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London’s burning

[ 122 ] August 9, 2011 |

Nina Power in the Guardian on the larger context of the London riots:

Those condemning the events of the past couple of nights in north London and elsewhere would do well to take a step back and consider the bigger picture: a country in which the richest 10% are now 100 times better off than the poorest, where consumerism predicated on personal debt has been pushed for years as the solution to a faltering economy, and where, according to the OECD, social mobility is worse than any other developed country.

As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett point out in The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, phenomena usually described as “social problems” (crime, ill-health, imprisonment rates, mental illness) are far more common in unequal societies than ones with better economic distribution and less gap between the richest and the poorest. Decades of individualism, competition and state-encouraged selfishness – combined with a systematic crushing of unions and the ever-increasing criminalisation of dissent – have made Britain one of the most unequal countries in the developed world.

Urban riots are usually complex events, in which people participate for many reasons, ranging from simple boredom and criminal opportunism on one end, to conscious political protest on the other. To the extent the latter is a factor in a riot, the riot becomes a genuine threat to the political order. As William Paley observed more than 200 years ago (How Subjection To Civil Government Is Maintained (1785):

Could we view our own species from a distance, or regard mankind with the same sort of observation with which we read the natural history, or remark the manners, of any other animal, there is nothing in the human character which would more surprise us, than the almost universal subjugation of strength to weakness; than to see many millions of robust men, in the complete use and exercise of their personal faculties, and without any defect of courage, waiting upon the will of a child, a woman, a driveller, or a lunatic. And although, when we suppose a vast empire in absolute subjection to one person, and that one depressed beneath the level of his species by infirmities, or vice, we suppose perhaps an extreme case: yet in all cases, even in the most popular forms of civil government, the physical strength resides in the governed. In what manner opinion thus prevails over strength, or how power, which naturally belongs to superior force, is maintained in opposition to it; in other words, by what motives the many are induced to submit to the few, becomes an inquiry which lies at the root of almost every political speculation. It removes, indeed, but does not resolve, the difficulty, to say that civil governments are now-a-days almost universally upholden by standing armies; for, the question still returns; How are these armies themselves kept in subjection, or made to obey the commands, and carry on the designs, of the prince or state which employs them?


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Comments (122)

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  1. Tybalt says:

    If the rioters were attacking the property of the richest 10% I don’t think I’d have a problem. They are attacking their neighbours and burning and looting their homes and businesses.

    That’s why riots aren’t in fact a genuine threat to the political order. That’s why riots in the modern West are dealt with in the manner they are: the use of force to hem rioters in, rather than any attempt to use force to stop them from occurring.

    I can’t think of a single instance in post-1930s America, for example, where riots precipitated any kind of meaningful political change, anywhere. But then I’m not a historian – are there examples?

    • Paul Campos says:

      Watts, Newark and Detroit got Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan elected.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

      The Kerner Commission Report certainly promised such change. And if Humphrey–or another Democrat–had won in 1968, we might have seen it.

      Less counterfactually, Nixon won–and Wallace did relatively well outside of the South–in large measure because of the politics of “law and order,” in which urban unrest played a crucial role, at least rhetorically. The extraordinary rate of incarceration in the US is, in many ways, a legacy of those politics.

    • soullite says:

      The problem with this argument is that riots tend to start when it’s clear that there is simply no political progress to be made. They aren’t an attempt to achieve change. They are acts of desperate frustration that occur when people realize that change is impossible.

      Nobody who has studied psychology, particularly the effects of and reactions to frustration, can be surprised by this. They tried repetition, they tried variance, so now they default to violence.

    • JohnT says:

      This was particularly true on the first, allegedly most ‘political’ night, when most of the violence involved looting and burning down low-end shops (used by the powerless and not the powerful) and buses (used by the powerless and not the powerful). It now really does seem to be down to straight opportunistic mass theft, solely for material gain. If they wanted to make any relevant point about inequality they’d be in Mayfair, Chelsea, Kensington and the City, rather than looting and burning Peckham, one of the poorest place in the UK.

    • Esteban says:

      Yes, I guess the rich aren’t kind enough to drive the poor to the upscale neighborhoods and compounds to burn them down. If only.

  2. Tony says:

    All these riots have taught me is that people on both sides of the political spectrum are curiously certain that they validate the political prejudices they were touting before anything kicked. People who are expressing concrete certainties about root causes at this point are largely either full of BS or writing with a view to the political main chance.

    We also keep hearing in the same breath that these rioters are completely unrepresentative of the public at large and that they carry with them profound messages about how we need to re-order society. Can’t have it both ways.

    • mark f says:

      All I know is that Soullite must be masturbating like Glenn Reynolds watching Shock & Awe.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

      All these riots have taught me is that people on both sides of the political spectrum are curiously certain that they validate the political prejudices they were touting before anything kicked.

      This may prove to be a key difference between these early 21st-century social crises (including the Great Recession itself) and those of the 1930s and 1960s. In those earlier periods, a significantly higher percentage of those in power came to question their core political assumptions. Today…not so much.

    • witless chum says:

      All these riots have taught me is that people on both sides of the political spectrum are curiously certain that they validate the political prejudices they were touting before anything kicked.

      See also, all other events that have ever occurred?

      People who are expressing concrete certainties about root causes at this point are largely either full of BS or writing with a view to the political main chance.

      It’s not like were going to get a real empirical answer to these things? Why did Detroit burn in 1967? And why previously in 1943? There’s a host of reasons and using your ideological preferences to pick which ones you want to emphasize is probably as good of a way as any.

  3. xaaronx says:

    I already posted this in the CT thread, but I figured I’d put it up here too as a entertaining presentation of the situation from which these riots precipitated:

  4. […] riots in London over the past few days have led to wondering about their context and the fundamental nature of government and the governed.  Paul Campos from the excellent Lawyers, Guns, & Money blog I think isn’t explicit […]

  5. Dave says:

    I stand even with the opportunists.

  6. Byron says:

    Before I climb onto the excuse wagon, I’d like to know how many of these folks availed themselves of opportunities for training in the trades to qualify for jobs as mason, electricians, roofers, etc. etc. Those skills are well-paid and always in demand. And once you have that training if there’s no work in your area, you can always go where the jobs are.

    • Tony says:

      Indeed. Worth noting that many of those who have been looted and burned out will have gone to the same schools as the rioters and worked bloody hard. These communities are indeed poor but very large amounts of government money have been pumped in over the course of the last decade. Many of these kids actually have opportunities that would have been unheard of for their parents and grandparents. They have wrecked local charities, not-for-profits and community facilities. To strip individual responsibility and agency out of this is to do a disservice to those who have worked hard to carve themselves a decent slot in life.

      • Byron says:

        “Individual agency” is a good thing, but it’s something that social welfare bureaucracies have little interest in cultivating, not wishing to put themselves out of a job.

        State support should be contingent on behavior that will make such support unnecessary, wherever possible (not referring to the genuinely disabled, for example). Checks should only keep coming as long as you are in some kind of training program that leads to employment. If job opportunities are not available locally, then some help relocating might be in order.

        But to issue checks for simply sitting and doing nothing will only result in lots of sitting and doing nothing, and becoming bitter and alienated, filled with feelings of personal worthlessness and anger. Trouble follows, as we see. None of this seems like rocket science, does it?

    • Kurzleg says:

      …in the trades to qualify for jobs as mason, electricians, roofers, etc. etc. Those skills are well-paid and always in demand.

      Perhaps in an economy not in recession, but not in one like the current one where construction isn’t exactly moving at a frantic pace.

      • ajay says:

        Plenty of construction work to be done now in Croydon, Ealing etc.

        • Kurzleg says:

          Wow, the rioters ARE clever!

          • Byron says:

            I have no way to know, but I would make a large bet that the general profile and background of these rioters contains precious little in the way of marketable skills of any form or fashion. I’d have some respect for them if they’d riot for better training opportunities and job placement.

            All the complaining about being “trapped” in a bad situation rings false. Nobody has them in chains. If they are trapped, it’s by the dole. People with any amount of drive don’t sit by, they get up and get out. But I have the feeling most of these individuals don’t know where out of town is, couldn’t find it if they wanted to.

            • Kurzleg says:

              You just answered my question further up the string with this comment, Byron.

            • If they are trapped, it’s by the dole.

              Ah, yes: if they, and their neighbors, had no money at all, Help Wanted signs would magically start appearing all over the neighborhood. In the middle of 2011.

              People with any amount of drive don’t sit by, they get up and get out.

              You’ve never spoken to anyone who lived in a high-unemployment neighborhood in your life, but you know all about their life stories.

        • DrDick says:

          See mine below for a link, but the building trades he mentions are all among the 17 hardest hit by the recession.

      • mark f says:

        Why don’t they just eat cake move to where there are jobs!?!

        • Byron says:

          That is a very good question, and a very interesting one since through history that’s what people have always done.

          • mark f says:

            And there are no economic or political barriers to a person just relocating?

            • Byron says:

              So what if there are? People relocate constantly you may have noticed, in spite of obstacles of every kind.

            • Holden Pattern says:

              Hey, the Irish did it to avoid starvation, and if those lazy Micks could get off their asses, surely these poor people can.

              I mean, all it took was the potato famine, and the starvation of a million people by the British as they shipped beef grazed on Irish farmland back to England. I mean, if the Irish had any gumption, they woulda been able to find trades work and buy back the land from the English plantation owners.

              All you need is enough desperation incentive, and you can get people to do almost anything — that’s why the dole is so very bad.

              • mark f says:

                And as I recall the Irish were welcomed with open arms wherever they turned up, sort of like Mexicans and Guatemalans now!

                • Holden Pattern says:

                  I regularly see trucks from Irish-named construction businesses chock-full of Latino workers.

                  Cracks me up every time — the wheel of immigration keeps on turning.

                • Byron says:

                  The implication of your comment is that the Irish should have stayed in Ireland and starved. They have done rather well in America, it turns out, and so have migrants from Latin America. It’s that hope that motivates them to come, in spite of the difficulties involved.

                  There seems to be an idea here that people are by nature weak and timid, that they require the easy path and constant help along the way. I think the evidence is pretty clear that people deserve a lot more credit than that.

                • Holden Pattern says:

                  … in which Byron proves that he’s even dumber than he appears at first.

                • DrDick says:

                  As were my fellow Okies, when they relocated to California in the 1930s.

          • Andy W says:

            You are Norman Tebbit and I claim my 5 pounds!

          • dave3544 says:

            By “history” what exactly do you mean? Because until the modern industrial revolution, no, there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot of “moving” to look for work. I think you’ll find that feudal and slave societies had some pretty firm policies about moving to look for work.

            But then, we’re talking about your fantasy world where a little gumption and a lot of elbow grease is all that any poor person needs to achieve middle class comfortude, so maybe in that world there was always a lot of moving around to look for work.

          • Where is this magical land full of jobs, Byron?

            Can you tell me?

            But these people you’ve never met – they know, and they just choose not to go there.

        • JohnT says:

          To the extent that there are jobs in the UK they are in London and the South East – i.e. where most of these rioters are. Those that are locked out of jobs are so because a complicated mix of factors – culture, public services, inequality – left them with no skills and terrible attitudes.

          • Byron says:

            There are never many opportunities for people “with no skills and terrible attitudes.”

            But I wouldn’t give up on people, even so. A change of scene can change the person. If what you say about the UK is true, then it’s time to get out of the UK and go where an individual can make something of himself. People migrate constantly for exactly that reason.

            • JohnT says:

              I’m not sure where a member of the UK (or more generally Western) underclass with no obvious skills could actually migrate to. Legally they could go to other EU countries, but only a few have better employment opportunities than Southeastern England and in most cases you’d have to learn the local language which is hard if you have no skills and bad atittude. Other Anglophone countries (US, NZ, OZ, Canada) would want to see evidence of employability before letting you in.

              I can sort of see what kind of things could be done to save the next generation on these estates, but have no idea what you do with/for these guys who are already 18 or older.

            • Walt says:

              Byron makes a good point. Other people’s problems are incredibly easy to solve. The further away they are, the easier the solutions are to see.

            • Paul Campos says:

              Unfortunately free transportation to Australia is no longer an option for the London poor.

              • Malaclypse says:

                ‘The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?’ said Scrooge Byron.

                ‘At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge Byron,’ said the gentleman, taking up a pen, ‘it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.’

                ‘Are there no prisons?”

                ‘Plenty of prisons,’ said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

                ‘And the Union workhouses.’ demanded Scrooge Byron. ‘Are they still in operation?’

                ‘Both very busy, sir.’

                ‘Oh. I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,’ said Scrooge Byron. ‘I’m very glad to hear it.’

                • Byron says:

                  Is this really what passes for dialog on this board?

                  Fine. I will leave you folks to whatever it is you think you are doing.

                  Have a wonderful day in your bubble. Sorry I intruded.

                • Holden Pattern says:

                  Don’t go away mad. Just go away.

                  I love the pretend-parachute trolls:

                  “I’ve never been here before, I wish to just engage in dialog by injecting some simplistic folk wisdom that just happens to jibe with wingnut ideology. What? I’m being ridiculed? This is not ‘dialog’! I am outraged. Liberals are close-minded. I’m ‘leaving’.”

                • mark f says:

                  I say good day to you, sir. Good day to you, indeed!

                • Malaclypse says:

                  I’ve never been here before… What? I’m being ridiculed?

                  The idea that I was not going to mock him really shows a lack of awareness of internet tradition.

              • Byron says:

                Assuming that’s not just snark, Paul, I.

                I don’t see the upside to sitting in London, unskilled and unemployed, with little or no hope of a better life. If there is opportunity in Australia, then go for it.

                • wengler says:

                  Just let me get my swim trunks on.

                • ptl says:

                  If there is opportunity in Australia, then go for it.

                  Australia only takes people with needed skills. The unemployed and unskilled are not wanted there.

            • Uncle Kvetch says:

              If what you say about the UK is true, then…

              Thank you for acknowledging that you haven’t the foggiest fucking idea what you’re talking about. It’ll save us all a lot of time

            • Hogan says:

              Just walk across the border!

            • Lit3Bolt says:


              I hate to tell you, but the Old West is gone. The days where a family could simply pack everything they own on the back of one mule are gone. The days where 90% of the population lived by subsistence farming are gone. The days where anyone could sit in his garage and invent anything and claim credit are gone, thanks to patent laws, and people can’t even cut each others’ hair or paint nails anymore without going to school and passing a regulatory test. Industrial jobs are gone thanks to automation and globalization, and are not coming back.

              And all you can utter are aristocratic “tut-tuts” that “those people” have no drive today. Let me guess: you got where you are today because you “earned” it. If people are not at you level, then they must suffer for their lot, because they didn’t “earn” what you “deserve.” That about sum it up?

              Enjoy your tautological, aristocratic world. It makes just as much sense as it did for the nobles of 18th century Europe.

    • actor212 says:


      I’m not that familiar with the UK trades system, but if its anything like the US system, then there’s layer upon layer of levels to pass thru, from apprentice to journeyman to craftsman, and I can guaran-damn-tee you if the choice comes down to craftsman v. journeyman, the craftsman going to be the one hired.

    • DrDick says:

      Google is my friend and your enemy, as you really want to check your facts before making statements like that. It seems that the occupations are among the 17 hardest hit by the the economic downturn.

  7. actor212 says:

    If only Americans weren’t so afraid of their government and the Tea-brown-stained shirts that protect it.

    • dave says:

      What, they could burn down family-owned shops, too?

      Is it appropriate to point out that, pace Nina Power and her bien-pensant chums, the most likely outcome of these events is not, funnily enough, anything that might be described as social progress, but rather an intensification of inter-ethnic hostility? And perhaps, if we’re all really lucky, a reversal of those particular public-spending cuts that were directed at the forces of order? The Watts-Nixon linkage nails it, as does pointing out that the UK’s infamous riots of the early 1980s led to over a decade of further Tory rule.

      What is happening is so massively counter-productive for anyone with any interest in social justice that I don’t understand why supposedly progressive bloggers aren’t all joining in one massive scream of frustration.

      • actor212 says:

        And perhaps, if we’re all really lucky, a reversal of those particular public-spending cuts that were directed at the forces of order?

        You make this sound like an unattractive alternative.

        Let me put this in terms a rioter would:


        Am I clearer now?


  8. Richard says:

    It seems that the results of the rioting in England will be more funding for police, no new policies to increase jobs, destruction of the businesses of small shopholders, many owned by immigrants, and increased support in the polls for the Conservatives. Does anybody think that something good will come of this?

    • Hogan says:

      I suspect that by the time people get to the rioting stage, they’re not expecting anything good ever to come of anything. They’re fucked, their neighborhood is fucked, and no one in power has any interest in unfucking them, so why not take some control over the process, if only by accelerating it?

      • Richard says:

        That may be the motivation (and I’m not saying that this motivation is good or bad) but it just seems that the result will be more misery for everyone involved.

    • Holden Pattern says:

      Good lord, no. Nobody thinks that anything good will come of this, EXCEPT the lawnorder conservatives who think the state’s primary use is keeping the boot on everyone’s necks, and the secondary use is ensuring that the rentiers’ income keeps flowing.

      Which is in part why people on the nominal left spend so much time saying: “don’t tear down the state, don’t sacrifice actual demand to the free market fairy, because it causes suffering and free-floating anger, which has unpredictable but always shitty results.”

      But now that the manure has, as predicted: intersected the plane the rotating air distribution device, it’s a bit rich to expect the nominal left to say “whoops, we were wrong, let’s just impose a police state.”

    • wengler says:

      The Tories will be discredited. They have shown a powerful disinterest in this since it began. They only came back once it was clear that the rioting would continue, and it would spread south and west toward their tony enclaves.

  9. Anon says:

    £100 says the streets would be quiet for a week if you offered all the rioters an ounce of weed each.

  10. […] Paul Campos correctly note: Urban riots are usually complex events, in which people participate for many […]

  11. […] two commenters to Paul’s post on the riots point out, Henry Farrell over at Crooked Timber brings to our attention a […]

  12. […] Messenger.” And the Lawyers Guns Money has taken the opportunity to reference not one but two classic 1970s rock songs on the same page. Plenty of blogs and sites have rounded up iconic images from the riots. Time Lightbox has the […]

  13. I couldn’t think you are more right

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