Comment: A holistic approach to understanding the riots

Tom Swanston
Tom Swanston

Only by addressing economics, technology, social structures and human psychology can we hope to understand what happened on the streets of our cities.

By Tom Swanston

Political and media reaction to the riots has focused on single causes and punishing rioters. However, these riots were the inevitable result of an accumulation of interconnected factors: economic fluctuations, technological advancement, social structures, human psychology and behaviour.

The timing of the riots was primarily due to economic factors. Economies evolve and fluctuate, affecting social mood and behaviour. Known as ‘Kondratiev waves’, these fluctuations show economic growth and recession, and last forty to sixty years. Within them are shorter business cycles (‘boom’ and ‘bust’, or ‘bull’ and ‘bear’ markets). Kondratiev waves can be explained by technological innovation; each advancement causes an economic surge followed by a trough.


We are in a winter stage of economic collapse and physical reaction, similar to the Great Depression of the 1930s: the general populus, having lost income and assets, wandered the land in pursuit of work and resources. Like today’s youth they were unable to provoke change through voting or work, so resorted to physical action to gain opportunity and resources.

We are in a rare period where many economic waves “trough” simultaneously - world debt, stock market bubble, housing boom, credit crunch – with dramatic impact on society. The demise of debt repackaging was especially potent because the assets became almost valueless.

These waves are due to natural fluctuations in distribution and sustainability of resources. Growth in certain resources leads to depletion in others, until a total reversal occurs as the ascending resources reach an unsustainable point. In our society these are fluctuations of wealth and opportunity between the classes.

The riots arrived at the end of an economic cycle, the timing of which was affected by governmental decisions, such as the sale of UK gold reserves at their lowest value and over-borrowing during economic growth. Government policies acted as catalysts to financial collapse.

It is no coincidence that the riots occurred in cities. The modern era is defined by industrial evolution and population growth in urban centres. Access to resources in urban centres increases by a factor of 1.15. A city with double the population has more than double the resources and an average wage increase of 15%. Since the origin of Greek city-states this has attracted people to cities, causing over-population, stress on resources and eventual collapse.

Thomas Malthus was the first to understand that “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”. Many city populations have reached a tipping point and resources are stretched. Rioting and looting are an expression of the fight for resources in this stressed environment.

Technological innovation creates an ever-changing environment to which we are unable to adapt; genetic evolution progresses far more slowly, taking thousands of years for adaptations to proliferate. Moore’s Law suggests that a doubling of technological speed (e.g. computing power) takes half the length of the previous doubling, creating an ever-accelerating advancement. The arrival of the world wide web in 1990 dramatically altered the way we communicate, source information, do business, find partners etc. We have been a species of nomadic hunter-gatherers for up to a million years, but living in cities for less than five thousand. We inhabit a man-made world for which we are ill-equipped and it is proving detrimental to our behaviour. We fight our surroundings to recreate the small, tribe-like structure to which evolutionary history has adapted our brains.

Recent immigration policies have contributed, pushing a large group of diverse, non-integrated individuals into an increasingly cramped space. The rioters’ are ethnically mixed, but see outsiders as invaders and resource thieves.

City dwellers are surrounded by strangers, but the human brain is built to live with known individuals. The natural human group has 150 individuals and we try to exist in “friend groups” (the average Facebook user has 130 friends), but many cities contain millions, dramatically affecting our social interaction. The rioters are no different: physical activity bonding them with their “friend group” as if they were a football team.

Technological innovation has created distance between humans. The younger generation is less capable of social interaction but communicates via mobile phone and computer. This physical separation and reduced intimacy leads to mental distancing and reduced value placed on others. The rioter values only one community – his friend group. And social media enables speedy communication, allowing rioters to coordinate much faster than police weighed down by protocols and pyramids of authority.

The riots are symptomatic of a much wider problem, highlighted by recent “scandals” involving MP expenses, police corruption and newspaper phone hacking. Economic growth stimulates corruption. Organisations suffer from ‘hierarchies of incompetence’ in which people do not hire or promote others more capable than themselves, perceiving them as a threat. Organisations are negatively impacted by the success of psychopaths - individuals unable to empathise or form human attachment. A recent study found that 1% of people is a psychopath, but within management positions this figure is 4%. The higher an individual's psychopathic rating the higher their business ranking, but the worse they are at their job, leading to a highly-paid, incompetent and amoral elite of managers within politics, policing, business and banking. The media constantly emphasises the greed and incompetence of this elite, fueling resentment within disadvantaged groups, until tension builds into physical reaction.

The rioters were protesting (albeit unknowingly) against their lack of prospects and the disregard of society’s senior members. Disenchanted youth have no interest in voting, seeing one party as equally negative and untrustworthy as another. To compound this, politicians do not seek to attract non-voters, instead focusing on voters, especially big businesses. So it is perhaps not surprising that some non-voters turned to looting their nearest businesses.

Violence is part of human nature. Throughout history leaders have used it to gain power and wealth. It is also used to resolve conflicts. The Yanomami tribe of the Amazon resolve conflict with direct combat: taking turns to hit each other over the head with an increasingly large pole; the man left standing wins. The Inuit of Northern Canada resolve conflict by gathering in an igloo while the two combatants take turns to insult each other. The winner is the receiver of the loudest cheers for his insults. The varying degrees of violence are due to distribution of resources. The Yanomami live in an abundantly resourced rainforest and can afford violence. The Innuit live such a scarce environment that they must collaborate to survive. Our society is richly resourced, but heavily weighted in favour of an elite, thus causing the disadvantaged youth to seek resources via looting.
An individual caught up in a violent group will more than likely become violent as a result of herd mentality, self-preservation and mass hysteria. The rioters’ behaviour reinforces their identity as part of a group standing against establishment and authority: a “them and us” mentality, epitomised by football hooligans reinforcing their group identity by violence toward other groups. The rioters had only one characteristic in common: youth. It was a generational rebellion; rioters sharing in their frustration and disillusionment with the older generations.

The riots happened during summer holidays. There is little for them to do and warmer, lighter evenings encourage outdoor congregation in large groups, increasing the likelihood of violence and herd mentality.

Many factors influenced the riots. Economic tides ebb and flow, sweeping wealth and resources with them and affecting social moods. Periods of growth offer increased work, innovation and social stability, while the wealthy elite accumulate resources and corruption spreads. As economies descend they expose this wealth and class distinction. The restless disadvantaged seek change through physical action and use violence to establish their group identity.

The approaching age of “post-informational technology” presents new threats and opportunities. Politicians will continue to focus on crime and punishment - “amoral” individuals and “isolated causes”. Is our 'broken society' fixable? Technology is widening the generation gap. Society grows increasingly technology-reliant and ever-more disparate from its evolutionary history. But technology can offer solutions; social, psychological and immunological. It may even create a more egalitarian society. Eventually the economic wave will turn upwards and mood will rise. Banking regulations will be reduced as they restrict growth, until no-one is alive who remembers the current collapse and the situation will repeat. It is unlikely we will ever break this cycle, but knowledge of it makes us better prepared to deal with it.

Tom Swanston is a screenwriter and film producer. Having studied anthropology at Durham University he went on to produce feature films and shorts, winning awards in Cannes and New York. He is currently producing a comedy feature film about the collapse of a bank. You can visit his website here.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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