‘The State’ and Public Disorder
The recent riots in the UK received worldwide media attention, from newspapers and television to the internet and blogspots. The English edition of the French newspaper Le Monde diplomatique gave one of the more empathetic reports on the riots in its article, UK riots: lessons from the banlieues?. In comparing David Cameron calling the rioters ‘opportunist thugs’, to that of Nicolas Sarkozy in 2005 dismissing the rioters in the banlieues as ‘voyous’ or thugs, reflects terms that are apt when applied to the wantonly mindless acts of destruction that occurred in France and England. However, there are differences between the actions of the rioters that would seem to suggest a lack of ’common purpose’ between the rioters in France and those in England.
The French riots of 2005 were mainly directed towards attacking state-owned buildings such as schools and police stations, with less emphasis on looting. The 2011 riots in England focused on looting, orchestrated by attacking private and business property. This would suggest that any comparison is difficult, if not impossible. Yet in both cases the term ‘social exclusion’ has a resonance, even given its nuances when applied to both of these cases. Sarkozy’s 2007 promised ‘Marshal Plan’ has done little to reverse the perceived social and economic problems that divide many in the French suburbs from mainstream society. The reasons for this slow progress towards change are, in themselves, lessons worth learning. As Le Monde puts it:
if the British government can learn anything from the French case, it is that conclusions drawn in the heat of the moment, from a situation that is still fluid and evolving, are not ones upon which to base any longer-term response.
Much of the reporting in the media claims that the recent riots in England are directly, or indirectly, a result of urban poverty. While urban poverty is a multidimensional phenomenon, many of those rioters being convicted of public disorder offences are not living any part of it; they are simply indulging in opportunistic public disorder. They are not the urban poor cited in a City Journal article with the title ‘Bribery Strikes Out’, which claims that there is little understanding of urban poverty and its relevance to a developed nation like the US. The article could equally apply in Britain and France where the preferred term is ‘social exclusion’ which, apart from perhaps rejecting abject poverty, has many multidimensional attributes in common with urban poverty. But, abject poverty is visible and identifiable socially exclusion is not. As Sophie Body-Gendrot points out in her article Disorder in world cities: comparing Britain and France, in the neighbourhoods were public disorder takes place it’s wrong to assume that those residents who take part in opportunistic public disorder are easily identified. A view borne out by those recently charged with offences in the English displays of public disorder.
Neighbourhoods do not divide into neat groupings of the ‘law abiding’ and the ‘criminal’, opportunistic or not. Nor do they divide the socially excluded from the socially included. Nevertheless, when perceptions of social exclusion (however invalid to the rest of society) are inherent in a neighbourhood, then the potential for spontaneous displays of public disorder exists. Quite clearly there is a problem in those urban areas that predominately house those who perceive themselves as being socially excluded. The experiences of past and present disturbances in the Britain, France and the USA, have shown that alleviating the problems in these areas is not simply an issue of state sponsored welfare and investment in urban renewal projects. These actions can themselves be counterproductive without preventing spontaneous displays of public disorder recurring.
The problems run deeper. Cameron argued in his 2006 speech to the Centre for Social Justice that the first thing is to recognise is that we’ll never get the answers right unless we understand what’s gone wrong. An understanding the background, the reasons, the causes is not excusing crime but a means to tackling it. In a First Post article with the title Riots and the Underclass – the view from America Alexander Cockburn asks,
“Amid vast structural unemployment and diminished social expectations how best to assuage the alarm expressed by James Anderton in 1980, when he was Chief Constable of Greater Manchester“? The alarm expressed by Anderton 30 years ago was that “from the police point of view… theft, burglary, even violent crime will not be the predominant police feature. What will be the matter of greatest concern will be the covert and ultimately overt attempts to overthrow democracy, to subvert the authority of the state.”
In an allusion to this, Cockburn contends that in the USA the answer has been to extend the authority of the State through greater police empowerment. Federal funds poured into city law enforcement, especially when accompanied the rhetoric of a ‘war on crime’ and an ever-increasing prison populations, has creating the illusion that lives are now more ‘crime free’ because of these actions. While violent crime rates are now at their lowest level in 40 years in the US, the correlation between this fall and the action taken in ‘the war on crime’ is weak. The US prison population, which is mainly African-American and Hispanic, mostly come from those urban areas that would enable them to articulate views on social exclusion very similar to those expressed in Britain and France. Like Britain and France spontaneous displays of public disorder in the US are not accompanied by any discernible social or political demands. The US now has the world’s most heavily armed police force to deal with any attempts to overthrow democracy and subvert the authority of The State. The only thing that it lacks is a threat in the context of urban violence. Cockburn concludes his article by saying that;
Emergency laws, rushed through by panicked politicians, are always bad. It will take America many decades, if ever, to restore civil liberties and approach crime rationally – and this will only come with courageous and inventive political leadership in the poor communities. Britons should study carefully the lessons of America‘s 40-year swerve.
Laws already exist in the UK to punish those committing an offence during a display of public disorder, the impulsive introduction of new law to assuage an electorate, is not needed. Cries for the meting out of punishment and retribution on those found guilty of offences committed during the recent displays of public disorder are mostly cathartic; they do not solve the underlying problems that led to these displays. It’s at this point that Sophie Body-Gendrot highlights further differences between the French experience and that of the UK. In France it would be unthinkable for the media to publicly incite citizens to denounce those involved in the way that the UK media has. But it would seem that the French media are not averse to overtly encouraging acts of provocation, something that would be totally unacceptable in the UK. In France, the media blame the State and lack of accountability by the police for causing social tension. However dysfunction youth’s lives are in France, they are rarely accused of ‘shaming the nation’. In the UK the State and the police find themselves at odds in such situations, with the police complaining of too much accountability and a media revelling in the opportunity to pour scorn on them both.
As the only two European states that experience regular recurrences of public disorder, they would be wise to learn from each other and to both learn from the experiences of the USA. The US experience shows that increasing police empowerment increases the authority of the State, while doing little to solve the problems inherent in urban areas caused by those who perceive themselves as socially excluded. Displays of public disorder do challenge the authority of the State in challenging the authority of the police, but policing the problem is not the problem. Seeking remedies that extend further the authority of the State, should not lead to a situation where increased police empowerment is itself the covert, and ultimately overt, threat to democracy.
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