A. If you come across commentators urging upon you an unqualified either-or choice between a 'pure criminality' and a 'social causes' explanation of what's been happening on the streets of English cities these last few nights, you don't have to accept it. Here's a semi-formal model to show why you don't.
Suppose that there are social causes which increase the propensity among some groups of people to riot, loot and start fires. These social causes might be poverty, alienation, exclusion, consumerism, or anything else. Lets call them, for short, S. Now, suppose also that there are individuals more disposed than other individuals to rioting, looting and starting fires, because they can see nothing wrong with doing this; they aren't influenced by any moral principles restraining them from it, where many of their fellow citizens are thus influenced and restrained. Call these influences - the lack of morally restraining impulses - for short, M.
Here, then, is a hypothetical model for explaining what's been happening. S and M are jointly sufficient influences in sparking off social disorder of the type we have been seeing, but each on its own is insufficient. Thus, with the various social causes in operation, people who believe it is wrong to loot, rob and burn won't engage in doing it. They won't even if they feel alienated and excluded from a consumerist culture. At the same time, people who aren't bothered by such moral constraints won't loot, rob and burn if they don't feel alienated, excluded etc; they won't because simple considerations of self-interest and material satisfaction will check their amoral impulses. But bring the social causes together with a lack of concern for the moral restraints that mostly prevail to sustain civil order, and there's the kind of mayhem we have lately seen in London and other cities.
This model, if it has anything going for it, would enable one to understand why, even amongst people who accept that there may be social causes contributing to the disorder, there is a feeling of moral revulsion against its major manifestations. Those attacking the shops and homes and persons of others, if they have grievances of an S-type provenance, have elected to take these grievances out on other people around them, most of whom bear no responsibility for generating the grievances, and many of whom indeed are on the bad end of the same social causes that influence the looters. Why should anyone give the individuals carrying out these attacks any moral leeway, when others subject to just the same social influences as they are do not behave in the same way? If you have a sense of injustice about something and take it out on your innocent neighbour by wrecking her home or stealing her posssessions, there is nothing admirable or excusable in your reaction. It is merely passing on your grievance, whether it is a justified one or not, in the form of misery for someone else who in all probability doesn't deserve it.
B. Seumas Milne, one of the Guardian's senior excusers, is amongst those rejecting a 'pure criminality' explanation for the recent disorder. He only fails to note the power of his own argumentative logic and the way it devours... his own argument. Milne is not short on social causes: police harassment, youth unemployment, rampant inequality, deepening economic crisis, Britain's savage social divide, ghettoes of deprivation, 'a society run on greed', one in which there is 'no higher value than acquiring individual wealth'. However, when it comes to thinking about whether these causes between them compose an altogether satisfactory account of recent events if one doesn't also consider how few people in England were involved in the looting and the rest and how many people felt intimidated, repelled or outraged by them, Milne runs out of ideas. Consider these two questions of his:
If this week's eruption is an expression of pure criminality and has nothing to do with police harassment or youth unemployment or rampant inequality or deepening economic crisis, why is it happening now and not a decade ago?... And if it has no connection with Britain's savage social divide and ghettoes of deprivation, why did it kick off in Haringey and not Henley?
Sauce for the goose but not for the gander. If burglary, looting, setting fires and all the rest of it are only about social causes and are not also due to avoidable moral choices, why were there so few engaged in it and so many absolutely disgusted by what they saw?