Reasons not to be a “Libertarian” (2): Aurora, Ice T, and the “Right to Bear Arms”

A confession: this second post of my new series about contemporary libertarian ideology is absolutely personally motivated, inspired by several good college buddies, each of whom posted, with little to no comment, a link to this clip of rapper and tv-star Ice T recently defending personal gun ownership on Second Amendment grounds. What upset me about the sharing of this clip (from several friends who I personally respect, who happen to have new-style “libertarian” tendencies) was not the basic view Ice T espouses — that the Second Amendment gives the general population a good and necessary means by which they can legally defend themselves against state oppression — but the much more wide-ranging conclusions about our present context apparently drawn from his constitutional interpretation. It’s the fact that, right now, in the cold light of another act of extraordinary gun violence, his message strikes a chord with those who are primed and ready to react against, or even preempt, any serious conversation about the need for more, and better, regulation of the US’s readily available stock of lethal weapons — that resonance is what frightens and saddens me. Because in this context, Ice T’s comment obviously isn’t just about his reading of the Constitution as providing a right for personal self-defense against state oppression. That’s the pretense of his message; but the practical implications, at this moment, say much more. It’s this “more,” and how it relates to another problematic aspect  of contemporary libertarian ideology, that I want to briefly explore here. I’ve decided to talk about this issue in two parts. In this post, I want to offer my general comments on what’s going on in the libertarian attraction to Ice T’s comments; my next post will offer some more detailed analysis and critique of the ideological problems and possibilities of this viewpoint.

First, let me brush aside, with minimal remark, the issue of the “constitutionality” of the right of every citizen to personally bear arms for self-defense. Simply put, no compelling argument about what the Second Amendment should mean for us can ever be finally settled by appeal to the Amendment itself. The real question is about how we should “read” the text — about its meaning, which always already implies a concern and what significance we think it has, or should have, for us. Hermeneutics aside, I’m willing to grant, for the sake of this series and this post, Ice T’s reading of the Amendment, which sees in it a constitutional right for personal gun ownership, for the purposes of self-defense. (Again, much more could be said, here, especially about what we rightfully defend ourselves against — is it simply in the context of revolution against tyrannical political authorities, or does it greatly expand to include robbers, and any other person or group we might fear? But again, for the sake of discussion, I’m assuming legitimacy for the generic view that the right to armed self-defense applies across the board.) Personally, I have deep-seated doubts about the actual safety personal handguns provide against perceived social threats — I don’t think facts, history or logic bears out the point that they actually “make us safer”; rather the opposite. And, if you want a glance at a recent statement of the key alternative “reading” of the Second Amendment, see Jason Alexander’s heartfelt rant here. Yet, I digress… Onto the issue at hand….

We should actually begin by noting a discrepancy between the view espoused by Ice T and the ideological reasons his blunt defense of the right to personally own guns appeals to conservative-libertarian sensibilities today. If you pay attention to his language, Ice T himself seems to link the idea that the population has a right and need to arm itself for self-defense with a deep sensitivity to the history of systemic racial violence and police brutality. Notice his language: the right exists to protect yourselves from the police. The implication here, which I find well-worth pondering, is that the real social need the right to bear arms is addressing is the need of oppressed communities to have access to legally viable means of self-defense. In my online spats over the past couple of days, the conservative/libertarian argument I’ve encountered has attempted to make a similar point in different ways: namely, that the right to personally bear arms is indeed about self-defense against political tyranny. Specifically, I’ve heard the argument that owning guns is the “only way” to give the general population a fighting chance when government turns corrupt, or when the threat of overt state-sponsored violence and martial law against “us” looms large. I even heard the idea seriously advanced that it was because the US leads the way in gun-related violence that we have less “government initiated violence” here than elsewhere. (“So, the more effectively we kill one another in the streets, the freer we, as a political society, will be?” Wow… ) Now, I’m actually sympathetic with what I see as some of the intent behind this rationale — the notion that citizens and communities should have the freedom and right to viable self-defense against political tyranny and social oppression. But one only need pause and reflect to realize just how ludicrous it is to think that the “right to bear arms”, interpreted as freedom for personal weaponry, does, or could, adequately address that need.

First of all, sticking with our gun-owning interpretation of the Second Amendment, we must not forget that this reading is premised on the distinction between the state’s need for a “well-regulated militia,” and the people’s right to protect themselves against said militia when its authority and force is turned against them. It is obvious, then, that for this to be an actually viable means of self-defense, there would need to be some measure of “proportionality” between the kinds of arms the “well-regulated militia” has, and the arms available to the general population. Which means either: (1) a serious regulation of the national militia’s arms by the population, such that the militia will not have access to a kind of weaponry the general population does not, or (2) that the population should have legal recourse to “keep and bear” whatever form of weaponry (it feels) it needs to level the playing field against the potentially tyrannical state. I’m not sure how bog-standard libertarianism addresses this problem, in principle, but it’s clear that (1) would require heavy regulation of the military and police force, and (2) would in principle have no reason to impede citizens from legally procuring and keeping nuclear weapons and tanks. Now, I’m open to having a serious conversation about (1), but it’s obvious that’s not what your average middle-class white person “liking” Ice T’s comments on Facebook is advocating. They probably don’t want, for example, to have to slow-down the US military’s R&D into outrageously advanced weapons technology (e.g., for purposes of “counterterrorism”); nor would they probably want to think too long about what it would have meant in the 1960’s (or before), for the African-American popluation to have exercised its constitutional right to armed self-defense against police brutality and state-sponsored violence. So, I think we can safely assume (1) is not what the libertarians I’m talking about are calling for. (They may not have caught the KRS-One reference by Ice T at the end; he’s a politically active hip-hop artist who certainly does understand systemic racial violence in the US as government-backed “terrorism,” or state-sponsored “tyranny”. For one example of the palpable gulf separating Ice T’s perspective from what’s behind white-conservative ideology about the need for “limited government”, see this guy’s awkward endorsement of his Second Amendment defense. And notice the first comment!)

But, if we’re not going to actively regulate, at the popular level, what forms of weaponry our military has, for the sake of some ideal of giving the would-be-oppressed population a “fighting chance,” that means we’re left with (2) — the right to legally procure whatever weaponry will give us equal or greater firepower when the militia turns on us. And, again, if we’re paying attention to our national and global context, to actually achieve some measure of “balance” between the firepower of the state and that of the population, would mean we have the right to become, as a pal of mine put it, the 21st century “Wild Wild West” — each person armed to the T, whatever they feel they need to protect themselves from Big Bad Brother. The point is, if we read this right in such a way that we think it should provide some means of proportional firepower — the right to have the amount and kind of weapons we’ll need to beat our own military force — we’re automatically forced into a world of ridiculous conclusions. Anyone who knows anything about the actual power of the Pentagon, in terms of weapons or the capital it takes to procure them, will tell you there’s no way to actually “level the playing field.” If the right to bear arms is about the need to defend ourselves against the state’s “milita,” it is not a realistic means of realizing that need. It’s a simple fact that those with the most money have the biggest weapons; and history bears out the truth that when it’s the state versus the population, the latter is always  left throwing rocks at tanks.

If, then, the libertarian recourse to the Second Amendment — represented by the appeal to Ice T, at this moment of our national and cultural history– isn’t really about achieving a practical, viable means of self-defense against political tyranny, what is about? It’s about the perception of safety through increased personal firepower. It’s not about having a practical means of resisting government oppression; it’s about protecting myself and my own from the “others” I fear — the lunatic lone goneman, the robber, the drug-laden poor and other dangerous mobs. That’s why Ice T, whose actual wording should lead to a much more interesting discussion about the nature of political oppression and defense against tyranny, is appealed to now. Because not only do the new libertarians want us to have all the firepower we need to personally take out any crazed criminal who might walk into our house, or movie theater; they actually believe our government has become the lone gunman, the lawless criminal; the agent of repression and tyranny; the one breaking into our collective house, with all their liberty-denying rules and regulations, and holding us at gunpoint. How often does one hear some version of the view that, when *he* gets elected; when *they* win the culture war; when we lose “our country” to the other guys, we better be armed, because our ability to kill the madman is, to quote Ice T, the “last defense against tyranny”?

This sort of deep-seated cultural belief, the utter “distrust of government” among the right-wing. is the actual ideological underpinning of Ice T’s appeal, at this moment. He may have a bit more historical nuance lying behind his understanding of how a tyrannical “police state” oppresses a segment of population opposed to its interests, but the message — our “last defense against tyranny” — it resonates. Why? Because we not only want to protect ourselves from madmen and robbers, and we not only (mistakenly) believe that the only way to do so is with better and more firepower. (“If the moviegoers had all been armed…”) More importantly, it resonates because the new libertarians — along with others on the right — have given up on governmental structures (Law-making and Law-enforcement) as a viable means of “defense against tyranny.” One need only stop and ask: if libertarians are nodding when Ice T says the Second Amendment protects the “last form of defense against tyranny”, what “other forms” of defense exist, before or apart from the need to personally“keep and bear” arms in contexts of oppression, which have in their estimation utterly failed?

Well, surely forms of social defense against tyranny: those forms of “law and order” secured through (ideally) democratic, social processes. The new libertarians are confident that it is not the government’s job to make new, more or better social Law; its only role is to enforce the individually possessed rights already established by the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. The government just is the court-house and the police department. It has no say on how society should be organized (that’s the job of the free market!), its realm is restricted to safeguarding the property rights of individuals…even if these are “inalienable,” “God-given” rights each individual, in theory, possesses. And so, when we find ourselves in situations where existing structures of law and order break down, or are ignored by the “lawless criminals”, we cannot and should not look to our political representatives for help or guidance; we cannot and should not have any serious national discussion about ways to collectively augment, expand or transform existing legal and punitive structures. “Government” is not the means by which we should seek to better establish and secure our collective freedoms and rights. When fear of “the other” reigns, social processes can’t be trusted — so it becomes every man for himself.

en. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., center, leads a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 24, 2012, to criticize the sale of high-capacity magazines for assault rifles that are sold to the public.

Perhaps we should pause here, and raise a question about the juxtaposition between the skepticism of government and of any social means of securing law and order, and a concomitant “every man for himself” mindset, coming from a gangsta rapper (Ice T), and these same sentiments now being expressed by a host of lower-middle class white males, who are, for many legitimate reasons (as I discussed here and here) disenfranchised with our given political establishment. It makes sense to become jaded about “the government” when the one you have isn’t working for you and your community — whether you’re in the Ghetto, or a member of the “new poor” and a newly-disenfranchised member of the quickly disappearing American middle class. As I stated above, Ice T is coming from a community with intensely personal  knowledge about  profound systemic oppression and state-sponsored violence. And perhaps it is the case that many erstwhile conservatives are newly attracted to the anti-government rhetoric, because we live a moment at which many more Americans now see a bit more clearly, and feel a bit more personally, how their needs and interests too, are being swept aside by a political system that caters to an elite class of citizens. But if this observation is on target, we might want to take the next logical step, and think about how the proliferation of unregulated, deregulated, or simply illegal guns has played itself out in the community Ice T is coming out of. We might want to draw some connections between the poverty and social alienation of those in America’s ghetto, and the role guns serve in that context of acute social and political oppression as a means of enforcing extra- or il-legal systems of “self defense”, and of securing of one’s own possession there. In short: if those who resonate with Ice T’s comments in the wake of the Aurora shooting do so because they feel profoundly threatened and abandoned, and because they see the “right to bear arms” as the only means of absolving that fear and securing themselves and their loved ones against those threats, we might want to ask ourselves: do we have here anything other than the logic of gang violence — a social context in which one’s only perceived means of “security” is violent defense of oneself and one’s own, by any means necessary — disguised as “personal liberty”?

And what of those who do think that government is, or should be, a means by which we can legitimately enforce newer, better law, a means of moving toward a more decent, humane social order? What of those who might think the ubiquity of heavy assault weaponry in US streets has something to do with thousands of senseless murders every year, and who believe  “government” — for all its obvious corruption — might yet, if we can find the political and social will, still be a means by which we can and should do something to augment the ridiculous “freedom” to “keep and bear” machines that allow madmen to act upon their psychotic tendenices with more precise and effective violence?  Well, they are the enemy, too — the puppets of Big Bad Brother; the mouthpieces of political tyranny. And so, with 12 more civilians dead and many more permanently scarred, the defenders of the individual right to legally “keep and bear” whatever will assuage our fear of the Big Bad Other can hear them coming ’round the bend, murder stats and law-books in hand, to take away our freedom.

I am Troy Davis

There’s little to say that hasn’t or won’t be said about the murder of Troy Anthony Davis last night in Jackson, GA. I watched the live coverage on Democracy Now!, the only news organization at the scene of the execution. Amy Goodman and crew extended their broadcast into a sixth hour, as the execution scheduled for around 7:00 EST was inexplicably postponed, leaving family and friends and a few hundred other activists who turned out to support Troy simultaneously hopeful and in the dark about what was going on. I watched and listened as Goodman held the mic for his sister, his nephew, for Big Boi and Al Sharpton, Ben Jealous and other NAACP representatives, for local clergy and activists from near and far. It was heart-wrenching: Amy was speaking to Ben Jealous and Larry Cox of Amnesty International. Ben was saying “Let’s hold out hope until this last minute; always hold out hope…” as muffled cheers began to spread. The crowd erupted as the word spread that a stay had been granted. Ben bows his head and pauses amidst the cheers, resuming a moment later: “I was saying we came prepared for a miracle…” Larry Cox responds by mumbling a comment about someone — himself? all of us? — “needing to get religious.” The young chairman of the NAACP board introduces herself, beaming: “We just heard that he’s been granted a stay. And we serve a God who is able! and we’re so grateful right now… We thank God for it. We believe in America, we believe in the justice system….”

I had missed that particular scene the night before. Re-watching it on DN!’s morning-after broadcast, already aware of the tragic undoing of this miracle — the encroaching silence that would fall upon the crowd minutes later — I burst into tears uncontrollably upon listening to the chairwoman’s outburst of praise. The cruel discrepancy was that Justice Clarence Thomas had, in fact, merely taken the issue before the Supreme Court, who would decide whether or not a brief “reprieve” — not quite as significant as another “stay” (this one would’ve been the fourth stay for Troy) — would be granted to halt the execution for up to a week. A couple of hours later, blue lights began to appear and the “storm-trooper” police huddled closer to the crowd. You could sense what was the case, as a more well-founded word began to spread through the crowd, the cell phones, and over the air. The family left the scene; Ben spoke softly amidst the crowd, gathered behind the yellow rope that Amy and crew could not pass. The killing had begun.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

I only want to raise one overarching question about the moral and theological rationale of this event. How should we understand the tension — if any indeed exists — between the the two most widespread slogans used by supporters of Davis: (1) “I am Troy Davis.”, and (2) “Too Much Doubt!”? Both were used by Troy’s supporters. The somewhat cold (perhaps simply hardened, jaded) tone of Rev. Al Sharpton, when speaking with DN!, came through in a litany of variations on the second mantra. The good Reverend was mercifully, dutifully on the scene; but his dominant tone and language was Legalese. He spoke insightfully about racism as a systemic problem, how all the sicknesses of a society are manifest in its justice system; yet he sounded like a politician appealing to politicians. With integrity, yes; in the name of human decency and fairness, no doubt. And thank God for that. But Sharpton’s “Too Much Doubt” speech was an appeal to the authorities on their own terms; it was a critique of the failings of the system by its own standards. As such, it was totally warranted and necessary. There is no doubt whatsoever that there was in fact far, far “too much doubt” for any American legal body to conscientiously carry out Troy’s 22-year old death-sentence, even by the standards of its own legal conventions — that abstract, contingent, necessarily-in-flux body of minimal conditions, both circumstantial and “hard” evidence, which the Dept. of Justice trusts to ensure a court system of due process, fair trial and just sentencing. .

In this case, however, there was no “hard” evidence. This is obviously one of the most basic reasons to question, if not outright reject, the death penalty itself: a basic admission that all human beings– and thus all systems and procedures over which they preside — are fragile and limited, inevitably reflecting our hidden and not-so-hidden prejudices and interests and desires and loves. Forensic evidence and DNA testing have done much to improve and, depending on the case, de/legitimate circumstantial human testimony. But bare facts, evidence itself, does not speak — it invites perception and narration; it opens up and gives itself over to human knowledge and attestation. And when the evidence fails — when it’s inconclusive, or too dense to “objectively” perceive and narrate; that is, when we cannot deem it satisfactory; when the cool observation of brute facts alone ceases, for whatever reason, to ease our conscience — then, everything hangs on witness. Lives are then spared or taken, not because of any neutral system or procedure, but precisely because one or another display of fragile human witness, some or another form of humanly attested love and investment and hope and rage, wins the day in court. Yet if this is true, if witness rather than evidence really carries the day, even in our bio-technological age, it is not partially so: the complex history of human witness — the manifold witness of humanity’s particular loves, hopes and fears — simply is the complex history of human justice. Particular, historically contingent constellations of human witness — the history of the particular gods our loves, hopes and fears attest– constitute the spiritual engine driving any given system of justice.

Troy Davis’s case exemplifies how the most serious failings of our modern systems of criminal justice, particularly the American Dept. of Justice, consist in the routine dehumanization of those involved in criminal cases. Alleged or suspected criminals and victims alike are dehumanized as our legal authorities and representatives (judge and jury alike) profess an unshakeable faith in the “evidential” basis of our contrived procedures and systems. Conversely, legal dehumanization occurs as the actual centrality of human witness is denied, relativized or altogether ignored. This denial allows us to claim for ourselves a venerable ideal of neutrality and ever-increasing objectivity in our judgments; it simultaneously requires the ideological refusal of any existing ideological contamination of our system. In the same way that for the British government to take an honest look at the material conditions of the London riots would have exposed elements of criminality in the UK’s governing class, for the Georgia parole board to finally “give in” and reverse its 1989 decision in Troy’s case would amount to an admission of their system’s flawed inhumanity.Thus Law prof. Eric Freedman says that what’s really behind a court’s unwillingness to reverse its decision in a case like this — where the original (circumstantial) evidence; that is, 7 of the 9 “eyewitnesseswho testified against Davis, completely falls apart over time — is not the scientific solidity of the alleged basis of the ruling (“evidence”), but the court’s and the family of the victim’s “desire for finality.” Once a ruling has been passed, despite what comes to light afterwards, it is not the judge but the judged that bear the burden of proof. The crucial thing to see is that this is the case not because the original decision was actually based on incontrovertible evidence — if that were it, the courts would have no fear of contradiction — but because the system requires faith in the finality of the witness it gave. Douglas Berman, another law prof., said it clearly: “‘Many of the people asserting confidence in [Davis’s] guilt are much more expressing confidence in our legal system and our jury system…That’s why the shouting gets so loud — because what is nominally a factual issue of his guilt is really a dispute over how that issue gets resolved,’ and by whom.”

This is true both for legal bodies that cannot admit past or present bias, as well as for the grieving families of victims, whose grief only admits the resolute promise of personal satisfaction, rather than the much messier truth and dim hope of justice for all. No one should make light of the grief of the MacPhail family, but sadly, their mourning bore witness not simply to the fragility of human love and inexplicably violent loss; their pain was also expressed according to the logic of the justice system through which it sought resolution: their grief sought release by finding an incontrovertible “criminal”, an inhumane Victimizer, and so it required faith in the incontrovertibility and finality of the justice system’s decision-making process. (Those familiar with the literature will recognize Girard’s scapegoat hypothesis at work here.) Neither the MacPhail family nor the courts to which they entrusted the resolution of their grief could admit the fragility and broken humanity of the witness against Troy Davis. All that was needed was enough “evidence” — i.e., enough convincing human testimony — to allow the Judge(s) psychic resolution, enough to declare guilt and innocence and so to deliver to the “Victims” (defined singly as the MacPhails, the bio-logical family of the killed) an opposing “Victimizer.” My point here is that in the current system, in any system where the death penalty is practiced and thus rationalized, evidence (which we must believe to be incontrovertible) and witness (which is by necessity provisional) must be diametrically opposed. Similarly, for the MacPhails, Troy Davis could not be both Victim and Victimizer. The very form of their faith, the justice in which their loss found resolution, would not allow the fragility of the witnesses against Troy-Davis-as-Victimizer to be exposed. The post-execution NYT piece reads:

“…But for the family of the slain officer and others who believed that two decades’ worth of legal appeals and Supreme Court intervention was more than enough to ensure justice, it was not an issue of race but of law…. Inside the prison, Officer MacPhail’s widow, Joan MacPhail-Harris, said calling Mr. Davis a victim was ludicrous…. “We have lived this for 22 years,” she said on Monday. “We are victims.”… She added: “We have laws in this land so that there is not chaos. We are not killing Troy because we want to.”

So much for “too much doubt.” The point is, even when that mantra is necessary and useful — that is, when we are tactically appealing to our given legal representatives, on their own terms — a system of justice where the death penalty is even an option, our given systems of contrived neutrality and the satisfication brought through the “finality” of our own witness, cannot admit that legitimate doubt exists, because to do so would expose the vulnerability of our faith in the system itself. To make  “too much doubt” the basis of one’s critique of our systems of justice, even though it casts its critique in the terms within which the system claims to operate (“reasonable doubt” and incontrovertible “evidence”), only accomplishes an internal critical gesture. At its best, as with Rev. Sharpton on Wednesday, it dutifully exposes the hidden hypocrisy attending our past and present attempts to deny the fragile humanity of our quest for justice. Those who spoke out for Troy Davis simply because there was “too much doubt” attested a truth; they testified that to carry out the sentence lawfully decreed against him would be to go on with “too much faith” in ourselves and our current legal framework. Even many who are “pro-death-penalty”, or simply unopposed to it in cases where the evidence is “overwhelming,” could speak out for the dignity of Troy’s life on the basis of this critical affirmation of the given system.

To conclude, I simply want to suggest that the first mantra — “I am Troy Davis” — embodies a much deeper critique of the legal powers and authorities operative in GA last night. It is deeper because it not only exposes the limits of the given system; it strikes at its heart by attesting a different form of faith, by calling on a different kind of justice than that which the system of incontrovertible evidence and which any form of human witness “finalized” by the death penalty can give. Rather than criticizing that system for its failure to be itself — rather than simply (but necessarily) denouncing the rulers for their inability to produce a pure Victim, for their lethal fantasy that that they decree from a place beyond the sphere of victimization; rather than all that, for the masses who read Troy’s letter to his supporters to take up his own concluding declaration — I AM TROY DAVIS, and I AM FREE! — and to make his affirmation of freedom their own, is to attest that a justice capable of including, indeed requiring, the fragility of human witness is not only possible, but already exists. To his dying breath — with which he expressed sorrow for the MacPhail’s’ loss, reiterated his innocence, encouraged the MacPhails and his supporters to keep searching for truth and justice, and told his executioners “May God have mercy on your souls” — Troy Davis attested a freedom that exceeded the godless self-justifications that possessed that GA parole board; that victims’ family; that Supreme Court meeting. Those first black teenagers who stood in front of their school, declaring his situation their situation, attested a justice that knows such freedom; as did his sister Martina, who connected Troy’s plight to all on death row, and to the widespread atrocities of our prison system.

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.