UK riots

The riots in the UK are not pleasant, that much is clear.  Seeing such anger and hatred is never nice, but when this is happening to innocent people by a bunch of rioters who just feel bored and want to get kicks it is even more frustrating.

In this context, I find the comments of Nina Power in the Guardian not just distasteful, but sickening.  She lays the blame for these riots not on the shoulders of selfish individuals, but on capitalism and on society – she makes it sound as if the rioters are the victims, and that they are rising up to free themselves of some overbearing “system” that has trapped them.

This type of comment upsets me for two reasons:

  1. It demeans the struggle of those who are genuinely poor, of those who are genuinely oppressed – countries where a dictator presses down the rights of man for his own selfish gain.
  2. It dishonours the actual victims from these riots, and acts as if the rioters have cause – truly, why would someone who wants to fight against injustice do so by causing injustice?

By asking us to “step back” to look at the issue, she wants to provide a top-down view of what is going on in London, and now in other parts of England.  She wants to blame the structure of society, and act as if this rioting is an act of desperation by people who are victims to this system.

In truth, if we are going to step back to understand the issue we need to start from the bottom-up – these individuals view themselves as victims, in a large part because people like Nina Power tells them they are.  Given that, they don’t feel any obligation to take on responsibility – or to even ask themselves how their own selfish actions have an impact on those around them.

Truly, it is not the free market system we have that requires wholesale change, it is the victim mentality of people in society that needs to change – we can only have a “better society” when the individuals within it are willing to take responsibility for their actions.

Do I believe there is injustice and inequity within society, within institutions, and within government – yes.  But the solution needs to be built from individual responsibility and mutual respect, not the arbitrarily defined institutional structure suggested by intellectuals and columnists.

  • “these individuals view themselves as victims, in a large part because people like Nina Power tells them they are. Given that, they don’t feel any obligation to take on responsibility”

    I may not agree with Nina Power but those are some pretty big assertions to build your alternative case upon!

  • @rauparaha

    Oww agreed regarding the middle statement – that was a hefty exaggeration, and if I was writing it now I wouldn’t say that. But I did, so its staying there, and I’ll just have to accept that 😉

    However, I would say that the individuals involved are either unwilling to take on responsibility (their utility function isn’t accounting for the impact on others in society, when normal social rules are premised on such a preference) or feel that they are in a situation where they don’t need to take responsibility (the cost associated with doing it as part of a group is low – so there is strategic complementarity of rioting in some sense – implying that in this state it is optimal)

    That statement I’m willing to stick to – no-one who is not morally bankrupt actually considered their own actions more widely would be doing this. Note, complete hefty value judgment – but that’s what this entire post is.

  • But the solution needs to be built from individual responsibility and mutual respect . . .

    I have a similar way to solve problems with public health: people should be well instead of sick. Poverty can be solved if people are wealthy instead of poor. Government could be more efficient if it was more efficient . . .

  • @Danyl Mclauchlan

    Its true, asking for people to just be “better people” isn’t a very good policy prescription.

    But that is sort of my point, instead of just arbitrarily using a riot to justify the policy prescriptions we want – we should respect it as a situation where individuals did what they did, and try to understand why. If we are then going to intervene with policy – as we would in healthcare – we actually know what we are talking about …

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  • Problem is, I doubt those rioting ever read people like Nina Power, or think that deeply, and thus need no encouragement to feel victimized – humans in general need no encouragement to feel that they are victimized in any situation, not just the poor ones. Like silliness around the “culture of political correctness” I doubt there is a “culture of victimization” modifying behaviour on a mass scale. It appears to me that those with the most wealth and status in society are those that complain most about victimization (or at least have the power to make it known they are), and I know from first hand experience that among the lower classes a large proportion of them subscribe to some kind of code of honour that whatever society does, one needs to “suck it up.”

    Second, I don’t know if responsibility has much to do with this either, at least as a solution to rioters behaviour. I suspect that these people do feel no responsibility and have never thought about the idea. But can it not be that the social structure played a role in creating the context for the riots, by undermining the norms of solidarity that had perhaps previouslly prevented “naturally” irresponsible or selfish people from committing acts on such a scale. The social psychological dimension here is crucial I feel to understanding this, even if one doesn’t accept that the rioters should be pitied. In other words, we can accept that austerity measures built on top of an already inequitable social structure played a role in creating the social psychological malaise that enabled these riots, without actually having to accept the idea as Nina Powers perhaps does, that the rioters shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions.

    Whether one sees the riots as simply as bloody-minded and opportunistic violence and criminal-ism facilitated by Twitter and irresponsible and selfish individuals (which it is) and nothing more, or something more akin to what I have put forward, has huge policy implications. Do you spend additional money on security forces, or on some kind of social policy? A mixture of both? Create a caste system that “naturalizes” the difference between the haves and have nots? Or do you put a bullet in the head of everyone found to commit these crimes, send a bill to their parents for the bullet, because frankly all the other options (jail, beefed up security forces and social control, or redistribution) costs too damn much and hey didn’t we cut the benefits for a reason in the first place? Give communism another try? There are lots of solutions! (I’m not having a dig at you personally here – I also think it is absurd to blame “capitalism” as a cause for this as a blanket statement and to try and absolve the victims of blame. But I’m under no illusions about the contribution of the economy and social inequalities to this problem. I mean, I’m pretty sure large scale stuff like this happens for a reason – maybe not very nice ones, but it’s hard to believe it is completely random.

  • @sigma1

    “Problem is, I doubt those rioting ever read people like Nina Power, or think that deeply, and thus need no encouragement to feel victimized – humans in general need no encouragement to feel that they are victimized in any situation, not just the poor ones”

    You are completely right, the idea of feeling victimized is natural – I’m pretty sure I often convince myself of the same.

    “But can it not be that the social structure played a role in creating the context for the riots, by undermining the norms of solidarity that had perhaps previously prevented “naturally” irresponsible or selfish people from committing acts on such a scale.”

    Undeniably. The structure of society is inherently volatile.

    So we completely agree that feeling victimized is natural, and that society and social relationships are fragile – I will not disagree with thouse at all.

    “In other words, we can accept that austerity measures built on top of an already inequitable social structure played a role in creating the social psychological malaise that enabled these riots, without actually having to accept the idea as Nina Powers perhaps does, that the rioters shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions”

    We could accept that it is possible that growing injustice and a loss of social cohesion makes riots more likely – undeniably. However, in this context we need to ask about the fundamental drivers of this – rather than just picking things we don’t like, as I feel Nina did.

    Why have we seen such disillusionment in London, and not in poorer countries? Why mix of factors caused this – the idea of capitalism or consumerism is a red herring … if social cohesion has been a problem, we need to understand why the individuals making up groups, and interacting in society, have formed in this way.

    We place so much weight on government action here, even though we don’t have a clear conception of where these things come from. Marginal Revolution linked to a paper that was interesting in this regard:

    http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2011/08/the-economics-of-riots.html

    “Whether one sees the riots as simply as bloody-minded and opportunistic violence and criminal-ism facilitated by Twitter and irresponsible and selfish individuals (which it is) and nothing more, or something more akin to what I have put forward, has huge policy implications.”

    I would actually say that both have the same policy implications – we should accept that individuals act given incentives, and try to understand that when setting policy. When I rail for individual responsibility – I’m simply asking that we remember its the decisions of individuals that drive what happens. They make these choices in a social environment, of course, but these social situations are derived by people making choices.

    “But I’m under no illusions about the contribution of the economy and social inequalities to this problem. I mean, I’m pretty sure large scale stuff like this happens for a reason – maybe not very nice ones, but it’s hard to believe it is completely random.”

    And it would be more useful for us to take a step back and try to understand what the causes were – given the very assumption that individuals make choices – rather than blaming it on an institution or an idea by itself.

    People will riot for a number of reasons, inequality, a lack of liberty and freedom, a lack of protection, excessive corruption, greed – but if we solve one factor in an ideological sense, we will worsen others.

    As a state, and as a society, we can make trade-offs between these – but there is no ideal situation where no discomfort, and no chance of rioting will exist.

    In the current situation this is even more apparent – as the rioting is not protesting anything, it is premised off looting, and it is an example of how weak social structures are. In such an environment, the very idea that individuals need to think outside of themselves when making choices seems so much more important than other solutions. Why? Because these individuals have justified the idea of just going around and stealing, not protesting but stealing – when if they merely thought of others they would likely change their actions.

    Outside of this, relatively tautological point, I don’t see what rioting will have taught us until the drivers and details have been looked at in more depth.

  • @Matt Nolan Thanks for the equally long reply 🙂 Yes, in many areas there probably isn’t much we differ on ultimately

    “I don’t see what rioting will have taught us,” well certainly better understanding of the drivers and details will help, but until then, I would imagine a cautious political and policy class would take from the riots that whatever the causes, some kind of breaking point had been reached and act prudently.

    “Why have we seen such disillusionment in London, and not in poorer countries?” I am sure there are plenty of potential reasons, perhaps relating to urban design or many other social features, but one I would chuck out there is whether it is absolute poverty or relative poverty that matters most. It has been a long long time since I read the source (ie I don’t know where I read it!) but apparently relative poverty is as important as absolute poverty levels in terms of whether social unrest is seen. It at least seems plausible to me, knowing what I do about the human psyche 🙂

  • Kimble

    apparently relative poverty is as important as absolute poverty levels in terms of whether social unrest is seen

    Why do I get the feeling you are talking about The Spirit Level? Maybe because they attribute everything bad to inequality.

    In this case, I dont think the relative income level explains the rioting. I reckon the factors explanating the riot would also explain the relative differences in income. As in, they arent rioting because they are poorer than others. They are poorer than others for the same reason they are rioting. The rioters/looters are dicks.

  • @kimble

    Absolutely not – I heard about the book but it didn’t take my fancy. I’m thinking years ago and likely an academic study. As a matter of fact, I am believer in inequality to a certain degree – maybe even quite a large degree. But in the same way I think too much equality is bad for the “human spirit,” I suspect too little is detrimental also. Anyway, as I have made quite clear, I think the rioters should be dealt with in the same way that one would deal with a solitary person committing the same actions.

  • “these individuals view themselves as victims, in a large part because people like Nina Power tells them they are. Given that, they don’t feel any obligation to take on responsibility”

    ^ that’s not a fair comment. And the people that are causing this DO feel they are victims, and do feel they have nothing going for them, that the system doesnt care about them, and feel they are harrassed constantly for little / no reason.

    Unfortunately, I have to go out but I’m going to give this whole topic a long hard read when I’m back – glad TVHE has written up on it, I expected you to!

  • @sigma1

    Sure it may be the case the people experiencing relative poverty also feel disenfranchised. But we really need to ask why said inequality exists and why the individual feels that way – the solution isn’t removing inequality it is dealing with the factors that drive the individual … that is the point I’m after here.

    @Kimble

    In this circumstance the rioting appears to just be a bunch of gangs and idiots using young kids to help them loot things – in this sense I would definitely say it involves issues of social cohesion, but I’m not keen to blame government for the fault of individuals who genuinely do not want to be part of society.

    In some sense, we have to accept the possibility that riots are just part of the world – and we can’t do anything about them. Just like the occasional economic crisis. Policy can help to reduce the chance (for a cost) – and it can only do so when we understand the reasoning of the individuals involved (and the reasoning of individuals under new policy settings).