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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

London riots and the return of fascist chic

Like many people, I've found the aftermath of the London riots a little hard to stomach. The tragedy of these events is enormous: youth have attacked their own neighborhoods causing needless carnage and death. Some of those hurt the most by their actions are those who were struggling with local businesses. The reactions to the riots are polarizing citizens between those who feel that the rioters were in control of their own actions and therefore should be punished harshly, and those who feel that the riots can be explained by the underlying social conditions. Although the latter position is an understandable reaction from people at the receiving end of these riots, it does absolutely nothing to prevent them happening in the first place.

While this debate is being ideologically divided in parliaments into a debate of individual equality versus social responsibility (or no more spending versus more state spending) - a polarization that is being reflected in the ideological bent of reportage - riots are a complex social phenomenon that have occured for hundreds of years and in more recent times, studied thoroughly. These studies are worth looking at because academic debates tend to be a bit less polemical. This is because strongly argued thesis positions tend to overlook contradictory arguments and weaken the strength of the argument, something that is frowned upon within that mode of discourse. To be sure, academic debates around riots are structured by the inevitable perspectivism that comes from the way one is socialized (evident in many of the earlier discussions of racial riots in the US, for example), but the underlying premise is very much like criminology in its disregard for a rigid system of characterisation in favour of finding explanations that work. Moreover, such criticism that dilute the debates within academic systems to one opinion inevitably overlook the competing models that are integrated within analyses, which are generally included in the literature review section of one's work as a university requirement. If your work doesn't pass peer review, which is usually anonymous, and involves at least two experts going through and finding your weaknesses in argument and research, your work won't get published. So the bottom line is that anyone who dismisses this research without actually contesting the points or arguments one by one is doing a great disservice to the general public and to the people who don't want riots.

Anyone that doubts the use of investigating the cause and context of riots and believes that it is simply the left wing absolving people of their agency in contributing ought to look at the vast body of work and government reports on controlling riots in prison. Prison riot literature deals with the problems that circulate around the containment of individuals in controlled and restricted environments. For example, much of the government and scholarly literature looks at how certain elements combine to give early warning signals of the possibility for riots. Most theorists include the following elements: a) a breakdown or perceived weakness in authority; b) worsening conditions for inmates; c) an inciting incident (see for example Goldstone and Uzeem, 2002). The lunacy of ignoring work into the social conditions giving rise to riots then in popular and political opinion is evidenced by the fact that the taxpayer's money already goes to its prevention, and this includes research into less aggressive policing models that allow for crowd control.

Riots are by definition mass phenomena. This means that there are likely social causes to their preconditions. In the case of the London riots, the shooting of Mark Duggan was an obvious factor. The viral video of police beating a teen girl in the peaceful protest against his shooting was also an ancillary factor, a fact that has been largely ignored by the media. The poverty, deprivation and overcrowding of people, as well as the history of racial discrimination (which many position as historical, but is an ongoing factor) are also elements in the preconditions. That these preconditions have been highlighted in many government reports both in the UK and abroad means that the government had prior warning, not least the warnings that had been given about closing the youth clubs over possible riots.

For those who are in the priviledged few, who think that equality applies to all in the eyes of the law, think again. We know it does not from social outcomes. For those who complain that the social services got better before the talk of cuts, look at the research on how riots are strongly related to unemployment levels (Olzak and Shanahan, 1996; Myers, 1997), a factor which exacerbates the number and escalation of these riots. We also know that riots are sometimes accompanied by an increase in conditions (Olzak and Shanahan, 1996) that gives people greater awareness of the problems that they face. This is not to say that we should keep people oppressed, as the bulk of evidence suggests that this is also a precursor of riots.

The disproportionate punishments that are being handed out to youth are dangerous and drag attention away from the role of good statesmanship in managing one's people. The people advocating this are in a bubble where they ignore or oppress the urgent pressing issues that must be addressed. It is quite simply irresponsible to say that people who are deprived should understand and protest in middle class ways. What is needed is a removal of emotive ideas of morality, and a look at what IS. This is a situation that will be made worse by evicting tenants out of estates and by sentencing youth who advocated riots on Facebook to four year prison terms. One thing is for sure: if riots are a mass activity, the vitriolic calls for violence back and harsh punishments are also a mass reaction. However, the latter response is the infinitely more dangerous of the two, even if it is a socially appropriate one. Not only do they erode everyone's civil liberties and rights, they promote the preconditions for even worse events through cognitive dissonance in the complete inability to understand another group's reaction. Clamping down on riots does not necessarily do anything to stop them; as I highlighted to someone on Facebook who was claiming that Russians did not riot and the youth, immigrants and lower classes should be controlled, we have seen numerous examples of riots in societies which have less of a sense of 'entitlement' (to echo many commentators' situating of the causes), including riots in Moscow earlier this year and Thailand last year. Getting tough does not work, getting smart is the only weapon that we have.


At 17/8/11 2:16 pm, Blogger dave said...

I see these riots as inevitable, produced by capitalisms necessary class divisions and the growing surplus population that has to steal to survive. Riots are a spontaneous form of protest that create lots of collateral damage, but that is far less significant than the predicable racist and fascist backlash from the bourgeoisie. This in turn will spur more and wider protests which will be more politically organised, as in the youth revolutions in MENA and Europe, so that we are probably seeing the beginning of the end for capitalism.

At 17/8/11 3:08 pm, Blogger Gosman said...

If we cut to the chase here though it seems to me that the solutions being put forward by people such as yourself are traditional left wing policies, (i.e. income redistribution, increased Government spending for job training and creation).

It is slightly disingenuine to state that the argument should be above the usual left versus right political discourse when your position on this is quite clearly from the left.

Now there is nothing wrong with pushing those views if you believe they will work however they are not the only workable solution, in my opinion, as you seem to imply.

People on the right of the political spectrum would argue that one of the best ways of dealing with the problem would be to have an environment where businesses are encouraged to grow and employ the youth before they become disencharted with their lot as well as reforming the education sector to enable it to give students the skills they need to find the jobs in the first place.

Now I'm pretty confident that most left wing people disagree that this is the best way of achieving the aims we are talking about, however it is still a valid position to take without recourse to heavy handed State suppression of dissent.

what I am seeing though is people on the hard left of the political spectrum, (such as Dave above), seeming to revel in these riots as if they are the death knell of Capitalism. That is just nonsense.

At 17/8/11 4:30 pm, Blogger countryboy said...

Excellent Phoebe ! Thank you .
How about this for a paranoid suspicion ! I
read on Boing Boing that David Cameron's planning a blanket blackout of cell and social web site communication in future to hobble any attempt by rioters to cummunicate with one another . Allow a riot to develop then use it as an excuse to invoke neo-fascist controls ? Well done again , an enlightening posting .

At 20/8/11 9:44 pm, Blogger Brent Crude said...

And your solution is...?

I'm amazed that intellectuals fail to see that rioters in hoodies and rip-off bankers in five-thousand dollar suits are the same species of amoral, self-seeking scumbag. Both terrorise or victimise working people - whether working or middle class.

Marx (or similar, maybe Chris Trotter) pointed out that the criminal class are easily bought by the rich to do their dirty work against those poorer. These dogs are class traitors - looting Nike and TV shops ffs - great political statement. The suspiciously poor police response will just result in an overreaction and a further suppression of freedoms for all.

A truly popular movement would target banks and the stockmarket and wouldn't be stopped by a few extra cops.

Pick your side Phoebe.


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