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It's A Riot


When the riots in England that astonished the world (but not me) broke out, I happened to be in Brazil.


Thanks to the demand for my opinion from around the world — but not from England — I am glad to say that I benefited economically more from the riots than the most assiduous looter. It is truly an ill-wind that blows nobody any good.

After the riots were over, the government appointed a commission to enquire into their causes. The members of this commission were appointed by all three major political parties, and it required no great powers of prediction to know what they would find: lack of opportunity, dissatisfaction with the police, bla-bla-bla.

Official enquiries these days do not impress me, certainly not by comparison with those of our Victorian forefathers. No one who reads the Blue Books of Victorian Britain, for example, can fail to be impressed by the sheer intellectual honesty of them, their complete absence of any attempt to disguise an often appalling reality by means of euphemistic language, and their diligence in collecting the most disturbing information. (Marx himself paid tribute to the compilers of these reports.)

I was once asked to join an enquiry myself. It was into an unusual spate of disasters in a hospital. It was clear to me that, although they had all been caused differently, there was an underlying unity to them: they were all caused by the laziness or stupidity of the staff, or both. By the time the report was written, however (and not by me), my findings were so wrapped in opaque verbiage that they were quite invisible. You could have read the report without realising that the staff of the hospital had been lazy and stupid; in fact, the report would have left you none the wiser as to what had actually happened, and therefore what to do to ensure that it never happened again. The purpose of the report was not, as I had naively supposed, to find the truth and express it clearly, but to deflect curiosity and incisive criticism in which it might have resulted if translated into plain language.

I was also once asked by the editor of a magazine to read, and then write commentary on, three government reports — one into the origin of a war, one into the origins of some riots (minor by comparison with those of 2011), and one into an outbreak of hysteria about child abuse in a certain corner of England. The findings were more or less interchangeable, though you might have supposed that the three episodes were very different. The cause of all human ills, it seemed, was failure to communicate: and so I began to see what E. M. Forster meant when he finished Howard's End with the enigmatic command 'Only connect.' Here was a congenial message for the Third Age — that of psychobabble. If only we connected, that is to say communicated, all would be well, all conflicts resolved. If only the lion would talk to the lamb (and vice versa), they could lie down together; carnivores would henceforth nibble grass.

This is a good moment to return to our sheep (as the French say): or perhaps I should say to our rioters. The commission, according to the headlines in the Guardian newspaper, found that 'people needed a stake in society:' with the implication that they did not at present have one.

The mystery, then, is not that there should have been riots, but that for most of the time there are no riots.

The mental world in which the commission existed was one in which people have a grievance if they think they have one; and furthermore that the grievance about which they feel aggrieved must be precisely what they say it is, failure by others to accept which would be yet another legitimate cause of grievance.

In this mental world, anger and outrage are self-justifying and indeed evidence in themselves of irreproachable righteousness, the main if not the only source of moral authority. I remember a little article in the same newspaper a few years ago about the practice of 'outing,' that is to say the revelation by homosexual activists of the closet homosexuality of certain public figures, whether or not those figures themselves wanted this known. In other words, the activists believed that the public figures involved had no right to privacy but rather had an inalienable duty to bare their souls in public.

The article was written in a for-and-against fashion, giving both sides a fair opportunity to put their case. And the case for the practice was that it allowed people to express their anger, whose object was not specified. In other words it was their anger which made them and their actions morally right; presumably, therefore, the angrier they, or anyone else, felt, the more rightful they became. This does not seem to me to be a recipe for psychic, let alone, social, harmony, but rather for a permanent Balkan war of the soul.

In line with the notion that people need 'a stake in society' in order to refrain from breaking shop windows and taking what they think they have been wrongfully denied (interestingly, the bookshop was the only shop in a very badly looted commercial street that went completely unscathed during the riots), a man called Earl Jenkins — 'who was one of up to 60 youth workers who went on to the streets of Toxteth [a poor area of Liverpool] during the disturbances to persuade youngsters not to get involved' — was reported in the Guardian to have said, 'If you've got nothing to lose, you'll do what you can to survive, won't you?'

There was no comment in the newspaper on the deep contradiction in the attitude of Earl Jenkins (let us leave aside the question of how many 'youth workers' in Toxteth are needed to prevent a riot there). For if it is true that the riots were a survival mechanism, why was Earl Jenknis trying to persuade young people not to join in? Did he not want them to survive? Suffice it to say that the objects looted during the riots were not such as people on the verge of famine, or who fear that famine is around the corner, might be expected to loot. They were, rather, the things that spoilt children might be expected to want for their birthday.

The term 'If you've got nothing to lose' in this context is ambiguous. It might mean such penury, such drastic poverty, that you possessed nothing that could have been removed from you. But it clearly cannot mean this, since all the rioters were at liberty, and were clothed, fed, housed, educated (if unsuccessfully), provided with medical care, and given at least a small income, much of which could, in theory at any rate, be removed from them. They could be made homeless; their central heating could be turned off; they could go hungry and literally penniless, made to wear rags; their telephones could be taken from them; they could be deprived of their liberty and even enslaved.

How has it achieved this miraculous combination of expense with total failure?

But none of this was going to happen to them and they knew it perfectly well; so in this sense it was indeed true that they had nothing to lose. One of the commissioners appointed to enquire into the riots actually put it succinctly:

When people don't feel they have a reason to stay out of trouble, the consequences for communities can be devastating...

But the reason they 'don't feel a reason to stay out of trouble' is not because they have nothing to lose in the sense of being so deeply impoverished that they have nothing removable from them, it is because they have nothing to lose because they know that whatever they have will never be removed from them, under any circumstances whatever.

Here it is instructive to look at the statistics for house burglary in England and Wales. 750-800,000 such burglaries were known to the police in 2006; the police found the burglars in about 66,000 cases. (The figures for the number of burglaries are underestimated, while those for the numbers of burglaries solved are overestimated, both for technical reasons not necessary to go into, and that we can for the sake of argument ignore.) In that year, just over 6000 burglars received prison sentences. In other words, even if caught, a burglar in England and Wales is not likely to go to prison; but he is even less likely to be caught in the first place. In this sense, then, criminals do indeed have nothing to lose, and possibly much to gain by criminality.

The mystery, then, is not that there should have been riots, but that for most of the time there are no riots. This is a tribute to the inherent goodness, or perhaps to the laziness and cowardice, of man.

The commission's report recommended that 'every child should be able to read and write at an age-appropriate level by the time they leave primary and then secondary school.' Amen to that rather unambitious goal; but asking the question as to why 20 per cent of British youth leave school unable to read and write at an adult level after eleven years of compulsory attendance, and at a cost to the taxpayer of $80-90,000 per head, might have led the commission to a more interesting train of thought about the nature of the British state. How has it achieved this miraculous combination of expense with total failure?

When the commission referred to the 'lack of opportunities for young people,' it might usefully have asked why it was that Britain had had high levels of youth unemployment for many years while simultaneously importing very large numbers of young people from abroad to perform unskilled work. This is an awkward question to ask because it could so easily inflame insensate xenophobia, but it is nevertheless an important one that I have never seen asked in the public prints. By not asking it, we avoid the corollary questions of what social and economic policies have led to this anomaly. And these questions in turn might undermine our confidence in the presumptions of our social and economic policies of the last three quarters of a century. Better, then, not to notice the anomaly, let alone try to think about how it has arisen, and to pretend, rather, that more of the same, perhaps slightly better-refined or targeted (more training for youth workers in Toxteth, for example), will solve our problems.

It precludes gratitude for what one has, encourages resentment over what one does not have, and discourages personal effort except to obtain things at other people's expense.

Some of the recommendations of the commission make the heart sink. It wants children to be protected from excessive marketing, which they believe is an important cause of their indiscriminate materialism and ascription of undue importance to the possession of expensive brands of goods. And in order that they should be thus protected, it recommends the appointment of 'an independent champion to manage a dialogue between government and big brands' — no doubt at a big salary, with a staff of underlings. There is no situation that our new Nomenklatura class cannot turn to its advantage; and no end to the number of bureaucracies it can create in order to employ itself.

It is true, however, that a combination of consumerism and utter economic dependence on the state is, like the lot of the policeman, not a happy one. The dependence is (admittedly at some remove) a corollary of the theory of entitlement, and a belief in one's own entitlement is a belief as destructive of the human personality as it is possible to envisage. It precludes gratitude for what one has, encourages resentment over what one does not have, and discourages personal effort except to obtain things at other people's expense. At the same time consumerism, by offering the mirage of personal fulfilment through the possession of trifles, lends an urgency to possession that it might not otherwise have, thus adding to or catalysing to the resentments of entitlement. I might add that in a world in which income is in essence pocket money (everything else having been taken care of, albeit at a level less than that desired) consumer choice becomes the only choice that is ever exercised, and thus the model for the whole of human life.

The rioters, then, were (and still are, of course) victims, not of injustice or poverty, but of bad ideas and a rotten culture that, alas, have become truly their own. And the first idea they ought to be disabused of is that there is someone who is either able or willing to come to their rescue. — from weakness that may lie hidden, watched or unwatched, prayed against or manfully scorned, repressed or maybe ignored more than half a lifetime, not one of us is safe."



Theodore Dalrymple. "It's A Riot." New English Review (April, 2012).

Reprinted with permission of the author, Theodore Dalrymple.

The Author

Dalrymple5Dalrymple3Theodore Dalrymple is a former psychiatrist and prison doctor. He is a contributing editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He lives in France and is the author of  The Terror of Existence: From Ecclesiastes to Theatre of the Absurd, The Proper Procedure and Other Stories, Out Into The Beautiful World, Admirable Evasions: How Psychology Undermines Morality, Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality, Farewell Fear, The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism, Not With a Bang But a Whimper: The Politics and Culture of Decline, In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas, Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses, Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass, and So Little Done.

Copyright © 2012 The New English Review
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