Thugs, Revolutionaries, or Shoppers? Rethinking the 2011 English Riots Through Consumer Practises & Black Friday

Like many riots before it, those who partook in the disturbances of 2011 have been popularly framed either as an immoral underclass or incipient revolutionaries. This article seeks to re-examine an element of the 2011 riots in order to dispel these perceptions by suggesting the emergence of the riots from the broader social practises of ‘consumerism’. Focusing on publically available evidence pertaining to the looting in 2011 and its similarities to consumer practises, in particular Black Friday, Stuart Scrase forwards a case for the careful consideration of Western consumer practises and meanings as part of any attempt to explain why the events of August 2011 occurred.

Revolutionaries or Thugs?

In August 2011 rioting spread across England. What began in as a local issue in Tottenham, North London was to spread to many areas of the city before jumping to Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol and more, causing estimated damages of £200 million to the UK economy (Riots to cost… 2011). Newspapers splashed images of hooded and masked youths framed by burning cars and buildings. The response by the political elite was condemnation of a ‘feral underclass’ (Ken Clark. 2011), their actions: ‘criminality pure and simple’ according to the Prime Minister, David Cameron (2011). Indeed, in the same speech to parliament the Prime Minister stated, that it was ‘preposterous’ to link the rioting and looting to the shooting of a black male in Tottenham by police – it was thievery and hooliganism, nothing more. A closed case then? The rioters were thugs and thieves, and the appropriate response is harsher punishments to deter them from further crime. Yet we might ask, why then were the police such a focus of anger and violence? Why did the riots emerge out of a protest over the police’s actions during and after the shooting of Mark Duggan? And perhaps more fundamentally, why are so many ‘youths’ willing to engage in criminal activity?

On the other hand, I have heard many people on the left argue (using the anger and violence towards police as proof) that the rioters were people fed up with the injustice of the system, such as lack of opportunities, police discrimination, economic inequality and so forth. This line of argument generally treats the rioters as incipient revolutionaries, prevented from being so only by the rioters’ inability to politically frame their complaints and actions. While this view has more substance than that of the politicians, it cannot explain all that happened in the riots. Here the problem almost seems to be the reverse of the politicians’ stance as the looting is ignored in favour of the violence against the police.

Employing either of these two lenses will distort the view we take of the 2011 riots. As a first step to understanding, we should not make the mistake of assuming the riots were a single event, but rather made up of differing acts and motivations. Having said this, three general themes might be said to characterise the majority of rioting in 2011: firstly, violence and anger directed against the police; secondly, the looting; and lastly, the seemingly nihilistic destruction and vandalism (Moxon. 2011). This clearly suggests that the rioting is more complex than either side would have us believe. While any full explanation of the rioting must account for the violence against the police and destruction of property, I want to put aside these two points and instead draw out some implications from the looting to briefly highlight considerations that the left has ignored, and the politicians simplified and condemned.

Shopping in 2011

The looting in 2011 saw two seemingly contradictory themes in its similarity to a consumer holiday, and the clear rejection of social norms and law. Zygmut Baumann (2011) argued that this was because the riots were a result of consumerism’s ‘have-nots’: social inequality in a consumer ideology. Putting aside the problems of describing the violence against police as ‘consumer’, to assume the looters were ‘have-nots’ is questionable and certainly a simplification. The majority of rioters interviewed by The Guardian (Datablog 2011) did live in economically deprived areas, yet the arrest figures show that students constituted 17% of arrestees and 39% were in employment (‘An Overview of Recorded Crimes…’. THO. 2011. 5).Moreover, these figures are based on arrests made by the police and cannot be seen as truly representative of those involved in the riots. Indeed, evidence from the Home Office reveals that 22% of commercial premises targeted were specialist retailers in clothing or electronics, very few seem to be related to basic goods. This figure can only be indicative not proof, regardless, it is perhaps safer to describe looters not as simply ‘have-nots’, but also those with ‘not enough’. Aside from these problems Bauman’s argument has its merit; in particular, it seems some of the looters were, in part, engaging in normal social practises, not rebelling.

In its simplest sense ‘engage in normal social practises’ means to consume and shop. For this to be so the looters must have acted for similar reasons as everyday shoppers. So why do we shop? Miller (2005) argues that shopping is employed as a means of reproducing relationships, that decisions to purchase are made with others in mind, and with the idea of fulfilling or exceeding expectations of us. For instance, Miller talks of a parent who purchases a football shirt due to their anxiety over whether their child will live up to the expectations of his peers (ibid. 26-7). In this relation we can note the idea that the child will be viewed and judged by others; the implication being that the football shirt functioned as a marker of, and improvement to social position. Consuming is a social practise performed in reference to others, and often because of what the object will say about us.

But we must also take into account the relation of consumers to companies involved in the material and symbolic production of the product. To generalise, this is a relation between the consumer and a brand in which the latter aims to endow their product and brand with real meanings (e.g. ‘glamour’ and Chanel perfume). Wernick (1983) argues that this form of advertising seeks to create a product’s social value and use through association to pre-existing meanings and values. If the advertising is performed well, that is it seems authentic to its chosen audience, this product will become meaningful (e.g. the branding of Adidas through their association with the meanings and cultures of urban life, such as through street dance). Through their use, these products become social markers of belonging and status, such as the football shirt, and to be without is to risk being judged as lesser.

For Campbell (2005), what defines modern practises of consumerism is not simply the reality of gaining the benefits of a product, but the anticipation of our selves benefiting from them. Desire is produced by a “favourable reaction to certain patterns of sensation” (ibid. 60) This sensation is found in the moments where we imagine the purchase; for instance, we imagine how we will look to others with a new piece of clothing, what it will say about who we are, the respect we will gain, and the momentary overcoming of our insecurities. Branding then arguably influences how we imagine ourselves altered by the product, through attempting to create egoistic values and desire by emphasising the product’s revolutionary social potential for you. The argument I am making, while in no way can explain all consumption or looting, is that processes we group under the term ‘consumerism’ have the effect of shaping shoppers as ‘never enoughs’; because we can always imagine ourselves as better, and always want to reproduce the pleasurable sensations. Put in terms of the riots, looters who took (the now clichéd) trainers may have done so for their value as a status symbol and as a means to build self-esteem within their social world, in which: “obviously appearance is a lot … if I was approaching a girl, I would go over to her and I would look at her face and look at her trainers” (Riot. 2012. 51.00).

Black Friday and Changing the Rules of Shopping

If the above theory proffers an accurate and plausible explanation, then the looting as an event should display similarities to modern consumer practises. Shopping as a practise is often pleasurable in and of itself, where people forget their everyday realities, enjoy the moment and reward themselves, resulting in terms like ‘shopping spree’. This shouldn’t need great elaboration as even the most frugal, such as myself, can enjoy purchasing a desired thing or finding a bargain. Briefly then, what can be said to characterise the shopping spree is not restraint or utilitarian decisions, but spontaneity and pleasure seeking (Bauman. 1994. 83). It is the anticipation of the social benefits of the product prior to and at the moment of decision that creates the pleasurable sensation pursued, and perhaps pushes other concerns or restraints aside (expense, the daily requirements of life etc.); a description that fits both with some witness accounts of the rioting: “… their eyes were just lit up, so in the moment” (Riot. 2012. 7.30), and statements from those involved: “The riotin’ an’ lootin’ was something that you sit around talk with your friends ‘Oh imagine all the shops in the high road was open, you could go in there an’ take whatever you want’ …”(Slovo. 2012 p.23). At least some of the looting then seems to be driven by this pleasure seeking behaviour, in which worries are forgotten and pleasure is gained through imagining the self gaining the product and its social payoffs. Rather than simply being thieves or revolutionaries the drive behind this sort of action may then come from accepted societal practise.

To better demonstrate the need for examining societal causes of looting we can make a useful comparison with Black Friday. This consumer holiday takes place every November across North America, and signals the beginning of the holiday shopping season by supposedly drastic reductions in prices. While the term Black Friday was coined much later, the practise of beginning Christmas shopping and sales the day after Thanksgiving has been around since the late 19th century. Today it has evolved into a practise which draws in vast crowds of shoppers desperately trying to get the deals before their desired products sell out. The result is regular cases of violence and arrests as shoppers fight over the last deal. Indeed, Black Friday has resulted in a number of deaths, for instance in 2008 a store employee was trampled to death as he opened the shop doors to the waiting crowd, while in another case that year two men were shot and killed during an argument in a toy store (‘Wal-Mart …’ CNN 2008).

Sociological research on Black Friday is thin on the ground, yet the similarities between it and the looting are there: both were acts of consumption performed through meanings and practises of their society, and both seem to be driven by pleasure seeking and financial benefit (for Black Friday see: Swilley & Goldsmith. 2013). But more than this, the moment or experience of pleasure in shopping also displays parallels. Thomas and Peters found when discussing with female shoppers, that shoppers thought of Black Friday in terms of time-constrained competition, resulting in excitement, pleasure and aggressive behaviour by the informants: “It’s fun to try to get as many bargains as I possibly can in a limited amount of time. It’s like a game show.” (2011. 531). Shoppers also described ‘surviving’ these encounters and later swapping ‘war stories’. What we can take from these statements is that the normal rules of shopping (to queue, to only take from the shelf and not other customers) were not in play, but the values and pleasure seeking that drove this behaviour were

What Thomas and Peters’ research suggests is that there is a revelry in the event nature of Black Friday – a perspective that displays similarities to accounts given by rioters of looting: “Then once you do it and nothing’s happened, yeah, you’re like: “Oh my gosh!’ and you’re like: “This is a once in a lifetime thing,” you’re going to get everything you want for free.” (Prasad. 2011 b.). Both events brought to mind the old game show Supermarket Sweep, in which contestants rush round a supermarket throwing products into their trolley – what they grab they keep. On the show there was no property owner, no guilt or restraint, only goods to be taken, and money to be made

Revolutionary Shoppers?

Of course, there is a contradiction because the looting in 2011 clearly represented a rejection of the laws and norms of the UK. Moreover, the majority of people who engage with the same or similar consumption rituals in the UK did not loot, thus there must be something more to this than the links to social and economic systems suggested above.

To understand this contradiction it is worth noting that this mass rejection suggests that the laws of the UK to some extent were only held in place by the threat of physical force from the police. Once the riots began and the police looked to have lost of control, committing ‘crime’ did not matter: “I just felt that out of all these people there’s probably a 5% chance I’d get caught” (Prasad; 2011 a.). The implication is that the law held no or little normative value for the looters, or perhaps the drive to seek pleasure was stronger than the feeling of obligation to the law, either way, with the police seemingly powerless law ceased to be relevant.

Some might argue that 2011 looters differed from Black Friday shoppers because they did not break the law. Yet on closer inspection this seems a superficial difference because both events operate under a change of rules or exceptional circumstances – the difference is only in the degree, so to speak. Take Black Friday: the normal rules of consuming (e.g. do not commit violence against other consumers, to accept that when someone else has a product it is legitimately theirs, to queue) are relaxed. For whatever reason, it is deemed acceptable for some to push through crowds, jump barriers, use violence, and to grab what is desired and available – even if already claimed by other consumers. Rather than the law being removed and goods becoming ‘free’ as in the 2011 riots, on Black Friday it is the social norms of consuming which are removed or loosened. Law and the police remains at least a physical limit on behaviour, but in the heat of the moment, grappling for the last discounted TV, violent conflict is always a possibility.

It seems plausible that these transgressions have become normalised, eroding the usual rules by which consumers operate, creating a concept of Black Friday in the minds of consumers which, in part, changes the rules of shopping. In other words it creates an opportunity, much as the perception of the police and their loss of control did for the looters of 2011. Consequently, it may be that looters in 2011 did not reject the order and its values itself, only their position within it and the rules that defined how they engaged with it.

Perhaps for some this was more a momentary rejection, driven by the desire for products or caught up in the moment. But even this would support the idea that many looters ‘shopped’ in a fundamentally similar manner to those of Black Friday, as a social act pleasurable in and of itself, taking what they could get before the opportunity had gone. The difference between Black Friday and 2011’s looting is then not in the aim, but in the immediate and superficial context. Rather than looters being simply an ‘immoral’ group then, the above argument has brought into question Western consumer society’s role in producing the values, the feelings, which drove the looting in 2011.

Consumer Riots?

Of course some might argue that looting predates consumerism and even capitalism. And it does; however, we should not see ‘consumerism’ as something fundamentally different to what came before, but a particular mode of doing what we always have done – consume. Looting is created first by the possibilities of us as consuming beings generally, then given shape by the particular economic, political and cultural context. The task with understanding any particular act of looting, or indeed riots, is to understand why it took that form. The looting of basic goods would suggest the issue related to the ability of the looters to sustain themselves and thus point to basic economic issues. Or if particular targets were selected it would suggest some resentment towards another group. In 2011, as Bauman (2011) argued at least some of the looting seemed to be driven by a socially produced, relative discontent with their ownership or ability to acquire certain status goods.

The argument I have briefly made above suggests that practises such as advertising/branding and consuming often encourage the pursuit of an individualistic or egoistic form of pleasure, while at the same time ‘law’ seems to be losing its normative force. Indeed, we might strengthen the argument by locating similar examples of behaviour, such as the outlook of bankers and traders who make enormous profits at the expense, and arguably without consideration or care of those affected. If so, the looting of 2011 was neither a revolution nor mindless thuggery, but a larger problem regarding the manner in which we relate and think of ourselves and the exterior world.

However, I am not suggesting that this is the whole explanation for the looting. We must understand other how practises, experiences, and cultural meanings shaped the looting, how these intersected with the social, political and economic relations resulting in people willing to loot, and finally why the law and police hold no normative force. Without asking these difficult question and attempting to understand the riots with our desires aside the 2011 riots will remain popularly understood as either a moral problem of individuals who make up this ‘underclass’, or an unrealised revolution: and neither one is accurate.

Stuart Scrase is an interdisciplinary PhD candidate at the University of Exeter, focusing principally on sociology, anthropology, and political theory. His research looks at the 2011 riots in England with the aim of developing in depth theoretical understandings of riot participants’ lives to contextualise the different forms that the rioting took as socially meaningful and produced action.


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