I try not to restate the trending applause lines that are cresting like giant waves through Twitter and similar online spaces, but there are reasons why some short sentiments find such a warm welcome at so many handles. In some sense, that’s how ideology both gets produced and gets powerful, through repetition of compact expressions that are synedoches for bigger, richer bodies of thought. Sometimes intellectuals are embarassed by those compactions, both because we prefer the full monty version of ideology and because so much intellectual and academic work still involves an essentially romantic narrative of individual originality, so who wants to get caught dead just parroting what looks like a cliche?
Let me parrot for one moment, anyway. David Cameron has said to his citizens: “And to the lawless minority, the criminals who’ve taken what they can get. I say: We will track you down, we will find you, we will charge you, we will punish you. You will pay for what you have done.” And I say, “Good, at last, I’m glad he’s going to get tough on bankers, NewsCorp, and members of Parliament who’ve misused their expense accounts. Maybe we can follow suit here in the United States.”
It’s an oft-repeated sentiment for good reason, though if you unpack it, there are divergent larger arguments behind it (say, a classical liberal’s assumption that equality before the law is a precondition of liberal democracy or a marxian assumption that the ruling classes are always already ‘guilty’ in some sense).
It strikes me as a more powerful and empowering line of response, at any rate, than the equally common call to investigate the “underlying causes” of unrest. That forms an instant dyadic pair with “let’s get tough on crime, don’t make excuses”, a permanent edifice of public discourse that’s encrusted with more barnacles than a shipwreck.
It’s not just that the “social causes” trope so quickly mobilizes a powerful counter, it’s also that it can actually get in the way of genuinely understanding a particular episode of social violence or unrest, whether your goal is to formulate policy that addresses underlying causes or just a comprehension of the socioeconomic structures involved for its own sake. We ought by now to understand that mass violence is a quintessential case of emergence in a complex-system sense. It has many “underlying causes”, none of them separable from one another, but the moment you flash over into violence is a case of self-organized criticality. That moment doesn’t depend on any single variable, and you can’t deal with it variable by variable (including if you’re a Cameronesque law-and-order type who just wants to get the water cannons and military into the streets). The way that people on the left sometimes talk the talk of “underlying causes” not only unnecessarily cuts out the individual agency (and responsibility) of people committing violence, it acts as if unrest is an equation. Add poverty plus racism plus poor social services and then just a bit of heat and humidity and bingo, violence. Which is not at all what happens: by that reasoning, the really curious thing is not the riots which happen but the many more which don’t.
Any given episode of riot is brimming over with contingency. One is as near and present as one person throwing a brick through a window and as far away as an old lady shaking a shaming finger at a neighbor poised with a brick in his hand. Given the dire combination of circumstances in most 21st Century societies, it’s as safe to predict that there will be a riot next week, next year, next decade as it is to predict that the weather is going to change and the seasons will come. So yes, change that combination of circumstances and you’ll change the weather, but damn if there aren’t a lot of interacting elements to consider.
Observing, on the other hand, that the way we (or at least David Cameron and his ilk) talk about and act towards rioters and the way we talk about bankers is wildly inequitable? It has the virtue, first off, of being overpoweringly true. It also redirects all the strengths of law-and-order rhetoric right back on its would-be wielders. Yes, indeed, Prime Minister, you do have a problem with a lack of “stronger sense of morality and responsibility” in your country, a crisis of values. Why else would you and your fellow politicians have been so lethally indifferent to the immorality of your associates inside and outside of government? Why would financial executives in the UK, US and elsewhere have looted and rubbished the lives and futures of so many fellow citizens with little regard for the consequences? All the excuses we’ve heard on both sides of the Atlantic from plutocrats and officials would be hard to distinguish from interviews with rioters if we stripped away the pictures and a few contextual details: everyone else was doing it, insurance will take care of a victimless crime, it’s just a sweater/million-dollar bonus. Neighborhoods and communities are too big to fail, too, in their own way. And whether it’s a street in Tottenham or Wall Street, it is indeed “the law abiding people who play by the rules” who will have to use social media to figure out where to bring their brooms or tighten their belts. To be honest, if I’m going to have to do some kind of clean-up, I figure it might be easier to sweep streets and rebuild burned buildings than rescue a million mortgages and shotgun a horde of zombie banks that have the assets of whole countries in their gullets. Just sayin’.