Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Bread and Circuses

Much of the commentary on the unrest in Britain misses a key point: Rioting is fun.

LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images
LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images

Nothing focuses a confused political mind like violence. We live in an era where politics and values have parted company: Political advisors write empty rhetoric designed to offend the fewest possible, while their bosses trot out "evidence-based policy" to spare us the convenience of knowing what they actually think. For a decade, this has anesthetized Britain's political class. But a bout of looting and rioting forces us to face the most visceral political question of all: When people do bad things, what is the balance of responsibility between the individual and society? From this all else flows.

That is why the response to the London riots from the left and the right -- what caused it and what should be done -- has blown away the misty-eyed politicking and revealed genuine political differences. Both see the riots as an illuminating flare of a deep malaise in society, of course, but disagree on what precisely that malaise is. As an experiment, the think tank Demos ran a quantitative content analysis of more than 100 articles written on right-leaning blogs and articles, and the same number on left-leaning blogs and articles, to examine the differences. True to form, words betray them.

As one would expect, those of a leftish disposition tend toward structural explanations: that disenfranchised youth, frustrated by the closed doors of opportunity and poor housing, have finally revolted. "Community/ies" is the most common word (223), followed by "social/society" (220), "young" (158), and "political" (110). The occasional misguided opportunist, such as the Labour Party's 2012 mayoral election candidate Ken Livingstone, has tried to link the riots to government spending cuts -- though this is actually relatively uncommon, because the cuts have barely started to take effect.

Nothing focuses a confused political mind like violence. We live in an era where politics and values have parted company: Political advisors write empty rhetoric designed to offend the fewest possible, while their bosses trot out "evidence-based policy" to spare us the convenience of knowing what they actually think. For a decade, this has anesthetized Britain’s political class. But a bout of looting and rioting forces us to face the most visceral political question of all: When people do bad things, what is the balance of responsibility between the individual and society? From this all else flows.

That is why the response to the London riots from the left and the right — what caused it and what should be done — has blown away the misty-eyed politicking and revealed genuine political differences. Both see the riots as an illuminating flare of a deep malaise in society, of course, but disagree on what precisely that malaise is. As an experiment, the think tank Demos ran a quantitative content analysis of more than 100 articles written on right-leaning blogs and articles, and the same number on left-leaning blogs and articles, to examine the differences. True to form, words betray them.

As one would expect, those of a leftish disposition tend toward structural explanations: that disenfranchised youth, frustrated by the closed doors of opportunity and poor housing, have finally revolted. "Community/ies" is the most common word (223), followed by "social/society" (220), "young" (158), and "political" (110). The occasional misguided opportunist, such as the Labour Party’s 2012 mayoral election candidate Ken Livingstone, has tried to link the riots to government spending cuts — though this is actually relatively uncommon, because the cuts have barely started to take effect.

By contrast, and again entirely predictably, anyone of a rightish disposition considers the riots a signal failure of a decadent culture in which young people are no longer taught personal responsibility or respect for authority and parents have relinquished any kind of moral duty over their children’s behavior. "Community/ies" — recall, top of the lefty pile — languishes in lowly 12th place with 71 mentions, while the top spots are reserved for "social/society" (167), "violence" (88), and "rioters" (84). For the right, the leading actor is the individual, not the amorphous community. "Rioters" is the third-most common word for the right, but "rioting" is barely mentioned at all. The precise opposite is true for the left, where the use of the gerund "rioting" and "looting" is common, but the "rioters" and "looters" themselves are strangely absent. And the diagnosis determines the prescription. While the left top 20 includes "government," the right’s does not. By contrast, "law," "order," "property," and "children" all make the right’s top 20, but none make the left’s.

As ever, there is some truth to both accounts. But the riot debate, which is certain to continue unabated even as the riots themselves die down, crystallizes starkly distinct visions of the future of British society. Pundits tend to decry polarization, but this is perhaps the one good thing that could emerge from this whole unhappy occasion: Britain needs healthy debate.

There is one important discussion point that did not appear on either list, however: "fun." Kicking a window in with your boot, flinging rocks at the police, and escaping with a PlayStation 3 is a blast if you’re 18 and hanging about with other bored mates over the hot summer holiday. Violence is intoxicating, especially if you feel yourself a loser in the game of life and it is directed against those you believe have rigged the rules against you. More and more stories are emerging of bragging rights, of boastful escapades, of the revelry that was had by those involved. One smart rioter posted a picture on Facebook of himself grinning, in front of his looted treasure. "It was good fun … showing the police we can do what we want," said another, drinking wine at 9:30 in the morning.

This type of recreational violence has been noticed elsewhere, especially in the recent Belfast riots, where violence has flared up between rival groups whose members are too young to have experienced the original "Troubles" between Catholics and Protestants. A report by the Institute for Conflict Research found much of the recurrent interface violence in Northern Ireland is a means of entertainment, or more simply of "something to do" — an antidote to the boredom of the summer holidays. Just as in the London student protests earlier this year — and indeed the Arab uprisings — social media allowed people to spread ideas and organize faster than law enforcement could contain them.

This does not negate the left’s preoccupation with social justice or the right’s with individual responsibility. But these are misty, distant causes, clinging to the coattails of adrenaline. Neither left nor right will get anywhere unless they seriously ponder what to do with our army of bored, restless young men — for whom the toxic mix of glamorous violence and disdain for authority is an intransigent part of the subculture. It’s an army for whom meaningless, low-paying jobs contrast unfavorably on a daily basis with just-out-of-reach hyperconsumerism, fed by music, movies, and popular culture. A modern, meaningful equivalent of bread and circuses needs to be found. Both left and right can surely agree on that.

Jamie Bartlett is the Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos and the author of "Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World."

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