09 August 2011

The Great British Earthquake

The 2011 earthquake struck in the middle of a sultry English summer afternoon, its epicentre the borough of Tottenham in North London. Within hours, the resultant aftershocks had spread to many other areas of the city and, over the next few days, to other English cities.

This earthquake, however, was not geological; it was social. The trigger was the shooting by Police of Tottenham man Mark Duggan on Thursday, 4th August 2011. While the trigger was at the Police-Public Tension point of the fault, there are many asperities along the social faultline through British society.

The earthquake allowed the release of pressure that built up at all the other points of tension as well; Haves vs Have Nots, The Nanny State, the list goes on. However, while the main shock was around Police-Public Tension, the main cause of the ensuing aftershocks - rioting - appear to be centered around the fiscal gap between the Haves and the Have Nots, something that has been given media coverage in the US in light of their current financial crisis, but which has been largely ignored in the UK.

To quote / paraphrase Joe Friday in Dragnet: "There are those that have it, and those that want it. Those who have it, flaunt it, no matter how they got it. Those who want it can get it by attempting to better themselves in a supportive society cheering them on. Or they can take it the easy way..."

This is what we're seeing. The looters are taking things they feel they cannot get legally. They are effectively bootstrapping themselves financially towards the rest of society; the Haves. Leaving the facts that it's illegal and ruins lives aside for a moment, one could argue that looting is an ultimately stabilising factor in situations like this. As the looters become the Haves, they then become invested in stability and calm, so that they may benefit from their ill-gotten gains. If a non-uniform distribution of wealth is [a|the] cause, then a redistribution of wealth, legal or otherwise, is inherently stabilising.

Given a destabilising event, those with more to gain than to lose will seize the opportunity. People have to be invested in the success of society in order for that society to survive. To quote from the movies again, in this case Xander Cage from xXx, "if you're gonna ask someone to save the world, you'd better make sure they like it the way it is". The longer society fails to address the needs of everyone, then the greater the tensions and the greater the likelihood of seismic events like these.

But what are the causes of these tensions? As with most things that defy digestible media soundbites, they are legion and exceedingly complex. Let's concentrate of two areas; 1. Why did it start? and 2. Why did it expand?

Now, writing this as I do from my resolutely white, middle-class haven in the currently riot-free north of the British Isles, I do not pretend to be anything approaching an expert on the contributory factors, nor am I a psychologist. All this probably means I should keep my trap shut and my opinions to myself. But that's what this blog is: me keeping my opinions to myself, safe in the knowledge that no-one will read them but me.

So, the trigger to this situation appears to be tensions between Police and 'minority' sections of London's populace. Interviews with local people suggest that Police intrusion into their lives is constant and disrespectful, fostering a distinct 'us-and-them' attitude. In the defence of the Police, the fact that black people are 26 times more likely to be stopped and searched than a white person is bourne of the amount of concealed weapons discovered in these searches.

Leaving the Police's attitude aside for another post, what is it that causes these people to carry concealed weapons? One option is that they believe that, generally speaking, society does not look after them, so they have to look after themselves. They band into gangs to gain a sense of belonging, importance and power that society, in it's current state, does not afford them.

The other option is that it gives them a sense of power, power that society for the most part denies them, whether that's the power to elect a representative that will represent them, or the power to determine the course of their own lives through education and employment. In the absence of this sense of empowerment within society, I can understand the attraction to step outside it.

So, the underlying "why" of the current situation is the same as it has always been. At every stage of human development and society, there have been elements of the population that are unable to make best use of the current nature of society, and so find themselves marginalised.

The exacerbating factor to all this is that our society has evolved faster than human nature. Underlying our more developed notions are those baser instincts geared towards self preservation. In our modern society, where people are living in ever larger groups and so would benefit from a more collective approach, these base instincts are anathema to the common good.

This selfish nature, allied with the ability - or lack thereof - to benefit from society, is what drives the wedge between the Haves and Have Nots.

And therein lies the answer to "Why did it expand?". Any breakdown in society allows those marginalised by that society their greatest opportunity for gain.

So, what may have started due to perceived Police brutality, and was hijacked by those looking for personal profit, will naturally peter out. What happens then will
determine when the next earthquake will strike.

David Cameron has said that the looters will "feel the full force of the law". This feels like an empty threat, for the following reasons;
1. given the number of looters and rioters, there is no way for The Law to catch and prosecute them all; the impunity of numbers.
2. if they do get them to court, proving that a. it was them and b. they did it maliciously, rather than simply getting swept up in the mob, will be next to impossible. Basically, all that will happen is that the courts will be clogged for years and very few sentences will be handed out.
3. it is difficult to threaten those who have nothing. The only thing you can remove is their liberty, and the jails are already full. Giving someone with nothing a fine that they can't pay achieves nothing other than to incentivise more misdeeds.

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