To describe the rioting that took place in the UK recently as “anti-social” sounds so anodyne as to be redundant. Neighbourhoods were terrorized. Buildings were burned. And people were killed. But it still conveys an essential point.
One of the most noted aspects of the riots was the fact that the rioters were destroying their own communities. Whatever this may say about the intelligence of looters who target Tottenham over Knightsbridge, the riots were certainly an attack on society in the areas they live in. Why would they do this?
First, we have to consider what we mean by society. For too long the leftist definition has been widely accepted which sees “society” merely as a substitute term for “state”. In that view, society and social action simply amounts to whatever the government is doing and all it requires of the individual is to hand over his or her taxes when demanded.
In actual fact “society” is both broader and more difficult to pin down than that. One way of defining it is simply to see it in terms of people interacting. And this makes greater demands of the individual than does the leftist conception. It demands active involvement.
All sorts of areas where people interact comprise society while having nothing to do with state action: families, charities, sports clubs, religious organisations and workplaces, among many others.
It can be manifested in something as unremarkable as an ordinary yet friendly relationship with a local shop owner. All of this human action is social interaction — society in other words.
Yet up and down the UK large sections of the population have been absent from these circles of positive social action for years. With broken families and no jobs they are what we have come to term the “Underclass”.
To a very great degree, this underclass is the creation of the state. Welfare handouts have rendered fathers and families redundant in many cases. They have made it possible to live a quite comfortable life without ever earning a penny.
The debilitating, de-socialising effect of this is readily seen. To give an example, one of the mitigating circumstances most commonly put forward for the rioters was the lack of any state-provided recreational activity for teenagers.
It seems to have occurred to depressingly few people that by acting with others voluntarily they could have worked to provide something themselves as was the norm in the days before the vast expansion of the welfare state. The social approach as opposed to the state approach simply never occurred to them.
Welfare and state provision has de-socialised these people by enabling their withdrawal from large sections of the arena of voluntary human interactions. They dwell instead in the entitlement induced passivity of welfare dependency. They attack society where they live because they are not a part of it. They are, in other words, anti-social.
The great 19th century Liberal statesman Richard Cobdensaid that “Peace will come to earth when the people have more to do with each other and governments less”. The recent riots in Britain show that to be the case among individuals within nations as well as between them.