The riots in London and other UK cities, although shocking, tell us little or nothing about that country’s social problems. To be sure, those problems are serious and are becoming more severe is this period of economic hardship. But urban riots are not primarily about protesting social conditions.
In an influential 1970 book about urban problems in the U.S., The Unheavenly City, the political scientist Edward Banfield wrote a chapter on “Rioting for Fun and Profit.” His point, demonstrated with ample evidence, was that the people setting fires and looting stores in urban riots were not the ones who were deeply concerned about racial injustice. They were mostly people, especially young males, who liked setting fires and looting stores. A racially charged event, such as the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, was for them mainly a signal. It told them that there would be large crowds in the streets, and that it would be a good time to have some fun raising hell, and maybe even to bring home a new TV.
The London riots are significant, however, in a very different way: They have illustrated how much social networking technologies are facilitating and amplifying the signaling effect of any riot-relevant event. The rapid spread of rioting is nothing more than the negative side of the same spontaneous organizing capability that suddenly made it possible to bring down authoritarian governments in the Middle East. For both good and ill, it is getting much easier for scattered groups of like-minded individuals to coordinate action.
Governments will have to learn to monitor the organizing and move swiftly to arrive in force before the mobs.