The images of the English riots will stay with us all a long time, particularly if we were directly affected.
I wasn’t, although I live close to one epicentre, shop there regularly and was going to eat there with friends until a last-minute change of plan. We would have been in the thick of it. Instead, like most people, we saw it second hand.
I was struck by what people looted: electrical gadgets, TVs, trainers, clothes, alcohol, cigarettes. A slice of consumer life, aspirations exposed. Was much food stolen? Why were small independents looted? I cannot imagine men prioritising stealing food; women perhaps. I have a photo in front of me of a young woman, well-dressed, hair immaculate, clutching two wine bottles, ciggies, an alcopop or was it ketchup? Bandana across her face. People took loot home in plastic bags. Is that another reason to ban them?
As the riots spread, I found myself thinking of a celebrated study by social historian Edward Thompson. He looked at the court cases at the end of the 18th century, when Britain was industrialising and rioting. It’s no good, he argued, interpreting this as just criminal acts. That merely means a law is broken and power being re-asserted. But what motivates the rioters? What’s in their minds? What is revealed about how they experience life? What were they reacting to or looting from?
Sifting through hundreds of cases, quoting direct, Thompson concluded there’s no one reason, no simple analysis. It’s good advice to today’s politicians, seeking instant soundbites.
It’s all about values, he said. The riots were expressions of moral change, from medieval values of obligation and order to the individualism and solitary responsibilities required by industrial capitalism. As people moved to factory and urban life, they were on their own.
Already the analyses of the riots are being made. Broken society. Gangs. Parental and family breakdown. These are one take on the ‘moral economy’, to use Thompson’s phrase the interface of morality and economic life. But only one.
As the court cases continue, we should expect to see all life there. People in and out of work. Very young and much older. All races. Only in England, note, so far. We need to open our minds and think hard about consumerism, morals and the economy.