[Note: A Tory perspective of much of what I am saying in this post was echoed by the Daily Telegraph Political Editor Peter Oborne, in his article, The moral decay of our society is as bad at the top as the bottom , on Saturday 13th August.
Which illustrates a broader point, i.e. to reduce everything to issues of economic interest as both classic Marxists and the free-marketeers do is to take away the individuals moral responsibility and ignore so much of the existential experience of the oppressed. Emotional experiences like humiliation and shame are as much a part of being ‘poor’ as is lack of money. Indeed, I would argue that those emotional facets of oppression are still present on a daily basis for the working middle-class who have money but no autonomy. Which is why I am attracted to the writings of socialist anarchists like Emma Goodman or Kropotkin or even Marxists like Gramsci because they do not reduce these ‘cultural’ aspects of oppression to economic interests alone. The concept of equality is first and foremost is a ‘moral’ concept, not an economic one.
Which is also why I believe so strongly that when campaigning the Left have to believe there is a ‘moral’ dimension to what they are fighting for – rather than a simple economic self-interest. Psychologically people often make amazing personal sacrifices in a cause that represents a collective ‘greater good’ rather than their own self-interest – this is the whole point of ‘patriotism’ as a concept, without it would the millions who died in WWI have collaborated so willingly in their own slaughter? Today look at those dying in Syria, or the British who fought fascism in the Spanish Civil War, or the sacrifices of early trade unionists, the list is endless.]
Last night On BBC 2’s Newsnight, Kelvin McKenzie was literally raging at two young articulate black men, saying that the teenage rioters should be shot with rubber bullets. Michael Gove was practically screaming at Harriet Harman because she had the temerity to make a link between poverty and crime.
Their argument seemed to be that, “not all poor people riot or resort to crime therefore poverty cannot be the motivating factor for those who do.”
Almost any analysis of crime and poverty in the last 100 years will demonstrate a direct statistical link between crime and poverty. When unemployment and relative poverty increase, crime increases (see http://www.poverty.org.uk/summary/links.htm or http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/poverty-pushing-young-into-crime-1473256.html ).
But Gove and McKenzie seem to fear that by acknowledging reasons for the events of the last few days we are somehow making excuses. But to recognise poverty and social exclusion as factors in these riots is not to excuse individual acts of criminality, it is simply to recognise that at the margins of society as the effects of unemployment and poverty become harsher there are those who will be tempted into crime who might not have been otherwise. We are all autonomous individuals and have to take responsibility for our own actions but we are also members of communities and of society as a whole and our decision-making is socially determined to a degree most of us would not care to acknowledge (see behavioural economics). To suggest a link between two social phenomenon is not to claim a universal connection nor to suggest a direct causal link: not all teenage binge drinkers become alcoholics but a lot do; not all people made redundant have nervous breakdowns or commit suicide but some do; not all MP’s fiddled their expenses but a lot did. There is a statistical link between poverty and crime and to deny it is silly. We can argue about what the link actually means but for goodness sake lets acknowledge the facts.
But even setting aside this simple fact of logic the sight of public school educated millionaires like David Cameron and Michael Gove denying the link between poverty and these riots and taking the moral high-ground is frankly offensive. As to Kelvin McKenzie a man who peddled soft-porn for a living and was a founding father of the scuzzy tabloid culture that has so overwhelmed our society…… well enough said.
We live in a world in which we are constantly told there is ‘no place for morality in business”; where “greed is good”; where MP’s have systematically cheated the tax payers for decades via their inflated expenses claims; where the police and journalists have illegally conspired to undermine the privacy of UK citizens; where corporate executives who fail are paid literally millions of pounds to take ‘early retirement’; where a previous Prime Minister, who many believe is a war criminal, earns £500,000 for a speaking engagement and is now worth £42 million; where the Chief Executive of Barclays Bank receives £23 million a year in salary; where an obscenely greedy and cynical financial sector brought the world to the verge of economic collapse and who seem genuinely startled to discover that the poor of the world don’t seem to be happy to pay for their ‘criminal greed’.
There appears to be one moral compass for white-collar greedy criminals and another for unemployed greedy criminals.
On the one hand we hear continually about how the young need ‘role models’ and how entertainers and sportsmen need to behave ‘responsibly’. Well, our young people do indeed have role models in our business and political leaders, and what they see are greedy, cynical, criminal, hypocrites!
By burning and looting shops the rioters have made an inarticulate and simplistic attack on the rich. These kids have such a narrow world-view and so few opportunities that to them ‘shops’, the purveyors of the consumerist dream, represent the world of the rich. I have heard this explicitly stated numerous times over the last few days in interviews with young rioters, yet it is instantly dismissed as a ridiculous idea by interviewers and commentators. When Darcus Howe used the word insurrection in an interview with BBC news he was immediately undermined by being accused of being a rioter himself.
Cameron, McKenzie, Gove et al assert that there are no social or political reasons for these riots at all; that these riots were only an expression of criminal greed. But this simply raises questions like, why now? Why in these places? Why these particular young people?
The events of this week are undoubtedly tragic and traumatic for those whose businesses have been destroyed, for the individuals and communities who have suffered fear and intimidation, for the emergency services who have been placed in real and present danger, for the hundreds of young men and women who are going to go to prison for committing these crimes and especially for the three young men who died last night in Manchester, but to refuse to address the reasons for these events is to condemn us to repeating them ad infinitum.
Underlying all of this is the development over the last 30 years of an unemployed underclass. As long ago as the mid-nineties Will Hutton, identified a new, tripartite division of British society into 30% excluded; 30% insecure and 40% secure (Hutton, 1995). Hutton suggested that the 30% excluded represented an underclass characterized by poverty, long-term unemployment, educational failure and substance abuse. In the UK today systemic unemployment runs at 2.5 million, and this is after the New Labour manipulation and minimising of the figures. (Remember that in 1979 when unemployment rose over 1 million Thatcher ran the add campaign that won her the election with the tag line, “Labour Isn’t Working”!) The US style NeoCon economic policy that has dominated since ’79 has given rise to an underlying unemployment of over 2 million. In the ex-council estates that are the home of our 30% Underclass, unemployment runs at over 10% and amongst the 16-24 age group it runs at over 25%.
These are not the working poor of the old style industrial ‘working class’, these are people entirely disengaged from the society the other 70% live in and who are despised and ridiculed by our bourgeois media and culture. Owen Jones’ fine book, Chavs: The Demonization Of The Working Class, clearly articulates how this demonization has happened since 1979.
Last night on the news British teenagers as young as 12 and 13 were described by supposedly civilised middle-class commentators as “feral rats” and a “parasite class”. The implications are clear – rats and parasites need to be exterminated. Indeed, the response of our politicians and commentators is framed entirely around the basic idea that we must protect legitimate society from this illegitimate, scrounging, criminal underclass – this sub-human ‘enemy within’.
The Neo-Conservative rhetoric of scroungers and short-sharp shocks claims that if we make live miserable enough for these ‘chav-scum’ they will be forced to tow the line. This is the self-conscious use of unemployment and poverty as a coercive tool of social engineering; the use of misery and economic fear to pacify the population and leave them no alternative but to take low-status, minimum wage jobs to serve the businesses of the rich.
But every A-Level philosophy student knows that should implies could, that to hold people morally responsible for their actions they must have been able to take an alternative action. The NeoCon worldview is only justified if the poor are poor through their own laziness and fecklessness and have every opportunity to improve their lot – if only they were prepared to work hard and live by the rules.
But this is where the problems start: what opportunities actually do exist for the children of the underclass? Where are they supposed to acquire the education, manner and attitudes necessary to prosper in the overwhelmingly bourgeois world of work?
For many children of the underclass what they face in legitimate society is a lifetime of menial, low status, minimum-wage work and poor housing. It is of course theoretically true that for some these unappealing prospects will motivate some of them to play the game and get an education and a good job, but for many (most?) legitimate society and the world of work in fact offers them very little. For most of the children of our underclass aspirational dreams of even reasonably paid white-collar work are only pipe dreams, it is simply not going to happen.
Indeed, by the logic of the competitive labour market most of them have to fail. For a competitive labour system to work there have to be many more losers than winners, thus most of the underclass will be losers however hard they work, because that is how it has to be.
Many of these kids are not idiots, (they may be uneducated and inarticulate, but that is not the same as being stupid), and they can see that the lottery of life is rigged against them from the moment of birth and that playing by the rules will bring them very little. So from their point of view why should they accept those rules?
Many of the causes of this disillusion and disengagement of the underclass are addressed in The Spirit Level, which clearly demonstrates that more equal societies ‘do better’ by a whole range of measures, including crime, than societies with greater inequality.
Underlying these riots is the amazing level of economic, social and cultural inequality in the Anglo-American world and the lack of genuine, rather than theoretical, opportunity for the children of the underclass.
In one of the richest nations in the world for 30% of our population to face a lifetime of financial poverty and an overwhelming poverty of hope and aspiration is simply not good enough and over 30 years of Neo-Conservative economic hegemony has demonstrated that free-market capitalism cannot resolve these issues. Indeed, I would go further, and suggest that capitalism can only thrive if there are significant numbers of poor people who live in relative misery so that wages are kept low and the rest of us are motivated to play the game, work hard and keep our heads down.
The amazing thing is not that so many from the unemployed underclass have turned to rioting and crime but that they do not do so more often and that the majority, even of the poorest of the poor, do not do so, despite the deprivation they live through every day.
I Am Not A Number
Political and Philosophical Dispatches From An Individual Living In A Society