Here is the logic:
We live in a society that touts the pursuit of self interest. That tells people they should look out for themselves. And yet we also tell people pretty tales about community and cooperation and mutual respect.
Enterprise and initiative… but we’re all in this together.
The former ethic is for those who succeed to live by. The latter ethic is for those who have to budge in together in crowded conditions because, for whatever reason, they have not acquired enough material success to allow them to live the separated, isolated, private, individualistic life of the rich. The former ethic is for those with a private drive, detached dwellings, grounds, boundary walls and closable gates. The latter ethic is for those in terraces and flats with cardboard walls and laundry racks on their small balconies.
In short, if you live in a tenement or a housing estate, you must be public spirited. You must behave. You must get on with your neighbours. Your lack of wealth is your own fault; it is itself evidence that you do not have the necessary thrusting spirit of ruthless self-advancement… ergo, you must embrace community spirit because you are so inadequate that you must live in a community. Those with the necessary thrusting spirit of ruthless self-advancement can leave the graffiti-daubed, dog-shit-smeared romper room of community, and so need not attempt the cooperativeness that their very success shows to be against their nature in any case.
This is, in a roundabout way, a reiteration of the myth of innate and inborn destiny. It is the same myth that class societies have always told themselves, filtered through the hypocritical bad faith of modern liberalism.
It is not a scripted conspiracy, it is manufactured ideology. As such, it has all the chaos and contradiction of delusion. It is believed, even if it is a convenient piece of bunk. It is applied in a scattershot way, in all sorts of mixed-up and contradictory forms.
The apartheid inherent in it is not seen, is not admitted to, is often sincerely repudiated. And yet its persistence is tolerated, its expansion promoted. Nobody, after all, is ‘in favour’ of divisions between rich and poor. It’s one of those things that everybody formally disapproves of and yet continue.
When the people living in the cramped and dirty corners decide that they will no longer behave themselves, then we see the skull of class society beneath the moisturised, botoxed skin of liberal democratic discourse.
When the poor tear up their hovels, they are ticked-off for damaging their own ‘communities’ – as though this might not have occured to them, as though they might suddenly realise that they are trashing places that they actually find congenial, as though their behaviour speaks only to their own self-destructive madness and does not suggest that they actually find these ‘communities’ to be frustrating, grim, tedious, miserable, degraded places in which to be confined.
It is the same as the witless consolation that is offered to the suicidal. Do not hurt yourself, say people to those who hate themselves. Do not end your life, say people to those whose lives are miserable.
When the poor steal, they find themselves at the recieving end of the wagging fingers of the liberal moralisers. Do not do what society constantly exhorts you to do, they are told. Do not obey the lifelong conditioning of adverts and media images. Do not consider material goods to be signs of success and status and worth. Do not long for distraction. Do not fetishize stuff. Do not consider consumption to be a palliative. Not if you can’t or won’t pay for the privilege. Do not, in short, be a consumer without feeding your subsistence back into the system of capital circulation. Do not, says the moralising columnist, obey the instructions that are encoded in every page of this newspaper, in every advert that surrounds my column, in every billboard and commercial and brand logo in the marketplace where this newspaper is sold, unless you can stump up the cash.
Here the two ethics meet in the concept of law. Be a ruthless acquirer, but be law-abiding. But the law is written so that ‘Community’ may be disregarded by those who don’t have to live in communities (this being, as often as not, a code word for ghettos, slums and rundown, decaying urban battery farms). The law is written so that the grand theft of exploitation through the employment of wage labourers is legal, so that tax-dodging is legal, so that obscene wealth is legal, so that the fraud of electoral manifestoing is legal, so that the exercise of influence through wealth over the state is legal, so that the waging of war by the state upon the domestic and foreign poor is legal. The law is written so that the comparatively minor thefts and cruelties and invasions and abuses of the small fry is its target, its main proccupation. In short, wealth and power – with all their attendant large-scale vices – are legal. Poverty – with all its comparatively minor misdemeanours – is illegal… that is to say, it is not illegal to make people or allow people to be poor, but it is practically illegal to be poor.
None of this is to say that poor people don’t do terrible things. They do. They rob and rape and murder and torture and abuse. But none of them own media empires that have systematically befouled public discourse, degraded journalistic standards, engaged in wholesale political corruption, stoked racism and homophobia, degraded women, centralised monopoly power over the flow of information to the point of self-satirising absurdity, broken unions, driven down wages, and extracted billions of pounds and dollars of surplus from the labour of workers. None of them have taken the decision to carpet bomb civillian population centres. None of them have organised the ethnic cleansing, brutalisation, immiseration, systematic humiliation, mass-murder and apartheid-style tyrannizing of the Palestinians.
In short, poor people are not the problem, any more than black people (or black ‘culture’) is the problem. Most of the misery of the world is down to rich white blokes.
The comparison is beyond comparison, especially when you take into account the fact that the obscene pinnacles of wealth in the world – wealth which allows and propels some to commit such incomparably worse crimes – are created by the vampiric extraction which creates swathes of poverty, alienation and frustration in the first place.
The system creates poverty and needs poverty and fosters poverty. Where would the system be without a reserve army of unemployed to act as a disciplining factor upon those allowed to work? In any case, most poor people are not unemployed. Where would the system be without labour that it can use for the creation of profits and then requite at a bare minimum much lower than the profits the labour has created? Where would the system be without the entirely unrequited domestic labour of mothers who raise the next generations of workers? This is the extraction of surplus from those at the bottom and its redistribution upwards. This is the trickle-up effect. This is capitalism, and it made the sinkholes and urban warzones that now erupt in protest, anger, alienation and opportunistic consumption.
…the problem is that we live in a society where capitalism itself has become rampantly feral. Feral politicians cheat on their expenses, feral bankers plunder the public purse for all its worth, CEOs, hedge fund operators and private equity geniuses loot the world of wealth, telephone and credit card companies load mysterious charges on everyone’s bills, shopkeepers price gouge, and, at the drop of a hat swindlers and scam artists get to practice three-card monte right up into the highest echelons of the corporate and political world.
A political economy of mass dispossession, of predatory practices to the point of daylight robbery, particularly of the poor and the vulnerable, the unsophisticated and the legally unprotected, has become the order of the day. Does anyone believe it is possible to find an honest capitalist, an honest banker, an honest politician, an honest shopkeeper or an honest police commisioner any more? Yes, they do exist. But only as a minority that everyone else regards as stupid. Get smart. Get Easy Profits. Defraud and steal! The odds of getting caught are low. And in any case there are plenty of ways to shield personal wealth from the costs of corporate malfeasance.
What I say may sound shocking. Most of us don’t see it because we don’t want to. Certainly no politician dare say it and the press would only print it to heap scorn upon the sayer. But my guess is that every street rioter knows exactly what I mean. They are only doing what everyone else is doing, though in a different way – more blatently and visibly in the streets. Thatcherism unchained the feral instincts of capitalism (the “animal spirits” of the entreprenuer they coyly named it) and nothing has transpired to curb them since. Slash and burn is now openly the motto of the ruling classes pretty much everywhere.
This is the new normal in which we live. This is what the next grand commission of enquiry should address. Everyone, not just the rioters, should be held to account. Feral capitalism should be put on trial for crimes against humanity as well as for crimes against nature.
Sadly, this is what these mindless rioters cannot see or demand. Everything conspires to prevent us from seeing and demanding it also. This is why political power so hastily dons the robes of superior morality and unctuous reason so that no one might see it as so nakedly corrupt and stupidly irrational.
How can the system condemn those who have the enterprise and initiative to go out and take what they want? How can it frown upon their opportunistic consumption? After all, these are the values that the system claims to praise. Who is a more self-reliant, self-helping, enterprising, utility-maximising rational actor than the looter?
Here, again, the concept of law steps in to discriminate between the laudable ruthless and selfish violence of the wealthy and the powerful (their very success being their own alibi) and the sometimes ruthless and selfish violence of the poor, which must be condemned, which must also be decontextualised, the misery and frustration and alienation of poverty being no excuse, no alibi, not even any legitimate context.
Oh, and David Starkey is a racist cretin.
March 11, 2012 @ 4:38 am
You've got a point.