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.