Postmodern Riots

Riots and confrontations between the mob and the forces of law and order run through the history of London.

In each generation there is a moment when society seems on the verge of fracturing and nights of violence force people to confront growling discontent and poisonous attitudes. This new clarity of vision is also an opportunity to embrace change which will bring healing and justice.

The Gordon Riots of 1780 revealed toxic anti-Catholicism, and in 1985 the Brixton and Broadwater Farm disturbances exposed deep tensions between the black community and the Metropolitan police. The 1990 poll tax riots and last year’s violent student protests showed that fury at Government policy can steam out onto the streets.

But the present outbreak of disorder is compelling because there is no clear motivation for the actors in this grotesque spectacle beyond the diabolical fun of setting a building on fire or the buzz of getting a new pair of trainers.

Yes, the violence followed a march on a Tottenham police station in response to the shooting of Mark Duggan – a hugely serious event which demands full investigation – but the majority of rioters are manifestly rebels without a cause.

Is this what street violence looks like in the postmodern age, when nihilism runs wild and hoodlums need nothing as archaic as a “reason” to shatter windows? When such irrationality takes hold it is easy to imagine the casual brutality envisaged by Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange becoming commonplace.

The irony is that in less than a year London is due to host the Olympic Games and an opening ceremony which will celebrate the perfectability of the human body and the inherent goodness of men and women. The revival of the Olympics coincides with the bloodiest chapter in human history, featuring industrialised genocide, two world wars and the dropping of atomic bombs.

Empty-headed waffle about the superlative essence of humanity will seem especially saccharin in a city which has seen proof that our destructive instincts need to be curtailed.

The failure to get to grips with the social conditions conducive to such mayhem parallels the international community’s feeble efforts to eradicate the scandal of famine and address climate change.

But now that the riots have forced us to accept that something is wrong with Britain we have a chance to change society. And when it is clear that the global economy and ecosystem is in peril our leaders have the responsibility to act with a fresh humility and urgency; it is irrational not to, and the alternative is global chaos which will eclipse the fury of every riot we have known thus far.

A Thursday Column

Blog Archive