Much has been written over the last few days about the causes and consequences of the riots in London and other UK cities. One of the dominant elite discourses expressed during this period, that the causes of human behavior are based on deficiencies that can be overcome if those involved take responsibility for the actions is similar to that held in earlier centuries.
Drawing on insights from sociology we can recognise the need for a more substantive understanding of the riots. Such insight is available if we look to the work of Abram De Swaan (1988), who examined the development of welfare provision in Western countries over the course of five centuries. Tracing the rise of welfare through poor relief, mutual aid and central state provision, De Swaan argues that inclusive urban policies only emerged as a result of a growing realization amongst elites that the poor presented threats or promising opportunities. To put it another way, poverty reduction and welfare provision only became pressing concerns for elites when they came to be associated with crime and disorder, disease, economic instability and a more general social consciousness. This is not to say that change was solely imposed from above as many Foucauldians claim; the poor were as involved in these developments as much as anyone through processes of contestation and collaboration.
In the early stages of the state formation process, De Swann’s argues that strangers tended towards violence or charitable giving as and when the need arose, often on the back of fear and expediency. Later, as urban areas grew in size and density and the rich and poor lived in ever-closer proximity, he argues that a growing collective awareness facilitated a wider understanding of the need for inclusive urban policies. Examining political responses to disease and squalor throughout the 19th century, he shows that initial outbreaks of cholera in the early 1830s were followed by policies that excluded those seen to be responsible for the spread of the disease, but that major cholera epidemics later in the century led political elites to initiate more practical approaches to prevention through emergent health authorities. De Swaan’s wider argument is that the unavoidable fact of greater social and economic interdependence is that the action of one group has a direct impact on every other.
Much has been made of the similarities between last week’s riots and those during the early days of consumer culture in the 1980s, though the differences draw our attention to the inequalities that have emerged in the intervening years. One commentary drew attention to opportunist looting on a scale that befits our era of wanton materialist consumerism, arguing that the rioting was more about decadence than a cry from the ghetto. But this is to overlook the scale of the divide that now separates the very rich from the very poor and the argument that the moral decay of our society is as bad at the top as the bottom.
While inequality has increased over recent decades, albiet with ups and downs, developments in technology - particularly the emergence of the internet and latterly new social media - have also brought people into ever-closer proximity, with technology led revolts now shaking elites around the world. UK Uncut’s targeting of UK businesses owned by individuals avoiding UK tax payments earlier this year highlighted the volatility of current protest movements in the UK. Yet politicians do not appear to understand the significance of these developments. A common statement of the last week has been that the riots were not politically motivated, but this again misses the point that what we are witnessing is the momentary transformation of anger from a dirty word into the very currency of political exchange.
Elites are struggling to make sense of these developments in any meaningful way and in the aftermath of the riots a number of polls found that the public lacks confidence in politcal leaders. Arguments about individual responsibility and retribution through the criminal justice system may help to generate short-term political capital, but as De Swaan points out, and as recent developments around the world make clear, in the long-term elites have to acknowledge that their fate is inextricably tied to that of the poor. Maybe it's time for a rethink?