In an Age of Austerity, London Riots May Be Just the Beginning

In an Age of Austerity, London Riots May Be Just the Beginning

Riots, like those that wracked the U.K. last month, tend to be portrayed as either righteous rebellions of the oppressed or mere criminality. The truth is that riots are propelled by a complex mixture of political motivations and the enjoyment by everyday people of the power to loot and otherwise transgress without punishment. The spectacle of British police losing the tactical advantage to swarms of electronically networked rioters amid general government paralysis does not bode well for a future in which economic austerity collides with raw public anger. Politics is about power, and containment of the crowd is a core element of state power.

The modern state is built on massive legalized coercion, as sociologist Charles Tilly noted. Power, in turn, is maintained through a combination of legitimacy and coercion. Significant political disturbances are rare in advanced Western states because the main currents of political life are contained within representative systems of government. But the existence of a powerful state apparatus that is simultaneously respected and feared prevents discontent and criminality from boiling over into mass social disturbance. We obey the law both because we see doing so as natural and because we have little choice. But when we no longer respect the legitimacy of power and cease to fear the consequences of resistance, the passivity of the populace also becomes a thing of the past.

The ongoing spread of deep political and economic problems across the West has been accompanied by a growing lack of faith in the power of government to resolve those challenges. This is a far cry from our grandparents' image of a beneficent, powerful state governed by a class of enlightened technical experts. Instead, faith in scientific knowledge and the moral beneficence of the expert has been severely eroded. This is troubling, because the apparatus of the state that maintains systems of coercion is rooted in the very same systems of technical knowledge.

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