Kent recently noted the rioting in England, viewing it as "simply a case of lawless people seeing a chance to grab free stuff and go on a rampage of destruction."
I agree with that, except for the "simply" part. I think there's more going on.
I have argued (for example, here and here) that there is a relationship between the welfare state and crime. It's not exactly that the former directly breeds the latter; it's that both take root in the same false and corrosive theory of human nature. The theory is that the individual is not responsible for his conduct, he being little more than a repository of social forces. Instead, the state is responsible, it being, if not the cause, at least the indifferent midwife of those forces. Far from being responsible, the individual is entitled. When he doesn't get what he's entitled to -- a decently comfortable life without a great deal of effort or work -- he is further entitled to a sense of grievance.
For its part, the state, bearing guilt for having failed fully to satisfy the entitled status of its citizens, can be only so forceful with them when, acting on that grievance -- expressed as delinquent boredom -- they misbehave. The job of the authorities is kind of to restore order, but more than that, to understand the "social context." (Sophisticated commentators have obligingly contextualized the riots to death).
If, in the course of the rioters' misbehavior, they grab free stuff, well, it's the stuff that was owed them anyway.
But suppose...just suppose...it's not really about the stuff. Consider the possibility that the great menace of the welfare state is not that it has failed in delivering its "stuff" (it hasn't), but that it has succeeded all too well in delivering its values.
Today I find support for my pessimism about the cultural source of the riots in this article from The Australian.
The observers [who would portray the riots as a reaction to cuts in social spending] are right that there is a political context to [them]. While the police shooting of young black man Mark Duggan may ostensibly have been the trigger for the street violence, there is a broader context to the disturbances. But they are wrong about what the political context is. Painting these riots as some kind of action replay of historic political streetfights against capitalist bosses or racist cops might allow armchair radicals to get their intellectual rocks off...but such shameless projection misses what is new and deeply worrying about these riots. The political context is not the cuts or racist policing, it is the welfare state [itself], which has nurtured a generation that has no sense of community spirit or social solidarity.
What we have on the streets of London and elsewhere are welfare-state mobs. The youth who are shattering their own communities represent a generation that has been suckled by the state more than any generation before it. They live in urban territories where the sharp-elbowed intrusion of the welfare state during the past 30 years has pushed aside older ideals of self-reliance and community spirit. The march of the welfare state into every aspect of urban, less well-off people's existences, from their financial wellbeing to their child-rearing habits and even into their emotional lives...has undermined individual resourcefulness and social bonding. The antisocial youthful rioters are the end-product of this antisocial system of state intervention.
The most striking thing about the rioters is how little they care for their own communities. You don't have to be a right-winger with helmet hair and a niggling discomfort with black or chavvy yoof (I am the opposite of that) to recognise that this violence is not political, just criminal. It is entertaining to watch the political contortions of commentators who claim the riots are an uprising against the evils of capitalism, as they struggle to explain why the targets have been Foot Locker sports shops and why the only "gains" made by the rioters have been to get a new pair of trainers or an Apple laptop. In the Brixton race riots of 1981, looting and the destruction of local infrastructure were largely incidental to the broader expression of political anger, by-products of the main show, which was a clash between a community and the forces of the state. But in these riots, looting and smashing stuff up is all there is. It is childish nihilism.
There is one more important part to this rioting story: the reaction of the cops. Their inability to handle the riots effectively reveals the extent to which the British police are adapted to consensual rather than conflictual policing. It also demonstrates how far they have been paralysed by the politics of victimhood, where virtually every police activity gets followed up by a complaint or a legal case. Their kid-glove approach to the rioters only fuels the riots because, as one observer put it, when the rioters "see that the police cannot control the situation, [that] leads to sort of adrenalin-fuelled euphoria". So this street violence was largely ignited by the excesses of the welfare state and intensified by the discombobulation of the police...