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The Quiet Riot

In recent weeks the riots in the UK have marked the ultimate triumph of Thatcherism – the complete absence of Society. The riots were not so much the breakdown of a society, but rather the obituary to a society that has already passed on. Behind the enticing byline that these riots have divided Britain lies the truth that these were the consequence of a society already divided.

When the Lady issued her famous edict that there is no such thing as society she had already set about making it so. Her work was continued in Reaganism, Blairism, Clintonism, and Bushism. The results are now clear for all to see. Of course, when declaring this mysterious absence, she meant nothing more than that the wealthy had no obligations to anyone, and began dismantling any social infrastructure that inferred that they might – progressive taxation, shared infrastructure (shared anything, in fact), protective worker regulation and all that. This, the barefaced manifestation of pure Libertarianism, is, of course, a deep betrayal of its Lockean roots but is entirely consistent with its modern version a la Hayek, Nozick, and Friedman. Curiously at the same time that this dismantling of Society was beginning we can see the birth of the notion of the obligation to the shareholder – the responsibility, as it were, to the rich. This new responsibility operates at the legal and the social levels, and was again writ large in government policy from taxation to welfare. So a horizontal set of mutual obligations, assuring the good of the weak against the strong, were replaced with a responsibility pointing upwards only, protecting the strong against the weak. The wealthy were no longer burdened with the costs of the social externalities that their activities create, and the plight of the worker, thrown into a sea of insecurity designed to maximise investment returns, was of no concern. This is not a local problem, nor is it one that we have moved beyond – for example, recent discussions in the US have the Right telling us to use the words “job-creator” instead of “the rich”, the lie being evident in the predictable rise in stock prices whenever job-cuts are announced. Ownership of work by the minority holders of wealth, with the expectation of ever-increasing returns, is by no means automatically compatible with job-creation (or stability or, for that matter, democracy).

The battle has begun to explain the causes of the riots. Some in the UK Conservative party (and, perhaps surprisingly since he should know better, some like Vince Cable) have declared that the riots are not socio-economic in origin. Cameron has explicitly stated that they were not about the economy or about poverty. Others have more plausibly suggested that they might be. Cameron has rightly declared that Society is “sick”, but appears to have little insight into the nature of the ailment. Rather, he suggests that parts of society are sick, which is a little like saying that my stomach is cancerous but on the whole I am quite well thank you very much. Today he orders a review to “fix society”. We might remain skeptical. He has, to date, failed to notice that his “Big Society” (remarkably similar in practice to Maggie’s “no such thing”) requires the pre-existence of a Society per se.

So were the riots socio-economic in nature, or just socio-, or just -economic, or none-of-the-above? Were they individual or structural in nature? We separate these things too quickly, and the hunger for a simple explanation, preferably with an identifiable villain, is all but irresistable. Orwell weeps. But we can at least look at the kind of questions that are currently floating about.

Let’s get the absurd out of the way. Did media-technology cause the riots? Of course not. They may have facilitated in spreading an idea quickly, but so what? It is the idea that is important – the media was not the message. We should be deeply concerned about the state of our Society when many thousands of people, with nothing in common but their socio-economic class, saw so little of value in the dominant value-system; they saw no immediate problem in their actions, and indeed couldn’t relate social values in any way to their acts. This was not a few isolated people, nor was it an organised group – this was a relatively spontaneous set of happenings across a large set of cities and towns. This was a festering problem that manifested itself in the way that it did because of what we have become. This is what the absence of Society – the absence of inclusive social bonds that all can buy into and benefit from – looks like. This is the true face of Libertarianism.

Another absurdity. Was this, as the dubious Libyans would have us believe, the righteous rise of the people against power, the British “Spring”? Not consciously. Nor was it like the Greek riots whose objections were relatively clear. If anything it was more like the quite mindless lashing out of an abused child whose life has conditioned him to behave appallingly. But the powers-that-be would be fools to ignore the message in here, and greater fools to misrepresent it as the misbehaviour of an errant few. More than ever, Power needs to listen carefully, and to do so without lazily reflecting on the superficial alone.

What, then, of the more promising questions? Was it a failure of parenting? Sure it was. But good parenting requires a sufficient social grounding and reflects social reality. How can someone make a good parent if they have not received a decent education? Or if they have to work several minimum-wage jobs just to make ends meet, ensuring that they are never there for their children, even if they do manage to bring in enough for food and shelter. How can marital unity be expected to survive the most intense economic pressures? How can we square the round peg of responsible parenting with the fact that the options for many are either to provide the material means for family at the expense of being absent from their childrens’ lives, or to be with their children in stigmatized and demoralised circumstances? Some heroically manage, to be sure, as has been endlessly pointed out. But they do so against the odds, and there is little in our current social arrangements to improve these odds.

Was it a failure of education? Definitely. What else should we expect when quality schools are increasingly funded according to ability to pay, ensuring that those who need it most get it least.

Was it a failure in employment? By all means. People in secure and gainful employment tend not to riot. But when the fickle moods of the holders of wealth control job prospects, and when economic growth based on ever-increasing competitive consumption is the mantra, we have no sound basis for meaningful and secure work.

Was it a failure of morality? Absolutely. But therein lies the rub. When there is no such thing as Society we cannot expect a social morality to exist. We cannot expect people to observe the sanctity of property if there is no reasonable social mechanism for such people to become a part of that structure. Why would they respect social norms when social norms so obviously exclude them? By no means can we expect property to evoke respect when the next few generations will be parting with their own property to pay debts brought about by the good times of those who have preached “responsibility”. A social morality built on subservience to capital (never better exhibited than in 2008) is no social morality at all. And the lesson that bad deeds are rewarded if you are of the right class only takes us further down the spiral.

The rioters acted selfishly. In that sense, they behaved in exact accordance with the dominant morality of our day – the pursuit of self-interest. To be sure, as many neolibs and neocons delight to point out, self-interest is not the same thing as selfishness. They also love to talk about the “invisible-hand” – that mythical belief that good things spontaneously come about from the aggregate effects of individuals pursuing their own individual wants. But that is, at most, telling half the story. Invisible-hand effects (that is to say, unintended aggregate effects) also include the negative – climate change, unemployment, poverty, crime, and – yes – selfishness. When the social structure is inherently insecure and ruthless and competition is the norm then amplified selfishness is the inevitable result. Insecurity breeds the hoarding mentality – enough is never enough – , and, at its worst, the smash-and-grab mentality, no less so in the corporate politics of hostile takeovers and wage- and worker-cuts than in the grimy reality of the burned-down suburbs of London with its smashed windows and looted goods.

Mr Cameron wants to heal “Broken Britain”. But he must first move beyond the symptoms and discover the disease, a cancer that both major parties have contributed to in recent decades. He must not be allowed to shirk the question of the correlation between the areas where rioting was most intense and those that have received harsh spending cuts in order to pay for the misdemeanors of the banking class (the fiscal and social costs of which dwarf that of the riots).

Mr Cameron, the champion of “choice” and spontaneous voluntarism, got a dose of what spontaneity and choice can look like if the background context is ignored. The challenge for him, if he has the courage to face it, is to understand the role that government can have in favourably shaping that context. The neoliberal minimal-state is certainly too weak a conception for this task, and is, in any case, entirely the wrong shape. Cameron’s own version of the minimal-state, “The Big Society”, looks very much like newspeak for the continued opting-out of the wealthy from Society (with, of course, the understanding that they can be bailed out of their troubles), a continuation of the Thatcherite project. “Voluntarism” under this aspect will be whatever those with the means decide it to be, a modern version of noblesse oblige, and entirely inadequate. That has to change. At the very least the State needs to mitigate social externalities, and, where this is not possible, to act as a clearing house for settling those social debts to those who bear the costs. But it can and should do a whole lot more to stimulate equity and opportunity. Life is not a game, and society should not have winners and losers.

So should we, like the underclasses of England, go out and loot, steal, and destroy? No. But nor should we do nothing. There are definitely things that need to be destroyed, but they lie in the minds of people and not in the shop windows of the High-Street. We need a “Quiet Riot” in which we relentlessly challenge the notions and outcomes of the last three decades at every level. We must refuse to accept embedded class-based privilege, and construct our Societies on a basis of mutuality, inclusivity, and respect rather than on the impoverished notions of pure self-interest and the mythologies that have allowed inequity to reign. We can no longer afford to mindlessly accept the belief that what is good for the rich is good for everyone. We must go even further and seek to prevent what is bad for the wealthy being even worse for everyone else, as the banking crisis has made oh-so-clear. Debates on the weight of social benefits and burden need to move beyond the petty caricatures equating fairness to comparative tax rates or absolute amounts of money, and focus on the sharp and brutal distinction between the receipt of transitory or fragile benefits by the poor and the middling versus that of permanent benefits by the priviliged that ossify their positions of power. We need to talk about the breadth, depth, and spread of opportunity. We need to talk about the social costs of exponential consumption and the diminished returns from economic growth. We need to talk about the institutional foundations of our Societies and ask whether they promote a capability set on which people can exist harmoniously with others and on which good lives can be built. We need to look at ways to supplement and supercede self-interest with a broader view of common-interest. A precondition for this is the reduction of the empathic gap between the haves and the have-nots. And that must start by both reducing the opportunity gap and the wealth gaps that perpetuates it.

There is much to do and much to talk about, and there is urgency. The time for the Quiet Riot is now.

Categories: Politics Tags: , , ,
  1. Reyhan
    September 27, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    Great line:

    “Rather, he suggests that parts of society are sick, which is a little like saying that my stomach is cancerous but on the whole I am quite well thank you very much.”


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