Many people have commented on the copycat dynamics of the violence and looting which has spread across England in the last week. When television viewers saw the looting and violence in Tottenham last Saturday, many saw the opportunity to jump on the consumerist bandwagon without troubling to cross the driver's palm with any money. And the measure of violence which was used in Hackney was soon reproduced imitatively in Peckham, Croydon, Ealing, Birmingham and my own home town of Manchester.
Humans tend to be quite adept at disguising their proclivity for imitation. And yet imitation is everywhere in culture; for a start, it is the very stuff of every representational form. But imitation is more deeply rooted in us than we are often aware. Anima quaedamodum omnia, said the Scholastics; the soul is in some way everything. Our capacity to understand depends on our ability to fit our intelligence to reality: truth is the adequation of mind to being.
But there is something more here, and it concerns the moral life. I do not agree with René Girard that all our desires are learned by imitation, but the fact is that many desires, especially in a consumerist culture, are learned. Desire and need are distinct realities. I need to wear something on my feet; for that purpose, I do not need Adidas trainers, but I might desire Adidas trainers, especially if I see others making a big deal of them. I need to be able to speak to my friends; for that purpose, I do not need BlackBerry messenger, but I might desire to have BlackBerry messenger, especially if I see others making a big deal of it.
I mentioned two days ago that one of the most striking aspects of all these riots was the lack of ideology underpinning them. It seemed that the rioters had no political motivation or targets. How, then, do we explain their behaviour? We must look to their desires, and noting their desires, we must wonder from whom they have learned them; we must wonder as a consequence whom they are imitating.
These riots have not been an unleashing of relativistic behaviour, as I have argued from day one. They are rather an unleashing of acquisitional behaviour. They are not about power in the political order, but rather about power through appropriation. This is what underpins the wave of violence, since in this week looting has been seen by the rioters as the best means of acquiring what it is that they want. Violence is contagious; violence itself is a kind of contagion. But let us ask ourselves again from whom the looters have learned their desires.
The very first answer to this is quite obvious: they learn what is desirable from those with whom they are in immediate contact. This is why mobile phones, fancy footwear, sharp clothes and jewellery have been amongst the looters' favourite swag. These are the emblems, the symbols, the badges of office, that mark the young, fashionable consumer, or that the man with an eye for the main chance knows that he can flog to the young, fashionable consumer.
But is it also not true that, in our information age, many desires, are learned in the space created by the media? This is the very logic of advertising which aims to teach us to desire what it is the manufacturers produce. But it is also the very logic behind celebrity culture which fosters a continual vicarious experience of desire without ever promising to pay those desires with anything real or substantial. Celebrity culture is to social contact as voyeurism is to sexuality. We have to wonder therefore what desires it teaches to those who immerse their minds in it.
Arguably, there is a third level of imitation which we can uncover in the desires of those who have looted and pillaged with so much abandon over the last few days. We have noted their political neutrality, but should we not also wonder to what extent their desires are a reflection of the desires modelled by those who have dominated our public life over the last few years? In the last three years, our newspapers has been full of story after story of politicians caught with their hand in the Westminster cookie jar, and of bankers who earn more in their annual bonus than a teacher could earn in thirty years of dedicated service. If these riots tell us at anything, they should tell us that when we reward wealth makers in ways that so disproportionately outstrip the way we reward virtue makers, we only have ourselves to blame if those at the bottom of the pile behave more like animals than like citizens.
These layers of imitative potential do not immediately explain the means which the first looters chose to pursue their desires. But the actions of subsequent looters seem precisely like a contagion of violence which spread like wildfire given the chance. Likewise imitation does not wholly explain the collapse of the normal restraints which prevent people looting or setting fire to shops as a normal part of their Saturday shopping routine. But it underpins the way in which all these hardbitten individualists opted out like a herd of lemmings from the unspoken accords which underpin our normal commercial relations.
I think we find here one of the fundamental reasons why the market cannot rule society. Because the market does not know what society needs. The market only knows how to respond to desire and the forces of acquisition. There is no system either political or economic which is sufficient in itself to secure order for us. Whatever system we choose to adopt, we too must be good.
And so we come back to the fundamental problem of imitation: from whom should we learn our desires? But who will be asking that today as Parliament reconvenes?