08/15/2011 02:02 pm ET Updated Oct 15, 2011

Public Unrest, Social Institutions and Trust

We will no doubt be asking for some time to come what happened in England's towns and cities over the past few days. It is clear that the trigger was the police response to the marchers requesting an explanation for the death of their son, brother, friend and lover Mark Duggan. Some reports have said that he was killed in a 'cross-fire' with the police: the ballistics report confirms that this is fiction -- the gun found on the scene had not been fired and the bullet in the police radio was from an officer's weapon. It seems, therefore, that the family was right to quietly demand answers. The people of Tottenham did not wait for ballistics evidence, but acted upon past experience of black deaths in interaction with the police -- Duggan was one in a line of local residents to die at the hands of enforcement officers. The Duggan family has condemned the violence: the vigil was planned to be peaceful.

However, this was not just a race riot: Mark Duggan's death cannot explain the further violence and looting in London and around the country.

Perhaps this can be explained by income inequality. Although many inner cities have been modernized and beautified, wealth has not spread as quickly or deeply as the tentacles of the market. The desire to consume can now be seen in children as young as five. The access to credit enabled many to respond to this desire with new houses, new clothes, new shoes, mobile phones and other electronic gadgets -- but access to credit is not wealth. Provision of credit provides access to debt. For years, those who cannot secure credit from banks have fallen prey to loan sharks and retail outlets which (for a high interest rate) allowed them to purchase big televisions and leather sofas on 'layaway' schemes. As prices have increased, so have debt levels. Jobs may have disappeared, but neither debt nor desire have decreased. The looters were not 'feral': their actions were totally unlawful but to some extent rational -- consistent with consumer culture, they mainly grabbed items which advertising has told them to desire but they can no longer (if they ever could) afford.

However, this was not just about covetousness: 'consumer-itis' does not explain the arson attacks on businesses and property.

It might be argued that the arson attacks were an angry response to aggressive austerity measures. Many have argued that the events were a type of voice-raising. The young people of London and Britain, living in different levels and conditions of poverty, with parents who have lost their jobs, have lost their futures and are furious about it: public services have been cut back or removed, the education allowance that enabled them to stay on in higher education has been abolished and with it any chance of living the 'good life' gone.

These were not the young people who marched against tuition fees: as said by Professor Gus John, these are youth -- disproportionately but not only black -- who might live in circumstances where their average life expectancy is 25. Austerity measures have now left many of their families laboring under debt and locked them into this life. They pillage and burn because they have nothing and thus nothing to lose. According to reports, some just 'ambled' through the unrest, a sign perhaps that what indicates chaos to some is actually normality for many.

However, this was not just an affair of the disenfranchised: as has become evident from the profiles of those arrested and charged, some were professional people caught up in the 'madness of the moment.'

Maybe analysis of this 'madness' will take us in the direction of an explanation. Whether momentary or long-term, underlying it is a loosening and/or absence of moral moorings that traverses race, age, income and gender. Some young people interviewed have expressed remarkable nonchalance towards both what they are doing and its consequences. It is not that they do not know what they are doing is wrong; they simply don't care. Also, if they do plan to live long lives, they seem woefully unaware of the long term implications of entry into the criminal justice system. Where have they learnt to disown responsibility for and disregard the consequences of their actions?

There will be many answers to this question (the current favourite is poor parenting) but we can presumably agree that events do not occur in a vacuum. Whilst not seeking to condone or excuse, is it possible that their actions might be a symptom of a general social malaise that began with a decline in public behaviour and has culminated in an absolute lack of regard for authority and trust in public institutions? It may not provide an answer, but the outbreaks of violence, looting and arson might become slightly less perplexing if set within the context of the immoral behavior and wrong-doing that seems common in public life.

Over the last few years we have seen, for example, that priests abuse young boys in their care, MPs steal from tax-payers and renege on promises to the electorate, bankers lie, journalists invade the private lives of citizens, and the police kill -- all often with (real or apparent) impunity. If trust can be described as "the confidence that authorities will not exploit the power vested in them to cause harm" (Baier 1986: 235), there seems to be a dearth of authority that can be relied upon to "perform an action that is beneficial or at least not detrimental to us." (Gambetta 1988:217). This applies equally to the institution of the family --when mothers and fathers cannot or do not defend their young, should we really be surprised that children seek refuge and security in equally unsafe gangs and gang culture? Looking at traditional institutions from the eyes of a child (or even an adult!) which authority deserves consent?

It may have predominantly been the young on the streets, but perhaps they are the tip of a social cohort that has nothing but disdain for social institutions. Even if parents could have stopped their offspring going out, why would they? In the face of recent public behaviour and aggressive cuts that have damaged their lives, maybe they, too, have lost trust in the authorities. The erosion is dangerous because trust is the cornerstone of collective life --

all collective undertakings require trust...humans cannot work together unless they suspend their suspicion of one another. One person holds the rope, another jumps. One person steadies the ladder, another climbs. Why? In part because we hope for reciprocity, but in part from what is clearly a natural propensity to work in co-operation to collective advantage [...] if we don't trust each other, our towns will look horrible and be nasty places to live...

(Judt 2010: 63, 67)

We have indeed seen, graphically, over the past few days what nasty places towns can become when trust disappears. Communities seem set to further turn on each other as aggrieved local business people establish vigilante groups to hunt out looters. The police -- also subject to spending cuts -- continue to emphasize how stretched they are. Hopefully, their answer to the Duggan family will be equally emphatic.

The unrest may have begun with the sadly common question of policing in black communities, but it has spread far beyond this. Amidst the confusion, perhaps the clearest message is the large-scale loss of faith. It is a violent reminder that trust is the most vulnerable yet valuable component of all social institutions: vulnerable because relatively easily undermined; and valuable because when public authorities -- especially law enforcement -- do not enjoy the full trust of the communities they police, it clearly affects the security of all.