Wednesday, August 10, 2011

London is Burning

I'm watching the violence in Britain with growing alarm. It is very different from the political and social unrest in other parts of Europe. In Greece and in Spain, violence is mostly confined to confrontations between protesters (not all of whom are on the same page; Greek protesters complain about the presence of anarchists who charge the police and turn their protests into riots) and cops. Property damage and harm to bystanders is kept to a relative minimum as violence remains confined to areas around legislatures and major public squares.

In Britain, the violence appears to be just random mayhem springing up anywhere and everywhere. It appears to be not only anarchic, but nihilistic with rioters sometimes turning on each other. For example, there is this episode caught on camera where rioters in London at first appear to help another young man who has been injured, and then rob him:

I don't think you would see anything like this in Greece, and certainly not in Egypt or the rest of the Middle East (which is experiencing far worse violence, though theirs is much more clearly defined with people at war with their rulers). This looks more to me like Hobbes' idea of "the state of nature," the war of all against all, which is what makes it so frightening. There is no rhyme or reason to any of it.

To my eye, this looks less like an uprising (spontaneous or organized) of the poor than an outbreak by those who feel that they have nothing to lose, as well as nothing to gain. It looks like kids who have no prospects deciding to go out and help themselves to all that good life that dangles constantly in front of them, just out of reach. Also, I think that there is a large element of what a friend of mine calls "acute testosterone poisoning," a malady all too common in young men, that makes them forget all bounds of reason and decency.

The consequence of all the random violence is the destruction of the rioters' own neighborhoods. It is businesses and homes right where they live that suffer their rage, not the centers of power which remain well protected. It's their own neighbors, people just like them, who suffer all of the harm, not the police, not the government, not the establishment. People who are just as poor and alienated as they are bear the brunt of the rioters' rage.

That tendency of British authorities (religious and secular) to sound like irritated school masters when making public statements doesn't help matters. If anything these "we will find you and punish you" statements only make matters worse, and are primarily for potential voters. They only goad rioters who've never had much time for law into more lawlessness. The disconnect between the political leadership and the people actually suffering this violence appears in bold relief in this visit by London Mayor Boris Johnson to riot-torn Clapham:

And before us Yanks start getting too smug about all the trouble in England, remember that this could happen here, and the violence would probably by much worse since guns are as easy to buy as Coca Cola, and easier to buy than beer. As our economy goes down the toilet while both our legislators and our voters are consumed in ideological warfare, there is a rising population of people of all ages and types who find themselves completely shut out of both the economy and society. Ours is a country where poverty is de facto criminalized with all sorts of punitive fees, rules, penalties, disqualifications, and legislation, further alienating a growing class of the newly poor and the downwardly mobile. As the economy continues to go down like the Titanic, that population will get bigger and ever more restive. There's no reason why the kind of random nihilistic violence that we see in Britain now, where people turn on each other as well as on their society, can't happen here.

I continue to be amazed that in all the abstract talk about the need to balance government budgets in a time of high unemployment, no one seems to reckon with the social and political consequences of these policies. Indeed, the historical record is not encouraging from the USA under Herbert Hoover to Germany under Chancellor Heinrich Brünning, neither of whom saw any success, but saw much suffering with disastrous consequences from their fiscal policies. If any of these financial experts ever bothered to crack open a history book, they might not be so enthusiastic in telling already poor people to suck it up so the banks can get paid.

Hannah Arendt writes in her book On Revolution a whole chapter about uprisings by the poor and by those displaced in the upheavals of modern market economies. She describes their rage as like a force of nature that destroys everything in its path without distinction. She opens her chapter with this epigram by the French Revolutionary leader Saint Just:
Les malheureux sont la puissance de la terre.


Here is Giles Fraser's comment on the now famous video of the bloodied young man being robbed.

It is very tempting watching scenes like this unfold to try to put as much distance between ourselves and the perpetrators as possible. We would never do such a thing. We are not like that at all. And we begin talking about personal morality and "feral" youth.
Jean Jacques Rousseau believed that we are all fundamentally good, but corrupted by social convention. John Calvin believed that we are all basically evil, incapable of redeeming ourselves, and requiring the constraints of law and religion upon our base and depraved natures. I don't believe in either of those concepts. I think that we are all basically self-serving. We avoid pain and danger and seek gratification of our needs and desires just like all the rest of life on this planet. We are animals as well as souls. We've built an entire social, economic, political, and cultural construct around acquisition ("greed" is the less polite word for the same thing). Perhaps a lot of what we call "values" are in fact skills for survival in a world where "lean and mean" and adaptability --what one Wall Street analyst called a willingness to "shoot the wounded and eat the children"-- are necessary for success. The animal in our natures is all-triumphant with art and culture reduced to success trophies and the bright shiny things bower birds display around their nests to attract mates. Perhaps that's something to think about before we use the word "feral" about anyone. To my mind, the only real difference between the financial industry effectively robbing savings and pension funds through arcane "insurance" structures, and hoodlums breaking in and robbing a store is one of scale. We really are all brothers and sisters, perhaps more so than we care to admit. Maybe what is so horrible about the spectacle of the bad Samaritans is the sight of our own animal natures stripped bare of all constraints.


JCF said...

Which the Google tells me means "the unhappy ones are the power of the ground."

Counterlight said...

"The wretched are the power of the earth."

JCF said...

[Your translation sounds better!]

To your last (updated) comment: hear, hear (sadly).

I watched the mugging video, and knew I have it in me (just under the "Good Upstanding Christian" surface).

Leonard said...

Ah JCF, mugging the bloodied victim? Could it be? I saw it too.

There is a story around these parts (of Central America) of a very old man who was an employee of the U.S. Embassy...he crossed the Reforma returning from lunch one day and died...flat out, collapse, dead...when the emergency folks arrived he had on only his underwear no suit, shoes or necktie in sight...stripped down bare, in front of crowds of people, bumper to bumper traffic, mid day in front of the Embassy of the U.S.A.-- desperation does many things -- zillons of varieties of desperation and sometimes it´s simply accepted as the ¨way¨ things are...I can see that.