Oblique intent

Why the name? Well criminal law afficionados will recognise the phrase 'oblique intent' as referring to a problem of mens rea:can a person who intends to do x (such as setting fire to a building to scare the occupants) also be said to have an intention to kill if one of the occupants dies? This is a problem that has consumed an inordinate amount of time in the appeal courts and in the legal journals, and can be taken to represent a certain kind of approach to legal theory. My approach is intended to be more oblique to this mainstream approach, and thus to raise different kinds of questions and issues. Hence the name.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

On riots

There has been much discussion over the last week of the causes of the riots in England last summer. After the initial mud-slinging by outraged politicians whose first reflex is to blame anyone or anything but themselves - feral youth, greed, bad parenting, twitter and new social media, and just plain old wickedness -
it is a relief to read something that is more reflective. (Though this will be little comfort for those unfortunates who came before the courts in the immediate aftermath of the riots and were on the receiving end of some severe sentences).

One of the main questions here concerns the meaning of the riots, or specifically the extent to which they were a form of protest or just criminal behaviour (as if they can only be one or the other). There is something of a paradox here: riots as a form of inarticulate expression. And it is precisely this which leads to the conflict over the meaning of the riots. Is it just looting or something else? Or was it both? What precisely was being protested about? And, if there were clear demands, why riot to express these when there are better ways of bringing these to the attention of the authorities. The answer, of course, is that riots are complex social events: that the trigger may not be fully related to all the actions or motives of all the participants; that people join in for different motives and pursue different ends; and that the actions of groups of people, or people in crowds, have a kind of rationality or logic of their own.

Bread Riot, Stockport 1840s
This is a lesson that is well known to historians of social disorder. Indeed in one of the most celebrated contribution to this history, the social historian E.P Thompson described what he termed 'the moral economy of the English crowd' (read it here). In his studies of 'bread riots' in the eighteenth century - when harvests had failed and poor people were starving - Thompson noted that the crowds did not loot or destroy property indiscrimately, but instead behaved according to certain social norms. They would attack only the property of those they felt were hoarding grain in order to exploit higher prices; enough grain would be taken to meet the immediate needs of those in the crowd; and money was often left representing what was seen as the 'true' market value of the grain. This, then, was a moral economy, based on traditional ways of life, as opposed to capitalist market economy, which was the future.

It is hard to see the English riots of 2011 in these terms - riots, like so many things, ain't what they used to be. The kind of 'moral economy' that held, even starving, communities together is long gone (especially in big cities), as witnessed in the violence that was directed against people's own neighbourhoods. And the rise of the market economy has had many, no doubt, corrosive effects on social relations. It would be a mistake, though, to conclude that these were purely irrational actions - just that we have not yet fully grapsed their meaning. The one consistent factor, though, across time is the response of the authorities. Prison sentences may have replaced transportation, but the fear of disorder persists.

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