Riot shock

This blog has been quiet for a while, but seems worth waking up momentarily if only because everyone else is commenting furiously on the England-wide riots. So I’m joining in.

My comment is oblique, and reprises a point made here before. Although Toffler’s Future Shock 40 years ago popularised a memorable phrase, sold millions, and seems to work for many people as a useful shorthand for disorientation in the face of accelerating change, I’m unconvinced.

This is due to advancing age combined with a historian’s temperament, I think. There seem to be two options as you grow older. Either you decide everything is getting worse, change is speeding up, the young are far worse behaved than they were in my day, and the world is going to hell in a handcart. Or, more simply, you conclude that there’s nothing new under the sun. I’ve gone for the latter option, obviously.

So the two dominant news stories of recent days can both reinforce a feeling that while some things do change, old verities remain. One is that, if you want to get the attention of ruling elites – for better or worse – taking to the streets, hurling stones, and setting fire to a few things works unbeatably well. Hard to think of a time when that wasn’t true, since cities were invented anyway. And the basic behaviour seems to accommodate very well to new contexts (wheelie bins are easy to set on fire, bottle banks provide a ready supply of ammunition) but stays the same.

Meanwhile, markets bounce around and central banks try to shore up debt ratings by pouring money in and making positive noises. The technological infrastructure has changed, and some of the markets are new, but is this really much different from trying to shore up confidence in banks in, say, 1900? No doubt it only dates from the establishment of mutual interdependence rooted in really big international flows of capital, and that has become more complex, but the underlying dynamic looks pretty similar to the lay observer. So does the fact that no-one seems to have any very convincing idea what to do about the uncertainty which follows, least of all one likely to be implemented. Economic theory has got more sophisticated, too, I guess, Is any of it any use? Seems not.

Look closer, and there are differences, of course. The way the riots spread does seem to have changed – though I suspect old-fashioned TV had as much to do with it as BBM messaging and twitter.

But the main impression is still of familiarity – with the phenomena, and with the instant reactions and search for explanations and solutions. I’ve not done the research, but I’d bet the solutions proffered would be familiar to a historian of these things, too.

And the common personal reactions to riots and market turmoil have an unarguably classic quality: lock the shutters, get a baseball bat, and buy gold.

So shock, yes. Future shock, not really .

(top pic: Detail from mural depicting 1831 Queen Square riot by Scott Barden, near Paintworks, Bath Road, Bristol, 2011. See Located via Eugene Byrne )

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