Many questions remain unanswered in the violent riots which have shaken England recently. As could be expected, some have blamed the “failed” experience of multiculturalism. In reality these riots are very different from previous ones that have thrown neighborhoods into chaos (see the 2001 English riots, the Leeds 2001 Harehills riot, the 2005 Birmingham race riots, or even the most recent 2010 UK student protests). While the context in which the above riots developed are clear (community frustration, neighborhood-specific inter community tensions, and traditional student protests gone wrong), the recent riots are unusual in many aspects, such as the heterogeneity of those involved, the dynamic of how they started, a lack of apparent common strategy and a lack of shared reasons for rioting.These 2011 riots appear more to be a ‘collective’ case of violent hysteria than an actual ‘riot’ in the traditional sense.
The riots are said to have started with a protest against the controversial killing of Mark Duggan by the English police during an anti-gun crime operation. Yet no commentator links the incredible number of riots in different cities to that particular incident. Indeed, even if it started as a British Black protest, the riots are unusual in that the people involved may come from any strata of the nation, from all ethnic groups and, despite the high representation of youth (and even children aged 10-15), age. Surprising is also the economic and educational status of some of the culprits – such as Natasha Reid, a 24-year-old a university graduate whom admitted stealing a TV from a looted electronics store, or Chelsea Ives, an 18-year-old chosen as a volunteer ambassador for next year’s Olympic Games.
As an anthropologist, I wish to read these riots as part of the wider changes affecting British society. Politicians and commentators, of course, can only concentrate on the negative aspects of these riots which have affected many and the British economy (damages arising from the unrest may amount to more than 200 million pounds).
Others will see the events as a clear sign of moral decay, or cultural degeneration or as the effect of income gaps and poverty. Yet the more information we know about those charged by the police, the more difficult it is becoming to use analysis that understands the riots on similar terms to previous ones, as the result of unfortunate social-economic realities or even as born out of a love of crime per-se.
Let me start from David Cameron’s famous (or infamous) declaration that “State multiculturalism has failed” which was particularly aimed at the Muslim community, which is seen as a ‘risk’ for the security and civil rights of the UK. As the present riots show, David Cameron missed the target and has not understood, similarly to Tony Blair, the fast changes that British society is undergoing. First of all, it would be wrong to say that ‘multiculturalism’ ever existed in the UK.
Although a blog post is not the place to discuss this, I tend to define the English model as ‘hydra-culturalism’. As the mythological monster, which had independent heads in one single body that sometimes even fought with each other, the different cultures, expressed by religious-ethnic characteristics, despite being within the social body of the “UK”, existed within a separated sphere of social life. Tension or outright conflict may have happened between communities, but the lines were clearly marked by internal interests (including often the self-defense of the community).
In the case that hydra-culturalism were the main issue behind the current riots, the present conflict would have been solely, for instance, a police-British Black community matter, something that would be far more manageable as in the case of the 2001 Bradford riots. However, something has changed since 2001.
New generations are indeed integrating, as I explain in my book, and people do not integrate in an Andersonian ‘imagined community’ way but rather they integrate where they live, where they share emotions and interests, and where they learn the local code of behaviors (and there are as many codes as there are neighborhoods). These young people share also another thing: the desire, so well capitalized upon by market culture, for ‘things’.
A very famous Italian author, Verga, wrote a novel, I Malavoglia (the fictional name of an Italian family of the South), in which the dominant motif is ‘la roba’, the accumulation without moral scruples of goods, land, and money in 19th century Italy. This desire for ‘la roba’ is a very good metaphor for new forms of consumerism: for ‘la roba’ you do anything, there are no limits, law, or ethical impediment, since the moral act is the accumulation of ‘la roba’ – the act of possessing it not for its real value, but because ‘la roba’ should be possessed as an instinctual act even when it damages you or others. The ethical act is transformed into the ethic of ‘la roba’.
Young people, of any economic, ethnic, or religious extraction are increasingly integrated into what I have called the ethic of ‘la roba’. Multiculturalism, as the riots have shown, is not only alive but successful for better and worse in the variegate ethnic mobs which smash what they could not grasp and grasp all they could as well as in the people coming together to defend their ‘roba’. Indeed, many are the examples of different ethnic and religious communities defending each other, such as Sikhs protecting Muslim worshipers praying during the month of Ramadan in a targeted mosque and Muslims moving from the defense of their mosque to protect a besieged bank among others.
There is no doubt that the ethic of ‘la roba’ affects not Whites, Blacks, Pakistanis, Muslims or Christians, but rather human beings. It is an atavistic desire which for some reason went out of control in London and other cities when the idea that people could loot and escape punishment facilitated a certain dynamic that I will try to briefly explain below.
The best emblematic example of how the instinctual ethic of ‘la roba’ has alienated any other feeling of morality or justice can perhaps be found in this now well-known video of a Malay student, who was attacked and then helped by other rioters that stole his mobile phone while assisting him. For the perpetrators one action does not seem to contradict the other (indeed, due to the condition of the poor Malay student, they could have just stolen the mobile phone and ignored him).
In a quite surprising letter to the Guardian, the British Sociological Association offers its members “who could add real understanding” of the riots to the very lost politicians. However in this seemingly overconfident advertisement of his association, Professor John Brewer has stated:
“Crowds don’t have motives – that’s far too calculating and rational. Crowd behaviour is dynamic in unpredictable ways, and reason and motive disappear when crowds move unpredictably….[crowds and market] both [show] sorts of behaviour [which] are moved by emotion not reason, passions not predictability, and reason disappears”
I tend to disagree with Prof Brewer. If sociologists (and anthropologists) were able to have a more holistic understanding of society, he would discover that there are sciences that are quite capable in a convincing way to show that crowds, as the market, have their form of order and predictability. One of the few anthropologists to grasp this, in the late 1960s, was Bateson with his interest in understanding, for social scientific analysis, stochastic systems. Incredible research advances have been done in Systems Theory, for instance, which explains how what appears to be random has in reality some sort of ‘rule‘ or predictability – a kind of self-regulating property, in other words, that is able to self-correct through feedback.
What Prof. Brewer calls the crowd is one of those systems. Indeed, system thinking, if applied to anthropological research for instance, would suggest that even if the single components of the ‘crowd’ may be acting emotionally or irrationally, they achieve a degree of predictably while together as body through a particular dynamic instead of just a primordial emotional instinct.
Yet I fear that such interesting and important self-regulating aspects of the riots will be overlooked in the quest for explanations and evergreen figures from the past, such as Durkheim and Weber, will be evoked yet again.