Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Neoliberalism and the Decline of Global Growth

The post-World War 2 world saw global growth reach 3.5% in the 1960s and even during the crisis years of the 1970s the world enjoyed 2.4% growth. John Ruggie famously described the international system of this period as ‘embedded liberalism’ (Ruggie, 1982). Industrialised states pursued liberal economic policies but international agreements legitimised state intervention in the economy to protect the interests of labour and the socially marginalised. This was largely a compromise between the interests of labour and capital such that free-markets prevailed but the vulnerable could be protected. Neoliberalism then emerged in the midst of the 1973 oil crisis to break this compromise by prioritising capital and the interests of business primarily through privatisation of services, reduced public spending on social services, and the restriction of power of organisations which represented the interests of workers (Trade Unions). Since the adoption of neoliberalism under Thatcher in the UK, Reagan in the US and promoted globally through the IMF, the 1980s saw global growth fall to 1.4%, 1.1% in the 1990s and less than 1% in the 2000s. Meanwhile the top 1% of earners in the UK increased their share of wealth from 6.5% to 13% (Harvey, 2007). The world is getting poorer and the poor are bearing an ever increasing burden to pay to maintain a global financial system which is keeping them poor. Banks have been bailed out and nationalised because we are told we need them and this is a ‘crisis’. On the other hand, Malaria, an easily preventable disease, kills 800,000 people every year. We hear nothing of this ‘crisis’ because it occurs in regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa which have little political power at the global level and limited economic value. We are now in the midst not of a debt crisis but a growth crisis, which has to be paid for by previously protected vulnerable groups. This is being made worse as the UK continues on an economic course which cuts people's ability to support themselves by cutting pensions and restricting public sector pay so that it does not reflect inflation. Fanatical commitment to neoliberalism has meant that when growth slows, neoliberal states demand that the poor and lower middle classes get paid less in order to ‘balance the books’. This will lead people further into the debt, which is supposed to be the wiped out according to the Conservatives.

The Conservatives did not win the election in the UK outright and they did not outline their plans for pensions, the NHS, and public sector pay in their manifesto. They do not have the mandate to proceed with a plan that promotes the interests of capital over those of labour. Support the strikes before there are no social services left.


Ruggie, John (1982) ‘International Regimes, Transactions, and Change: Embedded Liberalism in the Post-War Economic Order, International Organization, 36/2, pp.379-415.

Harvey, David (2007) ‘Neoliberalism as Creative Destruction’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 610, pp.22-44.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Commodified Communities: Selling the Nation in a Global Age

Patriotism and consumerism appear to have no obvious connection. The nation as a bounded community of people who identify with one another appears to stand in contrast to the workings of global capital which flows across borders in the search for profit not social recognition. Production and trade have been transnationalised to the extent that ‘Buy American’ and ‘Buy British’ is impossible when buying any consumer goods made of more than a few simple parts. A single computer may be designed in Silicon Valley, built in Japan, assembled in South East Asia, and dumped in China when past their sell by date. However, we still see a growing clamour to sell national pride and to commercialise the boundaries of belonging. Since 9/11 Wal-Mart expanded its sale of flag-emblazoned merchandise for sale with “respectful” and “patriotic” flag disposal services in stores for used flags positioned conveniently next to shiny new ones. In 2004, Wal-Mart was voted the most admired company in the US despite facing criticism for its unfair wages for women, de-unionisation, and monopoly practices. Professor Jennifer Scanlon says “the American Public and Wal-Mart are complicit in a performance of patriotism in which consumerism stands in for more concrete and difficult civic work”. It is easier to buy belonging in a community than to work to make it a better place. This is a reciprocal relationship between consumerism and nationalism such that transnational companies sell the nation and the nation buys it. This dynamic where consumerism and nationalism reproduce and reinforce each other is not restricted to the US. In China, Aigo is one of the nation’s leading electronic companies and is now a sponsor of Manchester United FC. The name Aigo in Mandarin Chinese (aiguozhe; 爱国者) means “patriot” and this is not lost on Chinese consumers seeking to “buy Chinese” in an age where their consumer options are transnationalised. One of the most frequent seen adverts on Chinese state television (CCTV) between 2009-2010 was for a medicine brand which ended with the catchphrase “mother I love you, motherland I love you” (mama wo ai ni, zuguo wo ai ni; 妈妈我爱你, 祖国我爱你). Viewers are then left with the impression that loyalty to a consumer brand equates to loyalty to the nation. You can buy belonging in a national-consumer community.

How people choose to spend their money has long been represented by states as linked to their identity as members of the nation. One of the many propaganda cartoons produced by Walt Disney in the first half of the twentieth century represented American consumers as divided between spending and saving. Scrooge McDuck tells Americans they must “save for victory” in World War 2. Spending money was un-patriotic because it helps the rise of Fascism by draining the treasury of tax resources. Of course representations of the nation have changed as capitalism becomes more and more globalised and it shifts from supply-side economics to demand-led. One of the first public addresses by President George Bush after 9/11 was to stress the threat of terrorism to our ever-expanding consumerist lifestyle linking shopping with national security: “We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our citizens to the point where we don’t…conduct business, we don’t shop”. “We” are being defined as shoppers and the threat of terrorism is to our “we-ness” is through the danger presented to our consumer-lifestyles. More recently, David Cameron defined Britishness through our economic behaviour during the “financial crisis”: “Some say that to succeed in this world, we need to become more like India or China, or Brazil, but I say: we need to become more like us. The real us. Hard-working, pioneering, independent, creative, adaptable, optimistic, can-do”. In practical terms Cameron continued to stress we pay off our credit card bills, tying national loyalty to stabilising financial capitalism. It seems patriotism is emerging as a resource our leaders can draw on to demand the economy works in specific ways. “Can-do” or “stiff upper lip” means “flexible” labour protection policy and a “disciplined” labour force in the words of the IMF. Cameron is using patriotism to tell people in Britain that they are not like Indians or Chinese, we are different. We should supposedly keep it that way by paying off our credit card bills and working hard and without question in a labour market that has seen employment slump and benefits slashed since the Conservative Party came to power. To be British means to behave in ways which maintain the workings of capitalism as it currently works- don’t’ complain about anything or you aren’t “can-do” and you aren’t British. For Cameron, it also means we should identify with billionaires within our borders who benefit from inequality instead of Indians and Chinese who suffer from it.

The recent public debates over the wearing of the poppy for Remembrance Sunday are a case in point. Turnouts at the cenotaph for actual remembrance are relatively small and co-ordinated through active organisations such as the British Legion. However, more passive consumers can now purchase all manner of goods from ties to caps to umbrellas to cufflinks to tablecloths in order to display their level of patriotic devotion and stand “shoulder to shoulder with all those who serve”. Judging by the Poppy Shop’s apology on their website in November 2011 that orders would be delayed due to a high volume of orders, it appears the British public are keen to buy their community membership. However, they are less keen to do “concrete and difficult civic work”. Joining a campaign, for example, to give an hour of one’s time to look after elderly veterans who are now in Britain’s understaffed nursing homes would be of more benefit than wearing a poppy. Wearing of the poppy to symbolise national belonging, which involves nothing but a small purchase, has in recent years been mobilised to the extent that it is framed as an issue of national security. The BBC linked tragic deaths of soldiers in Afghanistan, a very real and violent conflict, to the banality of the poppy. On Question Time, the popular British politics ‘debate’ show, Stephen Pollard, journalist and author on Israeli politics and history, claimed burning poppies should be outlawed, regardless of freedom of speech because they go to the heart of “who we are”. Identity here is framed as a security issue such that alternatives to this particular understanding of national identity are to be eliminated through force. David Cameron saw fit to demand FIFA, football’s ruling body, make the exception only for England to allow “political and religious” symbols on national football shirts in their game against Spain because it was a matter of “national pride”. Cameron and other Conservatives stressed that the poppy was “not political”. However, it is impossible to claim England’s supposed symbols of “national pride” are “not political” but those of other nations, which are banned on national football shirts, are “political”. This representation of the poppy as a performance of patriotism may not be new. However, what is new is this vigour that defines purchase and display of a poppy as the very heart of “who we are” and a symbol which is unquestionable and beyond politics. The English national football team have played on the 11th November many times over the years and haven’t worn or asked to wear poppies on their shirts. This is but an example how of national communities become a commodified mode of self-understanding where alternatives are deemed ‘outside’ the boundaries of community. This follows the framings of how we organise capitalism and how we spend our earnings as security issues at the heart of our national identities. There are many ways to interpret why wars happen and whose interests they serve. However, the voices of those who see the First World War as a human tragedy which saw states across the world needlessly send millions of working class humans to their death are being excluded as un-patriotic because they don’t wish to wear the poppy. The poppy is said to represent them but it does not represent their views because it has become a symbol of “national pride” instead of remembering dead human beings. Today, identifying with humans who are victims of wars waged by Britain in Iraq and Afghanistan beyond our borders over those within our nation who send them to war is deemed unpatriotic in the same way that submitting to a flexible, unregulated labour market is essential to being British. Today, capital and people flow across borders but there is still capital to be made by going to war and selling its products under the banner of patriotism.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Apple and the Symbolic Construction of the Self/Other

It is not unusual to send condolences to family and friends of a recently deceased loved-one. What is unusual is when people are moved to grief for someone they have never met. It is not unusual to enquire why this is so. The death of Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, led to a global outpouring of grief in the form of shrines from Beijing to California and from Seoul to Sydney. However, these are globalised, metropolitan centres where people who can afford to buy Apple’s exuberant products are concentrated. This is not reflective of some human community transcending divisions of geography and social class. These are relatively fortunate people commemorating the death of an incredibly wealthy man. Nonetheless, this public outpouring goes way beyond brand loyalty or the usual arguments that Macs are faster than PCs. These are highly symbolic rituals which tell us about who and what we value and who and what we do not. Jonathan Jones of the Guardian gushed that Apple products “made the world more beautiful” and “more human” such that Steve Jobs changed how “we” see the world. “We” refers here to people in metropolitan centres with enough disposable income to be part of this in-group. The inevitably corresponding “they” are the rest of the world, “outside” this group and presumably less human for their inability to enjoy these products.

It is tempting, as Alex Massie does in The Spectator, to dismiss these outpourings of attachment, grief, and worship for the CEO of a company whom they never met as "members of a cult that's just as stupid as any other and equally deserving of scorn and pity". However, this downplays the social significance in terms of both sheer numbers of people involved and the transnational scale on which unbridled admiration for the contribution of Apple to people’s lives we have witnessed. Massie also called this phenomenon iReligion and this seems a fairly accurate description given the blind faith and ritualised shrines we have witnessed. The Apple logo and Steve Jobs have become powerful symbols people express loyalty to and through which they identify themselves as free-thinking, modern individuals. Apple personifies something people want to be. The long running Mac advert series on UK TV exemplified this personification of the brand. It successfully anthropomorphised PCs to be like their users: old, traditional, and behind the times. Mac users then are symbolically articulated as young, fresh, and driving the times. The argument here is not to say Apple products are not fun to play with. They are. The argument is to say people in positions of relative fortune are investing their self-identifications in such products. These self-identifications are to the exclusion of the poor, globally marginalised Other. Ironically, these identifications are ultimately to the detriment as opposed to the enrichment of the individual.

Anthony Cohen’s 1985 classic The Symbolic Construction of Community applied decades of fieldwork in social anthropology on the intersection between social and personal identities. He produced a compelling argument to explain traditional community and nationalist loyalties. However, it equally illuminates why in the contemporary world when people are bombarded by commercial advertising demanding brand loyalty, and where struggles over local, ethnic, religious, national, transnational, and global forces regularly spill over into violence, we are still constantly trying to discover and rediscover where “we” belong and who “we” are:

“(symbols) ‘express’ other things in ways which allow their common form to be retained and shared among the members of a group, whilst not imposing upon these people the constraints of uniform meaning. Because symbols are malleable in this way, they can be made to ‘fit’ the circumstances of the individual. They can thus provide media through which individuals can experience and express their attachment to a society without compromising their individuality…what is actually held in common is not very substantial, being form rather than content.”

Apple and Steve Jobs like all the most socially effective symbols have no fixed content. They are pure form and they are malleable. They mean everything because they mean nothing. They are so abstract and open to interpretation that they are a marketing dream. Apple allows the individual to feel as if they retain and even enhance their individuality while at the same time spending more and more of their income on products they do not need and even worshipping at shrines of a dead man they did not know. The Apple logo perhaps speaks for itself. It is just an apple, it imposes little if any content yet people wear clothes and bags emblazoning the symbol on their journeys to find who they are. The soundbites of Steve Jobs, which appeared in their thousands across Facebook and Twitter on the day of his death, are a case in point. So devoid of content are they that people can imbue their own significance in them, participate in a social ritual, yet believe they retain some sense of individuality at the same time. “Stay hungry, stay foolish” is so open to interpretation that, as Cohen says, what is being shared by repeating it across the internet is insubstantial; form rather than content. This was of course a remarkably skilful and rhetorical manipulation of human needs for social and individual identities on Jobs’ part. People could be Apple users, a group, yet imbue their own supposed individuality on what that means. All the while Jobs got richer and richer. The most powerful of all the soundbites was perhaps “don’t waste time living someone else’s life”. In other words, buying Apple products, a socially significant action, allows one to be and become an individual. The irony is staggering when millions of individuals believe that by listening to another individual telling them to be an individual and buy his products he spent his life producing is somehow living one’s own life. Choosing to worship Apple and reproduce its messages across the potentially limitless discourse of the internet is a fundamentally selective social activity. People can say anything on the internet yet they choose to let Steve Jobs speak for them as if they are endorsing individuation. Monty Python once hilariously captured the irony of how groups can be convinced they are individuals in their film Life of Brian yet it seems to have been forgotten by Apple worshippers.

The power of Apple is remarkable. The internet has provided most people with staggering access to instantaneous information. This has led to unparalleled growth in global movements for social justice, human rights, and environmental protection. Yet while Twitter is used to organise the occupation of Wall Street in the world’s most “advanced” capitalist nation, we hear nothing from Apple users of Apple’s deplorable environmental record (reportedly the worst for any foreign firm in China) and disregard for labour rights across the world. Apple’s power is such that this information is freely available yet people choose not to google it and then choose to ignore it when it is presented to them. Karl Marx would say the exploitative social relations behind the product are concealed but here they are not. In today’s world, the information is there, yet most of us choose to ignore it. We do not let this uncomfortable information influence our consumerist decision-making in our supposed struggle to find ourselves and “not live someone else’s life”. The people who suffer due to the policies of Apple most notably in China are simply not part of the “we” that people are choosing to become, otherwise “we” would not allow it to happen. The environmental damage and exploitation would simply not be allowed if it was in “our” country or “our” community. Where Marx was right (Capital Volume I and III) is that commodity fetishism links the subjective aspects of economic value and objective reality. The value groups assign to material objects are transformed from arbitrary social impositions into very real social forces in the form of prices, which for Apple are sky-high. Marx argued that “primitive” societies fetishised unexplainable phenomena as magical and thus they became sacred or taboo. Under capitalism, people attribute special powers to objects and imbue them with symbolic meaning which then became part of an objective reality reflected in prices. What Marx did not predict was that people would attribute special powers to brands and individuals who are powerful agents in reproducing the exploitative and environmentally destructive social relations, which Apple users celebrated on the 6th October 2011. Globally dispersed shrines to Steve Jobs do not merely fetishise products they fetishise a brand and a person as symbols of who we are and the world we want to live in. This is a world which celebrates gadgets and instantaneous yet transient pleasure to the detriment of the lives and life opportunities of the poor and globally marginalised.

It is appropriate in all discussions of identity to ask where we-ness comes from, who it includes, and who it excludes. Here, we turn to the ancient Tibetan philosopher, Nagarjuna:

“The essence of entities

Is not present in the conditions,

If there is no essence,

There can be no otherness-essence.”

There can be no Self without Other and there can be no Mac user without a PC user to define itself against. Our identities have no essence. They can only be defined by what they are not. We are who we become and how we define ourselves to the exclusion of others. We can choose to become globalised citizens who take responsibility for our actions or at the very least acknowledge their implications. We are choosing not to. There is little about the symbolism of Apple which is young, fresh, and innovative. Apple is reflective of far older forms of community boundary drawing which divide people into us and them through the manipulation of symbols which demand loyalty and convince people they are all individuals. Steve Jobs was a smart man. He once said "Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life". If only those worshipping at his altar could heed this advice when they ask “who am I?” and “what type of world do I want to live in?”. When we face death Apple will provide no solace.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Imagining Sectarianism, Imagining Scotland

We have frequently heard the political slogan, “One Scotland, many cultures”, since it was launched in 2007 to brand Scotland a pluralistic society characterised by tolerance of difference. However, judging by a Scottish government poll which found that more than 85% of Scots want “sectarianism” to be an illegal offence with 89% declaring it “offensive”, most Scots now freely admit that Scotland has a problem with “sectarianism. Roseanna Cunningham, Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs, told the BBC that sectarianism threatens the “very fabric of Scotland; we want to be tolerant, respectful, and forward looking”. Roseanna Cunningham’s comments and the first draft of the much-debated “anti-sectarianism bill” reveal how the debate on sectarianism is producing ideas about what type of nation Scotland should be and what it means to be Scottish. When we talk about sectarianism and what it means to be Scottish, we are, in the words of Benedict Anderson, imagining the nation. By limiting who is and isn’t to be thought of as authentically Scottish we produce what it means to be Scottish. Sectarianism is seen as a religious problem and to protect the “very fabric” of Scotland we need legislation to stop people calling each other “insert-religion-here bastards” but not necessarily “insert-ethnicity-or-nationality-here bastards”. This creates the danger that we ignore ethnocentrism whereas we crack down on religious bigotry. Here I seek not to evaluate the extent of sectarianism or to “take sides” but to examine how the term is used and the implications for how people understand Scottish identity.

It is a welcome change for complex issues in which history, nationalism, and religion are entangled in complex webs of self-identification to be on the front of our national newspapers instead of relegated to the sports pages. Complacency has previously allowed those discussing bigotry to reinforce national stereotypes and produce ideas about what it means to be Scottish without being challenged. For example, in 2004 the journalist Stuart Cosgrove criticised Aiden McGeady’s choice to play football for the Republic of Ireland, the country of his grandparents’ birth, instead of Scotland where he was born. Cosgrove claimed McGeady’s choice was representative of international football’s descent to the level of a “Woolworths pick and mix. How a long history of cross-border flows of people between Scotland and Ireland has affected how people identify themselves in complex ways is dismissed as “pick and mix”. In other words, mongrel-like or not “authentic”. Like many other football journalists, Cosgrove was theorising about what constitutes national identity albeit in a comedic fashion. Cosgrove, like many commentators, employed an uncritical definition of nation as the place of one’s birth to criticise how an 18 year old footballer identified himself. His idea of national identity is exclusionary: you are simply with us (people born in Scotland who call themselves Scottish) or against us (people born in Scotland who call themselves Irish). There can be no middle ground. In a liberal democracy, which seeks to reject sectarianism, this self-identification should be an individual’s decision and the individual’s decision alone. The greatest problem here is not that people have this view of national identity. The problem is that such intolerance of those who identify themselves in a different way is left unchallenged because it is seen as belonging to the realm of football and “banter”. Thousands of people tune in to similar debates on radio stations and in print- this is influence without responsibility. Such football journalists are unwittingly imagining the boundaries of the nation through their writing. They define what it means to be Scottish and frequently exclude those who choose to celebrate what they understand to be their Irish heritage.

Dr John Kelly of the University of Edinburgh argues that the public discourse on sectarianism constructs a unified, non-sectarian identity that purportedly “real” and “authentic” Scots should share in opposition to a set of sectarian ‘Others’. In other words, by excluding certain characteristics, this discourse imagines what it means to be Scottish. In 2006 the now retired pundit, Gerry McNee, dismissed the Fields of Athenry and The Boys of the Old Brigade sung by Celtic fans along with the Sash and Derry’s Walls, often sung by Rangers fans, as “Irish tosh” “we need to get rid of”. In other words, “real” and “authentic” Scots have enclosed national identities without the “sectarian” cross-border influence from Ireland. This is of course ironic. The Sash and Derry’s walls are sung by Rangers supporters and proponents of the British Union in Northern Ireland to celebrate Britishness and how they identify themselves as not being part of Ireland. McNee’s comments were reflective of a widespread simplistic view of complex social issues that “sectarianism” comes from some barbaric outside world which we should contrast our civilised selves against.

Dismissing people’s views as “Irish tosh” because they sing songs to commemorate what they see as their British or Irish heritage narrowly draws the boundaries of acceptable public identification such that people feel their identities are under threat. This imagines Scotland as some enclosed, discrete community yet our history tells us the borders between Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Scotland are very fluid and the trans-border flows of migration are a constant. Being Irish or being British does not make one a bigot but refusing to allow people to understand themselves this way does. As Dr John Kelly noted in his written submission to the Justice Committee on the “anti-sectarianism bill”, celebration of one’s identity is not a social problem unless this involves hatred of other identities. People can disagree over the nationalist political sentiments expressed in The Boys of the Old Brigade or Derry’s Walls but it is difficult find anything in the songs themselves which express hatred of other identities. There are intolerable, racist songs sung in Scottish football grounds which is another issue altogether. However, it would be highly illiberal to criminalise songs because they celebrate identities which are not “authentically” Scottish or because we disagree with their political sentiments.

National identities can be multiple, especially in the United Kingdom. As Benedict Anderson asked “to what nation does the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland refer?”. One can be Scottish and Irish at the same time- the two countries are not sealed off and people travel and have inter-married for a very long time. One can also be Scottish and British at the same time. Many will argue it is impossible to be Irish and British but is this difference really a problem? Difference is not a problem but how it is socially organised can be. If we criminalise or marginalise people not because they hate the Other but because they see themselves as Irish or British we will create resentment and create a much more serious national conflict than we currently witness. Politicians and tourist boards can imagine an enclosed, culturally isolated Scotland but our history has different stories which should be told. If we want Scotland to be a nation of many cultures we have to allow its people celebrate their many origins.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

There is No Hierarchy of Sectarianisms

Audre Lorde once said “there is no hierarchy of oppressions and in Scotland we should be cautious not to create one. 2011 has seen the Scottish parliament attempt to draft and hastily pass legislation on what is publicly celebrated in the political soundbite of “anti-sectarianism legislation” ("Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Bill"). The rushed draft illustrates little consideration of what sectarianism means and subsequently employs an imbalanced definition. The stated purpose of the legislation is to criminalise behaviour that expresses “hatred of, or stirring up hatred against, a group of persons based on their membership (or presumed membership) of a religious group, a social or cultural group with a perceived religious affiliation”. There are provisions for applying this to hatred against groups other than religious ones but these are sub-sectional clauses. They do not apply to section 5, a crucial part of the bill, which covers all recorded forms of speech. The emphasis is on discrimination or “stirring hatred” against groups defined by religion. The Scottish council of Jewish Communities astutely raised the problem that this “risks creating a hierarchy of discrimination. This would mean that we only discuss “sectarianism” and prejudice in terms of religion thus ignoring ethnocentrism and racism.

No public debate over the meaning of sectarianism has taken place despite widespread calls for one, including from the Harps Community Project, an Irish cultural association, and the Rangers Supporters’ Assembly. There is no agreed academic definition of sectarianism but its use presumes and perhaps normatively demands a higher, enclosed form of national identification. One definition of sectarianism, which circulates widely in the media and on internet forums comes from Wikipedia: "bigotry, discrimination, or hatred arising from attaching importance to perceived differences between subdivisions within a group, such as between different denominations of a religion or factions of a political movement". This presumes the existence of a unified group in the first place; some common identity which is being split between internal sects. However, the issue at hand is tension over group identification itself: people identifying with two different group categories (Irish and British) and competing for recognition and sometimes dominance. Nil By Mouth the leading Scottish charity, which challenges sectarianism, defines sectarianism as “Narrow-minded beliefs that lead to prejudice, discrimination, malice and ill-will towards members, or presumed members, of a religious denomination”. This defines and stigmatises sectarianism as purely a religious issue. This is not an academic exercise- how we define the word could determine who is to be imprisoned for up to 5 years under the new legislation. Without an informed and public debate people will continue to conflate and confuse nationality and religion. The comments of Police Federation Chairman, Les Gray, typified this confusion when he is quoted as conflating a 17th century King of Scotland, England, and Ireland with a contemporary religious leader: "I've been in homes with King Billy on the wall and on the other side with the Pope on the wall, and both sides are just as bad.".

This is not to say that “sectarianism” has nothing to do with religion. However, it is unconvincing to frame the violence on the streets of Scotland after Celtic and Rangers play football and amongst men who do not attend church through the prism of the “Great Schism of Western Christianity” (1378-1416) or the Reformation beginning in the 16th century. Some Celtic fans do choose to sing ‘Roamin in the Gloamin’ (“Fuck King Billy and John Knox”) and some Rangers fans choose to sing ‘No Pope of Rome’ (“No chapels to sadden my eyes”). These songs clearly emphasise religious identification and some would argue hatred of a religious Other. However, it is difficult rely on religion to explain why many more Celtic fans choose to sing The Soldier’s Song, the Irish national anthem, and Rangers fans, Rule Britannia. It seems misleading to discuss “sectarianism” or so-called “sectarian identities” without reference to nationalism and national identities.

In public political debates, there has been too little mention of the competing views on what nation(s) we belong to when we see Scottish, Irish, Northern Irish, and British flags being waved at our football grounds, some of which rightly or wrongly spark antagonism. It is this antagonism which is often at the heart of tensions we tend to describe as “sectarian”. One song sung by Rangers fans and cited as racist and sectarian by Celtic fans is The Famine Song (“the famine is over, why don’t you go home?”). This song does not refer to religion. The song is about telling descendents of Irish immigrants they are no longer welcome in the nation of Scotland and that they should return to their “home” nation. Many Rangers fans and Strathclyde Police assert that The Boys of the Old Brigade is equally “sectarian” (“On Easter morn’ I sigh, for I recall my comrades all, and dark old days gone by”). The song laments the loss of life during the Easter Rising, in which Catholics and Protestants participated. The reference to joining the IRA in the song is what is cited on the blogs of Rangers supporters as “sectarian” and crucially “anti-British. Framing how people think about Irish history today solely through the prism of religion is problematic when people today know Protestants and Catholics alike participated in the Easter Rising. This religious prism fails to help us understand that at heart what is being criticised as sectarian in The Boys of the Old Brigade is about national boundaries not simply religious ones: “anti-British” not anti-Protestant.

The main concern raised in the Rangers Supporters Assembly’s contribution to the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee was that of the singing of “non-patriotic songs”. This presumably refers to songs which are patriotic towards Ireland over Britain such as The Boys of the Old Brigade. The Rangers Supporters Assembly claim this should be included as a prosecutable offence under the new legislation, illustrating the tensions over national identification being played out here. Online debates amongst Rangers fans and indeed former Rangers director Donald Findlay QC have sought to redefine the term “Fenian” from common usage on Scotland’s streets as a general slur with anti-Catholic connotations against Celtic fans to now mean Irish nationalists. “Fenian bastard” is then argued to be a permissible phrase because it insults and excludes people on the basis of their national and political identification. However, it seems unreasonable to argue that it is unacceptable to stir hatred against religious groups but it is acceptable to stir hatred against groups defined by national identification.

The Harps Community Project said “preconceptions surrounding cultural expression and identity with reference to Scotland’s Irish community must be discussed out-with this enforced sectarian narrative of Catholic versus Protestant”. In other words, national heritage should not be understood within an unconsciously bigoted framing of Scottish to mean Protestant and Irish as Catholic. Singing the Boys of the Old Brigade or Derry’s Walls may reveal something about someone’s national identity or their politics but it does not directly express religious hatred and it tells us nothing about someone’s religion. Hatred of the Other should not be tolerated but by defining “sectarianism” in purely religious terms we ignore the competing national identities, which are often at the heart of these communal tensions. Rogers Brubaker, an eminent expert on Nationalism, tells us national conflicts are not resolved- politicians can’t suddenly change how people identify themselves. What they can do is help create an environment in which conflict is less necessary and those identities have less political relevance. Allowing people to celebrate how they identify themselves without fear of persecution, providing they are not celebrating hatred against other groups, would help create such an environment. Creating a hierarchy of sectarianisms where we can abuse people on the grounds of national identification but not on religion may do the opposite.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Fear is the Path to the Dark Side

Be it fear of the Jew, the Communist, or the terrorists in our midst, fear clouds people’s judgment and drives them to demand that something, anything, must be done to alleviate that fear. Fear is used by politicians in democracies round the world to win votes and indeed by journalists to sell their writings. One could be forgiven for fearing that Britain was on the verge of the apocalypse given the sensationalist media coverage of the August riots, much of which emphasised fear over analysis. Mary Riddell of the Telegraph wrote of how “the capital city of an advanced nation has reverted to a Hobbesian dystopia of chaos and brutality”. However, the looting and the subsequent response to clean up Britain’s shopping districts, both organised through social networking sites, were utterly anathema to Thomas Hobbes’ description of a frightening state of nature of “a war of every man against every man”. Such consideration though is simply less exciting and less likely to sell newspapers.

The “firebombing” of Canning Circus police station in Nottingham was heavily reported. What media outlets didn’t follow up with was the less frightening story that little damage was done, as the photograph above shows, and Nottingham’s city centre was bustling with shoppers the following day. There were, of course, very serious events breaking out across England. However, by reporting all news in sensationalist fashion with few qualifications and less explanation, fear would keep many of us in our homes and away from the “war of every man against every man” purportedly engulfing our “advanced nation”. This is not old news we should forget about. This fear will be re-activated in the campaign for the next UK general election by politicians looking for media-friendly sound-bites. Law and order will most certainly feature.

Of course we should not be surprised by this emphasis on fear over contemplation and the sound-bite over evidence. In one discussion of the causes of the riots, the BBC invited the likes of David Starkey, known for his deliberate courting of controversy and not for his sociological expertise, to give his ‘expert’ view. His explanation was that the “whites have become blacks”. He then responded to the accusation of having no empirical evidence for his claims by saying “these are times when we need plain-speaking”. On the contrary, these are times where we need evidence and considered analysis to help us disentangle the masses of misinformation such as the Independent Police Complaints Commission’s admission that they “may have misled journalists” into believing Mark Duggan fired on police. The News of the World phone hacking scandal has revealed little but that there exists a murky series of relationships between the media, the police, and politicians. Our right to vote may not be under threat but our right to know how we are governed and thus what we are actually voting for is in jeopardy. This is all the more so when frightening sound-bites trump analysis.

David Cameron’s comments that we are walking into a “slow-motion moral collapse” reflects and helps reproduce the panic following such events. Sensationalism produced the emergence of countless “armchair generals”, in the language of Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde. Succumbing to fear over contemplation, these “armchair generals” demanded the use of rubber bullets and water cannons, despite their limited knowledge of why such tactics are deployed. As Hugh Orde told the media, these have been deployed in Northern Ireland, the former for self-defence in life-threatening situations and the latter for dealing with massive, unmoveable crowds. Neither of these were primary features of looting which saw gangs moving swiftly from shop to shop. This didn’t stop David Cameron from very publicly announcing his personal authorisation to use both tactics. This pandered to and reproduced a climate of fear. Neither water cannons nor rubber bullets needed to be used in the end but the political drive to appear to be tough on crime and win votes was fulfilled.

More importantly, David Cameron’s claims of “moral collapse” do not reflect any empirical evidence. The Home Office’s own statistics show how violent crime in England and Wales has been in near steady decline since 1996. Despite the repeated references to youth gone wild on Britain’s streets, the Ministry of Justice reported a 9.6% drop in the number of 10-17 year olds convicted of crime between 1999 and 2009. On the surface, the evidence certainly suggests that David Cameron is exaggerating for political effect. He is using fear of moral collapse to build a reputation of being tough on crime yet this fear stops people from calmly considering the details of what is actually happening. What better way to garner support for a law and order driven agenda at the next general election than an electorate frightened of “rising crime” induced by “moral collapse”?

Many of the frightened electorate have called for harsher sentences for looters and they have got them. Judges have guidelines for minimum and maximum sentencing but they also have discretion within those parameters. Judges have responded to politicians and frightened voters with unusually long sentences as both the BBC and the Guardian have revealed. People involved in the looting are being given harsher sentences for crimes than would ordinarily be the case; 25% harsher according to the statistical analysis of the Guardian. The rule of law and equality before the law are central features of democracy. Yet here we see the application of new and unwritten rules emerging from a climate of fear and “straight-talking” instead of debate and analysis. One wonders how the imprisonment of Thomas Downey of Manchester for 16 months for taking donuts from a Krispy Kreme outlet is justifiable with reference to equality before the law. How can placing Michael Fitzpatrick, 18 in a young offender’s institution for two years and four months for drinking stolen champagne be explained with reference to codified rules of law? They can’t be. Judges in Manchester produced their own recommendations because the guidelines they are required to work under, according to the rule of law, did not cover burglary and looting in mass riots. The sentence of two young men to four years in prison for using facebook to incite a riot that never even happened was not determined according to established legal guidelines because they don’t yet exist. Paul Mendell QC, a former chairman of the Bar Association warned “the idea that the rulebook goes out of the window strikes me as inherently unjust…guidelines are not tramlines…I don’t see why [magistrates] should be told to disregard these”. However, as Communities Minister Eric Pickles told the Guardian “we cannot have people frightened in their beds, frightened in their homes”. Fear then seems enough to justify ruining two men’s lives with little consideration for the implications for two of democracy’s central tenets, the rule of law and equality before it.

The separation of powers, particularly the separation of the executive and the judiciary, are pivotal to a functioning democracy. However, many of the responses of democratically elected leading politicians to the riots have revealed serious weaknesses in their commitment to this political ideal. Menzies Campbell indicated this when he said “politicians should be neither cheering nor booing in the matter of sentencing. It is an important part of our constitutional principles that political influence is not directed at the judicial system”. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister saw fit to do just that by defending or cheering these tough sentences. He said it was good that courts were sending a “tough message”. We can leave to one side our feelings regarding the length of the sentences to ponder why the head of the executive sees fit to comment on and ultimately influence the future behaviour of the supposedly independent judiciary. The function of courts in a democracy is not to “send out tough messages” as the executive defines them but to apply the rule of law. It is only the place of the executive to endorse the decisions of the judiciary in authoritarian states where powers are not separated. David Cameron’s claim that he thinks “it’s right that we should allow the courts to make decisions about sentencing” is unlikely to be upheld if they feel under pressure from the Prime Minister to send out “tough messages” instead of applying rules.

Those who are struck by fear are less likely to ask what is going on and are instead more likely to demand ‘action’ regardless of the consequences. Fear is blinding us to look beyond the immediate and consider the future of a country under a government which can set the rule of law to one side if we are frightened. Fear is indeed the path to the dark side.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Civilising Globalisation?

During his scientific socialist phase Karl Marx predicted the inevitability of capitalism’s demise. He predicted that logic of capital was such that capitalist’s drive for ever-increasing returns would result in a spiralling reduction in wages. The increasing squeeze of capital from workers, who would eventually be unable to purchase the products of their own labour, would result in revolt and the seizure of the means of production. This self-defeating nature of capitalism would lead workers to reorganise the social relations of production such that wealth would be distributed more or less equally. Marx was of course writing about 19th century international capitalism not 21st century global capitalism characterised by the increasingly free flow of goods and services across national borders. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire argued that with the growth of the power of transnational corporations and global financial institutions, power has been taken out of the hands of the state and dispersed. As globalisation decentres power, resistance too is decentred. Today, capitalism’s discontents don’t simply seize government buildings or factories. They destroy McDonald’s, Starbucks, and other powerful symbols of transnational capital. Thanks to globalisation, it no longer makes sense to talk of the ‘1st world’ and ‘3rd world’ as fixed, national, geographical categories. Within the same cities we have pockets of economically prosperous, socially mobile, and aesthetically pleasing districts surrounded by residential areas with stagnating growth, high rates of crime, unemployment, and poor standards of health (Ealing Green/Ealing, Kelvinside/Parkhead, Beverly Hills/South Central). The World Health Organisation’s 2008 report found that in Glasgow, the postcode lottery is such that life expectancy for men living in Calton is as low as 54 years old but for those living in Lenzie, a 15 minute car ride away, life expectancy is 82. There are worlds still far away from what Michael Camdessus, the former director of the IMF, described as the civilising forces of Globalisation.

Recent events across England have led many people ask what is the rioters’ ‘cause’ and indeed many politicians to insist that we do not even ask such questions; it is criminality, end of story. Yet ask we must. It may be that these are rebels without causes for there were no attempts to seize the means of production. But where and what are the means of production today in a globalised economy? Ford makes more money from insuring cars than building and selling them. Pieces of paper which symbolise wealth lead to a greater accumulation of other pieces of paper which symbolise wealth; much more so than actually producing anything in today’s global economy. Wealth is primarily generated through services so seizing factories would be senseless. In the age of globalisation we have seen major protests at every G8 gathering with highly symbolic sites of transnational capital, such as Starbucks and McDonalds, bearing the brunt of the anger. As power becomes globalised and decentred so too has resistance. Today resistance focuses on attacking these global nodes of power, these symbols of transnational capital. What we have seen across England in August 2011 may have started as a response to police brutality but it spiralled rapidly and morphed into something we can’t yet understand. What we saw was different to the transnationally organised protests at G8 meetings. This was not an attempt to seize the means of production or resist the transnationalisation of capital. Through the looting of clothes stores and electrical appliances brands, goods deemed to be of high status or symbolic value, we see attempts to seize the products of capitalism and bathe in the status they bestow. We don’t see a revolution to radically restructure social order. We see attempts of individuals to reposition themselves in more favourable positions within it. The seemingly chaotic mode of resistance reflects the seemingly chaotic mode of power and of social organisation we enjoy today.

One response to this is of course to reject the very possibility of meaning behind these acts, file them under irrational, focus solely on punishment, and get back to business as usual. Another counter-argument is that not all participants are poor or even particularly socially marginalised as the prosecution of primary school teachers and the “millionaire’s daughter” attest. However, the chaotic events and the participation of individuals from various sectors of society cannot conceal that every city affected saw young, angry men who see themselves as disenfranchised take to the streets to steal and destroy high status symbols of consumerism. Are we really surprised that generations who have been encouraged to be selfish and have been told by Margaret Thatcher that “there is no such thing as society” feel little moral responsibility towards people outside of their personal, social network? If there is no such thing as society, then outside of the family and the personal network, there can be no bonds and no restrictions regulating the relationships between human beings other than legal ones. Time and time again we hear interviews with participants saying things like “we’re taking from the rich” or “we’re doing it because the government can’t stop us” (Radio 5 Live, 10/8/11, 13:07). If you tell children you have no responsibility to other people unless you can be legally stopped, then when those restrictions disappear as happened when the police lost control, people will indeed steal, rob, and hurt other people. This selfishness is not a disease of any “underclass” or a “sick” section of society as David Cameron lamented. It is everywhere. Next time you are waiting on a train, notice how half the people around you are waiting to jump in front of you. Or in the supermarket, when people park their trolleys in front of what you want to buy and don’t seem to care that you are standing waiting. These are minor, anecdotal examples but I would argue they reflect a self-centredness that is allowed and encouraged. As long as you can get away with it, anything goes- business is business after all. We normalise and we encourage selfishness into norms of behaviour such that those with power are allowed to be selfish but we call it business or profit maximisation. Most people in the UK will tell you, when bankers steal they are given bonuses and when members of parliament steal they only have to pay half of it back.

David Cameron thankfully acknowledged that this is not simply about all young people in Britain simply being bad. In his terms, many young people live in fear from these supposed ‘bad’ people. But why this sudden admission? What political party has seriously addressed violence and its causes on our streets in the UK? Most young people I know have witnessed assaults on young men by other young men in our city centres whereby police stand on the other side of the road and wave away people’s calls for something to be done. I have visited casualty wards after being the victim of assault and all the medical staff wanted to know was how much I had to drink and then placed me at the back of the queue. This is not because I am marginalised, I am not. Nevertheless, it belies an assumption that as a young male in Britain you will be subject to violence and you are likely to cause it. It’s what young men do. However, as David Cameron admits, this is not just what young men do and often violence is impossible to avoid if one wishes to socialise in Britain’s city centres. One has to ask, why is violence against young men tolerated? It is very telling that when Miss Selfridge’s on Market Street in Manchester is in flames moral outrage is not simply expressed but demanded. However, when young men are assaulted usually by other young men every night in our cities, we hear little outcry. Is it simply that those who are morally outraged don’t see this violence with their own eyes so they leave it be? Are we morally outraged now because it interrupted our selfish desire to go shopping in our city centres and acquire more high status goods from the global economy?

What we become outraged about and choose to label as violence reflects our values. When a young man sets fire to a chain-store we call it violence. These same chain-stores, which most of us buy from, operate in “Export Processing Zones” across the developing world. This strategy is in place to bypass national laws which regulate labour conditions, wages, and indeed safety standards to prevent violence in the workplace. So why do we call it “profit maximisation”? What is ‘violent’ about stealing an ipad but not so when apple uses microchips produced under slave-like conditions in the South of China and which irreparably damage the environment? The important difference is not material, it’s ideological. It’s called socially constructed values. A young man taking a mobile phone from a looted Carphone Warehouse is theft because it is called theft. When Vodafone forego £4.8 Billion in tax payments it’s called the “maximisation of shareholder value” because it was permitted by HMRC. Stealing from apple is theft because it is called theft. However, when Apple bypass the rule of law in order to pay South East Asian workers a low wage it is called “outsourcing”. This is because we encourage people to make lots of money more than we encourage them to consider human rights. Angry young men stealing stereos is theft because it is called theft but when bankers steal, it’s called business because we value banks more than we value young men. This is normalised, permissible, and ‘civilised’ theft but it is still theft. This hypocrisy has produced a widespread, popular perception that there is one law for them and another for us. It de-legitimises the very idea of equality before the law, a central principle of democracy, such that people start to believe there is indeed no such thing as society- you take what you can unless you can be stopped. The chaotic and unpredictable power relations of our so-called global age have no written rules and have produced resistance that is equally chaotic, unpredictable, and without rules. If people wish to see ‘civilised’ resistance they had best work towards ‘civilising’ power.

Monday, 15 August 2011

The End of Community?

Nearly forty years ago Maurice Stein’s classic book The Eclipse of Community stimulated a debate on the meaning of community. This followed from his argument that in contemporary or post-modern times we are witnessing the end of community as we know it. More recently Anders Breivik, the far right, self-proclaimed “Marxist hunter”, guilty of the murder of 69 Norwegians, proclaimed the 1950s as a time of community: “Our homes were safe…public schools were excellent…most men treated women like ladies”. It seems every generation melodramatically and conservatively laments the end of familiar forms of social organisation and ways of life to which they are accustomed. People seem to fear social change and they imbue the idea of community with a comfortable and wholly positive familiarity. However, social anthropologists such as Anthony Cohen, have long told us that while community consists of a sense of belonging and inclusion we think of as positive, it is at the same inherently exclusionary. People who do not live in Birmingham are excluded from the local community of Birmingham, those who don’t attend church are necessarily excluded from church going communities, and non-Europeans are excluded from the European community if indeed there is such a thing.

Reviewing the media response to the August riots across England we hear constant references to community and multiple overlapping uses in the same news story. For example in the one place, we have heard of the Sikh community (religious), the Punjabi community (ethno-linguistic), the Southall community (regional/residential), the British community (national), and the civilised community (ethical). It sounds like we have a lot of community rather than a lack of it. Old and new media alike are littered with references to the response of “the community” with regard to the clean-up of Britain’s streets by ordinary people following the riots. Here, as in general popular usage, community is seen as something inherently positive, inclusionary, and something of which we generally morally approve. However, this conceals that belonging and social bonds are often formed through ways of life which we do not approve of and amongst individuals we may detest. One thing overlooked in popular debates on the riots is that gangs are a type of community: social groups with a sense of belonging, cohered through face-to-face contacts and the use of Blackberry messenger services in this age of global communications. As far back as 1927, sociologist Frederic Thrasher wrote in The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago that gangs were characterised by “meeting face to face, milling movement through space as a unit, conflict, and planning. The result of this collective behaviour is the development of tradition, unreflective internal structure, esprit de corps, solidarity, morale, group awareness, and attachment to a local territory”. Group awareness or belonging, solidarity, and attachment to a local territory are perhaps the fundamental bases of community. The speed by which gangs were able to move from one looting site to another in huge numbers connected through Blackberry exhibited both organisation and solidarity. What appeared to be gangs on Bethnal Green road chanted “Bethnal Green” as they looted Tesco. Residents of Ealing Green recounted in interviews how gangs from other, less leafy parts of Ealing chanted the names of their housing estates as they set fire to local pubs. It’s just that the media don’t feel comfortable calling gangs a community because their behaviour is often illegal, seen as negative, and in conflict with other, more ‘palatable’ forms of community, such as church-goers. One may be uncomfortable with the behaviour of ‘gangs’ but we cannot say these examples do not display a sense of belonging and attachment to where one is from. It displays a pride in one’s ‘roots’ albeit in a very different way from those who chose to sweep the streets of Britain’s city centre shopping districts following the riots.

It would seem a huge impediment to understanding why this happened as it did and when it did if we fail to look at how this sense of belonging emerges, how it brings people together, and why people choose it over other communities. Prior to the riots, Barbara Wilding, chief constable of South Wales police described entrance to these gang communities: “In many of our larger cities, in areas of extreme deprivation…many have experienced family breakdown, and in place of parental and family role models, the gang culture is now established". In other words, people have a need for belonging and when they do not find it at home or are excluded from it elsewhere due to deprivation they will form their own community based on its own rules. Joining a gang and partaking in its communal rituals of violence cannot simply be attributed to bad morals (they are at best a symptom not a cause). It is how some people who have to survive or feel they must succeed in specific social environments fulfil their need for belonging when other outlets are unavailable. It may be reassuring to ‘blame the parents’ such that it absolves oneself of blame but people would be less likely to join a gang if their social environment was such that they were included in communities of a different kind.

In many interviews with local residents of riot-affected areas we heard BBC and Radio 5 live presenters ask “what are the community doing?” as if there is only one community and if one does not adhere to its rules then one is not a member. Exclusion from a sense of community has contributed to getting us into this predicament and this exclusionary language is unlikely to help us out of it. My answer would be that some communities were looting and destroying private property while other communities were cleaning up private property. Many will say this type of focus on language, spending time discussing the meaning of community, is merely academic or beside the point. However, by failing to consider how to define contested concepts we allow the media to do so for us. We don’t always even notice they are using politically loaded definitions as they do not explicitly justify their perspective. This then shapes how we think about these matters because they are not explicit. We all say “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” but how many of us stop to consider the implications of this every time the word “terrorist” is used? The interviewer on Radio 5 live (10/8/11, 12:50) interrupted an interviewee referring to people who participated in the riots as “protestors” to say “don’t call them protesters, they aren’t protesting against anything”. One can argue this is indeed the case but why do we allow supposedly ‘neutral’ interviewers to determine the way ordinary people are allowed or not allowed to describe events and people as they see them? How can we debate if we are not allowed to describe things as we see them? Are we not allowed to even debate what terms we are allowed to use and how we use them? We see a policing of language and drawing of community boundaries through the popular media, which no one complains is academic because it is seen as in favour of the all positive, inclusive community: looters = scum, street-cleaners = community. We heard many a caller and indeed many a volunteer street-sweeper refer to ‘looters’ as ‘scum’ but without intervention or even comment. Now “scum”, defined as “refuse or worthless matter” appears to be the very antithesis of inclusion and membership in community; the refuse we must get rid of. We are allowed to use this term to describe someone stealing a mobile phone from a shop but are we allowed to call executives of Vodafone scum for dodging £4.8 Billion in taxes if we so desired? I doubt it. Yet in my book this was theft of £4.8 Billion from our public services which pales in comparison to the theft of a mobile phone. Some people do indeed call Vodafone executives scum in private but given that we do not hear such references on our airwaves my guess is that we are not allowed to in public debates because they are in positions of power and their theft goes on outside of our vision; they are inside the ‘civilised’ community we are all supposed to be loyal to yet “looters are scum” and must be excluded even if they stole a single mobile phone.

The popular media don’t simply ‘report’ the news, they make the news. By reporting news in a specifically framed way they determine how we are publicly permitted to debate and think about power and violence in Britain. We can see how power works when 16 and 18 year olds are prosecuted and charged for attempting to encourage riots on their facebook pages. Yet at the same time, I lost count of the number of people posting on the same site demanding violence against or even the death of the “looters”. They both incite violence but one is a call from a marginalised community and one is from a powerful one. The law either prosecutes on the basis of codified rules or it shouldn’t prosecute at all. Permitting the promotion of violence against looters but not against private property cannot be justified by reference to verifiable rules. It reflects an ideological commitment to a singular, un-contestable community which, if you are not part of, you are “scum”. One may not like the new forms of community emerging in today’s world but this does not mean we can dismiss them or exclude them without any reasoned debate. Exclusion got us into this mess and this exclusion will make things much worse.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Boris Johnson: We need less rational enquiry and more moral outrage!

Mayor of London, Boris Johnson announced to the assembled crowd in devastated Clapham that he had “heard too much sociological explanation and not enough condemnation”. That is too much “explanation” of the protests, riots, looting, and violence in the wake of the as yet unexplained shooting of Mark Duggan by Metropolitan police officers. This belied an emerging dichotomy in popular media and everyday discourse in England. We are being told that the ‘Right’ are condemning violence, while the ‘Left’ are justifying it. The ‘Right’ want law and order back and they blame the individual and bad parenting for these events. As David Cameron tells us, “this is a moral problem” and it illustrates the “lack of responsibility” shown by individuals. On the other hand, the ‘Left’ in their efforts to find causes for and meaning behind seemingly random and meaningless chaos are being labelled apologists on 'neutral' radio phone ins and the notorious online comments now widely attached to newspaper articles. Presumably the ‘Left’ then includes Emeritus Professor at Leeds university and pre-eminent Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman who claimed that in today’s Britain our identity revolves round the mantra “I shop therefore I am” such that “these are riots of defective and disqualified consumers”. The participants are not starving but many are the disenfranchised in a society where status and prestige are acquired through displays of spending and consumption (Social Europe Journal, 9/8/11). Dr Sean Carey, research fellow at Roehampton University argues that “what we are witnessing is a significant symbolic statement about the way power -- the power of life and death exercised by police officers as well as the power to consume -- is arranged in British society” (New Statesman, 9/8/11). Carey is not claiming that the individuals involved necessarily or consciously seek to make symbolic statements but that the overall patterns of these actions nevertheless do.

In one sense these diverse responses reflect the understanding of human beings by the ‘Right’ and the ‘Left’- atomistic individuals versus social creatures. The ‘Right’ thus need not look far for causes of behaviour because all responsibility lies with the individual. The ‘Left’ on the other hand look for social origins, primarily the socio-economic, in seeking to explain why we do what we do. However, in another sense this can also be framed as a straight-forward categorical error pitting two ideas against one another which are not about the same issue and cannot be compared. Seeking to understand why people do what they do does not amount to condoning it. Otherwise all social scientists are of the ‘left’ and I dread to think what that would say about myself, a student of authoritarian politics and ethnic boundaries in China’s north-west. One can be an existentialist when it comes to morality but still seek to understand why people do what they do. Sociological explanation and moral evaluation are not mutually exclusive. Or as Professor John Brewer put it, sociologists seek to explain social behaviour not explain it away (The Guardian, 12/8/11). If we want to solve problems in our society, and presumably everyone now admits there are many, we have to devote time and resources trying to understand, explain, and address their causes. Moral outrage and calls for retributive punishment are understandable, particularly towards those who destroyed small scale family-run businesses. However, rising passions should be the spark of a rational enquiry not the end. Boris Johnson's outrageous call that he has heard enough "sociological explanation" is tantamount to saying it is wrong to enquire into the causes of these events.

Since the first night of rioting the phrase ‘mindless criminality’ has been heard across the airwaves, in print, and on the street. As have statements such as “this is not political, it’s just pure opportunism”. We certainly have seen a lot of opportunism and criminality in the last few days but we still have to ask why. Why is this happening now? What makes it happen at all? And what can we do so it doesn’t keep happening? The answers won’t come overnight and certainly not in dismissals of further enquiry. Whether we explain social phenomena in terms of atomistic individuals or social groups, or a plethora of other alternatives which will hopefully emerge in the coming days,months, and years, we still have to explore why people do what they do. That is indeed if we are serious about addressing such problems rather than releasing media-friendly sound-bites in a political game to be elected. The answer that “because they are bad people” or “their parents are bad people” is not enough. Why are they bad people and what has made them behave in that way? These events have involved different types of people doing different things for different reasons. This seems evident in the first convictions including a primary school teaching assistant, an undergraduate student, and the “daughter of a millionaire” to quote the tabloids. However, there are patterns already emerging that are highly symbolic- every city affected had their centres of consumerism, their shopping centres attacked by gangs of young men wishing to seize what they understand to be high status goods.

We also have to ask why we are encouraged to immediately and without equivocation condemn the actions of un-convicted individuals. The shooting of Mark Duggan and the nature of the police involvement remain under investigation and as was reiterated on Radio 5 live (10/8/11) whenever the subject was breached, “we can’t talk about that”. Of course this is couched in terms of respect for an ongoing investigation and how we are yet to have the full facts but this respect is not accorded to ordinary people. It belies the hypocrisy and inequality inherent in social relations in Britain today which is certainly not the only problem here but it is a particularly glaring one. Bonuses for bankers, Vodafone’s tax scams, and unaccountable tabloids are all topics which have recently provoked great anger across the UK and all which threaten the legitimacy of the very idea of equality before the law. Is there anyone left who actually thinks that material wealth and political power don’t afford people greater legal rights?

Educated at Eton and Oxford David Cameron will have little if any first-hand experience of the social environment in Britain’s most deprived areas or those where gangs are as much social safety networks as they are a form of ‘criminality’. This in itself is not necessarily a problem but he like all of us ought to listen to those who do live in such areas if we want to understand them. However, our Prime Minister is yet to show that he wants to listen to the big society he claims is his “passion”. He is yet to respond to the claims of inequality and police brutality on our streets. Riots on the scale we have seen reflect deep-rooted problems. If you want them to go away, the carrots of inclusion are as crucial as the sticks of exclusion. So Minister of State for Housing and Local Government Grant Shapps will have to seriously think through the consequences of his proposed plan to evict from social housing any family who had a single member involved. It seems unlikely that making rioters homeless will make them less likely to steal or make Britain safer.

An anonymous 25 year old involved in rioting in Liverpool shows us how the supposedly mindless participants understand the causes behind these events as nothing new. This is despite the political drive to represent these events as something no one could have predicted: "Fuck the police, man. They are not all bad but most of them are. No-one around here has got any liking for the police. Fuck them. Police patrol these streets every night of the week and we only get to riot every few years. They can't come here laying down the law like they do all year round. People are rioting because the riot is finally here" (The Guardian, live feed, 10/8/11). Let us ask those who commit such crimes why they do what they do not because we need to ‘pander’ to their every whim but because their perspectives will help us understand what is happening more than those of people whom have never even been to where they live.