Only the wilfully blind could have been surprised by the scale or ferocity of the riots that have engulfed Britain in the past week. Unfortunately, most of the country’s political and intellectual class have been wilfully blind for years, in a state of the most abject denial; a brief walk in any of our cities should have been enough to tell them all that they needed to know.
How anyone could have missed the aggressive malignity inscribed in the faces and manner of so many young men in Britain is a mystery to me. Perhaps, like Dr Watson, our political and intellectual class saw but did not observe; and they did not observe because they lacked the moral courage to attempt anything but appeasement.
The vulpine lope or swagger, the face that regards eye contact with a stranger as a challenge to be met, the adoption of fashions that are known to signify aggression and dangerousness, the grotesquely inflated self-esteem combined with a total incapacity for doing anything constructive: all could and should have sounded an alarm in our politicians. Not only is our population ageing, but a significant proportion of such young people as we have engendered are like this, which no doubt helps to explain why we have had to resort to the importation of foreign unskilled labour while maintaining high levels of domestic unemployment, especially among the young. It is as difficult to employ a hoodie as to hug him.
No one has paid serious attention to the mentality and culture of these young men (using the word culture in its broad, anthropological sense). The morality is that of Satan on his expulsion from heaven: evil, be thou my good. The aesthetics follow the morality. Ugliness, be thou my beauty.
The young men of whom I speak admire rather than abjure criminality. I first noticed this 20 years ago when young men came to me as patients who had tattooed on their cheek the blue spot that former inmates of borstals used as a sign of graduation, without their ever having been to borstal themselves. They not only wanted to appear tough, but were suffering from crime-envy. They wanted to be thought criminal: it was the new respectability. Sacha Baron Cohen turned gangsta-chic into a joke, a matter of idle curiosity, like watching an animal in a zoo, but it was not a joke to those who had to live with it; nor are our slums zoological gardens for our amusement and delectation, as we now see only too clearly.
Terms such as ‘unrest’ and ‘disaffection’, which trip so lightly off the tongue of those who do not want to face a far more disturbing reality, do not explain the behaviour of the rioters. It is obvious, for instance, that if there were any justice in the world — at least if justice is the right return for voluntary effort and conduct — the young rioters would be much worse off than they are. Their problem is not that they have been given too little, but that they have deserved nothing.
The riots are not a protest: the shooting of Mark Duggan — the full elucidation of which will no doubt take a long time and will remain forever the contested subject of paranoid rumour, whatever the eventual findings — was scarcely even a pretext. It is perfectly possible that the shooting will turn out to have been yet another example of the bullying incompetence of the police, but it goes without saying that, even so, young black men are much more likely to be shot by each other than by the police; there was once a never-to-be-forgotten scene in our intensive care unit when two young drug-dealers, who had shot each other without inflicting death, were on life-support machines opposite each other while under arrest, guarded from each other’s henchmen by the police. No riots of protest followed this glorious incident or many similar ones, some of which ended in death.
The evident glee of the rioters, celebrating and smiling triumphantly among the devastation they wrought, as if in victory, is testimony not to their outraged feelings, but to the strength of the destructive urge that lies within us all and has always to be kept under firm control. I remember as a child the sheer joy of smashing a radio on our lawn with a croquet mallet, a joy that was quite unrelated to any personal animus against the radio, which could not possibly have done me any harm. I loved the destruction for its own sake and wanted it to continue for as long as possible, smashing the parts into dust long after there was no possibility of repair, feeling that I was almost performing a duty in being so thorough in my annihilation of them. And the first riot, in Panama, that I ever attended — reporting on it for this magazine — taught me that rioting is fun, that the supposed reason for it is soon forgotten in the ecstatic pleasure of destruction. Talleyrand said that no one knew how sweet life could be who had not lived under the Ancien Régime; one might add that no one has known unalloyed joy who has not heard the tinkle of plate glass, or seen flames lick up a building, in the alleged furtherance of a cause. Incidentally, part of the sweetness of life under the Ancien Régime was the knowledge that it was far from sweet for everyone; and the imagined distress of the owners of the property that rioters destroy is part of the joy of rioting.
In Liberia during the civil war, I saw in Monrovia the meticulous dismantlement of every last vestige of civilisation. The hospitals, for example, had not been destroyed by bazookas or bombs in fighting, but by a kind of obsessive vandalism by the rebels who had swept through them. Every castor had been cut from every trolley; every item of equipment had been damaged irrecoverably. In the Centennial Hall, the principal ceremonial building in the country, where presidents were inaugurated, I saw the body of a Steinway grand piano resting on the ground, surrounded by its legs, which had been carefully and no doubt laboriously sawn off. The library of the university had been ransacked, not to steal the books (I doubt that the vandals were great readers), but for the sheer pleasure of assisting entropy in its great work of returning the world to chaos. Incidentally, it is not unknown for librarians in Britain to react against the orderliness of their institutions in a similar way; but one can easily imagine the joy, the uplifted hearts, of the vandals in Monrovia as they went about their painstaking destruction.
After relatively minor riots in England some ten or 12 years ago, I found myself on the radio with a junior minister who spoke of them as if they were a genuine form of protest or commentary upon the social situation of the rioters, a real attempt to bring about an improvement in their situation. The tragedy of these riots, she said, was that they destroyed property and amenities in the areas in which the rioters themselves lived. I asked her whether she thought it would be better if the rioters came to her area and destroyed property and amenities there. The fact that the rioters only made their own environment worse was quite beside the point. Bakunin might have been in error when he said that the destructive urge was also a creative one; but he would have been right if he had said that the urge was omnipresent in the human heart, and gave great joy when given way to.
The urge to cruelty is not much different in this respect. I doubt there are many people who have never in their lives experienced the pleasure of inflicting some kind of pain on others, physical or mental, from sheer malice and delight in doing so. It is an urge that we overcome first by effort and then by habit.
It is one of the tasks of civilisation to tame our inherent savagery. But who, contemplating contemporary British culture, would recognise in it any civilising influence, or rather fail to recognise its opposite? It is a constant call to and celebration of degradation, not only physical but spiritual and emotional. A culture in which Amy Winehouse, w
ith her militant vulgarity and self-indulgent stupidity, combined with a very minor talent, could be so extravagantly admired and feted, is not one to put up strong barriers against our baser instincts, desires and urges. On the contrary, that culture has long been a celebration of those very urges. He who pays the savage never gets rid of the savagery; and this is only the beginning.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 13, 2011