The London Riots and the Limitations of Sociology
If the spectrum of reactions to this week’s growing street-level violent conflagrations in the UK, beginning in the North London suburb of Tottenham on August 6th before spreading to other boroughs and British cities, have demonstrated anything, it’s the limitations of political sociology. Observers from the left, the right, and the amorphous non-aligned territories in between have almost all rushed to judgment, falling over their discursive selves to psychoanalyze the mob. I won’t say that I’m immune to these pitfalls of interpretation, but I do realize that I’m not, at least.
The same cannot always be said about the paid gatekeepers of conventional wisdom in the media, who rely on vituperative clichés when they aren’t dipping their toes into amateur socioeconomic theorizing or descending into authoritarian reveries. In their stubborn drive towards intelligibility, media types miss a crucial truth: riots, by their very nature, resist classification and rational explication, and are indeed about that resistance.
They are mass emotional outbursts that, while they may very well have specific as well as more general root causes and historical correlations, are not simply understood in the terms of stultifying clarity that contemporary news expects. Perhaps no current events are, when you look at them more closely, but mass public disturbances are more immediately and self-evidently resistant to grand, overarching elucidation, especially the sort of elucidation grounded in politically-spiced prejudice.
Race-based, class-based, and generational snobbery aside, a riot does not really “express” anything. It is not speech, and it is only an act in the strictest sense of the word (though there is an element of performance to it, without a doubt). A riot is a last resort that feels like a first resort, unless it’s vice versa. A riot is entirely senseless and entirely sensible, all at once. It is the ultimate unsanctioned release valve in a cultural and economic polity that has cut off the flow to most all other release valves through excessive commercial sanctioning. When our escapes are so proscribed, pre-conditioned, and commodified, is it any wonder that some among us simply want to slash and burn?
These riots, of course, accomplish nothing to correct the endemic social issues that motivate them and perhaps even work to reverse the accomplishments that have been made in that direction. And yet, in their confused, multi-directional rage, they are a pertinent reaction to the perceived malaise of our international post-capitalist monoculture of historic income disparity. The underclass is trapped, downtrodden, oppressed, put upon, disdained, and caught in an ever-descending spiral of economic despair. More vitally, it seems to consistently expand to include a larger and larger segment of society with every passing business quarter.
But its constituents do not know why it must be this way, indeed lack even the frame of reference to understand that it is this way, and those who do have that frame of reference cannot or will not agree on the reasons, let alone pass them along to those who could most use them. Misery is all the worse for being unintelligible. If the questions are so senseless and inhuman, then why shouldn’t the answers be as well?
Perhaps I’m acting the part of the amateur sociologist that I’ve been deriding, locating primal human failings in the featureless systemic oppression of our institutions. But what is civilization but a concerted, evolving collaborative effort to overcome the worst demons of our nature, to subsume the very roiling destructive instincts that animate riots like those afflicting England? Ideally, it’s other things as well, but that is the basal assumption that civilization operates on, I would argue. And if, to many, it is failing to provide that which it purports to, why shouldn’t it be chucked aside, or at least firmly challenged now and again? Law and order are not inherent goods; their positive power derives from their efficiency and utility. But without disorder, how would we know order to look at it?