August 10, 2011

Riot of a Time

Posted in Cameron, Civil Liberties, Conservatives, Consumerism, Economics, Hysteria, London, Political Philosophy, Politics, Society at 6:11 pm by Paul Sagar

Very quick thoughts on the recent riots.

1. Clearly it is true that poverty, alienation, deepdisgruntlement with the police and lack of opportunity are important background facts that any serious attempt at understanding will have to take into account.

2. But these alone cannot explain what was clearly, in many cases, opportunistic theft and glee in destruction.

3. So where do we go from there?

4. I take these to be true and important components of any description of modern British politics and society: that it promotes self-interested greed, materialism, the possession of ostensive goods for status, immediate gratification, and a toleration (even encouragement) of ruthless competitiveness with a deep disregard for the welfare of others. (Call this the “no-such-thing-as-society society”, if you like.)

5. Putting 1 and 2 together with 4, and adding in conditions of spontaneity, anticipated impunity and evident opportunity, a basic yet broadly sufficient explanation appears to emerge.

6. Note that the things described in 4 above constitute the core tenets of the political ideology broadly known as ‘Thatcherism’ (or if you want to bring things up to date post-1997, ‘neo-liberalism’).

7. Also note that the conditions described in 1. have been massively and continuously exacerbated by Thatcherism (or ‘neo-liberalism’), especially if enormous inequality and its debilitating effects on individual well-being and self-respect are included too.

8. So actually this may not be such a mystery after all. If you constantly tell people to be selfish, ruthless, competitive, greedy and disregarding of the welfare of others, then you can’t really be surprised when they behave as they are told they fundamentally are and must be (even if they forget about the bits to do with obeying the law).

9. However, if you happen to be the prime minister just invoke some vacuous covering fluff about ‘moral responsibility’. Continue to condemn loudly, and then get back to promoting the elements in 4. on a daily basis. Without wondering about which ways the knife may cut.

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  1. Richard said,

    There was greater poverty in the Edwardian era and no state welfare system to fall back on. London didn’t burn. Instead many of the poor attempted to educate and improve themselves. Where has this strong moralistic attitude gone?

  2. Luis Enrique said,

    On point 4, politicians certainly do not explicitly promote such values, indeed I’m sure in most speeches etc. they explicitly disavow them. Where can I see examples of this promotion?

    Where and how does society promotes those values? In the films, telly programs, books and newspaper articles I read, all those values are portrayed as bad. Jim Carey, for instance, always starts out a career oriented monster but then some delightful children/penguins teach him the error of his ways.

    You evidently don’t hold those things to be good things, and I bet most people you know do not. How did you escape internalising those values, if their promotion is so powerful.

    Where should I look for examples of these values being promoted? I can think perhaps games shows on telly, who wants to be a millionaire, and maybe the lyrics and videos of, erm, urban music. Where else? And why do you think those media dominate other media in which values on non-materialism, altruism and other good things are promoted?

  3. Sean Whitton said,

    Having gone through the secondary education system just a few years ago I can see where these point four values are coming from. We were told that our GCSEs were about getting good jobs i.e. about material gain, and then A-levels are just about the competition for university places. And it’s my generation that’s rioting.

  4. Luis Enrique said,

    I do not agree that promoting the goal of getting a good job, being able to perhaps own your own home, afford to travel, etc. amounts to selfish greed etc. I want those things, I do not consider myself to hold the values listed in 4. at all.

    I am perhaps being wilfully contrarian, and I admit to not being very connected to popular culture.

    However we known that:

    Very many people vehemntly oppose those values. So if greed etc. Is the dominant value, we know it is possible for many people to hold values at variance with the dominant. Therefore we know that observing many greedy people is consistent with the dominant value being not-greedy.

    We know that the messages transmitted by society and politics etc. are not homogenous. You can think of n examples of greed being promoted, I can think of n examples of not-greed being promoted. How do you know which dominates. I know it is an extremely ubiquitous narrative on the left that society promotes greed, but then right has some extremely strong narratives you think are full of crap, just because you have always thought something self evident doesn’t mean that it is.

    How prevalent are these value? If i designed a questionnaire to elicit the values people hold, how many people do you guess would agree with 4.? My guess is that most people would say greed is bad.

  5. Luis Enrique said,

    Although I maintain that elements of 4. are by and large not promoted and, at least on the surface, the more frequent social norm is that they are bad, it may be true to say that elements of 4. are looked on more benignly, tolerated, to a much greater extent than they might be, that worryingly large sections of the population regard them as virtues, that they are promoted to a greater extent than they might be*, and that we, lack a strong collective non materialistic ethos that might be promoted vigorously by politics and society, like it could be in, well, Cuba? Or some imagined alternative.

    * if it made sense to put a number on the extent to which 4. are promoted by politics and society, it may only be 10%, making it false to say they are promoted full stop, yet you may regard 10% as a frighteningly large number, a historic high.

  6. Ruth said,

    I think you speak sense. Why is Milliband struggling to come to these conclusions (or too frightened of loss of middle class votes to articulate them?) when it seems so obvious. All he really challenged was the cuts in policing. So should we then assume that if we have sufficient numbers of police to keep rioters and looters off the streets by force then the underlying social deprivation is acceptable? Perfect. Close sure start centres and youth clubs, cut EMA, make university entirely unaccessible, slash jobseekers allowance… but get plenty of police on the streets for when things do (inevitably) kick off.

  7. Steven said,

    Have you read Chavs by Owen Jones yet? You should.

  8. [...] Riot of a Time « Bad Conscience [...]

  9. Churm Rincewind said,

    All issues connected with the riots aside, may I just say how pleased I am by your return to blogging?

  10. Mark said,

    The problem is one of mixed messages. It’d be fine to tell people to look out for themselves if the basic framework of society ensured that people gained some advantage from behaving in a socially beneficial way. This is the real idea underlying “neo-liberalism” – not that the man who makes it to the top of the pile of bloody corpses wins, but that rewarding people through a market system ensures that people behave in the way which is most valuable to others.
    Now obviously, we can’t have a market system without a moral framework and yes, those at the top do abuse these ideas for their own advantage.
    But in my opinion, the real problem, and what most ordinary working class people (ignoring accents for a moment), really object to is the bizarre idea that all immoral actions should be excused but that at the same time, we have a moral responsibility to look after those who have completely rejected our civilization. This idea is what makes it advantageous for people to be unpleasant and anti-social.
    Unfortunately it is also deeply entrenched within our political classes (Conservatives too) despite being completely alien to most ordinary people.

  11. [...] too does another thing. Whatever you think are the causes of the riots – poverty, neo-liberal consumer culture, bad parenting or some sort of moral decline – these cannot be swiftly [...]

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