The August 2011 UK riots

The first observation about the riots is that they’re a failure of government. Any government whose people revolt has failed in some way. It hasn’t failed totally or everywhere but it is responsible for a failure – a significant one in this case. The first thing that Cameron has to do is bow down to Britain and admit failure. That’s true from any political perspective. Whether you’re a fluffy nurturing liberal or a tough personal responsibility conservative, Cameron’s government has failed to govern effectively.

Calling the looters criminals is self-serving hypocrisy to avoid admitting failure. All kinds of people commit crimes, but the category “criminal” is rarely helpful for the purpose of explanation. A “criminal” is someone who has freedom of choice and chooses to do something harmful for self-serving reasons. Say Bernie Maddoff, he was a “criminal”. A madman, terrorist, or rioter cannot be explained away as a “criminal”. You may wish to treat them harshly, but you have to ask further questions if you want to explain their behaviour. You should ask these questions so that you can reach and stop other people who may be on the same path. We don’t analyse “criminals” because we’ve accepted that greed, materialism, and selfishness are normal – we just expect people to control them. We do analyse abusers, extremists, and rioters because there may be something useful society could do to change their motives.

To dismiss rioters as “criminals” is to assume that their motivation has been to acquire trainers or PlayStations without paying, and that there has been a remarkably unlikely concentration of these “criminals” in poor UK suburbs over a particular week. Or else it is to assume that the anger, or whatever, they were feeling is normal, that it’s normal they would want to burn stores and break things, but they should just control themselves like normal people. These are not helpful explanations, so let’s please not call them criminals.

So, after admitting and apologising for failure, Cameron needs to start failing less. Then the question opens, what kind of failure was this?

If you think the UK should be a dictatorship, the answer is simple. It was a failure of force. The government didn’t police these communities hard enough, so they were able to revolt. We need more police using harsher methods, so that people can’t revolt. Perhaps we should also prevent people communicating through scary online means, so they can’t organize revolts. Remarkably, Cameron is proclaiming that this is the situation, claims that more police is needed for our good dictatorship, and the media roundly agree. I can’t say if the British people really agree, or if they thought it through, but certainly plenty of enthusiasm for a totalitarian UK is being expressed.

Of course, the people don’t really want the whole of the UK to be a dictatorship. The good non-rioting people want their part of the UK to be a democracy and that other bit, where “criminal” rioting people live to be a dictatorship. Only that bit. Maybe they could wall it in. Or maybe there can be a floating dictatorship that follows the bad people wherever they sprout. These ideas of government won’t do either. Governments are not systems with one rule set here and another there. These systems are called occupations, ghettos, or apartheid. A government of any moral merit has to apply equally to all its territory and all its people. Otherwise the relationship between Chelsea and Ealing will be like that between Tel Aviv and Gaza: unloving and disrespectful.

If we want the UK to be a democracy, which hopefully we still do, it has to be a democracy for everyone and everywhere on the land – including in Tottenham or Croydon. Now for the tricky bit. A democracy does not quell or enforce obedience upon its citizens. Democratic citizens do not, as a group, obey laws for fear of policing. They obey laws because they think the laws are right, or else they would vote the bad laws and their proponents out. Democratic citizens consent to having a professional police to deal with the few people, criminals, misfits, or whatever, who don’t fall in line, only because a standing police works better and is fairer than vigilantism. The police are not there to enforce government upon the people. In a democracy you cannot police the majority. If you do, or you find yourself having to do, it’s not a working democracy any more.

The 2011 UK riots, like those in Athens a couple of years ago and those in Los Angeles two decades earlier, were set off by police violence that people there and then saw as brutal repression. In the UK the facts of the original shooting aren’t clear yet, but that was the perception. The thing is, police violence happens. Sometimes it’s a mistake, sometimes it’s genuine callous brutality. In a healthy democracy, these incidents don’t cause riots – they cause some protest, an investigation, and hopefully some measure of justice.

What happened in London, and in similar historical cases, is not protest or crime but small-scale revolt. It was the point when the community felt police no longer had legitimacy to use force on them, and government no longer had their consent to manage their society. What people do afterwards is not constructive. They reject police and its violent methods of keeping order, so they cause chaos. They see an economy that excludes them, so they destroy the edge of the economy that they can see, in terms of shop fronts. They feel isolated and shut out of any collective action, so they gloriously band together to burn vehicles. They’re used to a life where they can’t make a difference, this is a way of making a difference, so they take it. It’s not a positive or intelligent way of making a difference, but I’m sure if your life is pretty meaningless it feels empowering, communal, and fun.

It’s healthy that this loss of government power can happen. For a government supposedly based on consent, it’s market discipline. It’s the subjects saying “no thanks” to the governance on offer. If the possibility for government to lose its legitimacy isn’t there, then government doesn’t have legitimacy in the first place. It’s imposed government like that of Syria or China. That doesn’t mean that rioting should happen, or that the rioters are doing a good thing. The threat of civil disorder or disobedience is the way the people discipline a democratic government. Under ordinary circumstances, the implied but distant threat of civil disorder forces government to govern well and creates a good society. Government needs to manoeuvre to stay within the envelope of people’s consent way before civil disorder becomes a realistic concern. This is what the present, and in fact previous, British governments failed to do.

In this case the UK police didn’t lose its legitimacy overnight in Tottenham, nor did people in other poor cities suddenly reject government when they heard of the news. Government and/or police had lost legitimacy over years, or never earned it for a segment of the population. Public consent was already effectively below zero, and the event of a police shooting was just a trigger that made a latent condition overt. This is not a problem that’s fixed at the point it is expressed, by massive suppression, or after it is expressed by systematic oppression to make the population once again submissive. It a problem that should have been known and fixed long before the legitimacy of government wore out, before any riots became likely. Now that the riots have happened, the solution is still not in repression but in belatedly doing what should have been done already: restoring the legitimacy of government and re-earning the civic consent of Britain’s derelict communities. It’s slower and more complicated to do this than to police people to pulp, but it’s both the moral way forward and the way with the lowest long-term cost.

Britain has long had a section of its population written off. They’ve been turned from working class into a surplus class: relatively uneducated and not valuable as a workforce, obviously low-income and thus not very valuable consumers, and adequately distracted by addictions or popular entertainment not to be a significant political force. Ordinarily, us nice middle class people meet the surplus class people on buses that cross between cheap suburbs and downtown, or they harmlessly heckle us as we walk by depressing pubs. Well, a small fraction of the surplus class revolted last week. Is that so surprising? What’s surprising is it doesn’t happen more often.

Britain must not have a surplus class. These people aren’t going to disappear, or die out, or emigrate to America. It’s tempting, but nonetheless inexcusable both morally and pragmatically, to treat them as a problem to be contained. This is what Cameron wants to do, in keeping with past practice, and it’s wrong. It is never moral, under any circumstances, to write people off.

Rather than send these people to prison or keep them drunk on chemical “cider”, Britain has to take on the messy, human, difficult task of rebuilding the dignity of its lost once-working class and re-integrating it into society. This effort may impose some costs on shiny middle class. It may mean allocating some land for public housing that isn’t deliberately awful to keep the price of private housing high. It may mean providing a welcoming and open public space in cities, for people rather than for brand billboards. Or it may mean letting the poor control some capital so they could set up subversive entities like local shops, and politely asking monopolist companies such as Tesco to yield an inch to the small-scale economy rather than strangle it as completely as they do. Another revolutionary idea is that the British economy might have room for sectors other than finance, high-tech, and retail. Perhaps a well-rounded education system might once again make possible an economy with more layers than a privileged top, a thin technocratic elite, and a barely employed unskilled mass.

I don’t know exactly how to fix Britain’s poor suburbs and re-integrate its surplus class. I belong to the thin technocratic elite, and that middle class seems barely cohesive enough to me. But there’s plenty of good understanding of these social issues and what to do about them. There are credible figures thoroughly within the establishment, such as the archbishop of Canterbury, who can offer good advice. Cameron should take some.

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