London’s looters

For three successive nights, mobs of masked looters stormed the streets of London, burning down buildings and vehicles, vandalizing and emptying stores, and then swiftly hauling away their loot in stolen cars. Residents and shopkeepers watched in disbelief as responding policemen, torn between containing the fires and going after the fast-moving army of rioters, found themselves hugely outnumbered. The same pattern of primal lawlessness, which the police have dubbed “copycat violence,” has spread like wild fire to other urban centers like Bristol, Liverpool and Birmingham. In London alone, more than 500 people have been arrested in connection with these riots. Initial reports suggest that these are not politically motivated. If so, what drives them?

It is a question worth pondering, better than merely inquiring—as our media often irritatingly do—if any Filipino has been affected by these events. Looting and lawlessness of this scale are normally associated with poor countries where food has become scarce because of natural calamities or harsh economic measures. But we are talking here of Britain, one of the most affluent and highly developed societies in the world. Indeed, there have been similar riots in the past, usually triggered by football crowds, and these have often been accompanied by vandalism and looting. But, the hordes of vandals that plundered British cities in the past week appear to be driven only by one goal: looting.

What has particularly troubled the police is that while these crowds appear unorganized, they manifest an astonishing level of coordination and precision. They strike and move out as fast as they descend on a neighborhood. If they do not belong to a movement with a unified command, how do they manage to mobilize multitudes so efficiently? How do they choose their targets, and how do they direct their individual participants to the places they randomly pick out? Clearly, these questions may be inadequate to the complexity of the phenomenon at hand. Public authorities who are used to dealing with rationally coordinated protest groups may not have the conceptual tools needed to understand these unsettling manifestations of “self-stoking mass collaboration.”

I have put those words in quotes because I lifted them from a Time magazine description of YouTube. This apt definition equally applies to social networking platforms found in the Internet—where individuals linked by the new media and who often do not know one another in their “real” life contexts—participate in self-driven collaborative efforts. In these meeting sites, there is no center, no single originator, no strategy, no rules, and no long-term goals—except maybe that of the site owner’s. We are now only beginning to understand the many uses of these platforms in political upheavals.

As the Mediterranean uprisings have recently shown, all it takes to create a modern revolution is for one incident to provide the spark, and for one person to give it a name and a meaning. If a message or video clip has resonance, it can easily go viral, and create constituencies as fast as it is forwarded, re-tweeted, posted or recommended. Everything else follows from this crucial moment—the mobilization, the gathering, the live action. Uncertainty and contingency mark every stage of this complex autopoietic process. People can re-tweet without comment or commitment. Or they can translate their virtual clicks into binding obligations in the real world, baring their faces in the process. In the British riots, they remain anonymous behind ski masks and bonnets.

The term “social exclusion” has been mentioned as a way of explaining these orgies of looting. This concept calls attention to the increasing number of young people in the developed world who grow up disconnected from the existing career paths offered by their societies. Feeling abandoned by their governments even while still in school, they see no future beyond schooling. The old loyalties and ties that bound their parents to the nation and community hold no meaning for them. They are alienated, caught in the center of what the philosopher Jurgen Habermas once called a “legitimation crisis.”

This explanation may seem plausible to an older generation. But it collapses in the face of the puzzling reality that the main victims of these recent mass aggressions have been working class neighborhoods and defenseless minorities. On close investigation, the London police learned that many of the young looters carried BlackBerry phones that enabled them to broadcast instant messages about their next targets. There is no trace of ideology in the texts they send out. Nothing redemptive seems to balance the looters’ fixation with shoes, clothes and electronic devices. All this makes it easy to see these lawless packs as no more than a bunch of criminals that Plato likened to “drones” that “agitate the whole regime like bile and phlegm in the body….” But, if they are a mob, are they not also of the people?

The distinction between mob and people, as Peter Hayes’ important study (1992) argues, may be ideologically and rhetorically useful, but it has little analytical value. It does not tell us anything about the social composition of the mob, and how it differs from that of the people. It is dismissive of the mob’s relation to politics, except as an object of manipulation. But, could it be that in these seemingly formless and opportunistic actions, we are seeing the template of future rebellions?