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December 05, 2011


Will Davies

It's a crucial question (which I sort of addressed shortly after the riots in this blog post). And it's true that both positivists and Marxists are quite comfortable with the notion that people don't know what they're doing. But few of us - I suspect this includes you, Chris - want to whole-heartedly ignore people's own justifications and 'explanations'.

The problem is that the problem can then flip into the opposite one: who cares what economists, Marxists and sociologists say? To what extent can experts coherently explain other people's actions? Especially when none of these experts saw it coming.

There have been a number of articles and debates recently about whether the riots could have been 'predicted', to which my question is - predicted by whom? Predicted by someone sitting in the Home Office staring at statistics? Predicted by historical materialists plotting the demise of capitalism? Predicted by social scientists specialising in urban unrest? No, of course they couldn't. But why should those people be able to predict something like this.

On the other hand, there were surely people who could have predicted the riots - parents, potential rioters, their friends, teachers. And their prediction wouldn't have rested on causal theories, econometrics, or historicist philosophies, but on listening to what people were saying around them. In which case, social science is a bad technocratic response to a problem that might be better solved by more democracy.

 Luis Enrique

Who better explains an individual's behaviour: the individual or a Marxist?

This is probably my inner reactionary speaking, or the result of too much exposure of Terry Eagleton and ilk, but despite the good reasons you provide to doubt it, I think I still prefer the individual's own account.

Will Davies

(I meant of course, 'I think you agree with this, Chris', not that you are one of those few who want to ignore individual explanations!) Oh, and the blog post whose link doesn't appear is this: http://potlatch.typepad.com/weblog/2011/08/london-riots-the-idiocy-of-left-and-right.html

Tom Addison

Glad to know I wasn't the only one who thought, "What the hell is the point in this?" when I heard about these interviews via the radio this morning.

The general attitude expressed in the interviews that were played on the radio seemed to be, "**** the po-lice" etc etc, something little scally scroats repeat ad infinitum in an attempt to sound "hard", like when middle-class white kids try to make it sound like they've grown up in Compton.


This is why courts of law try to seek objectivity. (I am not saying that they always succeed). However, on an objective view, it seems that it is likely that some of the factors mentioned by the "rioters" will be underlying causes. If that is true, given government policies, I would fear for the future.

(BTW: no one was actually ever charged with RIOT).


I thought it was obvious that people lie all the time, especially with regards to illegal activities. So no matter the real origin of the impulse to steal and vandalise, they'll say whatever sounds good and what they think the listener wants to hear.

The funny thing as well is that a not very well read person like myself can relate the Marx quote to the police' point of view (And probably also the authoritarians). Namely, that the social conscience of most of the looters and suchlike has been formed in a community where petty crime and violence are accepted parts of everyday life and normal behaviour, in a sort of pseduo-darwinian fashion. Thus as far as they know that is how things are and how they work, so when a big opportunity comes along they take it. Thus the actions of the police are part of their social existence, but so too are the actions of their criminal role models and cultural influences such as American gangster culture.*

The thing as well is, why is anyone surprised that people with criminal records say nasty things about the police? I seriously doubt that most of the convictions of the 75% were a result of fake evidence from racist bent coppers.

What people who know about these things could be investigating is the continuation of sink estates and bad areas, despite the money and attention given to them over the years. Why is there such a reservoir of people who carelessly break the law?

* A friend of mine is from Manchester and ran around with some gangs back in the 1980's, before leaving that behind and managing to get off illegal substances. Still, he's fucked in the head and body as a result of what he did and the culture he was in. And he blames the importation of american gangster speech and behaviour via music and films as making things worse these days.


Shakespeare put this idea best when he says that King Lear is a man "who did always but slenderly know himself". And despite our belief in Individualism when it suits us; it has been accepted by psychologists for decades that we may indeed not have privileged access to our own mental state. So we all may be like King Lear more then we would like to admit. Our own explanations for our actions may be a ex post "narrative" produced by our felt need to have a narrative to make our actions seem rational and our actions seem to be a form of freedom rather than a animal like out burst of frustration or biological aggression. Since Riots are an emergent phenomena it is not clear that any one can predict them. Including the rioters. So they can always happen as they always have. Just because you know why you have bursts of animal aggression may not stop you having them. The more social conditions deteriorate the more outbursts might happen. But who can tell? Revolutions often seem to happen when you think they would not and vice versa. The same with other human interactions.


Maybe I am being naive but I thought the point wasn't the fact that people try to justify ex-post (which is obvious, in particular, in case of collective miscunduct) but what sort of "narratives" they came up with, which surprised commentators as being more nuanced and contextualised than originally dismissed by many.

Michael Fowke

"Journalists naturally think that you can find the “truth” if you ask enough people."

They may think that, but I'm not sure too many journalists are actually interested in the truth - just pushing their own agenda or the agenda their editor tells them to push.


Why are these young people not ready for the kind of jobs that all the foreign workers have filled so readily?
Central London hotels employ thousands of foreigners, while school leavers are going on to the dole just up the road in Tottenham.
Square pegs and round holes comes to mind.

''Therapeutic alienation'' is also largly an issue and a cause IMO. People like being ghetto. It feels good. Not all the time of course, and I'm sure people get sick of it and feel trapped, but it can be aspirational and look like a good option at times.
''Keeping it real'' like Tupac Shakur.
Getting rich or dying trying (like Mark Duggan).

For an explaination of that term (therapeutic alienation) see American commentator John McWhorter.
It's a bit of an old chestnut, and many people on the left dismiss the guy out of hand. I think it's good though.


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