Riots in the British capital hit inner-city Tottenham, suburban Ealing, gritty Hackney, and chic Notting Hill. Windows were smashed, video cameras stolen, cars set ablaze. Young men in hooded sweatshirts congregated on street corners and charged the police. "Copycat" riots followed across the country, from Bristol to Nottingham and Manchester. And nobody really knows why.
Scan the comment pages of the British press, and you will find a wide range of explanations. Read the center-right Daily Telegraph, and you will learn that the riots were caused by a weak and cowardly police force, absent fathers, welfare dependency, or multiculturalism and the tolerance of gangs in schools. Read the center-left Guardian, and you will be informed that police brutality, social exclusion, and cuts in welfare spending and the widening gap between rich and poor are to blame. Some are convinced that high levels of immigration are at fault. Others believe the problem lies in British intolerance of immigrants and minorities.
There is a reason for the discrepancy: The rioters themselves do not wave signs. They do not chant chants. They weren't protesting any particular government policy, as were student demonstrators in London last winter. They have not sought publicity for their views, if they have any. They hid from cameras and dodged journalists. And thus did they become the inkblot in a kind of national Rorschach test: Everyone sees in them the political issue they care about most, whether it's welfare dependency, budget cuts, the decline of public education, or—my personal favorite—the rise of a vulgar and amoral public culture.
And yet it is their lack of politics that most clearly defines them. If the Egyptians in Tahrir Square wanted democracy and if the anarchists in Athens wanted more government spending, the hooded men in British streets want 46-inch flat-screen high-definition televisions. They aren't smashing the headquarters of the Tory Party; they are smashing clothing shops. Instead of using social media to create civil society or cyberutopia, they use social media to steal. Someone circulated a text message on Monday night, calling friends to central London for "Pure terror and havoc & Free stuff … just smash shop windows and cart out da stuff u want!"
Aside from stealing, a lot of the rioters—maybe most of the rioters—were also out to have a good time. Don't be fooled by the stiff-upper-lip cliches: From Wat Tyler's medieval peasant rebels to the modern soccer hooligans, there is a time-honored tradition of smashing things for fun in Britain, and the groups that enjoy it have been around for a long time. It doesn't take very many of them to do a lot of damage. As of Wednesday morning, police had arrested 768 people, according to the BBC, and charged 105 in connection with violence in the capital. Overnight, London was calm for the first time since the riots began last week.
I'm not counting out the other possible explanations, many of which would be worth investigating even if these riots had never occurred. The welfare state really has left a generation of young people feeling both dependent on government handouts and entitled to more. Poor state education has left up to a fifth of British teenagers functionally illiterate. The slow economy means many will never find jobs and thus will never be integrated into the mainstream. The presence of the world's oligarchs and billionaires in London means the city has an economic gap unusually wide for the developed world. The tabloid press thrives on envy of the rich and the cult-worship of boorish celebrities. Traditional institutions—the school system, the churches, even the BBC—long ago lost their ability to transmit older values. A spate of scandals has recently discredited the banks, the Parliament, the media, and the London police even further.
Then again, there was looting in London following the Great Fire of 1666, and, despite the mythology, there was looting in London during the wartime Blitz. Go back and read Dickens: Criminals, both immigrant and "native" British, have taken advantage of opportunities to loot in London during more peaceful times, too. A peculiar confluence of circumstances—a mob angry about a police murder, a sudden bout of warm weather, an unprepared police force distracted by scandal, and, yes, the astonishingly widespread availability of BlackBerry smartphones among the underprivileged—might have allowed them to do so again. Beware of sweeping political generalizations in the wake of these riots. We don't know whether we have just witnessed a "new" phenomenon, or a more mobile and technically adept version of a very old one.