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Delinquents discover the flashmob: How Plato explains the London riots

When Canadians trashed their prettiest city, Vancouver, after the Canucks lost game seven of the Stanley Cup finals earlier this summer, I argued that the simplest explanation was that rioting is just great fun. I don't see much going on in London that inclines me to change that analysis in any significant way, notwithstanding the usual parade of columnists singling out the usual contradictory mix of suspects: race, poverty, the police, the welfare state, and so on. 

There are a few aspects of the English riots that distinguish them from what went on in Vancouver, the most obvious of which is the viral or contagious angle, with the rioting skipping from London to Birmingham to Liverpool, Leeds, and other cities. Another is the presence of widespread looting, which played a minor role in Vancouver. 

What all this demonstrates, I think, is that in any society, at any given time, there is a certain number of people, mostly young men, who would gladly engage in criminal behviour with very little prompting. What they face is the same problem that confronts rioters and criminals alike: it is a coordination problem. Just as guys who want to riot for fun have difficulty finding a critical mass of fellow rioters, criminals have a hard time identifying and coordinating their behaviour with other criminals. 

That is why there is such a thing as organised crime. And that is why organised crime resembles the family or the state in so many ways: For much of human existence, the family and the state have been the most effective mechanisms for solving coordination problems amongst self-interested individuals. 

Social networking, especially BlackBerry Messenger, provides a simple way of solving the coordination problem. Kids have been organising flashmobs for years now, descending on subways and city centers to have impromptu dance parties or pillow fights. In China, consumers have been using social networking to organise group shopping expeditions, where they descend upon a retailer and use the pressure of 50 to 100 orders to extract deep discounts from the shop owners. It is not a big step from that to having 100 people show up to loot the electronics shops. 

But doesn't this indicate a deep social malaise? Isn't there something deeply wrong with a society where so many people are willing to act in a criminal and even violent manner with very little prodding? Well yes, and you can't discount the role of poverty and especially unemployment. Being unemployed sharply reduces the risks associated with getting caught: If I get caught rioting, I'm probably going to lose my job and my professional reputation. If the local chav on the dole gets caught, what does he have to lose, really? If anything, an ASBO or a spell in prison will increase his status.

But that sort of explanation operates on the margins. At the core of what is really happening in London, as in Vancouver, is the power of social networking tools to provide instant and large-scale anonymity. Who knows what evils lurk in the hearts of men? Plato knew. Or at least, his mouthpiece, Glaucon, knew. In Book 2 of the Republic, Glaucon tells the story of Gyges of Lydia, who finds a ring that has the power to make in invisible. He uses this power to make his way to the palace where he seduces the queen, and with her help he murders the king. Is Gyges any difference than the man on the Clapham omnibus? Glaucon thinks not:

Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men.

Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust.

For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another's, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another's faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice. --Republic, 360-b-d

Is Glaucon just a cynic? Are most people genuinely just?  If you don't think that merely becoming anonymous has the capacity to suddenly turn someone into an anti-social monster, then you haven't been reading the comment boards on the websites and blogs run by Maclean's, the Globe and Mail, the CBC, and so on. Those horrible people writing those nasty things aren't drooling troglodytes sitting in their parents' basements; they are your husbands and wives, your colleagues, your doctor and your lawyer and everyone else you know. 

You want to know what sort of person joins in a riot and trashes their city and loots their neighbour's shop? Look around you. Or better, look in the mirror.