Monday, August 08, 2011


It is the easiest thing in the world to say that the rioting and looting which is spreading across London and beyond is mindless, or to blame certain demographic groups (poor, black young men). But as these two pieces argue, what we are seeing are not mindless acts. They have a cause, and while they do not have an explicitly political object, there is a political edge to them.

Coincidentally, on the tube into work this morning (from Stockwell rather than Brixton), I was reading the chapter on violence from Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The spirit level, which highlights the unmistakable link between inequality and a range of social ills. Of all the behaviours which Wilkinson and Pickett link to inequality, violence is the clearest. If you plot a number of developed countries on a graph with income inequality on the x axis and homicides or assaults or other violent acts on the y acts, there is a crystal-clear correlation.

They quote the psychiatrist James Gilligan, who has researched and written widely on the causes of violence:

In his books Violence and Preventing Violence, he argues that acts of violence are ‘attempts to ward off or eliminate the feeling of shame and humiliation – a feeling that is painful, and can even be intolerable and overwhelming – and replace it with its opposite, the feeling of pride'.

They also quote evolutionary psychologists, who have demonstrated through statistical analysis that “young men have strong incentives to achieve and maintain as high a social status as they can,” to show why such acts are overwhelmingly committed by men. But the point here is that our preconditioned impulse to achieve a higher status is amplified in more unequal societies. A review of 33 analyses of inequality and violent crime carried out in 1993 found that all but one showed a positive correlation.

Wilkinson and Pickett also point to a study carried out in Chicago in the 1940s which disproves the idea that violence is committed more by certain ethnic groups:

In Chicago, neighbourhoods are often identified with a particular ethnic group. So a neighbourhood which might once have been an enclave of Irish immigrants and their descendants later become a Polish community, and later still a Latino neighbourhood. What the Chicago school sociologists drew attention to was the persistent effect of deprivation and poverty in poor neighbourhoods – on whoever lived there.

They conclude that “shame and humiliation become more sensitive issues in more hierarchical societies: status becomes more important, status competition increases and more people are deprived of access to markers of status and social success.”

This is precisely what we see happening today. The UK is becoming an increasingly unequal place, and for many people the idea of social mobility is a joke. In areas of poverty – which all of the blighted areas so far are – people are trapped, economically and geographically. This is not to justify acts of violence, but merely to explain them (a distinction which is lost on many of the lecturing statements we see from officials).

As Professor John Pitts from the Vauxhall Centre for the Study of Crime has said today, “many of the people involved are likely to have been from low-income, high-unemployment estates, and many, if not most, do not have much of a legitimate future. Those things that normally constrain people are not there. Much of this was opportunism but in the middle of it there is a social question to be asked about young people with nothing to lose.” Until this is recognised and acted upon by politicians, their self-important dressings-down will mean nothing.


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