The English Riots: Business as Usual?

I have an amazing ability for waiting until a topic is no longer trendy before actually getting around to writing my thoughts on it. In this case, the riots in the UK. This means that reality turned out to match my thesis, even before I wrote it down; namely, that the riots didn't actually mean anything on a social or political scale. Having started with my conclusions, I shall move back to my reasoning...

I started thinking about how much it really meant when seeing reporting (a lot of it international) about how shocking this rioting was, and how it was revealing something fundamentally rotten in UK society, and should give those running the country pause to think. I even saw some comparisons with events in Egypt etc. (definite high clue quotient there). On the other hand, I'd also seen plenty of people writing it off as mindless thuggery, which is also a bit too convenient and stops any need to try to understand them. What's the actual situation?

First off, I'm ignoring the looting. That's not about the poor or underpriveleged. That's about a group of people where lots of people are clearly breaking the law, getting away with it, and gaining from that. Locally, different social norms start to apply, as following the law puts you at a disadvantage for no 'fair' reason. See, e.g. MPs' (MsP's?) expenses, phone hacking, etc. for other non-disadvantged groups doing similar things.

So, how many people were rioting, ignoring the looting? My opinion would be somewhat more convincing if backed up by real numbers, but it's clearly a tiny fraction of the communities, and looks not entirely dissimilar to the fraction of the population with a propensity to crime and violence anyway. There will also be some people carried along because they're normally only held back by fear of justice, and felt they could get away with it this time.

Put another way, the riots looked to me like people's normal behaviour, only condensed. Indeed, if you look at the amount of crime that was committed, I don't think you need to spread it out over an awfully long period before it blends into the overall crime level. It's certainly lost in the noise on the 30 year scale we seem to have between riots.

In summary, I don't think these riots mean nothing, they just tell us as much about the problems of society as our normal background level of crime and violence. Moreover, it's a real shame to focus on these riots when there have been so many much larger protests motivated by real issues. *sigh*

Posted 2011-09-11.