The riots are criminal and thug behaviour with no political purpose.
But that is the first word, not the last.
Just as it is impossible to have a baby without a pregnancy, so it is impossible to have a riot without a cause - or in this case, causes. The 2011 UK riots are the result of systemic failure, a product of many causative factors.
Let's be clear: to understand the causes of a riot is not to try to excuse the actions of the rioters. They are human, so they are responsible, and have to face the consequences of their destructive actions.
Politicians are trying to fit it into their own categories : Conservatives are trying to pin it on "pure criminality". Criminality is involved, certainly, but as an effect, not as the sole cause. Labour seems to be trying to link the riots to the cuts in public services, but they are hardly enough (yet - give it time) to cause builidings to be set on fire. We have to look deeper, at the wider picture. Riots are a social action, where many items are thrown into the melting pot, and lie there simmering, until a trigger event causes the pot to boil over.
We know that the original Tottenham outburst was precipitated by the shooting by police of Mark Duggan. It seems he was carrying a replica handgun that had been modified to shoot, but that he was killed while it was still in its cover (a sock, allegedly). This killing re-activated community memories of Cynthia Jarrett's death (possibly form a heart attack caused by her son's arrest) in the locality in 1985, which kicked off a riot in which PC Blakelock was beaten to death.
A peaceful deputation to protest against Mark Duggan's killing outside the police station was ignored by the police for several hours, and so turned into a riot, which triggered riots and disturbances in many other areas of London, (Ealing, Wood Green, Clapham, Dalston ) and some other towns in the UK (Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds, Bristol). Here is an interactive map of all known sites of trouble.
What we can say for certain is that the riots are an expression of anger and alienation. The looting demonstrates a consumerist (or possibly, to keep the academics happy, post-consumerist) motive. Random smashing of cars and looting for trainers, clothes and electronic goods (but not, as many tweeps noted, bookstores) shows opportunism at work. They smashed because they could. They realised that with the police occupied elsewhere, their chances of getting caught were low.
Alienation is the absence of a sense of being in a productive relationship with one's physical and social environment, a belief that it does nothing for you, and that you owe it nothing. This is a false belief, built on the perception of "I" in a hostile or indifferent world, rather than "we" living in a world that sustains us, an environment that we should nurture and care for.
In short, alienation is a belief that can be expressed in the phrase "There is no such thing as society".
The alienation has many causes. Sub-prime pararenting is undoubtedly one cause. Community breakdown is another.
Here's a third: the prevailing celebrity culture. Surveys have shown that if you ask a schoolkid what s/he wants to be when they s/he grows up, chances are they will say "a celebrity" or "a football star's wife". So we have a gulf between aspiration and probability. This gap leads to depression and resentment. The culture is fostered by tabloid and TV content, and is paralleled by advertising and consumerist culture, where possession is portrayed as 9/10ths of success. This culture needs to change.
There may be an underlying loss of respect (to the extent that there was any respect previously) for authority because of the cumulative effect of the banking crisis, the MP expenses scandal, and the News International scandal, in which the Metropolitan Police are implicated.
The rioters are multiracial, but in that Afro-Caribbeans are involved, their experience is relevant.
Darcus Howe has been emphasising the resentment of young black kids who are continually harrassed by cops who stop and search them. It has to be accepted that, despite Darcus' deficiencies in the parental responsibility department, S&S is a significant cause for alienation of black and Asian youth.
Which leads on to the general distrust, dislike and even hatred of the Police. Middle class participants in demonstrations calling for peace and social justice have been sometimes disturbed at some police attitudes and actions. This happens to them maybe once or twice a year. Imagine what it is like to live immersed in an ongoing matrix of police contact.
One aspect of the rioters was their young age. Some appeared to be around the 14 year mark. Again, there may be many reasons for this, but one factor must be the student demonstrations of 2010. There is still massive resentment against the withdrawal of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA). The youngsters will have seen students a year or two above them on TV in demonstrations that police tactics helped to become violent, and they may well be living in families with older brothers who are unemployed.
Youth unemployment is an important component of disengagement and alienation. It is a feature of all the action in Arab Spring countries. Not that I am for a moment suggesting that these riots have any political component. One popular tweet from @MsLuluRose summed it up: The Youth of the Middle East rise up for basic freedoms.The Youth of London rise up for a HD ready 42" Plasma TV.
Confirmation of the unemployment factor comes from Dr Paul Bagguley of the University of Leeds, who researches the sociology of protest.He told Channel 4 News: "They did research in the riots in America in the 1960s and the only statistically significant thing was simply being availableThere's been a sense of watching a slow train crash ever since the credit crunch... people often have different reasons for rioting but one of the main factors sending them out was very simple: because they were doing nothing else" he said.
Unemployment provides availability. And anger.
Camilla Batmanghelidjh, the excellent worker with young people, authoritatively confirms the problem of alienation of young people. It crystallises out into gangsta culture, and it is the gangstas who seem to be providing the lead for the looting, using, so it seems, BBM, Blackberry Messaging, because of its closed communication system. Clearly Blackberry should be opening all of these accounts to the police.
The anger of the rioters has provoked anger in commentators. Calls on Twitter for the Army to be brought in were very common, and I was angrily condemned by @PolleeTickle for drawing attention to the fact that the Bullingdon Club (of which Dave Cameron and Boris Johnson were members) was heavily into criminal vandalism. However, unlike the youth of today, they were able to pay for their destructiveness in high denomination notes.
The positive stories to emerge from this sorry affair are where communities take responsibility for their own protection. Turkish communities united to keep the rioters out of their streets - demonstrating the power of community action. This, although welcome, is a double edged sword, since untrained vigilantes can be riotous in their defence of their own space.
Image below: Turkish residents in Dalston defending
their streets from rioters. by Yassin
Here, too, is an amazing vid of a fearless black mother haranguing the rioters.
The other positive thing is the spontaneous community cleanup initiated by tweeter @riotcleanup.
The causes listed above are just a few of the many aspects that feed in to the systemic failure that has erupted in the current riots. I predict that since they do not have any specific political objective, they will subside in a few days or less.
If it is systemic failure, we now have to look at the system as a whole. Instead of being a cohesive, collaborative, healthily interactive system, the UK is a radically divided society, with immense disparities between the haves and the have-nots, the wealthy and the alienated. The riots are consistent with the thesis of Wilkinson and Pickett - that unequal societies are unhealthy societies.
The short term answer that will be rolled out is only too obvious: Clampdown. More police and possibly army on the streets, possibly a curfew, mass arrests, an increase in the prison population, leading to more resentment and more alienation.
The real long term answer is many headed, including real action to strengthen community cohesion, but the thing I would major on is radical reform to the benefit system, facilitating people's entry into work that is beneficial to environment and society, together with a restructuring of the economy aimed to produce convergence towards, rather than away from, a median income.
Systemic failure demands systemic reforms. 6 steps to preventing a repeat occurrence.
[this post has been updated]