Tuesday 23 August 2011

A not very rapid response to the riots

Apologies for the lateness of this. I started to write something in the immediate aftermath of the riots, but didn't manage to finish it before leaving for a week in Cornwall. Still, reflection in tranquillity is sometimes preferable to hasty reaction...

First, some recommendations. If you didn't get round to reading them at the time, the following responses to the events of two weeks ago are certainly worth reading (though I don't necessarily agree with everything they say): from Norm, Kenan, Michael, Luke, Martin, Katharine and Rosamicula. Plus any comment by David Lammy or Chuka Umunna, two black Labour MPs who (in my view) had a 'good' crisis. More recently, Tony Blair's intervention is characteristically insightful, while Nick Cohen's report on the judicial response gives pause for thought.

You'll notice that two of my links are to self-identified Tory commentators, and it has to be said that the capacity to talk sense about the riots crossed party lines - as did the tendency to spout dangerous nonsense. In the remainder of this post, I wanted to make three points about some liberal-left responses to the wave of looting, arson and violence that gripped English cities earlier this month. This doesn't mean I'm uncritical of conservative reactions, but 'the Left' is my parish, so to speak, and I have an interest in the healthiness or otherwise of its discourse.

1. There's nothing progressive about lawlessness and disorder.

The rule of law is one of the basic conditions of liberty. Law and order are valued by the vast majority of working people, especially those with relatively little personal power, since it means they have some protection against life’s unpredictability and it makes it possible for them to get on with the important business of earning a living and looking after their families. Conversely, the breakdown of social order affects the poor and powerless disproportionately, as Tony Blair famously said. There’s nothing romantic, or even vaguely ‘progressive’, about chaos and disorder on the streets. When there’s riot and mayhem, it’s the powerless, those who have no one and nothing to protect them, who suffer most. In situations of lawlessness and disorder, the powerful – those who have the numbers, the muscle, the weapons - rule the roost.

The left, in reacting to events such as those we've seen this summer, is rightly alert to the actions of the obviously powerful, the agents of state power – whether police, judges or politicians – but often blind and insensitive to the actions of other, less legitimately powerful groups – gangsters, criminals, bullies. The powerless need the law, and a degree of social order, to protect them from abuses by these powerful non-state actors. There's an analogy here with the debate over the proposed banning of the burqa, where much left rhetoric was devoted to the wrongs of the state telling women what they could wear, while often failing to address the power (and occasional violence) of community and religious leaders, not to mention fathers and brothers, in imposing their will on women and girls.

2. Looking the other way

There's been an awful lot of 'whataboutery' in discussion of the riots. It's a familiar rhetorical habit among some sections of the left: if a problem arises that doesn’t easily fit the usual categories, the tendency is to avoid facing up to the awkwardness by immediately deflecting attention on to supposedly far greater evils elsewhere. This is particularly apparent when those we have hitherto seen as passive victims of oppression, or even as the bearers of our revolutionary hopes, turn out to be aggressors and offenders themselves. So, at the height of the Cold War, leftists tended to deflect criticism of human rights abuses in the Soviet Union by pointing to the abuse of 'economic' rights under our own system. After 9/11 and 7/7, the characteristic response of a section of the left was to avoid blaming the actual culprits by switching the focus to the ‘real' terrorists in our own governments, or to expend energy criticising those governments' reactions to the attacks. 

The 'whataboutery' and 'looking the other way' in the aftermath of the recent riots took two forms. The most immediate and instantaneous was the tendency to undercut criticism of the rioters by reminding people of the 'looting' of the nation's assets by bankers and by dishonest politicians fiddling their expenses. The effect, if not the intention, of this knee-jerk rhetorical strategy was to minimise the crimes of those who smashed, burned and looted properties in London, Manchester and elsewhere: after all, weren't 'the kids' just following the example of the politically and economically powerful? To which the obvious response is: two wrongs don't make a right, and if you condemned the 'thieving' bankers, you should condemn these street thieves and vandals just as vigorously. And again, if you think the bankers 'got away' with their less blatant 'looting', then in a democratic society there are legitimate means of redress, including campaigning for changes in the law and electing a government that will address such abuses. As for the implication that politicians got away with their looting of the nation's coffers: try telling that to the former MPs currently sweating out sentences at Her Majesty's pleasure. The rule of law in a democratic society prescribes legal and political redress for social wrongs, not tit-for-tat wrongdoing.

The second, slightly delayed example of 'whataboutery' became evident after our political leaders did what we pay them to do, and began to formulate responses to the wave of urban criminality. Rather than offering a substantive critique of that response, too many on the left reacted with sneering reminders of the antics of the Bullingdon Club - and even managed to drag up evidence of Nick Clegg's misspent youth. Again, even if it wasn't intended, the effect was to distract attention from and undercut condemnation of the rioters. The sub-text seemed to be, if our political masters got up to similar pranks in their youth, then this vandalism and looting can't be all that bad - and, more insidiously, 'Who are you to talk?' The answer to the latter question is, of course, they are our elected leaders and it's their job at times like this to speak and act on our behalf - regardless of their own personal shortcomings. To question the legitimacy of democratic leaders in the middle of a crisis is to give unnecessary comfort to criminals.

3. Causes, explanations and excuses

Finally, a word about causation, though Norm has said much of what needs to be said on this point. The same confusion has infected discussion of the riots' underlying causes as befuddles debates about terrorism. There's a confusion between different types of causes - proximate and long-term - and between causes, explanations and excuses. Imagine for a moment that the burning and looting of this last month had been carried out by roaming gangs of BNP or EDL supporters, perhaps targeting Asian, black or Jewish homes and businesses - a not unlikely scenario, I'm sure you'll agree. What kind of discussion might then have followed about underlying causes, blame, and responsibility? I guess there would still have been some talk about poverty, unemployment and lack of opportunity in white, working-class communities, but I guarantee there would be far less of it than we've seen recently, and much more blaming of the perpetrators and condemnation of their ideas, morality and shared culture - and quite rightly so. Nor would we be hearing so much about 'the kids' going 'too far' or about 'understandable' reactions to government policies - which in this case would be policies on immigration, migrant workers, housing policy, etc.  

In other words, social and economic factors would certainly be seen as long-term contributory 'causes', but no one, certainly on the left, would seek to explain or even less excuse racist violence on these grounds. One commentator (I can no longer find the link) made the facile point that, if you look at a map of the recent riots, you'll notice that none of them happened in wealthy areas. Well, if you look at a map of racist attacks and demonstrations, they're not usually in leafy areas either. What does that tell you? Nothing. Except that some on the left still see the poor and powerless as mindless dopes reacting reflexively to their economic circumstances, rather than as social actors capable of making moral choices.

This doesn't exhaust everything I want to say about these events, and I'm sure it won't be my last word on the subject. But it will do for now.

Note: a version of this post can now be found over at Huffington Post UK - my first post for them


Rob Marchant said...

Martin, perhaps last but by no means least, a very good analysis. There has been a depressing tendency towards describing all this as a "moral breakdown", as exemplified by Peter Oborne's dreadful, hand-wringing Telegraph piece, which Blair nicely refuted. My own concern was with the official "left" response from Labour, which fell into many of the same traps, here.

Martin said...

Thanks, Rob - and thanks for the link to your post - spot on, as always.