Political destruction in the neoliberal era
Over on the series of tubes that emanates from the Twitter hive mind, Ned Resnikoff flagged this post from Will Davies (no relation, I assume, to brothers Ray and Dave) that stands for now as the smartest analysis I’ve seen about the ongoing riots in London.
Davies notes how lacking the explanations for the chaos from both the left and the right have been — although the right thus far hasn’t offered explanation so much as condemnation (and sometimes a profoundly ill-advised combination of the two) — as if neither side could really fathom the events and rather than admit as much, reverted to repeating platitudinous talking points with somewhat less than total conviction. I’ve been struck, too, by how difficult it has been thus far to place these riots in a conventional or even comprehensible political context, and I think Davies is right when he says:
I’m also troubled by how weak the sociological, socialist and structuralist analyses of these events have been over the last few days. Attempts by Ken Livingstone and Polly Toynbee to peg these events to the Coalition’s economic policies look very flimsy, seeing as the cuts are only just beginning. Even if 15% of the public sector had been axed in May of last year, I think it would be crudely economistic to assume that people might therefore divert their energies from community drama projects to smashing up JD Sports within the space of 15 months. And while global capitalism may be in meltdown, this is not (yet) represented in the unemployment figures, which are not as bleak as many have expected.
The answer, usually, would be to simply listen to the people, and pay attention to whatever explanations they give for themselves. But as Davies notes, in this instance, at least, that doesn’t really clarify things; it may muddy them up even further:
The dilemma for the Left, and for sociologists, is the following: whether or not to trust people’s own understanding of what they’re doing. And if a young looter says nothing about politics or inequality, and displays no class consciousness, to what extent can a culturally sensitive democratic socialist disagree with them? For sure, the Old Left would have no problem re-framing the behaviour of an egomaniac teenager burning down his neighbour’s shop in terms of class. That’s what crude Marxist ‘critical realism’ meant. But the New Left, along with the ‘cultural turn’ in sociology, was meant to be slightly more capable of listening.
Anecdotes do more work than structural analysis, at least for the time being. This piece by Paul Lewis and James Harkin is interesting. Then watch this video from 14’30” onwards and listen to this interview with two female rioters, for more evidence on the rise of the ‘criminal consumer’. […]
Do these anecdotes and qualitative impressions mean that it isn’t about class, that it isn’t about capitalism? Not quite. But Marxists need to remember the Hegelian distinction between ‘in itself’ and ‘for itself’. In themselves, these riots may indeed be about inequality: the concentration of wealth and power may simply have become too unwieldy, regardless of what the rioters think is going on. But for themselves, they are about power, hedonism, consumption and sovereignty of the ego. Anyone who disagrees with that is simply not crediting the participants with being able to make sense of what they’re doing. And if there’s one thing likely to incite even more rioting, it’s treating the participants as lacking independence of thought. In many ways, blame is what they each individually deserve, because recognition of their own individual agency is what they most desire.
Sociologists and socialists are wary of blaming individuals, for events that they are not entirely in control of, and structures that they didn’t design. But surely a nuanced understanding of contemporary individualism recognises that it is no less real for having been politically constructed. Political and economic ideas and concepts can become more truthful over time, if there is enough power behind them. The neoliberal vision of the individual ego, choosing, desiring and consuming, independent of social norms or institutions, has grown more plausible over the past thirty years. Once it becomes adopted by people to understand and criticise their own lives and actions, then it attains a type of ‘performative’ and interpretive reality that class may have done in the past, but no longer does.
As an explanation, then, Davies turns to David Harvey — specifically the sections of his A Brief History of Neoliberalism that focus on the social impacts of the full embrace of neoliberalism, which Harvey posits are largely evidenced through a rising anomie among younger citizens:
As David Harvey argues in A Brief History of Neoliberalism, combine neo-classical economics with the 1960s rhetoric of emancipation, and you have a heady ideological cocktail, that draws people into conceiving of themselves as autonomous sovereign selves. Ask today’s rioter what he is doing, and he will reply using the language of self, pleasure, economic freedom and individual recognition. This borders on the concerns of the Left, when it enters into identity politics, but for the most part it is entirely neoliberal. He didn’t write this script, but he did choose to read from it.
At this early juncture, I’m inclined to adopt this framework of explanation originally proposed by Harvey, because it makes more sense to me than anything else. I’d imagine that, yes, people are angry about austerity measures; and that, yes, chronic joblessness is fueling that anger, alongside highly volatile relationships with the police. In its way, seeing the rioters through this prism allows denizens of both the left and the right to find at least a little something with which to agree. A more hardline leftist can look at how rampant consumer capitalism has creatively destroyed former systems of community and reciprocity. People on the right can say that this is evidence of a generation of people completely unmoored from traditional societal norms that keep our animal natures in-check.
Indeed, so much of this rioting has appeared nearly apolitical — at least after the first moments — that it may make more sense to view it simply as a case of collective ids gone wild. It’s as if many of these people have long viewed themselves as neglected or denied awesome figures of true Greatness. And now is their chance, with the cracks in the facade of order just wide enough to drive a bat or brick through, to seize everything that’s rightfully theirs by the simple virtue of their being.
London’s awash with hooded Raskolnikovs, and they all want iPads.
(x-posted at Flower & Thistle)