Monday, 15 August 2011


This post, which I will be updating as new evidence comes along, deals with the UK riots and was conceived in response to the torrent of empirically unfounded commentary in the UK media and, not entirely surprisingly, in the Greek media, which have drawn particularly unfortunate analogies to the Greek riots of 2008. 

I will concede that much of this writing is well-though out, but the majority is simply inexcusable drivel. Personally, I am not interested in matching these people word for polemical word but in answering the call of this blog for serious data journalism, for which I agree the riots are a prime opportunity.


Ironically given that said publication has ‘never seen a riot it did not like’, it was in the Guardian that the poverty of the commentariat was most eloquently described, with Aditya Chakrabortty very correctly noting that the riots have become 
a kind of grand Rorschach test in which members of right and left would peer into smouldering suburbs and shopping streets – and see precisely what they wanted to see.
By way of introduction, it will do readers good to check out some of the literature on civil unrest as linked to mass looting. A very good theoretical introduction into the looting phenomenon can be found here and a discussion of empirical data can be found here. For further background I would strongly suggest reading this, this and this. You will also need to familiarise yourselves with the two riot maps of London: the map of incidents and the map of suspects

I also strongly suggest you visit the pure genius that is Photoshop Looter, which to me is the single most cathartic response to the riots so far, managing as it does to at once humanise and ridicule the looters by putting a humourous spin on what would otherwise be frightening footage. Long may it continue.


Now before I go into my argument let's try to understand the argument of what I like to call the Context Brigade:

The Context Brigade argue that the rioting and looting that took place in the UK is not solely the product of individual motivations that just happened to coincide over a couple of days. It's been a long time coming; a distorted echo of civil unrest incidents past and future; the venting of pent-up rage, despair and hopelessness as people - mostly young but old too, mostly poor but middle- and upper- class too - have gradually lost their stake in their own communities and indeed the future of the country. With only a stark future to look forward to, and deprived by the powers that be of any meaningful means of effecting change, they can only lash out in blind rage in acts that question the system of power and property that has disenfranchised them for so long. While the rioters are too disorganised, too confused and too unsophisticated, to articulate any political demands, their actions are political in that they are the long-term outcome of political choices - from Maggie to Tony to Dave, and in that they can only be kept from repeating themselves by different political choices.

I will leave out of the Context Brigade those (like former MAYOR OF LONDON Ken Livingstone or the onetime wannabe Labour leader Harriet Harman) who single out austerity policies as the cause of the riots, as well as those who would have liked to make the same point outright but must instead disguise it as a more learned critique of all that is wrong in the world and deliver the sting near the end.

I am referring more to the kind of discussion Naomi Klein, or even Russel Brand, tried to initiate;  although I was not surprised to see that Russel Brand spent much of his admittedly good opinion piece talking about himself, which was a struggle to get through.

I will also include Livingstone-Klein lovechildren like Stafford Scott's critique, as well as those, like Slavoj Žižek, or Matthew Moran, or even my good old friend Matina Stevis, who believe that there's a broader, international perspective the riots need to be seen in, and that lessons need to be learned from the international history of civic disturbances, whatever they may be. I wish them well in their efforts to find meaning in this way, although I would warn that it's always possible to draw a line through two points, or to fit a trendline through ten.

I have no problem with conceding the Context Brigade's argument that there is more to the riots than mere criminality. If there wasn't then the riots would not have happened at all, and the associated 'criminality' would have shown up as run-of-the-mill crime statistics, with perhaps a new upward trend thrown in. That much is obvious. As for whether the causes of the riots are political, this point is either very misguided or an enormous truism, depending on one's definition of politics. The more statist one is, the more one is likely to believe that all options are open to the political will. And the more one believes that, the fewer possible causes of rioting they will accept as non-political.  

What I don't accept is the Context Brigade's ability to choose how far they go in seeking context. Generally they stop the moment the facts seem to confirm their prejudices. Let me demonstrate.


I crunched the numbers from the latest (and final, as it's being discontinued to save money) edition of the UK Citizenship Survey in order to get a feel for the factors contributing to the loss of connection between people and their communities around England - the core of the Context Brigade's argument. The results, broadly summarised, are as follows. The smaller the p value, the more significant the variable at the top row is in explaining the phonemenon described on the left:

This table explains in a nutshell what the context brigade are describing; but it also shows that their reporting is mixing together things that don’t belong together. 

The mistrust of the police that fuelled the original, peaceful action in Tottenham that morphed into something else entirely, is very much a racial issue, rooted in a long history of troubled relations between the police and black, especially Caribbean, communities. But no other dimension of the supposed substratum of the riots actually is. 

The sense of powerlessness to change one’s local area is very much a function of age. But the lack of belonging, the disconnect with the community that many are blaming for the riots, is not. Nor is this connected to a dim outlook on the future. And although the general statistics suggest that income has something to do with a disconnect with the local area, if you look closer it’s because people earning over 50k a year, middle class people by all accounts, don’t feel connected, not because poorer people do. These are probably highly mobile professionals, or just people waiting for a chance to get on the property ladder.

In fact, the one variable that is extremely strongly connected to all dimensions of alienation is the sense that not enough is being done at the local level for young people – that the community has no future, or that young people simply have nothing to do. And in many cases, this will be people’s way of rationalising the stuff young people already got up to in their communities.

Not having a job, or even never having had a job (cleared of the influences of age) is not really associated with much.

More specifically, some commentators (e.g. David Lammy, once Labour's hope for a British Obama before Chuka Ummuna came along, here and here) have pointed to a supposed link between unemployment and the riots. But the facts are brutal. There simply is no serious link. 

In Lambeth, where things really kicked off with every other corner of Walworth Road hit by rioting, unemployment was actually lower as of the end of 2010 than in late 2007. It fell by 10% in the 2010 alone and is now close to the London average. Yup. That's right.

In Southwark, including Peckham, where things also kicked off massively, the unemployment rate only grew by 6% in the downturn, against 28% for the whole of London.

In Newham, the borough with the highest unemployment in London, the only reported incident was one solitary Argos being looted. Not good, mind you, but not much by the standards of the riots in general.

Mind you, this doesn't say much about deprivation as such. As it happens I believe there's a correlation between deprivation and riots, as well as deprivation and alienation to the local community. But there is a twist here which many commentators have managed to speed past on the way to their predetermined conclusions.


We come now to the toughest part of the debate about the UK riots: the part about deprivation. As I showed above, deprivation has a role in explaining almost all of the ways in which alienation manifests itself in the UK today. The real question, though, is whether it had anything to do with the riots.

The major Context Brigade argument here is that happy, content people do not riot. Well my argument is that although happy, content people do not riot, anyone can be a looter. If this was any other kind of crime we're talking about, I too would want to know what the context had to do with it, but opportunistic looting is actually the one crime that mankind actually has written in its DNA. Even the macaques of Rio de Janeiro know this.

More to the point, many in the Context Brigade have, perhaps without noticing, made my argument for me. Naomi Klein points to the way the word 'looting' has been used in the past to link the work of opportunistic rioters with the dodgy dealings of those in power and notes how ironic it is that the daytime looters should accuse the night-time looters of thuggery and criminality. John Harris made this point even more explicitly by asking whether it's the MPs or the rioters that are the real looters. And of course, inevitably there are comparisons to the behaviour of bankers up to and following the financial crisis of 2008-9.

But in their effort to score points at their ideological enemies, the Context Brigade have forgotten to follow their argument through. No one seemed to look for context to the excesses of MPs and bankers. That's just how they are. How their world is. One spoof letter to David Cameron's parents actually makes this point more strongly than I ever could, by using a false attribution to Cameron's upbringing to (correctly) highlight the hypocricy involved in his condemnations of the riots. The MPs and bankers were not products of a miserable existence and their options are, compared to those of most rioters, limitless. They've done well out of boom and bust alike. So why do they loot, in the wider sense of the word? The Context Brigade will have to have an answer to that question if they want me to take their views on the riots seriously.

My explanation is simple: the two types of 'looting' are simply expressions of the same human tendency - to grab what we can as soon as we're certain that, for whatever reason, we can get away with it. A bit of privacy will do it, or the presumed anonymity of being part of a crowd will do it.

In fact, I'll throw in some examples of middle-class looting if you like, just to round things out. Middle class people can't extract massive rents like bankers, or write their own rulebooks like MPs, or, most of the time, break into stores and grab Xboxes like the rioters of London. But they can and do take advantage in whatever ways available to them. Consider for instance the sum of money lost to the economy from employee absenteeism and fiddling of expenses. Shall we round it out to £34bn per year? That's more than twice, in a year that the total bonus take of the entire UK financial sector. And don't even get me started on the elasticity of travel expenses. I've seen, with my own eyes, one reputable organisation's expenses policy being stretched to pay for a middle class employee's partner's mid-day lunch of foie gras and champagne in lovely Maastricht - shame there are no estimates of what that's costing UK employes but it's supposed to run in the many billions in the States.

My point here is that the reason there appears to be a correlation between looting (in the narrow sense) and deprivation is not that deprivation causes looting (in the narrow sense), or piles some specific kind of pressure in individuals that is expressed through looting (in the narrow sense), but that opportunistic looting (in the wider sense) is an eternal human impulse and that different classes of people have different types of opportunities available to them to indulge in this natural, if undesirable, behaviour. A good percentage of the London rioters will never set foot in a corporate environment as employees, and hardly any of them will be able to run for public office. The only kind of looting (in the wider sense) available to them is breaking into stores (i.e. looting in the narrow sense), and just this once there were enough people doing it that even the less foolhardy were tempted to join in.

Zoologists will tell you that both primate and human societies alike will sometimes tolerate this within certain social structures - it's called tolerated theft (see here, here here and here).

I'm sure the Context Brigade has brains enough to rebut this argument, but they should ask themselves - why did the riots not happen all through 2010? If they aren't repeated in 2011, or 2012, will they be ready to concede my point? Indeed why aren't the riots happening every single day? It's not like all of the rioters have somewhere else to be, you know?

More analysis to come perhaps, on the false analogies between the UK and Greek riots.

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