Mercury Rising 鳯女

Politics, life, and other things that matter

Archive for August 13th, 2011

Will the real Generation Fail please stand up?

Posted by Charles II on August 13, 2011

Watching the reaction to the British riots has been telling. (See also Paul Lewis’s(The Guardian) description for events in context). Avedon Carol provides a link to a particularly interesting take.

It didn’t seem that any police officers were using common sense, I actually wanted to take control. …The young black woman (in her 20′s) I was walking with kissed her teeth and said something about him [a non-Caucasian looter] being an idiot for conforming to stereotypes….There were a lot of people (my estimate is 30% of people there) who looked as though they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time…There were plenty of people (my estimate is maybe as many of 50% of people there) hanging around, fascinated by everything and enjoying watching the ‘entertainment’. …I got the feeling that they wouldn’t get involved in smashing any shops in, but if there were goods dropped by looters, they wouldn’t hesitate to pick them up…From what I noticed the instigators were older guys (20+) but a lot of the followers were teenagers. It didn’t feel like it would get violent. Nobody seemed interested in fighting each other…

I’ve heard a lot of people speculate on the reasons for people getting involved … but to me there is one reason that is key and more important than anything else and that’s that people thought/think they can get away with it….It took [Prime Minister] Cameron and [London Mayor] Boris a long time to come back from their holiday’s and it seems they came back for the wrong reasons i.e. they realised it was going to effect their political careers…But it’s not just the Tories, Milliband has also only just come back and is also in Peckham for the cameras…

I’m annoyed by, the media (even though I work in it myself). There have been a number of innapropriate people getting airtime and the presenters have been ill equipped with the basic knowledge of who the people they are intereviewing are….The looting in Walworth hasn’t been mentioned on TV, obviously there are a lot of disturbances in other areas that were a lot more serious, but on a normal day what happened in Walworth would have been headline news. It makes me wonder how many other smaller scale disturbances there were…

Step back a few paces, and this writer has hit some key points.

1) In normal times, people do not feel they can get away with riots and looting
2) Only a small fraction of a mob are actually lawbreakers; others are rubbernecking
3) Rubberneckers, however, will take loot if it’s lying around
4) Many people are neither looters nor rubberneckers, but simply mislaid
5) Class lines tend to be more important for loyalty than racial lines
6) There was some degree of organization of the looting, with young adults leading teens
7) Politicians are only interested to the degree that it impacts their careers
8) The media is unable to process the story
9) The failure of the media to process the story leads to a breakdown in trust
10) The police are unable to communicate to the non-looters, diminishing trust

To simplify what these observations say, they describe repression (either external, such as police, or internal, such as cultural) as the normal state of things. When the repression lifts, for whatever reason, young adults take advantage to improve their economic lot. Others, presumably older people, feel they have no stake in preventing the damage, so they don’t intervene. There is a serious restriction on police action, namely the completely innocent people (e.g. commuters whose buses stopped running) mingled among the looters. These are not local rubberneckers who can be told to just go home. The fact that the elites of society in the media, police, and politics are isolated from the reality of life becomes evident in their inability to process what is going on. The solutions are clearly not racial, but class-based; class, not race determines allegiances.

A side-note: cultural repression is not necessarily of the coercive “Thou shalt not” form. In medieval societies from Asia to Europe, large numbers of people decided that material goods were less important than spiritual experience. They became monks. To them wealth was not something to be desired, but a temptation to be shunned. This repression of the material instinct appears to have been entirely voluntary.

Now, this suggests logical means of intervention and prevention, specifically:
1) reduce the need for repression
2) give the older adults a stake in protecting property
3) get the elites of society more involved in what goes on in poorer areas.

Framed this way, it’s clear that what is driving the uproar is inequality of wealth and the segregation that class brings. The problem will remain unless society spends more on external repression, or instills cultural repression (such as finding spiritual values to displace purely material ones), or it resolves the issues of class. Nothing else will do.

Stirling Newberry blames “Generation Fail”, whoever that is, and the left, which he says “is, in fact, on the side of oppression” and “is a conservative force, which is dedicated to keeping their part of the profits of privilege.” If he’s speaking of New Labour and Nick Clegg, he probably has a point, but it’s lost in the broadbrush on this mysterious “Generation Fail” whose nature we are supposed to divine from statements like, “You came to power with the Soviet Union collapsing” and “You have given away the right to vote. You have erected a spy state. And you apologize for a President who has advanced all of this.”

Much of this is directed against Americans in relation to a British riot, making it all the more out of place. But he does say this one useful thing:

What is happening in London is not yobbery or hooliganism. These people are prepared. …It was not a “riot against corporate failure.” This is an insurrection, incoherent, unclear, unable to assume power, but as clearly, it is a political act. These rioters are prepared…

In short, they understood what they wanted and, given an opportunity, they acted. Under very different circumstances, we’d call them entrepreneurs.

There has been a loss of vision, a reduction of life to material pleasures, but this did not suddenly begin with the fall of the USSR, nor does the fault for all the evils blossoming forth today lie with any particular generation. J. Edgar Hoover and Frank Wisner created the spy state long before Barack Obama (or, ahem, George W. Bush) were anywhere near the levers of power. The Voting Rights Act was never properly enforced, even under the Democratic Administrations of Carter and Clinton: that’s why there were so many aged, difficult-to-use machines in place in 2000.

Yes, the sleek elites who seem to have no conscience when it comes to robbing the widow and orphan are disgusting. But they were rampant under Harding and Coolidge, under Reagan and Bush the Lesser, and during the Robber Baron era, too. It’s sad that Barack Obama never quite understood his moment in history, but a little perspective in seeing how history will understand him goes a long way.

Newberry’s search for scapegoats is as futile as most of the attempts to diagnose the riots in Britain. Throughout history, most people have been no less self-interested than the young men engaged in looting. Every generation has had its crackup. Every generation thinks that they are the unlucky ones to face Armageddon. The people who repair the crackup are always ordinary, flawed human beings who felt called to service. I would suggest that the “Generation Fail” that he so hates exists within himself.

And so, let’s stop hating one another and searching for scapegoats, and focus on what matters. And that, dear reader, is you. What will you do to make things better?

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