flog-’em diehard, there’s a sense that the looters are profoundly “other”, different, alien. So the liberal chat turns on words such as alienated or disaffected. The diehards use words such as enemy, feral or savages. But the liberal and the diehard both seem to see the looters as profoundly other, patronisingly in the one case, demonisingly in the other. The thought is that the looters are not like us.

        A Christian explanation could begin with one of the more sensible secular comments. These are “consumer society riots”, says Dr Paul Bagguley, who is a sociologist at Leeds. This is very perceptive. It points clearly to the consumerist, acquisitive nature of the looting, and it hints that these are the kind of riots that a consumer society (and let’s not forget, that’s all of us) has. It hints that this is the kind of riot you expect from members of a consumer society, not from those who refuse to be part of it. That does not allow me to say the looters are totally alien or other, or even “enemies of society” in a straightforward way. The looters are committed to the consumer society. They’re “us”, not simply “them”.


  2. What makes them value trainers so much? Are trainers pagan fetish objects? (Fetish, as people should know, was originally a theological, not sexual term.)

    These are children who have been taught almost nothing worthwhile. They have had their heads filled with nothing but flattery and entertainment. It is truly shocking and horrible.


  3. They have no dads, says a local Labour MP …

    Some other familiar themes –
    “…There is none of the basic starting presumption of two adults who want to start a family, raise children together, love them, nourish them and lead them to full independence. The parents are not married and the child has come, frankly, out of casual sex; the father isn’t present, and isn’t expected to be. There aren’t the networks of extended families to make up for it. We are seeing huge consequences of the lack of male role models in young men’s lives,” he said.

    “How do you find your masculinity in the absence of role models? Through hip-hop, through gang culture, through peer groups. It is hugely problematic. Teenagers are in school until 3.30, and then MTV, Facebook, the internet, kicks in with a set of values that comes with it. It is not clear to me that parents are equipped to deal with that. …”


  4. I half agree, Cath, but not entirely. I do think it’s probably true that the rioters have few (if any) genuine political goals in mind. And I agree that their behaviour can hardly be described as moral.

    But I think that this misses something important. A lack of political goals and a violent opportunism don’t mean that the rioters haven’t been pushed to the point of desperation, or that these riots aren’t about deep social injustice and aren’t a reaction to bad government. Seumas Milne seems to put it reasonably well:


  5. Well, liberals (including those in the government) – who will not give up their fantasy that human nature can be perfected – are puzzled once again as to why the rioters (no, not “protestors”) are doing what they do. While the public is wondering when the water cannons will be used (and the top two sellers on Amazon in Britain now are batons and baseball bats – if the police won’t protect them, they’ll protect themselves), some confused liberal in the government said, in effect: “Oh, no, we can’t use those. We must try to get our various communities to talk to each other again.”

    If you’re not going to believe in the sin nature, this is what you get.


  6. Yes, abandon God, His laws, cast off Church going, trash marriage as divinely instituted, wreck the concept of family, remove capital punishment from the armoury of the state, take corporal punishment out of schools and the home -then embrace the liberal doctrines of post modernism – pump everyone with the poison of diversity, multi-culturalism and political correctness and hey presto chaos and crisis are the result – quelle surprise ?

    And these fools of politicians we have will meet in Parliament today and still fail to realise what is going on. Britain has abandoned God – and sad to say God has abandoned Britain – this is His judicial judgment on this nation. Successive governments have sown to the wind and now they are reaping the whirlwind.

    There is an interesting verse in the song of Deborah and Barak in Judges 5 verse 8. ‘They chose new gods; then was war in the gates.’ In other words – when a nation apostatises – idolatry is the result – war will issue in the very gates. Do we not see this in the domestic realm of the UK today – utter chaos !


  7. Gareth, I’m happy to accept that the riots have come from a context of social injustice and bad government, among other things, but that still doesn’t mean that’s what the riots are about. You can grant any amount of deprivation, alienation, ennui, … and be committed to finding ways to address all these issues – but an analysis that stops there doesn’t go far enough.

    These haven’t been the desperate actions of people driven to extremes in the face of some oppressive regime which denies them legitimate means of self-expression and stifles their attempts to educate themselves and succeed in their lives. All those slogans, demands, grievances, the sense of protest? – oddly missing in action.

    Instead it’s been the opportunistic greed of people whose actions suggest that the deepest and most sincerely held principle they possess is just to have what they want, when they want it, along with a cheeky one-fingered salute to any notion of accountability or moral responsibility just for the laugh.

    To the extent that they belong to our whole society which shys away in serious discomfort from clear ideas of accountability and moral responsibility, to that extent we all share the blame. But then the way to address that flaw in our shared society is not a mere matter of redistributing wealth (like the Milne article suggests) but reaffirming the moral principles that enable people to cope with injustices and inequality in society without perpetrating more injustices and iniquities by way of reaction.


  8. Sure, I accept absolutely that we’re seeing a great deal of opportunistic greed and a lack of moral responsibility among the rioters. And when I say that these riots “are about” social injustice and bad government, I don’t mean that that’s what the rioters are trying to express. I mean it in the sense that the defecation of scared animals is about more than making a mess on the carpet.*

    The thing is that the opportunistic greed and lack of accountability are bound up with the deep social problems that these riots are a sign of. And I agree that solving the problem is not a mere matter of redistributing wealth. But who’s saying it is? Milne isn’t. His point is that the economic model we’ve been following has created deeply unhealthy attitudes throughout society (which I think is your point too) along with a massive social divide. And there’s poison on both sides of it. As much as I’ve been depressed and horrified by the riots, I’ve been deeply disgusted to hear educated people on the comfortable side of the divide calling for forced sterilisation and shootings.

    Now, I’m not trying to identify you with these people. I’m sure you find such attitudes as revolting as I do. In fact, I think we agree substantially. You say that we need to reaffirm “the moral principles that enable people to cope with injustices and inequality in society without perpetrating more injustices and iniquities by way of reaction.” You’re right. But the moral failures we’re seeing on the part of the rioters and the “shoot em all” crowd are to a great extent a result of the economic and social divides I’ve been talking about. And if you think we can seriously reaffirm the moral principles we’re talking about without addressing the social factors then I think you’re being naive (to the extent that I’m sure you don’t think that).

    My point is that to say this is more about moral failings than about political or social problems is like saying that rainfall patterns are more about clouds than climate.

    *I should stress that I mean this by way of analogy! I’m not referring to the rioters as animals (except in the strict biological sense that I’m an animal), and I’m not claiming that the main cause of these riots is fear.


  9. I’m not sure I find it convincing that immorality is the product of the wrong social and political circumstances. Immorality in the sense of specific wrongful actions, maybe, but not immorality in the sense of flawed underlying principles. It occurred to me post-posting that that paragraph about opportunistic greed could equally well apply to MPs doing themselves proud on expenses, eg (except with less overt destructiveness) – that behaviour is consistent with the identical immoral attitude of covetousness and carelessness about the rightful ownership of some material good you fancy, even if the specific immoral actions of the different thieving populations differ in form and heinousness.

    Perhaps the point then is that when society as a whole grows careless on some moral principle (like theft), social/economic/political factors shape how different sections of society take advantage of the permissiveness. At the bottom of the pile it manifests in inarticulate and thuggish behaviour while at the top it’s maybe more suave and plausible – besuited rather than behoodied. Which means that the disadvantaged in society are doubly betrayed by the rest of society – once when there’s a failure to address genuine injustices and again when the avenues open for chiming in with the prevailing moral failures are guaranteed to land them in worse trouble. I don’t know if that’s very clear (just thinking aloud here, not specifically arguing with anything you’ve said).

    I completely agree that reaffirming moral principles necessarily involves people who have the ability to address the social factors doing so. But that reaffirmation has to include the recognition that the worst poverty in our society is not material but spiritual – that there are such things as right and wrong, and that it’s incumbent on each of us and all of us in society to pursue the right and reject the wrong, whatever the social or political circumstances might be. There are people who live this out on daily basis – the people who work hard to make an honest living and act as good neighbours in their local area – vulnerable to basically the same adverse conditions as the thugs down the road who’ve now trashed their homes and businesses – yet somehow resisting the allure of that thuggery for themselves. There’s no necessary connection between disadvantage and violent lawlessness, given a robust moral framework.


  10. I think we do agree on many things! Just a couple of final thoughts:

    “There’s no necessary connection between disadvantage and violent lawlessness”
    This is absolutely true, but then there’s no necessary connection between an act of unprotected sex and pregnancy either, and no one would dismiss the former as an important factor in explaining the latter.

    I very much like the connection you make between this behaviour and the expenses scandal, and I think your second paragraph is actually very well put.

    What worries me most is that the response the government seems to be making is the populist one of hard-line punishment. Their motivation is obvious, but this won’t go anywhere near addressing the real roots of the problem. I can only hope that something longer-term and better directed will come out of this. That they’ve apparently already cut funding for groups that work with inner-city kids (and try to lead them onto straighter paths) bodes rather badly.


  11. Pingback: New trainers! « Laodicea

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