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In the desperate scrabble for answers, everyone has tended to attribute the riots to their own pet hate.  If you are that way inclined, they demonstrate the dangers of excessive inequality and a culture of greed.  Those that oppose cuts to education grants blame that; those whose tastes veer more towards opposition to cuts in police budgets blame that.  Those that have preached about the lack of parenting and male role models, or the breakdown of discipline, or the errors of multiculturalism see vindication of their own positions.  I was briefly tempted to blame the bailouts of the banks, as having demonstrated that we live in a world without consequences for action, in which everything is unfair and society is immoral.  See?  These riots are an equal opportunities employer for ideologies.


But actually I believe that all these attempts to "explain" come at the matter from the wrong end.  There is nothing to "explain" about young folk rampaging, smashing things up, setting stuff on fire, and taking gadgets that aren't theirs.  That's our natural condition (particularly when young) to which we revert at the slightest excuse – when drunk, on holiday, on stag dos, if our boyfriend departs, or just if the party gets a bit boisterous.  In Lord of the Flies there is no reason why the children degenerate into savages.  They begin as savages!

The mystery – the thing so strange we easily miss it – is not when we do rampage; it is how often we don't!  The bizarrely inordinate maintenance of order, even when are packed unnaturally close together; even when it is hot and tempers are frayed – is remarkable feature of civilisation.  Doubtless some theorists imagine that order is maintained by the police.  But even a moment's thought demonstrates that that cannot be so.  Police resources are provided on a "fractional reserve" basis just as much as bank resources.  If we all call the police at the same time, they will have even less chance of supplying what is promised than if we all turn up at the same moment to withdraw our deposits from the bank.

Instead, order is maintained by an unstable and inadequate combination of personal morality, individualism, magic, and vague threat.  Personal morality, a little, yes, and for a few of us, places a cage around our instincts and inclinations.  But not, for the vast majority of us (especially when we are young), a cage with more than paper bars.  Individualism works, some of the time, in the sense that we fail to coordinate our chaos – we do not manage all to start roaming the streets causing mayhem at the same moment, so that fractional reserve of police force is (just about) enough.

Magic is much the most powerful force in advanced societies.  The priests and the politicians and the teachers and the scout-masters repeat their incantations: "Order will be maintained."  "You will form an orderly queue."  "We're all in this together."  They wear their magic robes and hats, and we fall under their spell, and we believe that, just because they are there and have made due votive offerings, everyone else will obey them.  And because everyone else will obey them, I must, also – sadly forgoing burning that car or looting that shop (at least until next week).

Vague threat is also powerful.  The vague threat that God will punish us; or that society will snub us; or the policeman will catch us; or that if we participate, matters will get out of hand and the mob will turn on us.  The threat cannot usually be too specific, or it will not be credible.  But a vague threat can be just enough to tip the balance.

It seems to me that a riot can be started by a sufficient loss of these constraints.  Individualism was lost, in the sense that once everyone knew that everone else was going to be out rioting, the chaos was thereby coordinated.  Our young people are far too rational and calculating to be civilised, for they are left with too little respect and awe of magic to be led by the old spells.  Instead, we hear them saying "Of course I'm going out to get some stuff!  How many people are the police really arresting?  What are the chances of getting caught?"

Vague threat is a turner of tides.  Few expect to be punished by God (though, if truth be told, few ever have done).  Barely more expect to be punished by the police, even if caught.  If the Royal Bodyguards had drawn guns when that yob stabbed Camilla with a stick a few months back, that might have deterred a few more recently.  And Cameron's talk of plastic bullets and water cannon being available (with dark proposals for further escalation if required) was doubtless helpful.  But riots will eventually create their own vague threat, as rioters and bystanders caught up in them eventually start to die.

I don't think we should feel ashamed, or conclude that this tells us something profound about our society that we did not know before.  It tells us that the delicate threads that bind us, restraining our natural impulses to chaos (especially those of the young) failed us this once.  Perhaps we need a little more threat and a lot more magical mystique.  But mainly we are reminded of the not-very-profound (but always important) truth that just because getting drunk, smashing stuff up, setting fire to buildings and whooping as they collapse, and stealing other people's kit, is wicked, that doesn't mean it isn't actually rather fun if you can get away with it.

33 comments for: Andrew Lilico: There’s less to learn from the riots than you might think

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