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• Fire this time: How the Arab Spring plays in London.

By Anthony O’Hear.

Euripides may not have been surprised.

ONLY LAST SPRING, looking at the so-called Arab Spring, we reflected on the volatility of swirling crowds on the streets. We still have no idea how the events in Egypt and Tunisia earlier this year will turn out, even less whether they will be ultimately for the good or the bad, nor whether things will turn out well in Libya or Bahrein or the Ivory Coast (anyone remember that?). In Athens, too, not for the fist time, politics seemed to be being conducted on the street rather than in the debating chambers of Parliament.

The unexpectedness of all these events forcefully reminded us of the shifting sands on which the apparently smooth surface of settled political order rests. It also demonstrated the power of the use of so-called social media by those orchestrating events on the streets in these various places.

GIVEN THE FACT that the Arab Spring and the rest were so unexpected, we should also yet again have stood mute before the unpredictability of history – something we all too easily overlook in our lazy and comforting assumptions of orders settled and historical directions determined. But only a few weeks ago we might have acknowledged history’s unpredictability and its elusiveness to ‘experts’ in a rather Olympian way, having in mind the uncertainties and passions of Arab life and things in Africa and the Southern Mediterranean. A few weeks ago, the Arab Spring notwithstanding, we had no inkling of what would happen in London and other English cities as soon as August 2011. We had no sense of what power to the people – welcomed by some of us in Cairo and Benghazi – might come mean in the world’s oldest democracy, now, so to speak, and in England, facilitated as it was here just as in North Africa by social media.

Various causes have been adduced for the burning and looting in London and elsewhere in England: the ‘brokenness’ of society; crass materialism, high and low; greedy bankers or feral children, or both; timid and indecisive policing or, alternatively, heavy-handed policing; government cuts and their demoralising effects; chronic educational under-achievement (this explanation often from the very same politicians who routinely claim that educational standards are higher than ever); even rap and bling somehow jumping, meme like, from minds in black ghettoes to those in the skulls of the white working, or even middle, class. (Judging by CCTY images and court appearances, plenty of the rioters were indeed white.)

THERE MAY BE some truth in some of these analyses, however much or little confidence one might have in those proposing them, some of whom have to bear responsibility for the very conditions they so publicly deplore. The sight of an eruption of English parliamentary moralism is never a pretty one, so bolstered as it tends always to be by complacency and hypocrisy.

But amid all the commentary attendant on what we are instructed to see as sheer or mere criminality, no one to our knowledge has adverted to the intoxication and intoxicating pleasure there can be in pure violence and destruction. Once unleashed, almost any pretext can serve as cover (so the observation that the people we saw trying on and looting trainers and HD televisions may not have been personally inconvenienced by the curtailment of public library hours or the raising of student fees, while amusing, is slightly beside the point).

We are not all responsible for the English riots (sorry, criminality) of August 2011. But their roots are in us all, as Euripides showed us long ago, deny it as we will. And in The Bacchae it was precisely when right-thinking and enlightened people tried to deny the destructive aspects of our nature that havoc and murder ensued. Broken society, perhaps, but underlying that, a broken nature we find so hard to come to terms with. And in reflecting on what it needs to keep our broken nature in check, we might also ask ourselves about a striking difference between riots in American cities and those in Britain. In the US when there are riots, the rioters tend to run away from the police, whereas in London (and not just this time) protesters run towards those charged with keeping order. As they say, go figure.

Anthony O’Hear is co-editor of The Fortnightly Review, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Buckingham  and the director of the Royal Institute of Philosophy. This essay is an editorial comment from the October 2011 number of Philosophy, the journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy. The journal is sent gratis to members of the Institute. For membership information, click here. Some of Prof. O’Hear’s recent books may be seen and ordered here (or here for US readers).

On this topic in The Fortnightly Review: Historicism and the Great Beast by Anthony O’Hear | On Social Disorder by Gerald Gaus | More Chronicle & Notices.

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