Friday, 20 March 2015

Riots and the Crisis of Late Capitalism

The English Riots in 2011 caught a lot of people by surprise. It might be worth revisiting them as dire warnings emerge of similar violence because of 'austerity' on the one hand and negative assets affecting middle class savers on the other. We have our doubts on both scores. There is evidence that the rioting owed a great deal to social deprivation and social exclusion but also to a longstanding dynamic of opposition between street-based cultures and law enforcement that predated the 2008 crash and the world of 'cuts'. Similarly, historical evidence suggests that the middle classes do not riot or even demonstrate but turn to populist parties who promise them relief from harsh reality and the burden of history.

At the time, the marketing industry which had played up aspirational rebellion until that date was thoroughly caught out by events. It has since taken an even stronger turn towards the classically conservative strategy of corporate social responsibility, directed more at placating authority and legislators than speaking for their poorer customers. Young males can respond to messages of defiance and individualism but it was clear that they were not supposed to act out the fantasy that had been presented to them on a plate by clothes and shoe manufacturers. 

Fantasy became reality when Levi's notion of a young male squaring up to riot police actually did square up to riot police. This led to one of many 'moral panics' where analysis of the long term structural causes of a social phenomenon could be ignored in favour of a wave of emotion, resulting in the type of gut reactions that would only store up problems for the future. No one was thinking. No one is thinking.  The response of the marketing community came down to an attempt to answer the question at the heart of the political crisis of our time: to sell a good or service, does one appeal to the emotional instinct of the customer base or respond to the emotional reaction of a herd-like media and political culture in a state of confusion, ignorance and fear? Normally, the marketing man goes for the customer and ignores society but, in a crisis, he will swing violently back towards what he believes to be society but is, in fact, merely his terror that the media will persuade the national executive to order the legislature to 'do something' on the basis that 'something must be done' and that that something will restrict the business' ability to make a profit.

We had an answer to the question very quickly in 2011: business joined in the panic and suddenly became 'socially responsible', meaning, in fact, conservative in the worst sense, part of the problem of suppressing discontent rather than stating firmly that it is merely responding to the mood of the time as sound business and expecting Government to do what Government is supposed to do, govern. If people are discontented, it is not because of moral laxity (an abstract without meaning except from the stand point of the comfortable moraliser) but because they have reasons for discontent - local policing, lack of opportunity, overcrowding, underemployment, generational lack of respect (from the old to the young), the hypocrisy of the rich and the lack of representation by a serious Left (the real crisis for the under class and the young).

A video now removed from YouTube at the time showed an articulate employed black telling it like it was to the Mayor of London. This man was bright, talented and on the right side of the law but he was not happy. He did not have to look far to see a world where others no better than he was were still raking in bonuses despite (in the eyes of the many) bringing the country to its economic knees. In fact, it was incompetent Government that failed to create a framework for hyper-capitalism that had brought things to the edge, a fact probably to be carefully forgotten by many centre-left voters in May. On the other side, and equally legitimately, a video spread at the time showed a tough black lady taking on the rioters. This encapsulated the tragedy of those riots. Small traders and property owners with little capital were being ruined and threatened by people with no capital who had nothing left but unthinking ill-educated carnival politics with which to express themselves

Both sides in the same community were shoved into the position of the soldiery of the competing powers in 1914. Neither side asked then why they should even be in this position and neither side is asking that question today. One reason is that there is no reliable political force ready to intermediate within communities against elites unless we think the intellectually ramshackle UKIP plays that role faute de mieux. Just as in the 2014 'celebrations' (because that is what they often seemed to be) of the 1914 fiasco, no one is interested in the absurdity of the fact that two sets of masses should have more in common with each other than either should with the preening political class that purports to rule them. And yet they set about destroying each other on equal terms (the magistracy speaking here for the small trader) - and with enthusiasm. The draconian and eighteenth century conveyor belt that doled out 'justice' after 2011 was the true signal of what we were dealing with - the liberal facade of society was dropped by the magistracy in order to remind us where ultimate power lay, a power that can clearly cover up systematic child abuse with impunity and no doubt herd us into camps or conscription if it ever blunders into another war.

Here is where one has to put in the mantra that all this does not justify the riots. The riots, of course, were not political as we generally understand them but closer to 'carnival' - anarchic, criminal if strangely authentic. People suffered but not the people who should have done. And, ironically, the most admirable reaction to the whole business was that of The (Tory) Lord Harris. He did not pontificate or moralise. He did not even try to analyse (the job of others). He dealt like a practical man with a fact and offered material assistance to the victims and called on the Government to provide jobs. Yup! A Tory. How inconvenient for the Official Left. The mantra of moralistic blame from 'commentators' of the communitarian school missed the point. The riots were a fact on the ground. They happened because they were ready to happen. It is like expecting to humiliate Germany in 1919 and not expect another war. You can moralise all you like about why Germans should have accepted liberal democracy and bleat and whine after the event - but the dead of the 1930s and 1940s are on the tab of the vengeful non-German liberal democrats who did not think.

Business is now stuck in the middle of all this because something bad is going to happen if we do not get economic growth going elsewhere in the world and if our own falters (as it probably will when we choose the weak centre-left over a cynically half-competent centre-right). For two decades or so, business, for example, has tried to ride the tiger of incipient populism and weakening states by trying to collaborate with elites in developing a manipulative liberalism that changes nothing but gives us a fine rhetoric based on charitable works and not getting caught, all managed through the art of the lobbyist. Stage by stage, the Left has degenerated into a transcendental bourgeois idealism and business and the State into cringing manipulators who think they have the whip hand when they do not. The final stage of this game is being reached today in Europe where human rights idealists undercut the very economic base of modern welfare societies by insulting the people who buy their exports (as we have seen in Sweden and Germany) while continuing to do nothing to invest in the national infrastructures that will permit new wealth to meet future needs. Weak states prepared to be thugs in a crisis, a cowering evasive business community and bullying activists and single issue NGOs conspire to create the conditions for right-wing populism and short bursts of alienating street violence.

The selling process, whether political or commercial, is, of course. an emotional process, a manipulative process, of entering into the consciousness of its targets and tweaking it into an action in the interest of the sellers. It is not much different from the classical view of magicians of their craft. Politicians are also not much different from salesman except that they are 'channellers', responding to the emotions of voters and seeking to manipulate them for their own ends, raising intermediary demons (the media) who, like all raised demons, are untrustworthy tricksters. In the end, the only authentic behaviour seems to be that of the people themselves at the hard edge of the crisis, something clearly tapped into by Syriza in Greece - the rioters rioting in a context of their own, the police trying to do their job under difficult conditions, the victims of rioting and those attempting to clean up afterwards. Four sets of flotsam and jetsam pushed hither and thither by their masters.

In the 2011 case, the magistrates panicked, the politicians panicked, the media panicked and the marketeers panicked - the only people not panicking were the population at large. Listen to conversations around you at the time and the question was always: why did this happen now? Yet this was a question studiously avoided by the panic-stricken Establishment because it was an inconvenient question, partly because nobody knew the answer although everyone had an opinion, an opinion usually cast in terms of morality and 'oughts' rather than what was actually happening on the ground. The Establishment does not really want to answer that question or any other significant question (such as why the British care system turned into a recruiting machine for organised crime and pederasts) because each question raises still more serious questions about what the politicians and the media have been doing for the last three or four decades, perhaps since the Edwardian era. We, on the other hand, can certainly raises our own questions about whether the political and economic system is more broken that we had all thought.

The 2011 Riots and the Saville case are not the first times that the Establishment had failed to predict an event of great importance - we might start with the fall of the Soviet Union or the rise of Islamic terror - but failure to predict economic collapse and urban mayhem are the less forgivable because there is no excuse about lack of data. The 2011 Riots are history but the fact that no serious questions were raised then is matched by the continued inability to ask the fundamental questions arising out of the multitude of child abuse events happening now. But before jumping into bed with authoritarian moralists who wished to re-introduce the strap, conscription, hanging and all forms of social terror to a free young population, most of whom did not riot, or apply them to paedophiles today, we should ask this: how is it that the persons we hired to govern us failed to structure a society where everyone feels they have opportunity, where perhaps one in five of the population is now on the economic edge and in which policy can be made rationally before a crisis instead of irrationally after one? We could learn a great deal from Lord Harris' humane, practical approach to the business of recovery. It strikes me as no surprise that an experienced Tory businessman of the old school should have put the rest of the panicking and hysterical political elite to shame then. We need similar practical men from all schools of practical experience to do so now.