JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 12.8.11
DREADFUL, ISN’T IT? There was a time, so we’re told, when the oppressed of the earth at least had enough self-respect to riot for a political cause. They took to the streets, and broke a few windows, for liberty, equality, fraternity; or for the vote, and against the poll tax.
Now though, all they seem to want is a supply of flat-screen televisions, some box-fresh trainers, the latest mobile phone; and on television, all the smartly-groomed, empty-headed news presenters seem distraught and puzzled. On BBC News 24, though, one prattling presenter will not let the distinguished black writer and broadcaster Darcus Howe even open his mouth to explain the situation, without asking him whether his willingness to explain means he “condones” the violence; the sheer stupidity and disrespect implied in this question is oceanic in scale, and depressing almost beyond words.
Here in Scotland, though – with the privilege of 400 miles of distance, drenching summer rain that cools street passions at a stroke, and a society unchallenged by the kind of mass migration that has repeatedly reshaped England’s major cities over the last sixty years – we have no excuse for such a failure of intellect, or of decency; we need to understand, both because the United Kingdom is still the state we’re in, and because only fools ever utter the phrase “it couldn’t happen here”.
And the first thing we need to grasp – at the very outset of what will doubtless be a long debate – is that there is no mystery at all about where these looting, rioting kids get their values from, or their lack of them. They get them from every breath, every image, and most of the policy decisions of the society around them, which – for the last generation and more – has used material acquisitiveness and greed as the great driver of the unceasing economic growth to which it has become addicted.
“Greed is good”, yelled Gordon Gekko, the character at the centre of the 1987 film Wall Street; and the kids born in that decade, and the one after, heard the message, and took it seriously. It was an idea with deep ideological antecedents among the transatlantic right; it dismissed liberal sentiment about equality, fraternity, good governance, and other characteristics of a “good society”, as a load of snivelling sentimentality, to be driven out by a good dose of material self-interest, and the iron logic of the market.
Now it seems to me self-evident that this idea is nonsense, promoted by the wealthy because it suits their short-term interests. There is no record of any successful society in history surviving on a creed which betrays such a partial understanding of human nature. It’s the glory of our species that we are complex – individual and sociable, competitive and co-operative, selfish and altruistic, full of egoism and yet capable of astonishing leaps of empathy; we therefore need social systems that match our complexity, and do not mutilate us by emphasising one aspect of our characters at the expense of all others.
The idea of the almighty market, above and beyond the law, on the other hand, is a corrosive creed, which undermines every non-financial tie that binds human beings. It weakens marriage, threatens family life, breaks up communities, and – in constantly attacking political structures and seeking to buy their compliance – it initiates a process which, if not halted, leads to all states becoming failed states, unable to command the respect of their people, or to enforce the law. In their disgraceful behaviour, these young looters therefore barely do more than hold a mirror up to a society which has increasingly allowed itself to be driven, from its highest levels down, by pathological levels of personal greed, by an unhealthy respect for wealth and conspicuous consumption, and by a conscious, deliberate and institutionalised lack of concern for the wellbeing of others.
Or most urgent need, in facing this crisis, is therefore to shake off the ideological chains of the last generation, and start thinking again. Let’s accept that to live good lives, human beings need both security and freedom. Let us acknowledge that when people say unemployment is an evil, they do not speak metaphorically; it destroys lives, and creates levels of rage and misery that societies struggle to contain. Let us accept that the balance of society requires both free enterprise and good government, and that government bought up by business interests can never be good, or capable of commanding respect.
And let us stop, finally, this childish game of sneering at virtue, generosity, love; and promoting vice and greed as in some way more “real”. Of course evil things can happen in human affairs; war, destruction, rape, shocking forms of violence. The story of human progress, though, has to do with the recognition that we can be, and usually are, so much more than the competing, grasping animals we sometimes seem to be. We can co-operate, educate, form communities, build cities, care for one another, and create welfare systems that support our care; we can sing, dance, paint, tell stories, try to make great art, as thousands are doing in Edinburgh at this moment.
The materialistic boom of the long postwar half-century has therefore been only a blip in human history, a brief period when we could go crazy for “things” – many of them unnecessary, or just plain silly – and plunder the world’s resources to get them. The rioters have brought us up hard against the obvious truth that we cannot continue to run a society obsessed with materialism, while simultaneously denying huge sections of the population the legal means to take part in the dash for affluence.
Now, we need to resolve that paradox by reducing material consumption, and maximising equaity of opportunity to create social wealth in other ways. And we need to have no more truck with those whose flawed and foolish thinking helped to bring us to this ugly pass. They may still dominate the debate, in the babbling television studios of a deluded political class. But on the streets, and at the grassroots where street violence will be defeated, their time is over; and whether we like it or not, history is moving on.