Wednesday, August 10, 2011

London Riots, Post 1: the psychology of looting

The news needs to slow down.  I can't keep up.  I don't have enough time to write a stand alone post that links to a variety of articles.  We've only been in the US for 2 weeks; I'm still unpacking.  So I'm taking full articles and adding commentary, not fisking commentary, just commentary, in red.  First up The Guardian in an article that is proof positive that British papers are far better than US papers.  This is what well reasoned left leaning news looks like.  The alphabet news in the US should take note.



The UK riots: the psychology of looting

The shocking acts of looting may not be political, but they nevertheless say something about the beaten-down lives of the rioters
Looters ransack a shop in Hackney, London, 2011

Looters ransack a corner shop in Hackney, London. Photograph: Olivia Harris/Reuters

The first day after London started burning, I spoke to Claire Fox, radical leftwinger and resident of Wood Green. On Sunday morning, apparently, people had been not just looting H&M, but trying things on first. By Monday night, Debenhams in Clapham Junction was empty, and in a cheeky touch, the streets were thronging with people carrying Debenhams bags. Four hours before, I had still thought this was just a north London thing. Fox said the riots seemed nihilistic, they didn't seem to be politically motivated, nor did they have any sense of community or social solidarity. This was inarguable. As one brave woman in Hackney put it: "We're not all gathering together for a cause, we're running down Foot Locker."
'I remember the buzz of mob mayhem from 1981'
Kevin Sampson
  1. The unifying factor that fuels and drives such unrest is excitement, fun, teenage kicks, writes Kevin Sampson
I think 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. In Clapham Junction, the only shop left untouched was Waterstone's, and the looters of Boots had, unaccountably, stolen a load of Imodium. So this kept Twitter alive all night with tweets about how uneducated these people must be and the condition of their digestive systems. While that palled after a bit, it remains the case that 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. [Yes.  Yes it is.  And it is not only significant for sympathy for the looters, but also because it shows that they are not wanting for food and shelter, that they are not in poverty in the objective sense, but only in the relative sense.]
By 5pm on Monday, as I was listening to the brave manager of the Lewisham McDonald's describing, incredulously, how he had just seen the windows stoved in, and he didn't think they'd be able to open the next day, 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? [Or how can you love wealth but hate the wealthy?] Alex Hiller, a marketing and consumer expert at Nottingham Business School, points out that there is no conflict between anomie and consumption: "If you look at Baudrillard and other people writing in sociology about consumption, it's a falsification of social life. Adverts promote a fantasy land. Consumerism relies upon people feeling disconnected from the world."  [We conservatives tend to call this failing to focus on the Permanent Things and often complain about faith through consumerism.]
Leaving Baudrillard aside, just because there is no political agenda on the part of the rioters doesn't mean the answer isn't rooted in politics. [Correct.]  Theresa May – indeed most politicians, not just Conservatives – are keen to stress that this is "pure criminality", untainted by higher purpose; the phrase is a gesture of reassurance rather than information, because we all know it's illegal to smash shop windows and steal things. "We're not going to be diverted by sophistry," is the tacit message. "As soon as things have calmed down, these criminals are going to prison, where criminals belong."
Those of us who don't have responsibility for public order can be more interrogative about what's going on: an authoritarian reading is that this is a generation with a false sense of entitlement, created by the victim culture fostered, and overall leniency displayed, by the criminal justice system. It's just a glorified mugging, in other words, conducted by people who ask not what they can do for themselves, but what other people should have done for them, and who may have mugged before, on a smaller scale, and found it to be without consequence.
At the other end of the authoritarian-liberal spectrum, you have Camila Batmanghelidjh's idea, movingly expressed in the Independent, that this is a natural human response to the brutality of poverty: "Walk on the estate stairwells with your baby in a buggy manoeuvring past the condoms, the needles, into the lift where the best outcome is that you will survive the urine stench and the worst is that you will be raped . . . It's not one occasional attack on dignity, it's a repeated humiliation, being continuously dispossessed in a society rich with possession. Young, intelligent citizens of the ghetto seek an explanation for why they are at the receiving end of bleak Britain, condemned to a darkness where their humanity is not even valued enough to be helped."
 
Between these poles is a more pragmatic reading: this is what happens when people don't have anything, when they have their noses constantly rubbed in stuff they can't afford, and they have no reason ever to believe that they will be able to afford it. Hiller takes up this idea: "Consumer society relies on your ability to participate in it. So what we recognise as a consumer now was born out of shorter hours, higher wages and the availability of credit. If you're dealing with a lot of people who don't have the last two, that contract doesn't work. They seem to be targeting the stores selling goods they would normally consume. So perhaps they're rebelling against the system that denies its bounty to them because they can't afford it." [If they "can't afford it", how would they "normally consume" it?  Because they are beneficiaries of the welfare state that provides them with far more than food and shelter, to the extent that they loot for high end clothes and electronics?
Williams has presented these issues as a spectrum, but they aren't a spectrum of causes, but a list of different consequences of the same root cause: the welfare state.  The welfare state creates dependency, creates people who either can't or won't do things for themselves.  Sometimes that dependency plays out as a sense of entitlement; they expect others to do for them and some.  Sometimes it plays out as poverty; the state can't do everything for everybody; people fall through the cracks.  Sometimes it plays out as jealousy.]
The type of goods being looted seems peculiarly relevant: if they were going for bare necessities, I think one might incline towards sympathy. I could be wrong, but I don't get the impression that we're looking at people who are hungry. [If they were hungry, they would have stolen bread, and probably looted more restaurants and grocery stores than fashion and electronic shops.]   If they were going for more outlandish luxury, hitting Tiffany's and Gucci, they might seem more political, and thereby more respectable. [Respectable?!  Because arson is ok if you have a political reason?]  Their achilles heel was in going for things they demonstrably want.  [Leftist distrust of self interest baffles me.  Destruction is more ok if you aren't doing it for everybody? Just like war is more justified without national interest? For the greater good, you see.  I'm with CS Lewis.*]
Forensic psychologist Kay Nooney deals impatiently with the idea of cuts, specifically tuition fees, as an engine of lawlessness. "These people aren't interested in tuition fees. In constituency, it's most similar to a prison riot: what will happen is that, usually in the segregation unit, nobody will ever know exactly, but a rumour will emanate that someone has been hurt in some way. There will be some form of moral outrage that takes its expression in self-interested revenge. There is no higher purpose, you just have a high volume of people with a history of impulsive behaviour, having a giant adventure."  [And here she misses the tiny glimmer of hope in these riots.  Ideas matter.  People fight for those.  The looters aren't fighting for ideas, but things.  Therefore, this will burn itself out and give the government time to figure out what to do.  That said, if the government doesn't impose consequences, see below, then soon another spark will set of another series of riots.  Until the dynamic changes, the lost generation will rise up every so often just to "show the rich we can do what we want."]  

There seems to be another aspect to the impunity – that the people rioting aren't taking seriously the idea it could rebound on them. All the most dramatic shots are of young men in balaclavas or with scarves tied round their faces, because it is such a striking, threatening image. But actually, watching snatches of phone footage and even professional news footage, it was much more alarming how many people made no attempt at all to cover their faces. This could go back to the idea that, with the closure of a number of juvenile facilities and the rhetoric about bringing down prison populations, people just don't believe they'll go to prison any more, at least not for something as petty as a pair of trainers. I feel for them; that may be true on a small scale, but when judges feel public confidence seriously to be at issue, they have it in themselves to be very harsh indeed (I'm thinking of Charlie Gilmour). [Maybe if judges had been consistent in the past and not bowing to soft public sentiment, this wouldn't have gotten so bad. I'm not going to hold my breath on this.  I might be wrong, but that the looters will get off easy is the way to bet. ]  But there is also a tang of surreality around it all, with the rioters calling the police "feds", [Oh.  Great.  Another American term over which the snootier Brits will likely get their knickers in a twist.  They'd have a point, though, as "feds", as in "federal" government officers, is not at all analogous to police in the UK. The comparison makes no sense beyond an empty pop culture reference.]  as though they think they are in The Wire, and sending each other melodramatic texts saying: "So if you see a brother . . . SALUTE! If you see a fed . . . SHOOT!"


Of course, the difference is that, in a prison, liberty has already been lost. So something pretty serious must have happened in order for young people on the streets to be behaving as though they have already been incarcerated. [Yes.  They have been "incarcerated" by the good intentions of the welfare state.  Because of the generations of nannying, they have no sense of responsibility and few skills.  The next guy gets it right: they have little to lose.] As another criminologist, Professor John Pitts, has said: "Many of the people involved are likely to have been from low-income, high-unemployment estates, and many, if not most, do not have much of a legitimate future. There is a social question to be asked about young people with nothing to lose."  [Yes there is, more than one, in fact.  What should society do about the lost generation?  How should society keep law and order while figuring out what to do with the lost generation.  How to prevent another?] 

There seems to be another aspect to the impunity – that the people rioting aren't taking seriously the idea it could rebound on them. [Correct.  And is the UK prepared to change their, largely correct, assessment?]  All the most dramatic shots are of young men in balaclavas or with scarves tied round their faces, because it is such a striking, threatening image. But actually, watching snatches of phone footage and even professional news footage, it was much more alarming how many people made no attempt at all to cover their faces. This could go back to the idea that, with the closure of a number of juvenile facilities and the rhetoric about bringing down prison populations, people just don't believe they'll go to prison any more, at least not for something as petty as a pair of trainers. I feel for them; that may be true on a small scale, but when judges feel public confidence seriously to be at issue, they have it in themselves to be very harsh indeed (I'm thinking of Charlie Gilmour). [
Late on Monday night, news went round Twitter that Turkish shopkeepers on Stoke Newington Road in Dalston were fighting off the marauders with baseball bats, andsomeone tweeted: "Bloody immigrants. Coming over here, defending our boroughs & communities." And it struck me that it hadn't occurred to me to walk on to my high street and see what was going on, let alone defend anything. [As an American in London for 5 years, I must say this no-action attitude was prevalent and shocking to an American.  From comments in casual conversations to numerous news stories about rescue workers not rescuing until the area was safe, I never understood this.  Not considering active defense is almost unfathomable to an American.  It isn't a Texas thing, either.  Compare Texpat and Cross the Pond's riot posts; admittedly Texpat is having a harder time with shock, but she's also brand new, around 6 weeks, to London. Of all my American friends from anywhere in the States, I can't think of one who would not have been at least planning for defense.]  I was watching events on a live feed, switching between Sky and the BBC, thinking how interesting it was, even though it was audible from my front door and at one point, when I couldn't tell whether the helicopter noise was coming from the telly or from real life, it was because it was both.
The Dalston clashes remind us, also, that it wasn't just JD Sports, even though the reputation of that chain is, for some reason, the most bound up with everything that's happened. Smaller, independent corner shops, the kind without a head office in Welwyn Garden City, that aren't insured up to the teeth, were ransacked as well, for their big-ticket items of booze and fags. When a chain is attacked, the protection of its corporate aspect means that, while we can appreciate the breakdown of law and order, we do not respond emotionally. [Right.  Because it is just an evil corporation.  It isn't like anyone who works there lost their job or anything.]  When a corner shop is destroyed, however, the lawlessness has a victim, and we feel disgusted. That's what drags these events into focus: not the stuff that was stolen, but the people behind the stuff. [That and the destruction, arson, death, assault...]

*“Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victim may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” CS Lewis

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yes there is, more than one, in fact. What should society do about the lost generation? How should society keep law and order while figuring out what to do with the lost generation. How to prevent another?
---------------------------

I like this comment of yours. The problem for any compassionate society is how to do this without either throwing unprepared people under the bus entirely or coddling them to death.
From what I've seen, people a)want stuff b)cannot, will not or cannot conceive of how to go about getting what they want in any other way. The mindset is the entire problem, and I do think the state has an obligation to provide decent state education for this very reason.

Interesting article which I would not have read had I not stumbled onto your blog. :)

AHLondon said...

Welcome and thanks. As for the questions, I think the most difficult one is for the current looters. Preventing the problem in the future, changing mindset of children, has an easier, though not easy, solution. But what to do with the 16-25 year old set? You can't lock them all up. You can't easily retrain them. Some Twitter buds were asking about why it was the 16-25 year olds and I promised a post. I figure in the next week or so, there will be many post-riot articles on why and what to do. None of the answers will be easy I fear.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I agree! I'm interested in your thoughts on why it's the 15-25 year old set (though, sidebar, isn't is always in these situations? Often times, anyway).

AHLondon said...

Working on it. Should have Crime and Punishment post up by weekend, which will touch on this. Follow up to, well, follow.