There's been much debate over the 'root causes' of the riots. Inequality? Family breakdown? Welfarism? Consumerism? Tony Blair?
Much of this discourse has taken the form what we can now call Greenfieldism, after Susan Greenfield, who recently responded to criticisms of her evidence-free speculations about the rise in autism diagnoses by saying, "I point to the increase in autism and I point to internet use. That is all." So now we have:
"I point to the rise in one-parent families and I point to the riots. That is all."
"I point to widening inequality and I point to the riots. That is all."
Etc. Oddly, enough, these hypothetical root causes are usually the same problems that the author has been complaining about/campaigning against for a while.
Perhaps the real problem here is that we're looking for "root causes" that don't exist or that inevitably represent massive over-simpifications. We have an inherent tendency to see patterns - causes, explanations - in everything, and we hate randomness. But that doesn't mean that randomness isn't the best way to 'explain' some social phenomena. Cities are incredibly complex systems; riots are incredibly complex manifestations of a complex system. When you have enough complexity, sometimes weird stuff will happen, and you can't draw a straight line to a cause.
I find myself increasingly drawn to what might crudely be called the "shit happens" hypothesis. It goes something like this: "Big cities will experience breakdowns in order from time to time. That is all." The extraordinary thing isn't that that they occur but that they don't happen more often. Bagehot at Economist has provided some historical perspective on moral panics. Iain Roberts suggests we should think of riots like earthquakes. Christopher Dillow provides one political/philosophical framework for this way of thinking about it. But I haven't seen it better expressed than in a superb piece entitled Are Riots Normal? Or 'Don't Panic, Captain Mainwaring'. It's by Leif Jerram, a lecturer in urban history at Manchester University. I urge you to read it in full, but here's an extract:
Louise of Louise’s Hair by the bus depot in Wolverhampton came out of her shop and shouted at the 200 or so rioters to leave her alone – and they did. Louise is black, a woman, speaks with a mixture of a West Indian and Wolverhampton accent. According to most of the hackneyed theories we have, she shouldn’t be powerful, in control, confrontational, dynamic, or even a businesswoman at all. Yet she drew a line in the sand and confronted 200 young men with sticks and rocks, and they just left her, and her shop, alone.
I say this not to heroise Louise, but to randomise her. The randomness of Louise is clear – we couldn’t set up a programme to produce Louises; we couldn’t train them; we couldn’t station them around a town if we could. We’ve got no idea whether Louise is a good or bad person in other areas of her life. We can’t define why Louise was successful in getting the rioters to move on, when the police could not. It was a random person in a random moment exercising random effects. So why, then, should we expect to be able to understand the rioters?
Link to piece.