Political destruction in the neoliberal era

Over on the series of tubes that emanates from the Twitter hive mind, Ned Resnikoff flagged this post from Will Davies (no relation, I assume, to brothers Ray and Dave) that stands for now as the smartest analysis I’ve seen about the ongoing riots in London.

Davies notes how lacking the explanations for the chaos from both the left and the right have been — although the right thus far hasn’t offered explanation so much as condemnation (and sometimes a profoundly ill-advised combination of the two) — as if neither side could really fathom the events and rather than admit as much, reverted to repeating platitudinous talking points with somewhat less than total conviction. I’ve been struck, too, by how difficult it has been thus far to place these riots in a conventional or even comprehensible political context, and I think Davies is right when he says:

I’m also troubled by how weak the sociological, socialist and structuralist analyses of these events have been over the last few days. Attempts by Ken Livingstone and Polly Toynbee to peg these events to the Coalition’s economic policies look very flimsy, seeing as the cuts are only just beginning. Even if 15% of the public sector had been axed in May of last year, I think it would be crudely economistic to assume that people might therefore divert their energies from community drama projects to smashing up JD Sports within the space of 15 months. And while global capitalism may be in meltdown, this is not (yet) represented in the unemployment figures, which are not as bleak as many have expected.

The answer, usually, would be to simply listen to the people, and pay attention to whatever explanations they give for themselves. But as Davies notes, in this instance, at least, that doesn’t really clarify things; it may muddy them up even further:

The dilemma for the Left, and for sociologists, is the following: whether or not to trust people’s own understanding of what they’re doing. And if a young looter says nothing about politics or inequality, and displays no class consciousness, to what extent can a culturally sensitive democratic socialist disagree with them? For sure, the Old Left would have no problem re-framing the behaviour of an egomaniac teenager burning down his neighbour’s shop in terms of class. That’s what crude Marxist ‘critical realism’ meant. But the New Left, along with the ‘cultural turn’ in sociology, was meant to be slightly more capable of listening.

Anecdotes do more work than structural analysis, at least for the time being. This piece by Paul Lewis and James Harkin is interesting. Then watch this video from 14’30” onwards and listen to this interview with two female rioters, for more evidence on the rise of the ‘criminal consumer’. […]

Do these anecdotes and qualitative impressions mean that it isn’t about class, that it isn’t about capitalism? Not quite. But Marxists need to remember the Hegelian distinction between ‘in itself’ and ‘for itself’. In themselves, these riots may indeed be about inequality: the concentration of wealth and power may simply have become too unwieldy, regardless of what the rioters think is going on. But for themselves, they are about power, hedonism, consumption and sovereignty of the ego. Anyone who disagrees with that is simply not crediting the participants with being able to make sense of what they’re doing. And if there’s one thing likely to incite even more rioting, it’s treating the participants as lacking independence of thought. In many ways, blame is what they each individually deserve, because recognition of their own individual agency is what they most desire.

Sociologists and socialists are wary of blaming individuals, for events that they are not entirely in control of, and structures that they didn’t design. But surely a nuanced understanding of contemporary individualism recognises that it is no less real for having been politically constructed. Political and economic ideas and concepts can become more truthful over time, if there is enough power behind them. The neoliberal vision of the individual ego, choosing, desiring and consuming, independent of social norms or institutions, has grown more plausible over the past thirty years. Once it becomes adopted by people to understand and criticise their own lives and actions, then it attains a type of ‘performative’ and interpretive reality that class may have done in the past, but no longer does.

As an explanation, then, Davies turns to David Harvey — specifically the sections of his A Brief History of Neoliberalism that focus on the social impacts of the full embrace of neoliberalism, which Harvey posits are largely evidenced through a rising anomie among younger citizens:

As David Harvey argues in A Brief History of Neoliberalism, combine neo-classical economics with the 1960s rhetoric of emancipation, and you have a heady ideological cocktail, that draws people into conceiving of themselves as autonomous sovereign selves. Ask today’s rioter what he is doing, and he will reply using the language of self, pleasure, economic freedom and individual recognition. This borders on the concerns of the Left, when it enters into identity politics, but for the most part it is entirely neoliberal. He didn’t write this script, but he did choose to read from it.

At this early juncture, I’m inclined to adopt this framework of explanation originally proposed by Harvey, because it makes more sense to me than anything else. I’d imagine that, yes, people are angry about austerity measures; and that, yes, chronic joblessness is fueling that anger, alongside highly volatile relationships with the police. In its way, seeing the rioters through this prism allows denizens of both the left and the right to find at least a little something with which to agree. A more hardline leftist can look at how rampant consumer capitalism has creatively destroyed former systems of community and reciprocity. People on the right can say that this is evidence of a generation of people completely unmoored from traditional societal norms that keep our animal natures in-check.

Indeed, so much of this rioting has appeared nearly apolitical — at least after the first moments — that it may make more sense to view it simply as a case of collective ids gone wild. It’s as if many of these people have long viewed themselves as neglected or denied awesome figures of true Greatness. And now is their chance, with the cracks in the facade of order just wide enough to drive a bat or brick through, to seize everything that’s rightfully theirs by the simple virtue of their being.

London’s awash with hooded Raskolnikovs, and they all want iPads.

(x-posted at Flower & Thistle)

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27 thoughts on “Political destruction in the neoliberal era

  1. Harvey and Davies confuse individual rights and autonomy with selfishness and nihilism. The two are quite different. And unless someone can explain how the state ought to take away individual autonomy and civil rights in order to curb seflishness and nihilism, I think this sort of explanation is just so much conservatism draped in the rhetoric of the left.

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    • What if they’re both focusing more on the superstructure (wince) of neoliberalism rather than the folly of rights-talk?

      Actually, if that question doesn’t really address your concerns would you mind going into greater detail as to how/where you see the division and how/where they don’t?

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      • Well I think it’s pretty common for progressives and paleoconservatives alike to blame consumerism for all sorts of ills. Really, though, it’s just aesthetic. For me to buy the anti-consumerist, anti-individualist argument I need an argument that shows that the *state* should intervene in some way to alter these new norms, to make us less individualistic or not want to buy things. I think they can’t, because I think it all boils down to aesthetic concerns. How dare the proles care so much about buying things! Meanwhile the haughty intellectuals buy the things they like without too much complaining. They exist as individuals and think of themselves as such. It is the *other* individuals that have lost their sense of community.

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        • That being said, perhaps there is some truth to this in a sense. Perhaps we are ill-equipped to truly understand how to be autonomous individuals. Perhaps the cradle-to-grave style welfare state the Brits have clashes with healthy individualism and creates a stilted, confused version of it. Hard to say.

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          • Perhaps the cradle-to-grave style welfare state the Brits have clashes with healthy individualism and creates a stilted, confused version of it. Hard to say.

            Perhaps the antioxidant levels in English tea are to blame. Hard to say.

            This is not a case of correlation being treated as causation, but of no correlation at all. This is little more than idle speculation, based on nothing, and getting nowhere. That’s why I think it’s funny when it’s said in Bob Cheeks language (see the previous thread). Again, I feel the need to post this:

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            • The point I’m trying to make is that there is a point when you can have too much welfare, when it begins to actually harm its recipients. The British state is quite a lot “bigger” and more pervasive than ours, or than really any other government in the Anglosphere.

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              • I’m with Chris on this. I think it’s perhaps an open question whether there can be too much welfare, but the claim that there in fact is – or in fact might be – is an empirical matter that can’t be resolved without making a heavy investment in data and evidence. Platitudes and moral first principles would seem as relevant

                I think the suggestion you’re getting at is that too much nanny-statism engenders a feeling of hopelessness and frustration by diluting an urgent sense of duty to oneself

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              • The point I’m trying to make is that there is a point when you can have too much welfare, when it begins to actually harm its recipients.

                I’m with Chris on this. I think it’s an open question, and perhaps an interesting one, whether there can be too much welfare. But the claim that there in fact is – or in fact might be – a point at which public welfare actually hurts the recipients is an empirical matter that can’t be resolved without making a heavy investment in data and evidence. Reducing the issue to ideologically motivated moral and political first principles doesn’t seem very useful in arriving at an answer (not that you’ve done that here).

                I think the suggestion you’re getting at here is that too much nanny-statism engenders a feeling of hopelessness and frustration precisely because it curtails the growth and expression of personal economic responsibility. Part of the problem with this line of thought – and why it’s an empirical matter rather than a priori – is that the welfare state is a response to structural issues endemic to capitalistic (and other) economies: poverty and lack of access to employment opportunities. Additional ‘nanny state’ programs like universal health care are rationally justified in any event, or justified by different types of arguments.

                So I can see the connection you’re driving at, but personally I think it’s a mistake to arrive at an answer based on ideological first principles rather than evidence grounded in real data.

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                • Here’s a good measurement for “too much (of the wrong kind of) welfare” that I use:

                  Let’s say we switched from whatever we’re doing now to direct cash payment every two weeks.

                  Would the money be used for mostly rent, mostly food, with a little left over for entertainment?

                  If the answer is somewhere on the continuum between “wait, you asked that question seriously?” and “no, the money was spent well before we got to the beginning of the next period” for more than, oh, 15% of the recipients, then I’d say that we are giving too much of the wrong kind of welfare.

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            • The only thing I’d take issue with is E.D.’s idea that the individualism of neoliberalism is natural/healthy, thus putting the onus on the welfare state.

              The degree to which the west now fetishizes the individual is not really “natural,” if we understand natural as historically consistent. I’m skeptical there’s such a thing as natural when it comes to our self-ID and am inclined to see us always as defined by our time but…yeah.

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                • I don’t know how to answer these questions because I struggle to even define what my “individuality” would be, much less itemize it.

                  But in general I would advocate ridding ourselves of any part of us that denies that foundational cliche that we’re all in it together.

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              • Except this sort of behavior is not new, not by any stretch of the imagination. Sure, going after big screen TVs is new, but only because when people have done this in centuries, and millenia past, there weren’t big screen TVs! This is human behavior. Sure, we need to come up with some idea of what triggered this particular instance, and I suspect we will, though it will take time, and all of this blathering about left, right, or tea is just that, blathering.

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                • Isn’t this kind of apolitical, voracious destruction the kind of thing the West hasn’t seen in quite some time? I.e., wasn’t the last time this kind of thing would happen during eras of, by today’s standards, enormous inequality?

                  These aren’t rhetorical questions, by the way. I’m probably not thinking of similar instances in the more-recent future. As I said in the OP, I find it difficult to understand what’s happening in political terms of any kind — either as an explanation for their actions or as an explanation for why it’s happening, regardless of what the perpetrators think.

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                  • This reminds me of the riots you see after some big sports games more than anything. Just rage at nothing. At boredom. At lack of purpose or meaning. But purpose and meaning have always been missing, to some degree, or tricky to find.

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        • Ahhh, I understand this more now.

          You know, I never even think of it in these terms, but I’m positive it’s likely far more common than I’d imagine.

          I’m not a fan of consumerism; but I cop to being just as much a member of 21st century America as anyone else. My vice is apple products.

          From what I’ve read of Harvey, he’s not really moralistic or polemical enough that he ever puts forth arguments with these kind of paternalistic undertones; in general he attempts to simply diagnose as best he can. At least from what I’ve read thus far.

          And I think that’d be the better way to see their argument; it’s certainly the only way I’d want to accept it. It’s a balancing act, however, because the line between pointing out how our media universe is built on reinforcing our own self-perceptions as being invaluable and entitled to anything, and saying, in essence, “kids these days!!!” is a thin one.

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          • It’s also probably at least partly true, but so are the conservative arguments about the overbearing welfare state in the UK (which looms much larger there than here or in other Anglosphere countries). There’s truth to all of it, and maybe it’s all tied together somehow, but that’s hard to parse out.

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  2. The answer, usually, would be to simply listen to the people, and pay attention to whatever explanations they give for themselves.

    Meh. I tried doing that yesterday. You didn’t seem too thrilled by it then.

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  3. “And while global capitalism may be in meltdown”

    This is misleading, as is the whole critique of “neoliberalism”. Capitalism was perverted long ago, so that one can’t speak of capitalism proper. A better depiction is that statism, in all its forms, government intervention in the economy, is in meltdown. By associating the international economic problems with capitalism, this perpetuates the ideas which may be at the root of craziness we see in London. By focusing on the fundamental problems, one of which is failed government intervention and failed welfare state, we can begin finding fundamental solutions, but as long as young people’s minds are pumped with anti-rich, anti-capitalist rhetoric, they will eventually believe that if only we could redistribute all the wealth and prevent wealth accumulation our problems will be solved. Looting is just a form of direct redistribution — they’re cutting out the middle man who’s skimming too much to their liking.

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    • Capitalism was perverted long ago

      Shortly after Adam and Eve’s fall from grace? Pure capitalism has never existed. And every attempt to let markets and market-participants interact without regulation and heavy state involvement has led to major problems. For capitalism.

      That you think the state interference is the cause of the problem reverses the arrow of causality here. Capitalism needs the state more than the state needs capitalism.

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  4. There’s a riot in Britain where no one seems to know the reasons for and the purer-than-thou leftist brigade is blaming it on neoliberalism? Seriously? This is what you consider the most important battle now, Elias? Not battling the Tea Party or the Republicans who seem determined to drive the country over the cliff, but bashing and blaming neoliberals at every turn. Newsflash, Matt Yglesias et al aren’t that important in the great scheme of things. They may think they are (and people like you and Freddie assigning to them nefarious power and influence is probably helping them gaining that impression), but they are nothing. I would respect you more if not every post is some variation of the evils of neoliberalism. It says something about a person when all they are concerned about is infighting, and not interested at all in battling with the real enemy.

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  5. I dunno. I think I’ll mangle Freud and say that sometimes a bored, spoiled, drunk kid is nothing more than a bored, spoiled, drunk kid. A well-fed white man smashing a shopfront window and helping himself to a new cell phone is not an abstract response to politicial inequities.

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