This week’s riots in London and beyond have sparked a frenzy of comment that characterises those who riot and loot as ‘scum’. Mary Evans argues that this strict, emotional, moralism is overruling any chance for a meaningful political debate on the causes of the riots.
Never has the LSE motto, Rerum Cognoscere Causas, been more pertinent . But if we can all agree that the ‘things’ are the riots of the last few days, the causes are a bit more controversial.
Hence the importance of the recognition of the idea that thinking about causes matters, an idea that seems to be vanishing out of the collective heads of many in the media and politics. It is not that there is much dispute that people should not have to jump for their lives from burning buildings or that people should not steal. That is the easy bit. It is doing the difficult thing – and being prepared to think about why these things happened – that seems to have vanished. It is not, therefore, that suggestions about the impact of various government cuts ( for example of the EMA and provision for youth services) on communities has not been made. It is that these suggestions are somehow being ruled irrelevant, as if they belonged to a political and moral universe that has nothing to do with behaviour on the streets.
This refusal of the possibility of explanation, let alone understanding, empties politics of everything except a crude form of moralism. This moralism can only see the world and its inhabitants as good or evil, the ‘scum’ who need to be swept from the street or the looters who should be shot. Suddenly, a whole new kind of sub-human person is created, a person whose greed or anger or avarice suddenly takes on a uniquely dangerous social form. In this conflation of our general fears about all these emotions with a political rhetoric that increasingly refuses any legitimacy to effective dissent it is possible that we are losing sight not just of the importance of identifying the causes of things, but of any sense that there are connections and continuities within the social world.
Such an account of the world, that we can only understand society in moralistic terms takes us towards the eradication of the social in a way that is far more radical than the mere abolition of society. Without straying too far into a consideration of the world views of members of the present government it would appear as if they are all engaged in a fierce battle with any form of material understanding of the world. David Cameron found a magic spell that allowed him to re-create himself as an ‘ordinary person’ and with this he did more than simply disguise his privileged origins, he made these origins not matter. Wealth had been politically both normalised and neutralised.
Since David Cameron’s origins did ‘not matter’ and once that connection had been broken between at least considering the connection between individual circumstance and individual comprehension, then it seemed to follow that there was no need to ask questions about the impact of vastly unequal wealth on social values and behaviour, the extent to which people would go to defend this wealth and the place of those entirely outside any expectation not just of wealth but of adequate provision.
An absence of adequate provision is precisely what confronts far too many people in those parts of the UK most affected by riot. But to emphasise: this is not to identify poverty (or in a younger generation, the fairly certain expectation of poverty) as a single cause of street riots, theft and arson.
It is to suggest that political debate is becoming so furiously entrenched in a refusal of the material that what is emerging is a limited, and dangerously limiting, space for political debate and even negotiation. It may be that the present government has come across those terrifying references to the conditions of the collapse of capitalism in which growth cannot be maintained and material misery becomes more widespread. Whether this is or is not the case, it might be helpful to encourage those politics that allow at least the naming (and a discussion of the implications) of the material.
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… or merely vague allusions to it.
The purpose of my citation, not ‘invocation’ of Hawking, was simply to point out
the, now obvious, starting point for much of our thinking lies in circumstances, situations and events, in other words in our everyday lives, and only subsequently
in texts. However though I made the point about the historically contingent or conditioned nature of our knowledge and thinking, truth is the unknown that emerges from our understanding ‘ex post facto’ and is not simply a correspondence with it being transcendent of it. So the truths that have emerged from these riots are fairly startling viz. that the bearers of truth can sometimes be the unwitting accomplices of disruption. From my own point of view the whole drama of the riots, the looting and the arson exhibited a
breathtaking semblance of the neo-liberal fire-storming of the British State from 1979 onwards. One recalls the thousands of families repossessed over thiry years, the overcrowded gaols, the thousands of homeless, the gentrification of
Council properties and the eviction of low income families from their homes to make way for developers and buy-to-renters, the ludicrous claims by the spivs of the London Stock Exchange as ‘the masters of the universe’. One could go on, the multi-occupation households where landlords charge high rents for mere bed space, the social security benefits withdrawn from claimants on the
mere ‘suspicion’ that they are ‘cheating’ the system. Not forgetting of course the tampering with the Constitutional principles of the separation of powers, of habeas corpus and due process, of the presumption of innocence, of serial miscarriages of justice,of current attempts to meddle with the Geneva Convention on Human Rights by proposing to grant rights only where a
responsibility backs the claim, as though there were not degrees of responsibility
in society. And finally of course those great distractions of wars and invasions
in order, under the fiat of the globalising of ‘liberal democracy’, to compel the
our so called ‘developing’ neighbours to come into the ‘twenty first century’ where
‘the future is orange’. The unbearable weight of suffering that a British establishment wedded to practical materialism brought upon those who were not, nor could ever be on their terms, ‘productive functionaries’, was almost unparalleled in recent history, its victims kicked aside in the Tower of Babel. Couldn’t we all grow up and look around us and get to know one another and, say, cooperate, not seeing each other as rivals, person against person, government against people, rich against poor, good against bad, school against school, university against university, in a mutually destructive race to the bottom
where nothing and nobody matters anymore?
Some of these comments are funny, partic. the guy who invokes Hawking. Over the top.
I stole cuz i like the trainers and didn’t wanna pay. yes the man cut the kiddies benies but im a geezer. society made me do it though.
On reflection, and isn’t that indispensible in this matter, it is beginning to dawn on
some people at least that the recent riots are not simply a matter of criminality, though no doubt there was an element of that, but have a wider significance in the wider European movement of resistance to the collapse of market Capitalism (neo-liberalism). The monumental Babylon erected by the plutocratic elites is slowly but surely crumbling, so it’s not surprising that the first resort of rich scoundrels should be to blame the powerless and shore the edifice up with police and military. The movement for far-reaching change stretches right across Europe and the Middle East, in the former it is a revolt against a totalitarian ideological system, the dictatorship of money and power, in the Middle East against classical Big Man dictatorships. Both these movements have the same root, though they are refracted and differentiated through distinct local circumstances.
In any case thinking, be it in the refined and abstract atmosphere of academia or
in the existential urgency of daily life, starts from situations, circumstances and texts, unlike theorists like Hawking and Dawkins it never now begins from texts alone. Given that knowledge of all kinds is messier that hitherto traditionally conceived, we are nevertheless still confronted by the problem of truth, a question that postmodernism and relativism has not and is unlikely to resolve, an which the neo-liberal system trades in its propaganda and spin (viz lies).
The recent riots in the UK were surprisingly late in emerging and were not the work of a ‘small minority’, thousands were involved both spontaneously and organizationally. The reaction of the ruling elites was fairly typical and shows how
ghettoed in arrogance these elites have been having no obligation towards anything but their own narrow interests of wealth accumulation, reputation and power, the long-term costs never being factored into their somewhat moribund
So have we now reached a turning point in Europe and the West with the pillars of
Western Capitalism crumbling and widespread social unrest increasing, deep-seated corruption in the ruling class exposed and no viable alternative ideology
to illuminate us where do we go from here.
I have been surprised over the years to watch the London School of Economics
betray its founding ideals in economic and social justice, self-restraint and academic excellence, its buildings modest and even threadbare in the past, now becoming a very rich and propertied institution, its buildings bizarre in their dizzying Babylonian decor of glass and steel, returning to it after 10 years I felt
humiliated and estranged. Over the last 30 years LSE turned away from its heritage of committed social research to a seminary for the London Stock Exchange and the neo-colonialist imposition of globalized ‘liberal democracy’, its
experts advising the diverse military invasions of successive UK governments.
Finally, to believe that recent rioting is the work of a small ‘criminal’ minority
is a delusion, even though only a small minority of thousands were involved there is a larger constituency of the disaffected throughout the UK so unless circumstances drastically change and distributive justice is realised and the education system reformed the resistance is likely to grow.
Thank you Mary Evans for your truthfulness at least.
Great piece Mary and spot on …
The moralistic conversations of loony right and left aren’t helping …
The roots of this are many and the by product of both left and right shennanigans, the social development logic of the West (and its new connective technologies) and economics that have exacerbated wealth divides that are totally unbelievable.
The comments of Cameron, Clegg and Milliband are ignorant beyond belief and pander only the post partial of their own electoral bases.
I stole a packet of polos when I was 8 from our local newsagent. I can still feel the guilt even now and I’ll be 40 this year. I could have bought the polos, but I stole them none the less and it was a breathless thrill. Perhaps I wouldn’t feel the guilt of taking rather than paying, if I had felt it was the only way I could possibly get those polos. But even so, the greater guilt I feel, beyond the simple act of stealing, is at transgressing that trust between shopkeeper and customer – between two human beings. Feeling how it must be for the other. It’s the loss of this individual empathy that seems to be highlighted by this unrest and flared up on both sides. In this instance the apparent refusal of the looters to step into the shoes of the looted drives the intensity of condemnation. Not much is more hurtful than rejection, more likely to shake our belief in our worth. And when rejected we are more likely to to defend at all costs our boundaries, to return the rejection twice fold. Hence ‘scum’ when in fact they are just unreciprocated individuals acting out their own feelings of rejection. Maybe the end point is witnessed in the guy who steals from the rucksack of the injured man. I raged at his lack of feeling for his fellow human being, but if empathy is learned, introjected, then he represents the blank wall held up to him through his encounters with society. It’s not a moral code we lack per se, it’s the ability to embody it. This might be cod-psychology, but it seems right to me.
The legendary US consumer advocate who sued the GM and won on grounds of public safety of its cars decades ago made a remark that can equally be applied to the subject in question. All too often the rich and the powerful want to make sure street crimes and street criminals – if you think looting and looters deserve the labels – “pay the price” for what they have done. They cry law, order and public morality. The greatest irony is many of those who call the angry – and greedy, with the small ‘g’ here – mobs in London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester etc – should be looking themselves in the mirror. The crisis for the morally bankrupt and compassion-less British political state, could not have come at a worse time – on the heel of the scandal that it was the likes of thuggish Rupert Murdoch and his empire of thugs who actually run Britain – not your average MP. Here is my own view as an outsider, living in UK:
Is Looting the Weapon of London’s Wretched?
Ms. Evans is battling a straw man. She juxtaposes a reasonable case for sympathy for the rioters on egalitarian grounds with the most immoderate defenders of retaliatory force. A post by one of her liberal opponents could be of similarly poor quality were they to present the debate as one between calm, dispassionate defenders of retaliatory force and looters who were shouting “make the rich pay!” as they smashed windows and appropriated iPods.
This post won’t stimulate anyone save the choir.
Did we read the same article? I did not see any sympathy for rioters in Ms Evans’ piece. All she is saying is that there are reasons for the rioting and unless politicians consider all possibilities then there is no preventing their recurrence. What she is not saying is that all reasons are reasonable.
The article is attacking politicians, not defending rioters.
Unfortunately, as pointed out in another post, she has used turns of phrase only deployed by the ‘North London literati’ which does somewhat distract from her (in my opinion) valid point.
This is exactly the sort of pseudo-academic rubbish that you expect from a North London literati type.
Saying someone is ‘scum’ doesn’t mean you automatically adhere to a moralism that they should be shot. You can’t assume saying this means the person thinks the other.
If someone came and kicked in your shop, smashed the window, set light to your livelihood, just so they could have a brand new paid of trainers, then you are in every sense justified in thinking they were scum.
Couldn’t you have used your time better in, say, sweeping the streets of Ealing, then writing this navel gazing waste of space?
The point of this article and lots like them are to understand how this happened and why there are SO MANY youths disassociated with society. At the moment no one in the political class wants to tackle the underlying issues and just label individuals names. Their actions are abhorrent but the factors underlying need to be looked at to prevent this from happening again.
We aren’t the only country with this issue either, the French riots of 2005 and 2007 have similarities to ours (only theirs were even bigger). To just label people doesn’t deal with the reality of the social issues this country faces and will continue to face in the future.
The reluctance to use the same principles of statistical analysis as employed by insurer’s is a factor. If you have a group that has a higher rate of crime, then increasing the numbers of that population through recruitment is going to invariably lead to more crime and add to the existing underclass. Hopefully, politicians will learn from this and apply more stringent criteria in allowing in people from statistically at risk populations.
I am trying 2 “wedge” a third option about Islam (all good, all bad or…?) into the American dialogue, based on video’s on YouTube & the years of work by volunteer folks of The YouTube SmackDown Corps.
Your sentence “Whether this is or is not the case, it might be helpful to encourage those politics that allow at least the naming (and a discussion of the implications) of the material.” could almost be my “mission statement”
Thank You for posting this much needed perspective.