[notes : this article was written while the riots were happening and would need some extra information and analysis to reflect the present situation, including the government’s response which mirrored the ritual aspect of the riots themselves. Special thanks to Frances Aldson for her precious help in writing this piece !]
The striking feature of last week’s riots is the difficulty in explaining them. At first glance, they appear irrational and nonsensical in the absence of a visible political message. As Zoe Williams highlights in her article on the psychology of looting (Guardian, 9 August 2011), the political response has been to label those responsible as simply criminal. Sociologists are delving deeper to look at poverty, societal disconnection and despair as the root cause of the violence and theft. Psychologists, on the other hand, are exploring what makes people not only steal, but take the time to try clothes on before taking them, and on what basis they choose certain items over others. But while socio-economic and psychological explanations undoubtedly have relevance, much remains unanswered; answers that could be provided by a look at the theories developed by 20th century French philosopher and anthropologist René Girard.
In his book “Things Hidden since the foundation of the world”, Girard developed what came to be known as the ‘mimetic theory’; an explanation of violent behaviour focusing on the structural role it plays for all human societies. It states, in a nutshell, that the propensity of individuals to imitate each other will lead to a range of behaviours, namely generalised conflict and the creation of sacrificial rituals to overcome the difficulties of survival brought by the chaos of that conflict. A ‘Girardesque’ explanation of the London riots would flow as follows:
The riots as a form of ritual
A “riot” is a form of disorganised, spontaneous, and collectively induced violence. A part of society has suddenly decided to erupt into a state of violence, and as some journalists have noted, without even hiding their faces. For Girard, that kind of behaviour has a name, and this name is a ritual. A ritual always has a purpose, even though that very purpose remains hidden to the eyes of the perpetrators. Take a definition he gave of this in an interview around 1980 :
“If you look at primitive rituals, what do they consist of ? They consist of a community voluntarily going into a crisis. A form of disorder. In order to reach sacrifice. This type of ceremony, which is the typical primitive ritual, is a reenactment of the scapegoat phenomenon ; understood as a sacred dispensation coming from the divinity.” René Girard
The rioters as a modern scapegoat
It is generally accepted that the rioters did not represent a cross-section of society. Rather, they were typically young and from less privileged socio-economic backgrounds. For a ritual to take place, there needs to be a large group of people acting together as one imitative entity. This is precisely what images of the riots depicted. But what was it that transformed these young people into such an imitative entity? The answer according to a Girard analysis is that they felt united by a sense of being a scapegoat of modern society. In essence, this means they belong to a section of the population chosen by the rest of society as responsible for society’s malfunction (accused, for example, of being a burden on the public budget, irresponsible with their own lives, and disproportionately affected by budget cuts and other government reforms). The depictions of the typical rioter as the young man with his face hidden under a hood and his eyes protected by the darkness of a deep night is a further example of this scapegoating : it is all their fault. Not ours. We can’t even understand why they started burning those cars. “They” are the faceless threat that the government is now trying to identify (Cameron: “we will go over their faces one by one to arrest them”). Giving a face to an invisible violence is actually a definition of “scapegoating”. The focus on and particular portrayal of that section of the population as ‘a problem’ has led it to perceive itself as a recurrent victim of our society.
The accumulation of internal tension
This scapegoating causes a build-up of internal tension among the scapegoated. Following the thoughts of Hiller as cited by Zoe Williams in her article, if a certain set of minimal conditions are absent from a section of the population, that section will inevitably feel their belief in having a role to play in society weaken or even disappear. This is particularly true in exceptional situations such as the riots in which collective imitation becomes a prime phenomenon. It is not possible to feel a sense of belonging to a group if that group is constantly sending a double-edged message : to be part of this group, you must be this and that, but yet you do not have the means to conform as required. Hence the accumulation of anger and frustration - the internal tension.
Collective crises like the riots are triggered by a need to expel the internal tension, and this expulsion is achieved through the act of sacrifice. “Rioters” imitate each other into getting more and more violent and choosing the next targets. And the choice of those targets is prime in understanding the role they play for the perpetrators.
Choosing a new victim.
The accumulated internal violence within a scapegoated group has to be expelled, but in order to do so, the perpetrators of a ritual will hunt for a new scapegoat: a victim to be sacrificed, and whose sacrifice they all tacitly agree upon. To be a “useful” victim, the perpetrators of the ritual (here, the rioters) must feel feel that the sacrificing of the new scapegoat (here, the burning and stealing of goods and property) will restore the peace. And the reason why the sacrificing of the scapegoat has the potential to restore peace is because it is perceived by everyone in the group as being the source of the tension, directly or indirectly. It is the one thing that is capable of alleviating that tension that now has to be expelled. But why were the rioters both burning and destroying things, and stealing them for their own enjoyment? Simple - a scapegoat is feared and respected at the same time: it brings chaos, but through its destruction, it also restores peace. It is always a dual figure, and its power works both ways. Its expulsion leads to the violence it has brought in also being expelled. This is why in every ritual the sacrificed figure is always respected and hated. Revered and targeted with aggression. Prayed to and insulted. Stolen and burned at the same time. Like cars, shoes, and TVs. This is what has happened here: the rioters (i.e. perpetrators of the ritual) found their victim, the symbol of all that is bad for them, but also good. And they followed the mimetic logic of sacrifice by destroying and keeping a part of that victim for themselves, as if to voluntarily accept a small share of the power it has on them.
But why then, as some commentators have pointed out, did the rioters not target luxury goods and the areas of Britain’s cities that are symbols of the power of those that have scapegoated them - Britain’s wealthy and powerful elite? This is explained by the very fact that it is an imitative act and not a rational one. In all mimetic events, the first objects to be targeted are those that are the closest to the perpetrators. It is never the Queen that you want to seduce, always your best friend’s wife. A ritual is not planned, it is a spontaneous search for a way to restore peace (of mind), through the generalisation of violence, which has the potential to lead to a sacrifice. The things ‘sacrificed’ - in this case, burnt and stolen - need not be the “real” cause of their problems; it is sufficient that there is an agreement among ‘society’s scapegoats’ on burning and stealing those things.
Can we break the cycle of violence ?