Tuesday 9 August 2011

Theresa May and the London Riots

When asked whether the economy and jobs had anything to do with the London riots Theresa May replied that it was 'sheer criminality, nothing more.' Saying that these acts are unjustifiable, criminal and that the people involved must be prosecuted is of course completely correct, however it does little more than state the obvious. It is the 'nothing more' that is telling. We are told that there is 'nothing more' to this than 'mindless thuggery' (one wonders how a messy scramble of youths have been able to run rings around the entire police force while being 'mindless').

To say that the riots are 'sheer criminality and nothing more' makes claims on two registers: justification and explanation. With respect to justification I am wholly in agreement: nothing justifies these acts and those responsible must be made responsible. But it also carries a subtextual explanation: these things have happened because these people are criminals; bad people do bad things; the context is irrelevant, the individuals are responsible. This is completely wrong. The 'nothing more' suffix tries to distract us from pondering the obvious questions: why now? why there? If these acts are the result of bad people then we cannot understand why they happened now and where they have as badness is everywhere and always. Moreover we cannot understand how these people became 'bad.' They just are, and that is all there is to say about it. In this respect it isn't much of an explanation at all. It's just a device to try and stop people thinking, to cut thought short.

It is perfectly possible to explain the riots in broader social terms while giving no justification or sympathy whatsoever to those involved. To cut explanation short is just a political device that attempts to distract attention from the obvious: that these riots are the result of serious, long-term and worsening deprivation. The claim that any such social explanation is necessarily a justification of the acts is the same: a political device that tries to cut thought short and focus solely on the individuals involved in the most reductive fashion.

So, I agree with Mrs May - there is no justification for these acts - but I also completely disagree with her - there is a great deal more to be said than a simple condemnation. After all, in analysing a war we don't just say 'well, they should just stop being so violent and nasty and resolve their differences peacefully', no matter how true that may be; instead we see what can be done to bring the conflict to an end, we see what the grievances are and we try understand how they can be resolved. None of that involves justification for killing, much less an endorsement of it. Justification is beside the point, we neither begin nor end there; we, instead, engage in politics. This is precisely what politicians are refusing to do.

To explain in terms broader than the circular and really quite stupid 'bad people do bad things for no particular reason' explanation in no way leads to justification or sympathy with the perpetrators of the acts. Instead it tries to understand how our society could become so fractured. And in contrast to the consonance of 'Broken Britain' it isn't the 'decline of traditional values' or any other pseudo-Biblical 'fall of man' bullshit: it's the economy, stupid.