All the reasons that people are fumbling for across the media, to explain what has happened in London and now other British cities since the weekend, depend on understanding who exactly has been doing the rioting and looting. It seems to me, however, this question is rather complex in itself.
Red Ken Deadstone claimed that the unrest was the work of deprived youngsters reacting against the effects of government cuts. As many people have retorted, we wish we were deprived enough to communicate exclusively through BlackBerry Messenger. Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North, claimed it resulted from uncontrolled gang subcultures. There is probably something in that, especially when it is combined with what another commentator described as the postcode truce which has allowed rival gangs to unite in unleashing disorder across the capital.
What nobody expected was the profile of the looters which emerged from the first prosecutions yesterday. Many media outlets remarked on the fact that they included a graphic designer, a university graduate and someone who was just about the enter the army. Without knowing what the other looters listed as their professions, it is hard to decide whether theses are significant or not. What they do indicate is that no simplistic assumptions can be made about the shared alienation of looters and rioters from society. David Hughes in Wednesday's Torygraph writes:
The BBC is reporting that the first person up at Highbury Magistrates Court on looting charges was a 31-year old school teacher [a teaching assistant apparently] named Alexis Bailey. He pleaded guilty to being part of the looting of the Richer Sounds store in Croydon.
This then is a mixed public.
More signficant are the vox populi interviews which brave or foolhardy reporters have garnered from some of those involved. Last night in Manchester Nick Ravenscroft of the BBC interviewed a number of young lads who admitted that they could afford some of the things they were stealing (they're deprived, eh, Ken?) and they were not bothered about getting caught because, well, what would happen? An ASBO? Eh alors? But they explained further:
Why are you gonna miss the opportunity to get, like, free stuff that's worth loads o' money? [...] It's the government [...] Kids don't wanna go to college no more coz they don't get paid innit.
Yes, you heard that right. Pay me to go to college or I will sack the city.
I cannot have been the only person shocked by the incomparable vacuity of two female looters interviewed by Leana Hosea in Croydon on Tuesday morning who thought the chaos they had wrought was both 'mad' and 'good'. When Hosea remarked on the fact they were drinking at 9 in the morning, one answered:
It's the government's fault ... Conservatives.. It's not even a riot, it's showing the police we can do what we want [...] It's the rich people, and that's why all of this has happened, because of the rich people.'
If you suspect that of being a stream of demented drivel, then you're not far wide of the mark.
One trope to emerge from both of these interviews was the blaming of the government. Now, I am a political cynic at the best of times, but what is going on here is far more sophisticated than simple moral relativism. First, there is rather a process of moral vicarious transfer. I have done this but in fact it is somebody else's fault. Like health care, education and so many other services provided by the public purse, one's own moral responsibility can now apparently be passed upwards to the State so it can be blamed when looters loot. This looks like the fruit of the depersonalisation of authority in reaction to the disfunctioning of the family. One unintended consequence is that the nanny State itself has paradoxically become a scapegoat of the resulting disorder. These individuals labour not under the influence of wrong-headed ideology but under a kind of moral imbecility, the fruit of a cultural breakdown and the bureaucratic sticking-plaster response to it, which are now producing fruits that are sub-human.
On the other hand, these interviews are also marked by a trope of amoral individuality. The two female rioters were showing the police and the rich that they could do what they wanted to do. They were in no way beholden to an outside authority, and to prove it, they would daub their inner chaos on the streets of the capital with fire and theft.
Here, we have another paradox: a moment ago, we were witnessing the process of moral transfer as the looters blamed the government for their action, and now they assert that the chaos achieved is the result of their self expression. They deny their responsiblity and a moment later they affirm their agency.
Of course there is a huge dose of permissiveness in both of these themes since both basically facilitate whatever moral choice the individual is intent on making. But the reason I say this attitude is not relativism is that there is not a single one of these moral imbeciles who would approve of their own homes being ransacked and looted or their houses set on fire. If it happened, they would be outraged. In fact, those rioters who are members of gang subcultures operate under strict codes of conduct which reference the cohesion of the gang first and foremost.
I still haven't answered the question in the title: who are these people? I wonder if outraged Britain must face the possibility that these people, these looters and rioters, are in many ways a reflection of ourselves. We have been passing responsibilty up the chain of bureaucracy for so long now - not educating our children, not looking after our elderly, etc. - that it has made many of us become as dependent on the State as a drunk on the nearest lamppost. On the other hand, we have so approved self expression and self affirmation, we have been for so long the dupes of authenticity, that the chains of restraint on some hearts have rusted away to nothing.
But there is another problem here and it is this: we have to face up to the fact that society is suffering a compound fracture, the parts of which protrude through the flesh and openly declare their alienation. Those of us who remain within the national contract have one set of laws. Those who have broken away from it have another set of rules. And yet, they drift in and out of the contract that we others hold to, like the splinters of some broken limb searching painfully to be reset. Arguably, we are not merely talking about one kind of fracture, but many kinds of fracture, as is shown by the involvement of lower middle classses in the looting and rioting. For the underclasses, having sacked the post office one night, the chances are that they still want to turn up the next day to draw their benefits from the PO's ATM;l so thought one commentator yesterday. For the others, they return to their offices or books still tingling from the thrill of an adrenaline-pumped, violently-induced shopping bargain.
Who does this kind of thing? They are undoubtedly our brothers, our semblables, and yet they belong to a foreign and enemy country; indeed to foreign and enemy countries.
This is not relativism. We are living rather in a xenocracy - the looters feel no duty to those who rule them while the looted feel their persecutors do not even live in the same moral universe.
How, as Theoden says, did we come to this?