August 11th, 2011
02:17 PM ET

Inner city culture to blame for London riots

Editor’s Note: David Goodhart is the former editor of Prospect Magazine. He will be on Fareed Zakaria GPS this Sunday at 10am ET/PT speaking about the riots in the UK.

By David Goodhart – Special to CNN

Have the extraordinary riots of the past few days revealed a crisis of authority in British society? And what if anything can be done about the pathologies of the inner city youths who were running amok?

These riots happened for one overwhelming reason. The police lost control of the streets on Sunday and suddenly lots of bored kids saw an opportunity to create mayhem with a very low likelihood of being caught.

Law and order, like paper money, is a sort of confidence trick. For a short period its mask (or helmet?) slipped and all those inclined to resent authority, who feel the official world is against them in some way and enjoy the thrill of small scale violence, saw their chance.

What was shocking was how many recreational rioters there seemed to be, either taking part or just standing and watching. This may be an optical illusion, and some commentators have claimed that the actual rioters were in the low thousands.  But there appeared to be a general grunt of approval from a large part of “hoodie”Britain.

British politics has been dominated in recent years by a combination of economic and social/cultural liberalism. The teeny-bopper looter represents the dark side of that liberalism—the damaged off-spring of a decent and tolerant but also fluid and unstructured society.

This is not to say that “society is to blame” in any silly, leftist way. We may be economically liberal but that has not prevented billions of pounds being spent in recent years on improving schools and infrastructure in the inner city, and billions more on benefits for those unable or unwilling to find decent employment. The recession and spending cuts will not yet have undone all of that.

And the social and cultural liberalism has also brought huge improvements to the inner city over recent decades. The minority communities, which often dominate numerically in the inner city, face far less overt racism, policing has improved and much money and public policy effort goes into trying to increase the upward mobility of the inner city child.

And yet many of the inner city kids have barricaded themselves into an un-political counter-culture of contempt for the mainstream world.  Liberal Britain has had no response.

The idiom of that world is dominated by black street culture, partly imported from theU.S.The nihilistic grievance culture of the black inner city, fanned by parts of the hip hop/rap scene, seems to have merged with the rejectionist, anti-education culture of the bottom end of the white working class. This culture helps to make failure self-fulfilling; it’s based on the idea that white or mainstream society is fixed against you and that violent transgression is therefore the only route to status and reward.

The routine brutalities and racist humiliations of 30 or 40 years ago are lovingly preserved in today’s inner city discourse to justify not playing the game. This is an adolescent pose, but also an all too human reaction on the part of people who fear failure so refuse to take part.

The culture of disaffection does have a withered root in earlier struggles for social justice and racial equality. Some of the early hip hop bands like Public Enemy engaged with old fashioned political themes but that has mainly been replaced by gangster worship and a kind of violent consumerism - consider NWA or a more local rapper called Giggs (born in Peckham).

The shooting of a young black man, Mark Duggan, in Tottenham gives the original rioting a link to the race politics disturbances of the 80s, and there clearly is still a problem between young blacks and the police with stop-and-search laws.

But by all accounts, relations between the black community and police have vastly improved.  Operation Trident, the police operation to combat the hugely disproportionate gun crime in the black community, was requested by the black community itself.  It is generally regarded as a success.

TheLondonrioters I saw and heard interviewed did complain about the killing of Mark Duggan but their real complaint seemed to be the police's power to stop them from committing crime! It's as if they think it's unfair that they are not as powerful as the police.

This certainly represents a poor grasp of how power works in liberal democracies.  It may also signify a garbled account of modern multiculturalism in which all are meant to be have equal power and any departure from that, or indeed any personal setback, is racialized.

People on the left will say that the culture of disaffection is also fanned by the surrounding consumer culture and the "get rich quick" casino economy. Perhaps they have half a point. But a rapper called JaJa, who said if he was younger he would have been out with the kids, felt closer to the truth when he pronounced that most of them were doing it for fun and to feel powerful - "for fifteen minutes of fame."

We should neither stigmatize nor sentimentalize black inner city communities We should instead ask clear questions about what can be done about family breakdown and the crisis of authority both in those communities where the problems are particularly acute and in the rest of Britain.

Many black leaders of both left and right have been uncompromising in their denunciation of the rioters. They have not reached for excuses.

David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham, pointed to the fact that more than half of the children in his area are being raised by one parent - but as a part explanation, not as a justification.

Shaun Bailey, the black Tory, says that too many black kids have been raised hearing a lot about their rights but not much about duties and responsibilities. Bailey says it is down to "the community" to sort itself out.  He is probably right, but it will need the intelligent help of the local and national state and the surrounding society.

If good parenting is about love and boundaries, what do you do for people who have had too little of both and find some kind of compensation in gang life?

Public policy cannot stop young girls getting pregnant or young men joining gangs. But politics can help to change and challenge attitudes. And it can challenge the culture of disaffection by providing more structure to people’s often chaotic lives.

Liberalism works well for people with the cultural resources and family support to enjoy freedom. But freedom in the inner city can mean purposelessness and unpunished transgression.

So what would more structure mean? Economics still does matter. In retrospect, opening the door to nearly 1 million east Europeans before we had sorted out the training and employment of the inner city hardcore kids was a mistake.

But what about national citizen service? More youth clubs and training places? Yes, but these are shunned by the hardcore kids. More important is to sort out the school exclusion policy. The Labour Party put some effort into making sure that excluded kids were offered places in pupil referral units but there are not enough places and there is not enough compulsion.

In the 1980s there were genuine grievances to riot about.  Today there is just a sullen disaffection. These were truly post-political riots, style riots, boredom riots, feel-good riots, look-at-me riots, riots at the end of history.

To make sure they don’t become a regular occurrence, British liberalism needs to rise to the challenge of creating some tough love in the inner city.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of David Goodhart.

Post by:
Topics: Culture • London Riots

soundoff (76 Responses)
  1. Godfrey

    Mayor Nutter of Philadelphia
    “Parents, get your act together. Get it together, right now. You’re going to find yourself spending some quality time with your kids in jail, together. You’re not a father just because you have a kid, or two, or three. If you’re not providing moral instruction to your children and instead are sending child-support payments, you’re just a human ATM. If you’re doing neither, you’re just a sperm donor. That’s part of the problem in our community. Let me speak plain: That’s part of the problem in the black community.”

    August 15, 2011 at 5:45 am | Reply
  2. Name

    i love to see britian burning. same will happen to USA.

    August 15, 2011 at 6:09 am | Reply
    • Godfrey

      You're an idiot. Switch to decaf.

      August 15, 2011 at 7:03 am | Reply
  3. Jim

    The politics of this event is personal; it is personal to every single kid, black or white who rioted. This is an alienation brought about by the school system in the UK. These kids have chosen to exclude themselves from society. The reasons they feel alienated are well understood by the kids themselves. To understand them, you must go talk to them. Harriet Sergeant did just that and wrote a report about what they said and the implications for Britain. This report tells us what has gone wrong and what we can do about it http://harrietsergeant.com/reports/ download report no.6 " Wasted"

    August 15, 2011 at 6:34 am | Reply
    • Godfrey

      Or, they are just rotten kids with adults to rationalize for them.

      August 15, 2011 at 7:04 am | Reply
  4. John

    Wow!!!! It's 2011 and we are still dealing w/ individuals who have a very myopic view of the world. And considering this is/was an editor, you would expect more. I saw the interview yesterday and Fareed Zakaria was terrible. But this guy, David Goodhart comes straight out of a comic book. I guess all hip hop is about violence. I guess all blacks are sub-human. I guess no other music genre excites or speaks to/for the youth. I guess this all happened b/c blacks should be happy they are no longer slaves. And you wonder why there is a music genre called hip hop. It's for such bs as this. Let's just entertain this completely stupid way of thinking for a second. Art reflects life. So if you hate the art change the life condition that spawned it. Ok back to the intelligent world again. I was simply amazed that CNN would let someone so stupid speak. Also I was amazed at placid reaction from Fareed's...he seem almost intimidated.

    August 15, 2011 at 7:21 am | Reply
  5. Origman

    david goodmans writing is to be blame for his racist ideas, that help to divide the middle class more so, so the parasitic elite can continue their gluttonous rain...

    while the masses waste energy fighting thier armed security gaurds, they are plotting and planning on how to take more rights away from the people... pretty soon it WILL be legal for the police to spy on you and your phone calls..

    david goodman does his job well, and that is too distract and divide from whats really going on here.. the riots were controlled by the police and their police provacatuers... its might peculiar that all this happend EXACTLY ON TIME to divert attention away from the police as they spied on its own citizens INCLUDING the british royal family...

    dont get caught up in the riots... analyze the TIMING of it.... and notice how the uk police are given rights to monitor phone calls and conversations as a result..

    lets NOT play three card molly, when the game is high stakes poker.!!!!!!! this auther is only writing to divide and confuse from the real game and keep you focused on the folly...

    at the end of the day its all about controlling the masses through fear.. the author is full of feces dont go for his poker face. He knows who the real enemy of all the tax paying citizens are, and it aint the poor and disenfranchised sunblessed aka black people!!!

    August 15, 2011 at 9:41 am | Reply
  6. paul coggins

    this article is utter nonsense. David Goodhart probably does'nt even know here london is

    August 15, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Reply
  7. lynx Owe

    If we listen to Cameron and change the language we could hear Mubarak, Gaddafi or others that blame the people for their reaction to the excesses of Government. While difficult for many it is obvious to an unbiased observer that the events that are happening in GB and Europe, when put into historical context are a natural outgrowth of the Wealthy, plundering the economy at the expense of the middle class and poor for a long period of time. Discontent and radical action are easily suppressed at first through labeling and profiling. Early on in most societies the most combustible groups are immediately identifiable: they will be a racial group, religious group, immigrants or a Section of the City. Their earlier volatility is to be expected because they will have been disaffected for the longer period. As the disaffection grows their ranks are swelled with others who are sympathetic or lowered in their economic status by the excesses of Government. In time what began as an easily identifiable group grows into a diverse mix of participants who are difficult to target and marginalize along the traditional methods above. While there will be differences within the now Mob, their common enemy will be the Government. Suppression will take violence and then begins the descent into chaos. How to prevent it all requires man to depart from their own nature of greed and lust for power which is not likely or a profound event that shakes the core of our existence forcing everyone into a Mob. The former is not likely and the later until it happens is fantasy.

    August 15, 2011 at 6:16 pm | Reply
    • vovo

      testing

      October 7, 2011 at 6:11 am | Reply
  8. lynx Owe

    The riots are the result of long term problems. Austerity measures are only put in place when Government excesses by the powerbrokers and government officials have exhausted an economy. Rather than reduce their greed, Governments reduce any spending that does not provide those same powerbrokers continued and ever increasing revenue. Because the process of economic decline is not instant the contraction of population friendly spending is a slow one. Disaffected numbers grow slowly spreading the fuel for unrest until a tipping point where an event, no matter how small, clearly demonstrates the lack of power of the average person. This event coupled with the perception of government indifference born by the long period of decline while the wealthy have become more enriched sparks the unrest. Those with the energy of expectation and a lack of long-term conditioning to the status quo are most likely to riot first – the youth.

    August 15, 2011 at 6:19 pm | Reply
  9. Naomi

    People are bored and spoiled. They must be thinking Nazi bombings didn't do enough damages in London decades ago. If no tyrant, common people start struggling to become tyrants themselves. Earthlings do not know how to live with peace – the reason there is no world peace for the present mankind. Ship all offenders to war-fields and make them serve there.

    August 16, 2011 at 11:03 pm | Reply
  10. James

    Inner city culture starts with an "M"– in London–

    August 18, 2011 at 5:42 pm | Reply
  11. lynx Owe

    The riots are the result of long term problems. Austerity measures are only put in place when Government excesses by the powerbrokers and government officials have exhausted an economy. Rather than reduce their greed, Governments reduce any spending that does not provide those same powerbrokers continued and ever increasing revenue. Because the process of economic decline is not instant the contraction of population friendly spending is a slow one. Disaffected numbers grow slowly spreading the fuel for unrest until a tipping point where an event, no matter how small, clearly demonstrates the lack of power of the average person. This event coupled with the perception of government indifference born by the long period of decline while the wealthy have become more enriched sparks the unrest. Those with the energy of expectation and a lack of long-term conditioning to the status quo are most likely to riot first – the youth.
    If we listen to Cameron and change the language we could hear Mubarak, Gaddafi or others that blame the people for their reaction to the excesses of Government. While difficult for many it is obvious to an unbiased observer that the events that are happening in GB and Europe, when put into historical context are a natural outgrowth of the Wealthy, plundering the economy at the expense of the middle class and poor for a long period of time. Discontent and radical action are easily suppressed at first through labeling and profiling. Early on in most societies the most combustible groups are immediately identifiable: they will be a racial group, religious group, immigrants or a Section of the City. Their earlier volatility is to be expected because they will have been disaffected for the longer period. As the disaffection grows their ranks are swelled with others who are sympathetic or lowered in their economic status by the excesses of Government. In time what began as an easily identifiable group grows into a diverse mix of participants who are difficult to target and marginalize along the traditional methods above. While there will be differences within the now, Mob, their common enemy will be the Government. Suppression will take violence and then begins the descent into chaos. How to prevent it all requires man to depart from their own nature of greed and lust for power which is not likely or a profound event that shakes the core of our existence forcing everyone into a Mob. The former is not likely and the later, until it happens, is fantasy.

    August 19, 2011 at 12:42 am | Reply
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    July 4, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Reply
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