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Descent into Barbarism

London burns for four days as UK authorities dealt timidly and uncertainly with semi-organized swarms of brazen thugs, causing rioting to spread to other cities. What have we seen so far?

* The British government and police acted with moral uncertainty in the face of violent challenge from swarming tactics by “underclass youth” rioters.  The BBC was filled with interviews of victimized citizens complaining about how police were unwilling to intervene to stop acts of looting, assault and arson. Police behavior fed the cycle of rioting and encouraged fence-sitters to join in and swell the ranks of the mob, as did early talking head comments in the British media that argued that the rioters were “justified”

* The British government was politically paralyzed by the crisis and needed three days and a Cabinet meeting to begin to organize an effective anti-riot strategy, distribute proper equipment, summon additional manpower, change police ROE and marshal a rhetorical narrative against the rioters.  All the halmarks of excessive top-down control by out of touch technocrats and politicians.

 John Robb summed up this kind of anti-leadership beautifully in his review of Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell  :

…In contrast to the people on the ground, she shows that the only people that actually do panic during disasters are the elites — from those with wealth to those running the government’s response (I’m not talking about the first responders actually on the ground doing good work).  They panic over the loss of control a disaster brings.  This often results in extreme actions that only serve to make things worse: from martial law authorized to use deadly force against looters (often just people trying to survive the situation) to arbitrarily hearding people into locations that aren’t able to support large groups of people.  

What This Means

The lesson here is that during an extreme disaster, the people you may most need to fear are those in charge, particularly if their motives are focused on protecting elite interests put at risk by the disaster

* The Cameron government’s legitimacy is at risk, being currently blamed for everything connected to the riot from the underlying “root causes”, to their initial total lack of interest in defending ordinary Britons to the bad impression made of having senior ministers being on vacation while the capitol of the UK was ablaze. Earnest and repeated assertions by government officials that no political or racial motives were behind the rioting conflicted with the reality being broadcast live by the government’s own news service in the first hours and days of the riot.

Handling a riot properly is state power 101. The Prime Minister has about two days to turn this situation and the political perceptions created around or he will begin an irreversible downward spiral to an early retirement.

20 Responses to “Descent into Barbarism”

  1. joey Says:

    Fully agree,  British official response has been pathetic,  kudos to all the neighborhood and concerned shop keepers that turned out on the streets to defend there property.

  2. Bob Morris Says:

    Three Asians were killed defending their stores when it was deliberately rammed by car of suspected looters. It appears the looters were African.
    It really does seem the UK police are inept. I lived in L.A. for years, including during the 1992 riots, and while LAPD is notorious for violence, I don’t think they would have let things get this out of control. Just them being on the street heavily armed and knowing they might shoot first and ask questions later would back off looters.


  3. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Their police have been "pc’d-down"—from what I’ve read, the police in the UK more often than not, look the other way…which makes their killing of the young man last week seem remarkable. "Hapless" comes to mind. Agree with you, Bob—while the LA police had a rep for violence, that rep kept LA safe. I saw a youtube video yesterday from those riots where the Korean shop owners where out front with sidearms defending their property; wonder how much of the destruction could have been avoided if the UK shop owners had guns…

  4. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    Good, succinct analysis.  I would submit that institutional paralysis existed before these riots even broke out—and general hubris prevented early and effective intervention, rather than "moral uncertainty."  Although taken as a whole, the early conversation on social media and more mainstream media may appear to have been filled w/ moral uncertainty, and may still appear to be "paralyzed" by moral uncertainty, I think that may be an illusion.  In fact, most of the voices are rather certain about the root causes; it’s just that, on the whole, when the voices are speaking all together, the collective mess may seem like abject moral uncertainty—BUT, this would not explain the lack of official response from the Home Secretary, the London Mayor, and the Prime Minister, so well as general hubris.

    Additionally, there does seem to be a much starker contrast in the UK between economic classes than even in the U.S.  Consider the ubiquitous term, chav.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chav)  Although race and ethnic stereotypes may attach to the word, the word itself is primarily class-based.  No expert on the sociological differences between UK society and American society, I still wonder if the lack of so neat and ubiquitous a class-based distinction in America has led to our leaning toward racial and ethnic stereotyping and away from such a class-based stereotyping (although again, there is some overlap.)

    I’m thinking that a great deal of the hubris in the UK results from a more solid break, or barrier, that is class-based, and whether the general shock there is a result of people suddenly becoming aware that the actual barriers between the "chavs" and the more mainstream (or some would say, uppity and mildly snobby) are not has solid as they had once believed but merely conceptual, abstract, and too taken for granted:  conceptual, but without real borders between areas of London, Manchester, ……

  5. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    "In fact, most of the voices are rather certain about the root causes; it’s just that, on the whole, when the voices are speaking all together, the collective mess may seem like abject moral uncertainty"—by this, I meant that they are in disagreement.  So the "conversation" may seem like moral uncertainty if viewed as a solid whole, whereas most people commenting are rather certain, individually, about what is occurring.  It’s just that they disagree, there are so many views of it.  I do not understand exactly why we should be surprised, given that our ideological definitions of democracy are founded upon the belief that a multiplicity of voices and opinions will be healthy for a democracy and democratic institutions.  Are we in error?

  6. historyguy99 Says:

    Excellent analysis of the "cover my ass and hope it goes away." top-down responses by technocrats and polititians.

    I too lived in Southern California and worked in Los Angeles during the 1992 riot.  The first few hours of the riot saw the streets totally controlled by the mobs, with the police overwhelmed. At 9pm the National Guard was called out, and 2000 troops were ready by 3am the next morning and began moving into areas affected. The attached link summarizes their response. http://www.militarymuseum.org/HistoryKingMilOps.html

    Of note was how Korean businsess owners abandoned by the police; defended their stores and lives courtesy of the 2nd Amendment. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CvaNJ0mF_JM

  7. UK riots. Descent into barbarism, uncaring elites | Politics in the Zeros Says:

    […] Zenpundit The British government was politically paralyzed by the crisis and needed three days and a Cabinet meeting to begin to organize an effective anti-riot strategy, distribute proper equipment, summon additional manpower, change police ROE and marshal a rhetorical narrative against the rioters. All the hallmarks of excessive top-down control by out of touch technocrats and politicians. […]

  8. Bob Morris Says:

    I asked a Latino friend in LA what he did to protect his auto parts store during the riots. 
    He said "We put a ‘Latino owned and operated’ sign out front".  "And that was all?", I said. He grinned and said, "Oh, we were on the roof with shotguns, rifles, and handguns too."
    It’s interesting that even the hard left London Indymedia is as baffled as anyone by what happened and has no answers.

  9. Larry Dunbar Says:

    I think what this means is that the world has officially entered into 5 Generational Warfare. You "defend" yourself against 5GW by ignoring those engaged in 5GW, as they are creating war against those who don’t know there is a war in progress. This means the incumbent forces from the state are simply waiting for the insurgency (those from before, engaging in 4GW) to "win".  This "win" will not propel the insurgency into an incumbent force, but give the incumbent force the ability to Act, as PC as possible. Public "outrage" will be negated, as the resources move into the Space to replace that which has been burned in Time. The orientations that are in conflict (African, Asian) will either form a gap between themselves or position themselves perpendicular to each other with a direction and magnitude. The incumbent force will then "take-out" the winner, either those across the gap or with more events and at a greater magnitude, thus obtain control of the advantage in the environment that all forces Observe. This "advantage" is one of Space, not Time. This 5GW is such a "killer" that you gotta love it. 

  10. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    "thus obtain control of the advantage in the environment that all forces Observe."
    I have had running through my mind the old saw about the victors writing all the histories.  The fact is, quite often the losers, so long as they aren’t utterly destroyed (literally destroyed!) adopt that history eventually, themselves; and the result is what we might call—contra the uncertainty mentioned by ZP—a new "moral certainty."  It is no such thing, although the ultimate effects might be quite similar or "as good as."

  11. Lexington Green Says:

    Round them up, lash them to the wheels, blow them from the guns.  

  12. davidbfpo Says:

    A good lurid headline ‘Descent into Barbarism’ which reflects the coverage and little else.
    The reality is that in a few places, notably inner-city areas in England, there has been serious looting and disorder. In a smaller number of places there have been violent confrontations between mobs and the police. In one city, Birmingham, the first night of looting in the evening and beyond involved 700-800; yesterday maybe more. 
    The number involved in the looting is tiny, apparently from all communities; this is not on the scale of the serious disorder back in 1981 and 1985 across England.
    What is remarkable is the inability of the police to respond to such a tiny minority. The police regularly confront and generally control larger crowds attending football matches. I recommend you visit http://inspectorgadget.wordpress.com/ for a police insider’s viewpoint.
    I expect the ‘underclass’ involved are a common feature to the USA.
    We do need in the UK to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. Yes, the police need to be ‘robust’, there is no need for the army, water cannon, plastic bullets and any option familiar to the USA.

  13. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

    A ha!  I knew that it would be only a matter of time before the 5GW moniker would start to get thrown around.
    It seems that a corollary to one of Murphy’s Laws would more easily fit the situation:
    "Never attribute to malice that which could be more easily attributed to stupidity."  Likewise, never attribute to 5GW that which could be more easily attributed to mere criminality.

  14. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    There is no such thing as mere criminality.

  15. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

    Jared Loughner’s crimes were mere criminality.
    Rioting is much less consequential, so long as it’s dealt with vigorously and early.
    The only reason these riots are noteworthy is because of the incompetence of the police, not the rioting crimes themselves.

  16. Charles Cameron Says:

    There’s a fascinating map of the London events here, with disturbances matched against "social deprivation" as measured by the 2010 English Indices of Deprivation (Department for Communities and Local Government):

    Maybe that’s surprising, maybe not really — I offer it as food for thought, not as some kind of definitive evidence of causality.

  17. Charles Cameron Says:

    One of the things that delights me about web-driven research connectivity is the way a given piece of content (in this case, the map of London above) can serve different purposes in wholly different arenas.  I posted that map here because it relates to our topic of the recent disturbances in the UK — but I also pointed it out on SocialEdge to my friend Dan Bassill, who runs a Tutor/Mentor program in Chicago and is always trying to network with others.
    Dan has a keen interest in the potential for mapping technologies to empower programs that provide social benefit — eg by showing where mentoring programs exist, where schools are failing, where churches and businesses that might provide support are located, etc — so I figured this London map, and even more so the software on which it based, would likely be of interest to him.
    And voila!
    So now the ZP readers know about Tutor/Mentor in Chicago, via a map of London — and who knows, maybe this "weak link" between the SocialEdge and ZP readerships will result in some unforseen but helpful contacts being made…
    I’d certainly like to see Dan Bassill’s work getting wider appreciation and support…

  18. david ronfeldt Says:

    as prime minister david cameron noted today, "The truth is that the police have been facing a new and unique challenge with different people doing the same thing – basically looting – in different places all at the same time."  
    in other words, info-age swarming tactics — or, if you prefer, flash mob tactics — are now being used by looters loosely but deliberately organized for that purpose across multiple dispersed groups.  these tactics have been used by activists and even rioters elsewhere, but i gather this is the first significant instance of looters doing info-age swarming. 

  19. Dave Schuler Says:

    I think that what we’re seeing in England (not the UK or Britain) is, among other things, a consequence of the attackers having superior logistics to the defenders.  As a general principle attackers have an advantage but that’s been multiplied by technology to the point that there isn’t much defense.  That’s the significance of the official complaints about social media–the defenders know they’re being outmaneuvered but they don’t have the rule-set (to please Zen) to deal with it.  Vigilantism would counter the attackers’ advantage but that would require a major cultural shift.

  20. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi David [R]:
    > info-age swarming tactics — or, if you prefer, flash mob tactics
    This sounds like the intersection of some of your netwars/swarming work with John Arquilla, and Howard Rheingold’s SmartMobs. 

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