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Could Freud have predicted the London riots?

Three days of rioting across London since Saturday have once again raised the question of “why?”. Do riots “just happen” or is there a science, an underlying formula, that can be employed to predict and…

All riots are different, but they all share similar characteristics. Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Three days of rioting across London since Saturday have once again raised the question of “why?”. Do riots “just happen” or is there a science, an underlying formula, that can be employed to predict and prevent such events?

The police shooting of 29-year-old Mark Duggan in Tottenham resulted in a peaceful protest, as might be expected.

But why that protest has led to destructive riots across the city and beyond is not entirely clear.

Some have said the subsequent rioting might have had little to do with the original shooting.

But is there a connection?

Urban riots are not new, but they have been explained in many ways by observers and social scientists, all the way back to the French Revolution in 1789.

British riot police arrive in front of a burning building in Croydon, South London on Monday. AFP Photo/Carl de Souza

Why do people in crowds sometimes behave in ways that are radically, almost unbelievably, different to the ways they would act when alone? And why do peaceful protests sometimes degenerate into riots?

Mass hysteria and imitation are a couple of the ways people have tried to explain these apparently irrational phenomena.

Freud, for example, wrote about the herd instinct and the role of the leader in riots.

But the riots of Freud’s day were far different from those we witness today.

Modern urban riots are very complex. Most crowds that gather in today’s cities are not homogeneous – people have amassed for a variety of reasons. Most might have done so with peaceful intentions, as apparently was the case on Saturday.

But even peaceful crowds are potentially volatile, and can be manipulated.

A trigger event is sometimes all that’s needed to turn a peaceful demonstration into a dangerous riot, and that might have happened on Saturday in Tottenham.

But why have the riots returned on subsequent nights, and spread to other areas of the city – and to other cities in the UK?

One thing we do know is that, in times of general unease or discontent, a spark is all that’s needed to bring about a collapse of the normative structure which keeps most people behaving according to social rules.

We commonly see these rules as the maintenance of law and order. But when this structure collapses, many things happen.

People in a crowd will start doing things they would not normally do, such as smashing windows or starting a fire. In other words, they invent a new set of rules as to what is acceptable behaviour.

Passers-by look at a burning car in Hackney, North London on Monday. EPA/Kerim Okten

Electronic riots

But modern riots can be even more complex, and it seems this is the case in London where text-messaging, Twitter, and other forms of electronic networking have been, and continue to be, used to coordinate crowd formation and violence.

In other words, phenomena – namely riots – that were formerly considered irrational, seem to have become both planned and rational.

What seems to have happened is that the rules of law and order have weakened or even collapsed sufficiently to allow politically discontented or even criminal elements to exploit the situation.

I suspect the riots, after the one in Tottenham on Saturday, are really quite different and have different explanations.

In other words, there are several different types of riots currently taking place, and the common underlying cause may simply be the weakness or breakdown of the rules of law and order.

Many of the original peaceful protestors from Saturday are probably now at home, trying to avoid the violence and danger. It’s those who are a little outside, or on the fringes, of the normative structure – the angry, the cynical, the deviants, the criminals – who are responding to the law and order vacuum.

The original shooting and protest may have been the trigger events, but the later riots have taken a different form.

We’ve seen this pattern before. Think of the 2005 Cronulla riots in Sydney – the culmination of racial and ethnic tensions – or the 1999 WTO anti-globalisation riots in Seattle. I think there are some parallels.

What does this mean for London? Eventually the police will restore law and order.

Some of the participants will be arrested and will be dealt with. There will also be considerable soul-searching by some members of the public and some reform in police tactics.

A young couple watch the flames of a burning building block in Tottenham, North London. EPA/Daniel Deme

It certainly doesn’t mean these kinds of events will not happen again. It only takes the right combination of factors to weaken social rules of behaviour, and the presence of people who will exploit it.

We know it will happen and, in time, we might learn better how to respond to these events once they do occur. That will be the challenge.

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5 Comments sorted by

  1. Gaetane Claire

    logged in via Twitter

    Im not sure why your using 'Freud' as a main reference for such an event of 'social violence'. Bourdieu is translated in english and plenty of other, even some liberal sociologists. But why 'Freud'...Freud is an anstronaute of the individual soul and the symbol, the inconscious...interaction with the body, madness. Yes he a strong building piece of a new type of reflexion about the human being...and connected to that is sociology.
    I reckon than the foundings of psychanalysis theory and practice can be credited to Freud.

    As you say, it has been studied 'all the way back to the French Revolution in 1789.' and historians cant stop studying at so much far before.

    So i'm not sure about the relevance of Freud in this context, but otherwise i did appreciate reading the article.

  2. Bob Constable

    logged in via Facebook

    Guess thats a no then. Not even Freud could have seen it coming.

  3. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    Police brutality and/or corruption and/or a sense of police impunity is a powerful trigger. Recall Rodney King

    "Mark Duggan, whose shooting by police sparked London's riots, did not fire a shot at police officers before they killed him, the Independent Police Complaints Commission said on Tuesday.

    Releasing the initial findings of ballistics tests, the police watchdog said a CO19 firearms officer fired two bullets, and that a bullet that lodged in a police radio was "consistent with being fired from a police gun"."

    While there a number of scenarios while a bullet might end up in a police radio, the most likely one is it having been deliberately fired after the incident in order to incriminate the deceased victim.

    Disadvantaged groups tend to have a much stronger sense and understanding of the systemic corruption that has insidiously developed in policing culture. Or perhaps it was always like this?

  4. Jeremy Garnett

    Citizen of Terra

    As has been noted, Freud developed our understanding of psychanalysis and, to my limited knowlege, he was not particularly involved in event predition.

    However, had Freud been aware of the socioeconomics of modern day England, then I reckon he would't have been at all suprised by the development of events. Nor would he have been suprised by the extensive use of social media networks in the organisation of activism.

    As I understand the current situation, there is much more at play than a reaction…

    Read more
  5. Bob Constable

    logged in via Facebook

    There would seem to be a great divide between the haves and the have nots in UK along with one rule for the rich and another for the rest.
    The situation which is happening where if a member of a household is convicted the whole family is evicted from their council house can only make things worse.
    They are also talking about removing benefits from those convicted.
    So not only are the disadvantaged being made homeless they are being made destitute too.
    Nobody should condone the rioting and looting that took place but if those that took part perceive that they have no future surely the authorities actions can only make their situation worse.

    We should be glad that we not living though the UK situation and hope that our politicians are taking heed of the causes and consequences so that we can stop the same situation developing here