Monday, March 4, 2013

Victims of Virtue: another take on the 2011 Riots

‘A life without adventure is likely to be unsatisfying, but a life in which adventure is allowed to take whatever form it will is sure to be short.’

Reading Christopher Hitchens’ analysis of the 2011 Riots brought to mind the work of another fine wise man: Bertrand Russell; to whom the quotation above is attributable. I shall attempt to nudge the baton between the two.

Amidst the hysteria on all sides, the Hitch’s article is uncharacteristically dispassionate. The emergence of gangs is to blame, he says; inner-city brethren of anarchists, whose allegiances lie with the pack and not the state or indeed the other packs. Spurious or otherwise, this naturally poses the question: why are more people joining gangs?

That this is clearly not the first question being asked by MPs is incredible. Infuriatingly the Tory’s have chosen to reinforce and justify accusations of ‘knee-jerk’ and ‘reactionary’ politics by meeting aggression with aggression: ‘make their lives hell’ I believe is the threat. From what I can gather this means bring in the Thought Police and casually tiptoe around any human rights issues. This is half-baked short-termism and a second best solution.

Bertrand Russell gave the inaugural BBC Reith Lecture in 1948, titled ‘Authority and the Individual’ (highly recommended listening). In typically eloquent and amusing style he provides a concise history of human civilization, in which the pendulum has rocked between liberty and control; passion and frugality; autonomy and coercion.

When we traded our prehensile toes for dexterity and wit, we lost the ability to swing from the trees and hang upside-down (what shame), but gained the ability to plan and add up (what joy). We came to appreciate the gains from co-operation within our group and were hostile to those outside it. Competition within and between tribes led to leadership and riches (from land and slavery) respectively.

‘Social cohesion, which started with loyalty to a group reinforced by the fear of enemies, grew by processes partly natural and partly deliberate until it reached the vast conglomerates that we now know as nations.’

Russell emphasises the stresses caused by negating these basic human instincts of competition, and how seemingly virtuous arrangements will lead nature to ‘take her revenge by producing either listlessness or destructiveness, either of which may cause a structure imposed by reason to break down.’

And so it goes. We have breached the upper bounds of the balance between individualism and collectivism, and the vacuum left by competition, in infancy adolescence and adulthood, has been filled with resentment and rage. These feelings have further been exacerbated by envy of those outside and above this virtue-trap. Russell again:
‘There are those who get it – film stars, famous athletes, military commanders, and even some few politicians – but they are a small minority, and the rest are left to day-dreams: day-dreams of the cinema, day-dreams of wild west adventure stories, purely private day-dreams of imaginary power. I am not one of those who think day-dreams wholly evil; they are an essential part of the life of imagination. But when throughout a long life there is no means of relating them to reality they easily become unwholesome and even dangerous to sanity.’

By regression then, we have seen the disenfranchised re-forming ‘tribes’ - returning to the proverbial jungle - in resistance to this ‘listlessness’. The havoc caused by the Third Way is laid before us: an unsustainable burgeoning financial sector built with unnaturally low interest and a mass caught in the net dragged behind – without responsibility or any notion of it. William Beveridge, who devised the cradle to grave welfare system himself rejected the cognomen ‘welfare state’ on the basis that it should never reach this point, but merely serve as a subsistence that no ordinary person would be content with. 

It is inconsistent to blame all inequitable outcomes on the ‘deliberate’ policies of Margret Thatcher, whilst pointing out that the subsequent interventionist attempts of New Labour served only to stretch the gap between the richest and poorest (as John Pilger does in a daft, if brilliantly written piece here). And equally fallacious are the bleating calls to draw an indignant parallel between the looters and expense scandeleers, as if to exonerate the former by an inconsistency that simply does not exist: the guilty are punished in both cases.

The first-best solution is the one that tackles the cause. Finally, more delightful wisdom from Berty:

‘IF the unification of mankind is ever to be realized, it will be necessary to find ways of circumventing our largely unconscious primitive ferocity, partly by establishing a reign of law, and partly by finding innocent outlets for our competitive instincts.’

For a somewhat different take on things click here.

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