English riots: rejecting a moral debate - the rationality of violence

Discussions about violence tend to be driven by a moral discourse. We must probe deeper and look to history if we are to understand the riots that have engulfed England in recent days.
Helen Dexter
11 August 2011

In response to this week's riots in London, Birmingham, Manchester and elsewhere in the UK, British prime minister David Cameron declared that the country was witnessing a "moral problem as much as a political one". Passing moral judgment on violence doesn’t get us very far in solving the problem. It is however very reassuring, serves to produce a comforting sense of self and conveniently ‘others’ undesirables. 

Discussions about violence tend to be driven by a moral discourse. As such the point often gets missed that even violence that is generally considered ‘good’ or legitimate doesn’t tend to work. Rather than enter the moral debate proposed by Cameron I suggest we ask some different questions - particularly ones that address the strategic rationality of violence: what do those carrying out violence think it is going to do? Why do they think violence is the best way to achieve this? Does it actually work?

If looting was to break out again in Manchester tonight would I join in? As much as I need a microwave and fancy some new trainers, no I would not. Is this because I am a morally superior person to the (mostly) kids that have been rioting? No. It is because violence and criminal damage against buildings is not part of my social reality. The idea is totally abnormal to me. Violence has no strategically rational role in my life.  The question to address then is under what circumstances does violence enter a person’s social reality?

Trying to pinpoint causes is not particularly useful in this regard.  Causes are always multiple, overlapping and somewhat elusive. Some may have found themselves torching cars in London because they felt genuinely aggrieved by the actions of the police; some might have seen an opportunity to help themselves to the consumer goods they can’t afford; some might have been venting pent up frustration at a lack of opportunities; and some might have been out for fun. One person might be rioting for all these reasons at the same time. Can you pinpoint what caused you to get up and go to work today? Because you had to? Because you want to? Because its habit? All of the above?

Rather than causes then we should look to conditions of possibility.  What makes violence possible? When does violence enter someone’s social reality? When does it become a viable or attractive option?

It is curious that the British press, politicians and commentators are responding to the riots by engaging in a debate that has long been popular in Civil War studies: greed or grievance? Is this violence caused by genuine political grievances and socio-economic conditions or is it ‘pure criminality’ driven by greed? The debate is as misplaced in relation to London, Birmingham or Manchester as it is to Freetown or Monrovia.  Not only are causes always multiple but the categories of ‘greed’ and ‘grievance’ are morally loaded and arbitrarily and artificially drawn.   

There is however much we can learn about what is happening in London this week from literature on civil war. The streets of London have more in common with the rain forest of Sierra Leone than you might think.

To understand what is happening in London we could do a lot worse than to look to Paul Richards’ account of the ‘civil’ war in Sierra Leone, or Stuart Kaufman’s analysis of symbolic politics in the Balkan wars. Whilst all violence is context specific the conditions of possibility for violence in London are far from unique. Look around the world where violence breaks out and you see similar processes at work.  

For instance Richards in Fighting for the Rain Forest (1996) talks of ‘excluded intellectuals’: educated youths with few if any opportunities, or youths who feel they have been denied the education they deserve.  A young, educated population with few opportunities has played a significant role not only in Sierra Leone and Liberia but also the Arab Spring and recent protests in Greece and Spain. Richards’ work suggests that it is not poverty per se that provokes violence but rather relative deprivation, the perception that your situation is deteriorating in contrast to others around you. 

In Modern Hatreds (2001) Kaufman writes about the power of narratives, history and myths in producing and legitimizing violence. In the Balkans those trying to provoke violence told stories about historic conflicts between peoples, telling a particular version of history that served their purpose. Commentators bought into these stories, re-telling them, reinforcing them and in stressing the ethnic origins of those involved - created the very ethnic war they claimed to be observing.  Tottenham has conflict narratives aplenty.  There is a history of police racism to draw on. Race is a much simpler narrative for the press and politicians to draw on than the more complex class and social exclusion. 

Not all conditions have to be complex though. It is not a coincidence that these riots are happening during the summer holidays. An ex-community worker in Northern Ireland once commented that street violence was noticeably worse in Belfast during the school summer holidays.  She discovered the power of ‘bouncy castle diplomacy’ – give the kids something fun to do and they tend not to throw bricks at each other. Never under-estimate the power of boredom.

So, are the riots in London to do with social exclusion and deprivation? Absolutely. Norman Tebitt had a point though when in 1981 he told an audience in Blackpool that although his Dad had been unemployed in the 1930s he hadn’t rioted. Certain structural conditions seem to make violence more likely but they don’t make violence inevitable; clearly agency is involved. However where violence does not make sense agents are unlikely to choose it.

Violence is also rarely if ever spontaneous: it is a reaction, it needs a spark. The surest way to make violence appear an appropriate course of action is to have suffered violence against you, either directly or indirectly – the shooting of Mark Duggan, the suicide of a Tunisian street vendor, a history of domestic violence.

One of the most ingrained and comforting misperceptions in politics is that humans are naturally prone to violence. We’re not. Most people find violence very difficult to do.  Understanding the processes by which violence becomes a viable choice of action is not as much fun as declaring how awful it all is or heralding the overthrow of the government and rise of the underclass.  It might help to stop it, though. Along the way we might also learn that our violence is not so different to theirs.    

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