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The psychology of looting

The events in London say something about the beaten-down lives of the rioters, writes Zoe Williams.

india Updated: Aug 10, 2011 22:35 IST

The first day after London started burning, I spoke to Claire Fox, radical leftwinger and resident of Wood Green. On Sunday morning, apparently, people had been not just looting H&M, but trying things on first. By Monday night, Debenhams in Clapham Junction was empty, and in a cheeky touch, the streets were thronging with people carrying Debenhams bags. Four hours before, I had still thought this was just a north London thing. Fox said the riots seemed nihilistic, they didn’t seem to be politically motivated, nor did they have any sense of community solidarity. This was inarguable.

I think it’s just about possible that you could see your actions refashioned into a noble cause if you were stealing the staples: bread, milk. But it can’t be done while you’re nicking trainers, let alone laptops. In Clapham Junction, the only shop left untouched was Waterstone’s, and the looters of Boots had, unaccountably, stolen a load of Imodium. So this kept Twitter alive all night with tweets about how uneducated these people must be and the condition of their digestive systems. It remains the case that these are shopping riots, characterised by their consumer choices. I wasn’t convinced by nihilism: how can you cease to believe in law and order, a moral universe, co-operation, the purpose of existence, and yet still believe in sportswear? Alex Hiller, a marketing expert at Nottingham Business School, points out that there is no conflict between anomie and consumption: “If you look at Baudril-lard and other people writing in sociology about consumption, it’s a falsification of social life. Consu-merism relies upon people feeling disconnected from the world.”

Leaving Baudrillard aside, just because there is no political agenda on doesn’t mean the answer isn’t rooted in politics. Theresa May is keen to stress that this is “pure criminality”, untainted by higher purpose. “We’re not going to be diverted by sophistry,” is the tacit message. “As soon as things have calmed down, these criminals are going to prison, where criminals belong.”

Those of us who don’t have responsibility for public order can be more interrogative about what's going on. It’s just a glorified mugging, conducted by people who ask not what they can do for themselves, but what other people should have done for them. At the other end of the authoritarian-liberal spectrum, you have Camila Batmanghelidjh’s idea that this is a natural human response to the brutality of poverty.

Between these poles is a more pragmatic reading: this is what happens when people don’t have anything, when they have their noses constantly rubbed in stuff they can’t afford, and they have no reason ever to believe that they will be able to afford it.

The views expressed by the author are personal