…sounds something like this.

Why are these urban riots happening on this side of the pond?

Predictably, two strong lines of argument are forming. Both of which can be supported from that interview.

The ‘mere criminality’ school finds that these youths are robbing and looting out of sheer, brutal opportunism. Whereas the ‘material deprivation’ school sees these riots as the upsurge of social distress, misdirected political rage and alienation in the wake of government cuts to social services, the widening gap between rich and poor, etc.

Who is right?

A strong case could be made that the causes have come in waves. This whole thing kicked off from what was supposed to be a peaceful protest against a police shooting. That is, it began in political form. (‘Political’ here meaning an attempt to challenge or defend the use, distribution or possession of power in a fundamental way, rather than the fleeting local redistribution of power through robbery).

But then, after the first night’s riot, the word got out that people could rob and burn because they could get away with it. And they were right. Whatever the root causes of mob behaviour, this is clearly not a wild outburst of political rage, like some riots have been historically. It has much more to do with raw calculations about power and opportunity. Most groups are not randomly burning down bookstores or MP’s offices, but are prioritising phone stores, clothing outlets and banking machines. The two girls paid lip service to ‘getting rich people’, with the bemusing idea that anyone who owns a shop counts as wealthy, but the spirit of their activities is clearly a sense of exhilaration and pleasure.

Putting it another way, consider this savage little episode. Even if we acknowledge that government cuts have made people angry, its a stretch to argue that as this youth pitilessly robbed a wounded young man, his driving force was distress caused by financial reductions in 2010 to local libraries and youth recreation centers.

I’d be willing to bet that had he been confronted with similar circumstances in sunnier economic times in 2007, or 2005, he would have acted similarly. He and his ilk do not seem to be voicing substantive political outrage about class conflict or injustice, but are exalting in their newfound street power.

But is this behaviour still linked to underlying inequalities, to the disturbing social fact that many of these folk seem not to believe they have a stake in an orderly society? Quite possibly. But I’m just a bit skeptical that its really ‘because’ of recent cuts to services more than very remotely. Conservative moral panics are not the only superficial response to this problem.

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