Being too busy torching, looting and vandalising, the London rioters and their offshoots in other cities could not be bothered to prepare banners expressing their ‘political demands’, or voice them in the form of chants. They have thus provided a huge blank sheet upon which commentators and politicians of all hues can now eagerly project their own grievances. Hence the mushrooming of prefab explanations along the lines of:
‘I am not condoning these vile acts in any way, but it needs to be said that if we [insert here the policy or social phenomenon which you are personally most angry about], we are increasing the likelihood of such events.’
The advantage of these telepathic exercises is that they are irrefutable. You can always claim that the rioters were simply too inarticulate to put this into words, but if they had been as articulate as you are, then this is what they would have said. There is a danger, of course, that while we learn a lot about what worries journalists and politicians, we don’t learn anything about the riots.
Let’s have a look at the two possibly most popular explanations. The first narrative goes that society as a whole has lost its moral compass, especially its elites, and that the rioters were merely imitating, in a more violent way, what everybody else does. When bankers help themselves to large taxpayer-sponsored bonuses, when MPs fiddle their expenses, and when big corporations dodge their taxes, then how can we expect the most difficult members of society to behave any better?
The problem here is that one the one hand, these commentators emphasise how disengaged and alienated from mainstream society the rioters are, while simultaneously ascribing an astonishingly high level of political awareness to them. Somebody who was not following the political and business news last year would barely have heard about bankers’ bonuses and MP expenses. But anyone who has heard of them must have noticed the public outrage which they provoked. If it was true that society as a whole had lost its moral compass, then such misconduct would either not be considered worthy of mentioning, or people would even express admiration for the ‘cleverness’ of the wrongdoers. It is all well and good to be angry about these other forms of misconduct as well. But why don’t we just criticise them on their own terms, instead of forcing everything into an all-encompassing super-narrative?
The second popular explanation is that inequality caused the riots. It is true that inequality in Britain is fairly high, even though that isn’t exactly new. It has been like that for over two decades:
Income inequality in Britain, three measures, 1988-2008
More importantly, the national income distribution only matters to aficionados of The Spirit Level. For most people, comparisons of income and consumption take place within peer-groups of similar socio-economic characteristics (see here, pp. 91-102). If we must use inequality as an explanation, it would at best explain why the rioters largely trashed their own neighbourhoods instead of attacking the prosperous boroughs.
And here lies a problem for the inequality camp. Suppose the problematic parts of Hackney and Brixton suddenly became magnets for entrepreneurs, who would rush in to create lots of jobs and apprenticeships with great career prospects on-site. Other things equal, this would compress the national income distribution a bit. But it would widen the income distribution within these areas, and could also aggravate frustration amongst those who would still not benefit. A truly consistent egalitarian would have to oppose this development.