August 12 2011
By now it's common knowledge that the majority of British rioters who've been arrested in the past week were born in the 1990's. That means, if they ever came over to visit an American cousin, they wouldn't be old enough to drink.*
But clearly that's not what they are upset about. So what is it? Why is London burning? And why are teenagers striking the matches and fanning the flames? (Where I come from, there's only one reason kids get together to tear down the town. But that's beside the point.)
Competing explanations for the unruly Brits include:
I think both of these ideas, mixed with some teenage angst, probably contribute to the unrest among the U.K youth. But I read a fascinating piece in The Australian by sociologist Frank Furedi about another interesting piece to the puzzle: "community implosion." When people, particularly young people, don't feel that they have anything at stake in their own neighborhood, the neighborhood becomes just a "geographic area" rather than a real community. Here's a excerpt from Furedi, who explains it better than I can:
However, such dependence is only a part of the problem. A far more important consequence of the normalisation of welfarism is that it undermines the everyday social and cultural bonds that link members of a community. Historically, those suffering from poverty would develop institutions of self-help and organisations of solidarity. Today, such organisations are conspicuous by their absence. Why? If people are encouraged to rely on state assistance in a one-dimensional manner, they have little incentive to help one another. As far as the people of Tottenham or Liverpool's Toxteth are concerned, their communities' effort has little to do with the quality of their lives. Despite their common experience of poverty and marginalisation, people have little incentive to improve their circumstances through joint effort.
The British culture of welfarism has had the perverse effect of eroding community life. Its most disturbing effect is the unusual degree of social fragmentation. Typically the breakdown of community is most striking in relation to the loss of authority that older people have towards the younger generation.
For it is young people who are most afflicted by the destructive consequences of community implosion. Denied any positive ideal of what it means to belong to a community, numerous young people are spontaneously drawn towards prevailing forms of anti-social behaviour. Those who are involved in "recreational" rioting are not abnormal feral youngsters but young people who simply have no stake in their community.
Of course, the American mainstream media will enjoy drawing comparisons between the U.S. and the U.K. Haven't we also got a lot of income inequality? A large and unaffordable welfare state? High unemployment levels among youth? An entitlement mentality?
But these are just surface level comparisons. The eerie similarities are those below the surface that Furedi mentioned: social fragmentation, lack of respect for older members of the community, failure to work together with others to solve problems and better the situation. I would also add to that list the breakdown of the family, another move in the wrong direction that's subsidized by the government both in the U.K. and the U.S.
The solution? Less government! Ironically, the U.K. has already tried investing more government dollars in community building "programmes" and projects. This has surely backfired because of this truism: Like the economy and like markets, communities develop organically - from the bottom up and not from the top down.
So back to the young people: Is it too late for the Millennial generation to gain a stake in their communities? I'd say no. I have a lot of faith in people, especially young people, to adapt.
The short term solution in the U.K. might be to squash the riots and restore order. But in the longer term, I hope citizens and voters, in both the U.K. and the U.S. will see the value in decentralizing power back to local and state governments (and away from the central federal government) so that individuals of all ages can participate more in governing themselves. Most of all, I hope that young people in communities everywhere see that by working together, they can be a powerful force. Right now, the rioting generation is a force for destruction, but they are capable of becoming a force for good.
*That is, if born after 8/12/1990.