A long time ago, when I studied history at university, we spent a couple of weeks on riots and civil disturbances in eighteenth-century England.
We discussed the seminal works of Marxist historian E. P. Thompson, especially his stimulating notion of a moral economy of the crowd.
There was a sense of balance - of justice - in any given community, and disorder was the natural result where factors led to an unbalance.
So, I asked, what about the Gordon Riots or (nearer to home for me as a Brummie) the Preistley Riots?
Oh, came the response, that was just bigotry.
It was then the realization came that people with political opinions tend to find exactly what they want in any civil disturbance.
Radicals and leftists find underlying socio-economic causes for certain riots, and mass vulgar prejudice for others. In turn, conservatives from Burke onwards tend to see any civil disturbance as being a failure of "law and order".
The actual riots are rarely predicted; but when they happen, people with political opinions tend to immediately know why they happened - what really caused them.
There was a riot last night in Tottenham. By the early hours it had spread down the road to Wood Green. It started outside a police station; it ended with the reported looting of consumer goods. A police car was set on fire; and so was a bus and (it seems) some buildings.
The great historian Conrad Russell once pointed out that before one posits causes, one must set out the effects one is actually seeking to explain.
And with many civil disturbances there are a range of effects which one seeks to explain: from conscious protests and articulated grievances to arson and mere vandalism. No one ideological model seems to provide a full explanation: demanding justice does not add up to looting; insufficient policing does not explain the concentration of people outside any police station.
In fact, civil disturbances are invariably used to validate political opinions which people already hold; no conservative or radical will ever say, "Gosh, that riot changes the way I think about society. Perhaps my principles or my policies are wrong?".
In this respect, civil disturbances are profoundly reactionary: they tend to reinforce rather than challenge views which already exist.
There were many causes of what happened last night in Tottenham and Wood Green; but that is just because a lot of rather different things happened. Accordingly, there may be a limited extent to which there is a single "solution" to what is seen as the problem.
But there is a general rule - few people accurately predict civil disturbances; and afterwards, few people have any doubt as to why they happened.
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