The Real Criminal(s) in London: Moral hypocrisy is worse than nihilism

The riots in London over the past few days pose a dramatic opportunity for reflection about the state of criminal justice today. On a purely numerical or pragmatic basis, it makes sense that the media focus has shifted from what sparked the riots — the murder of Mark Duggan, a black north Londoner, by police — to the ongoing and explicitly unrelated riots and lootings that began in the wake of the Duggan family’s peaceful protest. One (more) victim of police brutality is one thing; but these riots are disturbing the peace! I don’t want to simply argue the inverse — that the “real crime” is Duggan’s murder, not the riots and looting. If the riots were related to the murder, and explicitly political, that might be an option. But I do want to suggest both that it’s wrong to insist there’s no connection at all between the murder and the riots, and that the real culprit — what actually undergirds the “nihilism” and immorality of the riots and looting — is represented by the Duggan murder: namely, a political culture that (over-)criminalizes the poor, and in so doing serves the economic interests of those whose policies and business practices depend on an alienated and underprivileged working class.  The real culprit here — the man behind the curtains, pulling the levers of social chaos  — is manifest not first and foremost in the base immorality and social carelessness of the rioters, but in the the self-serving idiocy of the response of London mayor Boris Johnson and home secretary Theresa May, who dismiss these events as “pure criminality” and place blame on the culture of false “entitlement” and victimization among today’s youth. (As Zoe Williams rightly points out, this is an authoritarian reading of our social context.)

First, it’s important to recognize that the thugs looting JD Sports and family-owned corner stores do not claim to be representatives of law and order. Indeed, they are keenly aware that the given system of law and order is not working for them, but against them. The conditions and opportunities of their life, when compared with those who happen to have been born on the other side of town, is a hand dealt from a deck already stacked against their well-being, a system that in many respects, as Barbara Ehrenreich so convincingly argues, is not simply indifferent to their life but positively feeds off and delights in their misery. The moral “nihilism” on display in the riots is, therefore, not senseless violence, but the re-expression of the social violence — the alienation and degradation — that is constantly executed upon and in the lives of the British underclass.

Once that point is recognized, it appears quite normal how a spark becomes a forest fire. As Williams’ article on the psychology of looting  suggests, anyone observant of prison violence knows that conditions of hopelessness breed internal hatred. Where there is no hope for one’s own material well-being, it is normal to lash out at oneself or those who are not the direct causes of the injustices done to you, with little thought even for your own life. But it is ethically naive to simply place “blame” on victims of systemic injustice. The sources of nihilistic violence, the sources of the moral indifference and social thoughtlessness perpetrated by the looters and rioters, lie in systems of morality and regimes of power that claim to be moral and just, on the one hand, while actively consigning a vast majority to the bottom of the socio-economic barrel. Our neo-liberal economic arrangements necessitate that those at the top — irrespective of how they got there — stay at the top by maintaining a bottom. One political facet of such an economy is what Eherenreich names as the criminalization of poverty, or what Claudia Webbe has identified operative now in Tottenham — namely, a history of certain communities being “overpoliced as criminals and underpoliced as victims.” As Common says in “The Food,” “a system that tries victims, we livin’ in.”

So we can’t act as if these thugs have nothing to be pissed off about; they have more than enough reason to take to the streets. It may be regrettable that they’re not educated or organized enough to take out their well-fed anger in more socially productive ways — i..e, by engaging in non- (or at least less-)violent political protest, as this sister recommends. The inspiring pro-democracy protests in the mid-East over the past year have given the rest of the world much to learn from in that respect. But in the meantime, we have to be on guard against moralistic and individualistic narratives of social violence quick to blame victims and unwilling to question systems. Such narratives only serve to further distract us from clear-cut cases of injustice and criminality– e.g., police corruption and brutality; the hording of ungodly amounts of wealth by the few — and to further blind us to the forces that determine the economic and political make-up of our world. The Right’s tendency, as represented most explicitly by the Tea Party, is to respond to the faltering of the neoliberal global economy by engaging in just such distraction and blindness: by proposing, in the form of inhumane budget reform and draconian slashes to social services, that it is the ordinary citizen, the majority who are the poor, who are asking and expecting too much from “government” and the rest of us, and whose very lives should thus be offered up as scapegoats for the system. But as Seamus Milne writes, the greed and looting seen here is a reflection of the very constitution of our society. That’s why “[i]t is essential for those in power in Britiain” — for the narrative they and most media tell about themselves and our world — “that the riots now sweeping the country can have no cause beyond feral wickedness.”

My point is that these rioters are obviously acting immorally, not only by breaking “the law” (taking what they do not “own”) but more significantly by doing further damage to their own communities and the livelihoods of their neighbors. But that doesn’t mean there is “no point” — no rhyme or reason — to their action. The system of morality that so easily condemns them as criminals — the given oligarchic system of property and the rule of law which protects owners of unjust capital — is not their system. It does not work for them, but against them. The poor are told, just like everyone else, that they are what they (are able to) buy, which necessarily implies that, when they can’t afford what they should want, the fault lies with them, they are not who they should be. The default story told about the regnant economy by those invested in it is that poverty is a moral failing, which requires another narrative in which the poor are ever the cause of their own poverty. In reality, however, the poor perpetuate this system only by having no choice but to live in it, or rebel against it. It is a system that itself exists without (any good) rhyme or reason, as it routinely de-criminalizes owners of unjust capital and lauds patently nihilistic policy-makers, who shape our common world according to their own self-interest. It is a system that must be resisted and overturned for society to have any real stability or peace. The form that resistance and overturning should take can be debated, and I certainly agree it only makes things worse when it takes the form of the (self-)destruction of our own and neighbors’ communities and businesses, as it has here. But it is a shallow moralism and sign of contextual unawareness when we place blame for this willing expression of the youth’s inner rage on the youth themselves — as if they’ve got nothing to riot about.


11 thoughts on “The Real Criminal(s) in London: Moral hypocrisy is worse than nihilism

  1. Thanks for this Scott. I wonder, what do you think it would take for something non- or less-violent and organized to replace this mayhem, as the Hackney woman suggests?

  2. Thanks James and Jon.

    Jon — I don’t know any easy answers to that question. I think that when we’re talking about a widespread cultural ethos such as that represented by the looters, we have to admit that there’s obviously no quick fix. My point here is really just to highlight that moralizing about the need for different forms of behavior, or a different kind of cultural formation, on behalf of these youth, is totally off-base if disconnected from the systemic problems that thrive off their socio-economic misery. So I guess I’d say that one thing sorely needed, by all parties, is a quite deep political education — in both an intellectual-historical and practical sense.

    As mentioned in the post, I do think that the more-“advanced” Euro-American countries have much to learn about the power of organized non-violent protest from what’s been going on in Egypt and across the “Arab” world. The becoming-explicit of the Right’s agenda of privatization and slashing social services is at least doing us the service of now making clear and more public where the battle lines have always been drawn. I don’t think there’s any one answer on what it takes or how to resist a thing like “the global economy” — we need multiple expressions of moral outrage at the way things are, and multiform ways of resisting. Who knows what it takes to turn discontent — which is of course always and already as widespread as oppression — into social movement(s), but I think especially for those of us whose job is talk to people — academics, or church-persons, or whatever — we have to start by gaining clarity about the inner constitution of our social order, as well as paying attention to and doing what we can to highlight where positive expressions of political discontent are already in motion. I think the “UK Uncut” groups — which spawned a sister organization in the US — are one example of how the focused recognition and targeting of one area of pervasive corruption can lead to popular action by a diverse group.

    I’m not really sure if that’s an answer — it’s a question as big as “how does revolution happen?” or “how do we inhabit a different form of life?”

  3. “But in the meantime, we have to be on guard against moralistic and individualistic narratives of social violence quick to blame victims and unwilling to question systems.” I agree that it is extremely important to question systems and I see, in my line of work, how increasingly difficult that becomes. My knee-jerk reaction is to blame flawed social cognition that somehow reeks of individualism on the Conservatives, obviously. But like you say, it is the neoliberal legacy generally that bequeathes this dangerous disinterest in social structures that cuts across the ideological divide. From the point of view of culture generally this is rather interesting – are we all neoliberals now, even if we don’t mean to be, because the legitimate narratives are neoliberal or at least individualistic ones? I think there is some truth to this, or what do you think?

    At this point I am also thinking about Murray Edelmann’s work on political language. Writing in the late Seventies he was faced with a political culture in which there were only two grand narratives explaining poverty (that’s what Edelmann was interested in) and the dismal behaviour of the poor: one is similar to yours and seeks to comprehend the social forces that contribute and indeed bring about specific behaviours and that considers socialising influences (family, school, peer group etc.). The second pattern is one that always attributes poverty to lack of personal merit or morality. It was easy back then to identify narrative #1 with leftist parties and narrative #2 with c/Conservative parties. I am thinking: Is this not how, in our heart of hearts, we still tend to think of these patterns of social cognition? I know I do. So could one not say that what is happening at the moment, the rhetorics that are being used, that this isn’t a general problem of our political culture but rather a problem that could only mushroom out the way it did because the Conservatives are in government?

  4. Antje — that’s all very interesting, too, and I’ll have to check out Edelman’s work on that. (Is there a go-to text to look at? You know we theologians are under-studied when it comes to real-life discourse!)

    I think I’d incline toward agreeing that we still basically have to choose which of those two basic narratives makes the most sense to us; or maybe it’s not even a choice — maybe there is just a fundamental opposition, which comes from who-knows-where, between understandings of material poverty that either want to locate the cause in social relations and/or structures, or in the personal/moral failings of individuals. Perhaps this opposition goes back to a deeper tension between the old Left and Right, or socialistic vs. capitalistic leanings?

    I’m not really sure — but I do think one could say what you say in your last sentence — except I may put it that we need to reframe discussion of our political culture so that the fundamental opposition isn’t seen in terms of Conservative/Liberal parties, but in economic terms of capitalist/individualist or socialist/structural. You could still read the history of conservative/liberal tendencies along these lines, obviously, but I think the crucial thing is that we understand that with the rise of neo-liberal (and especially corporate-centered) capitalism, so many of the old party lines have been dissolved into a de facto stance of being “for” the neoliberal market in various ways. That’s how I read Obama, anyways — he is “liberal” in some ways, — but his difference from the right-wingers is seen mainly when it comes to his “views” on personal/moral issues (homosexuality, abortion, etc.). When it comes to economic and foreign policy, however, it’s quite hard to see him as a Leftist. I think Chris Hedges work on _The Death of the Liberal Class_ has done a lot to explain this general trend a centrist/right government, even when “Democrats” or self-styled “liberals” are in power. And Hedges’ thesis is, along the lines of what I was saying, that once the liberal establishment begins to exclude the “radical” Leftist voices (Marxists, Communists, etc), they become subservient to the power establishment and only superficially different from the right-wingers.

  5. A nearby research library has Hedges’ book you were referring to – I must read it to better understand this argument. I agree that party-ideological terminology maps the conflict between narratives and indeed values systems inadequately. It’s not even necessary to discuss the riots on that level although it is of course quite efficient. Like you say, structure is what we have lost out of sight. – I haven’t had the heart to read much of the recent press coverage of the riots, so I can’t support this very broad statement with examples from recent writing but I think the overall thrust is clear anyway.

    I was thinking of Edelmann’s ‘Political Language: Words that Succeed and Policies that Fail’ (1977). Also great on the topic and super-entertaining to read (and also available in a library near you) is Alan Haworth’s ‘Anti-libertarianism’ which dissects what I think is the baseline of corporate capitalism.

    Reading your previous comments in response to Jon I do wonder whether moral outrage actually is what we need. At the moment we have too much of that, clearly. If morality is defined in individualistic terms, and I think there’s a pretty strong case to be made for that in the current neoliberal cultural climate on both sides of the pond, then one cannot be moral without simultaneously giving succor to that which impedes true social evolution. Nihilism is not an option and neutrality is a chimera…networked social action seems to be a good way forward though.

    A great blog btw!

  6. Antje — thanks for the recommendations. The Haworth reference sounds particularly intriguing, as I think given the resurgence of right-wing populism in the US as the main “alternative” to the traditional party-lines, it’s especially important for many of us to be clear about why necessary critiques of over-concentrated power need to simultaneously keep in view the positive role of government and to be able to highlight critically the role of corporations and speculative finance as in many ways at the center of contemporary injustices.

    On the question of moral outrage, I take your point, and I guess I’d just want to say that I think we do need more visible, public demonstrations of moral outrage at concrete injustices , but I only mean by that something like social action that highlights the inhumanity of dominant forms of morality or systems of law and order. I guess I wouldn’t want to restrict “morality,” on a theoretical level, to those dominant forms — I was speaking as an ethicist, in the Nietzschean sense that we should be moral precisely by having the courage to criticize dominant systems of “morality” as inhumane. It seems to me that, at least for instance thinking of engaging with conservative Brits and Americans, to cede the language of “morality” to right-wing ideologies might be to unnecessarily foreclose too many potential avenues for critique and dialogue.

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