Fire on the Water

London’s ‘third world’ has hardly ‘risen up’, but it has made a huge statement about the nature of social life in Thatcher/Blair/Brown/Cameron’s collapsing neo-liberalised society. If it breaks down in the consciousness of those looting and burning as not much more than putting it up the police (‘Now they’ll respect us’, said one young female looter) or collecting their due in street wear (their class, after all, gave the middle classes gangster chic), that’s not just what it’s all about. And it’s certainly not, if we consider the responses and their justifications—neither Cameron’s right-wing rhetoric and policing solutions nor the ‘community’s’ apparently cheery brooms and buckets to help ‘clean up the mess’.

In several places locally we’ve been told that interpretation of the events in London is mere punditry without on-the-ground reporting (Media Watch, for instance), as if nothing can be said without the words and justifications as given by those involved themselves. Has our social knowledge, and the practice of interpretation, receded so far as to preclude considered judgements of a more general and systemic kind? Social life operates at different levels of awareness, and at different levels of emotional and practical commitment to the culture that shapes us. It used to be the role of the humanities—in universities that held interpretation to be a core function—to study such in broad terms, making our actions meaningful and meaning more complex. In fact, though marginalised and perhaps repressed, broader interpretations of neo-liberal life—what it means, and how it can’t last—have been ‘out there’ for as long as neo-liberalism itself; the signs were always there to be read. We are nothing if not deeply mired in contradictions in our present world of radical cultural change and disparate social futures for different social groups. In the midst of collapse and confusion perhaps general thinking will again become popular as we are forced to work out what those contradictions mean.

While Cameron and his constituency are plugging crime and gang behaviour as the explanation for London’s woes, more social commentary has focused on poverty and want, especially the alienating quality of Britain’s huge housing estates and the poor’s lack of education. More on the money still has been commentary that combines a focus on poverty with consumption and desire, or how want has been transformed and come to mean those contemporary identity fixers: products and lifestyle. If the underclass kids of England are not in want of food and shelter as such, but are undereducated and demeaned in myriad ways in their life circumstances, and at the same time bombarded with images of what counts in the society they liminally inhabit, it makes sense that what they want is an identity that holds sway—that means something to them and affects how others treat them. Howard Jacobson pointed out the Dickensianism of the images of kids labouring under the weight of huge LCD screens as they scurried or slinked or brazenly made their way round the streets of London, Birmingham, Manchester. But this is Dickens postmodernised, both in terms of consumption desire and, as Jacobson himself suggested, in terms of some notion of ‘rights’ as deployed by the young—an often empty call that bolsters a sense of entitlement but may have little actual content for those who have experienced extreme (cultural) disadvantage.

Of course, who can blame them for that? Some other commentary has been important in pointing out that there is a parallel in the apparent desires of looters/rioters and the scions of the neo-liberal order: consumption is where it is at broadly in the culture, and raised to an art form by that ‘lucky’ few—increasingly few proportionally speaking—who sit at the top of the pile. Financiers and corrupt politicians (moats anyone?) have figured in this assessment, and while some commentators have cast doubt on such a connection of corruption as directly linked to the riots, and fair enough—culture, it should be said, works by way of mood and undercurrent as much as the transmission of explicit views or the making of conscious connections. The mood across much of the Western world is not only one of fearfulness in the face of all kinds of change and collapse but radical suspicion and confusion, that is, where it has not already begun to transmute into explicitly radical anti-neo-liberal action (see the articles in this Arena Magazine on Spain and Croatia). If the markets can shudder and fall on the strength of ‘emotion’, as we are now being warned to expect at any moment, so too can ‘volatility’ erupt on the streets, although ‘emotion’ here may be some way from ‘irrational’.

Neo-liberalism has been the executive philosophy and overriding form of governance of a supercharged capitalism for some thirty years, as its basis in the communications revolution and other high-technological advances have carried it past the wildest dreams of any common-or-garden capitalist of the first half of the twentieth century. Hayek and his neo-conservative acolytes, all the way down to our common-or-garden Liberal and Labor politicians in Australia, may have ‘freed’ the economy, and much of civil society, from social constraint and thus opened the way institutionally to production and consumption on an unimaginable scale. But the real engine of change and ‘growth’ has always lain deeper and acted earlier in the culture and economy, propelling us towards a radical leap beyond the modernity with which we had all become familiar.

One aspect of that modernity was the welfare state, and understandings of care, comfort, education and morality writ large into state-based institutions, justified, contradictorially, as variously improving people or their social opportunities. Another was consumption, but within the bounds largely of the natural world and mechanical processes at the disposal of industry, and within the terms of an emergent but still only ‘picket-fence’ individualism, which was held in check by moralities of rectitude, or self-control, and softened by the ongoing existence of relatively stable local communities and their institutions. If the welfare state has abandoned many or most of its responsibilities to a broadly understood social constituency; if individualism now knows few bounds; and consumption has reached completely unsustainable levels environmentally and morally, ‘neo-liberalism’ is only partly to blame, though it will be the most visible target, especially the ‘corruption’ and ‘greed’ with which it is given a human face in everyday understandings of why things went wrong.

‘Greed’, however, is hardly a big enough or social enough concept to nail what has been going on—neither neo-liberalism itself, as theory or practice, nor, certainly, the underlying technoscientific revolution that emerged in a range of fields, offering late capitalism new substances to work on (for example, biological entities, newly isolated compounds), new means for the transformation of the material world (reconstitutive (techno-)science), new means for the promotion of products as identity aids (new media), a new space to research them (the neo-liberal university) and new, globalised conduits for rapid expansion and movement of finance (networked communications technologies). Neo-liberalism has been an especially expansionist and brutal regime of executive power in its paring back of historically achieved conditions for (relative) social decency, as in the welfare state and its fundamental assumption of social inclusion, or education (including the liberal university) focused on the formation of the person not just technique—with consequences like those witnessed in London. But that it has also ushered in, and in many respects obscured the deeper processes at work, in part because of its hubristic understanding of its own power has meant that the other layers of change unsettling culture and society today have not been easy to gauge or assess.

The Left’s response has not assisted very much in this either. Overrun and overawed by neo-liberalism’s apparent power, and with parts of the Left in any case deeply committed to a productivist view of society and any future we might inhabit, they fell in with the dominant project. In the case of Labo(u)r governments in the United Kingdom and Australia, they of course furthered the neo-liberal project, ‘streamlining’ the state, establishing new conditions for wealth accumulation and globalisation’s free-wheeling financial arrangements and, in the United Kingdom especially, for the spectacular financial collapse of 2008. That their commitment to neo-liberalism, unwavering as it is, is a key element in environmental collapse and climate change barely rates a mention. Certainly there seems little consciousness of the legacy of left economism and modernist productivism within these parties which today ties super-consumption and ‘growth at any cost’ to both social decay and planetary disaster. The ‘postmodern’ Left, on the other hand, while decrying many of the inequities produced by neo-liberalism and often arguing on the basis of ‘values’ and ‘rights’ for a range of ethical positions, is

similarly blind to the nature of the underlying transformation that has powered neo-liberalism. Indeed, in the way that cultures work, surreptitiously, beneath the level of our awareness, our worlds have been shaped not simply by ‘neo-liberal values’, but by an emerging, new relation to knowledge, each other and the natural world, effected in the present conjunction of technique and science as carried by its intellectually trained agents. Techno-science has not merely given us new frontiers and means for production (the emphasis of left and right neoliberalism), but is transgressive of many of the fundaments of previous ways of life, reshaping our being in the world today in myriad complex ways.

Howard Jacobson’s comment about young people’s sense of their ‘rights’ leading to a generalised sense of entitlement has a right-wing ring to it, but he didn’t mean it like that, and it is worth examining further. We must be careful, given the coming period of potentially very serious rightwing reaction, to tease out this sort of question adequately.

Just as the middle class has lived off the transgressive frisson of wearing gangster chic, so transgressive theory and practice generally on the cultural Left, as in mediatised culture, celebrates the breaking of all sorts of bounds—of ‘respectability’, ‘hierarchy’, the ‘natural’ (the whole culture as an avant-garde). If there is ‘no respect’ forthcoming from London’s rioting youth, it is hardly surprising, not only because they have been left out and are ‘poor’, but because they, like us generally, don’t understand this transgressive ideology and where it comes from, deep in the common culture of techno-scientific capitalism, even if it fills up their lives and hopes and dreams.

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