To a watching world, the sight of Britain on fire last week has surely been shocking. The looting and torching has revealed an inner-city London, Birmingham and Manchester seldom glimpsed in the England usually offered for export via soft-focus period dramas, Hugh Grant movies or stories on Will and Kate.

If the revelation has puzzled outsiders, it has confused Britons no less. The mood is a mixture of rage, fear and bafflement. Not that we’re not used to riots: England caught fire during that other royal-wedding year, 1981. But 30 years ago, the battle lines were relatively clear. Race was central, especially in the predominantly black south London neighborhood of Brixton. The target then was a police force charged with racial bias. The recent explosions have not had that clarity.

Even though the troubles ignited the week before last after the police killed a black Briton in the north London area of Tottenham, the copycat outbursts since have lacked that racial dimension. Among the looters, all races were represented, while their targets had not been overtly political. They didn’t hurl stones at police stations, city halls or the Houses of Parliament. Instead, these rapidly mobilized crowds concentrated their fire on stores, especially those selling cellphones, sneakers and large-screen TVs. One looter was seen trying on different pairs of shoes, making sure she stole the right size.

The Guardian’s Zoe Williams has called these the “shopping riots,” noting how mobs move from malls to main street stores, avoiding confrontation with the police, in contrast with the 1981 rioters, who actively sought it. If today’s looters have a political point to make, it is that politics doesn’t matter.

I walked Tottenham High Road on Aug. 10, as demolition crews removed what was left of a large carpet store burned to ash on Aug. 6. I listened to Mohammed Abdi, a Somali-born cellphone store owner whose life’s work was destroyed that night. “It took an age to build this business — and now I have nothing,” he told me. The local member of Parliament, David Lammy, was doing his best to reassure those whose neighborhood was ravaged. “The consumerist and materialist nature of it is new,” he said. “And it’s of this generation.”

The methods are new, too: using instant-messaging technology to assemble a crowd; diverting police to one place by, say, burning a car, then looting in another. The fact that the police cannot be everywhere at once has made them all but powerless. The short-term remedy has been to triple the number of police on duty in London, which restored calm here Tuesday night but is no more a long-term solution than the pleas for BlackBerry to turn off its instant-messenger system. One Tottenham resident warned Aug. 10 that the rest of the world should brace for the spread of this new “social criminality.”

Amid the destruction and debris, one question is ultra-sensitive: Why? Those who seek to understand the looters’ motivation have been instantly accused of justifying their actions — as if to explain is always to excuse. Some have nevertheless dared to offer reasons, with poverty an early and obvious explanation — though that view looked less credible once details about some of the suspected rioters emerged. Among those in court have been university graduates, an army recruit and a youth worker. Such people might be a minority among the looters, but they hardly fit the conventional definition of the “underclass.”

Others have said the source of the malaise is a greed-is-good consumerism, with the looters following a take-what-you-can lead set by the bonus-earning bankers at the top end of the income scale. Still others have preferred to concentrate on family breakdown and fatherlessness, suspecting that many of those involved are, if not poor, then emotionally deprived and utterly disconnected from the wider society. Lammy has been struck by those looters caught on film who don’t bother to hide their faces.

Most controversial is the suggestion that the riots might have even a tenuous link to the government’s austerity program, aimed at reducing the deficit. Funding for youth services — clubs and outreach workers — in the Tottenham area has just been cut by 75 percent.

It’s too early to know whether spending cuts played any part in England’s burning. But as the United States embarks on its own retrenchment, it should beware — this is an argument that could soon be coming its way.

Jonathan Freedland is an editorial page columnist for The Guardian.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.