Causes of UK chaos

Here is the British Prime Minister on a cause of recent mayhem in Tottenham and elsewhere.

“At the heart of all the violence sits the issue of the street gangs. Territorial, hierarchical and incredibly violent, they are mostly composed of young boys, mainly from dysfunctional homes.

“They earn money through crime, particularly drugs and are bound together by an imposed loyalty to an authoritarian gang leader.

“They have blighted life on their estates with gang on gang murders and unprovoked attacks on innocent bystanders.

“In the last few days there is some evidence that they have been behind the coordination of the attacks on the Police and the looting that has followed.”

I expect Cameron is right about gangs as a cause of chaos. I also suspect that quite ordinary people got caught up in the event. And in this case the PM ought to be talking to Mark Earls.

It may be a two-stage kind of thing. Gangs ignite the occasion, supplying a license for unlicensed behavior and a tipping point. (See Bill Buford’s wonderful book Thugs on the first theme, and Malcolm Gladwell on the second.) That’s stage 1. Then comes stage 2, as “ordinary” people find that their moral tolerances and social understandings are suddenly “reset” by what the gangs have done.

I am using a machine metaphor (“reset”) rather than at a viral one (memes, contagion), etc. because the second group, ordinary people, are not in fact “infected.” Which is to say they are not taken by the virus.

They choose to follow the influence of the gang, to give themselves to the moment, and their willingness to follow and to give is itself shaped by social conditions, ideas, movements, in sum, the culture in place at the moment. And that means of course that the PM should be talking to Russell Davies.

Just so long as he knows we have trained professionals standing by.


Buford, Bill. 1991. Among the Thugs. London: Secker and Warburg.

Earls, Mark. 2009. Herd: How to Change Mass Behaviour by Harnessing Our True Nature. Wiley.

Gladwell, Malcolm. 2002. The Tipping Point. Back Bay Books.

9 thoughts on “Causes of UK chaos

  1. Indy

    Well said. There’s circumstantial evidence that criminal gangs were instigators of some of the violence and looting, but it’s clear that many bystanders were drawn into behaviour they wouldn’t normally take part in.

    Many of those arrested are these “amateurs” who were drawn in by the social pressure of the mob. There’s some excitable reporting in newspapers from the steps of various courts remarking on how the rioters brought to court are often ordinary men, with jobs, not quite the feral underclass, or the criminal gang members they were expecting.

  2. grant mccracken

    Indy, thanks, yes, amateurs, when and why do they convert. In Buford’s book, he shows us soccer holligans chanting “it’s going to go off. It’s going to go off.” Somehow they know. We need to reverse engineer what that is. By the way, I was thinking of you yesterday. I mentioned the big board in the course of a larger presentation to people who work for a big American corporation, and the thing people wanted to follow up on was that. They gave me their email addresses so that I could keep them posted!

    1. Indy

      Grant – I spent some time as a photographer at football matches and you can definitely feel the shift in sentiment before the trouble starts. As Mark Earls shows us, at some point appeals to individual thinking fail to explain the behaviour of a crowd. I suppose there a few ways to slice the action:

      1) Tension in the culture – in this case, simmering sense of conflict between the community and the police, general sense of being left behind on the wrong side of the inequality chasm and I don’t think it’s an accident that it happened in the middle of worldwide stock market convulsions – people feel the global instability instinctively.

      2) Motive – some people in the crowd have a desire to start the violence – either for the adrenaline thrill, to assert tribal territory/superiority, or as a cover for other crime (mugging/stealing/looting.)

      3) Police response – are “battle lines” drawn up in advance, will any conflagration immediately turn into us and them? What’s the reaction when the first brick is thrown? Is it targeted/general?

      4) Tipping point effects – as you note, once taboos are broken, people get sucked in. Just as you may have looked like a coward and “a loser” if you worked in a big bank and said you were afraid of investing mortgage CDOs even though others were getting good returns, so if people around you are getting away with widescreen TVs – and the police are pinned back over there by a hail of bricks – might you risk it…

      As for the big board, I’m thinking the time is really coming – corporations need it – but we need it too, culture is too big to keep track of without better digital aids…

      1. Grant Post author

        Indy, excellent typology, one of the happy outcomes of this event will be a better sociology/anthropology of life in cities in moments of crisis. And, yes, big boards, surely it’s time to tip this out of its “idea state” into something more actual. Thanks, Grant

  3. Bram

    Some interesting speculation at the Guardian ( and Washington Post ( about the consumerist nature of these riots.

    How, maybe it started with the gangs and thugs, but it’s moved on to a broader demographic with a different agenda.

    I don’t think this contradicts any of the points above, but may add another dimension.

  4. Alan Kay

    Great insight, thanks. As other have pointed out, Mr Cameron might well say the same of UK bankers, MP’s who padded their expenses, and the Murdoch clan. A few lead anti-social and unlawful acts which causes those around them to forget the values, ethos etc., that glues our society together.

  5. Alan Kay

    Great insights, thanks. As other have pointed out, Mr Cameron might well say the same of UK bankers, MP’s who padded their expenses, and the Murdoch clan. A few lead anti-social and unlawful acts which causes those around them to forget the values, ethos etc., that glues our societies together.

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