Tuesday, 9 August 2011

It's the end of the world as we know it... (and I'm feeling a bit tired, to be honest)

Looting at Wood Green.
I feel the urge to comment on what's been going on in London (and last night in other British cities) of late.
I live in a leafy Sussex village so not exactly qualified, and yet...
Part of me, the deeper more natural response, feels a deep foreboding. No Silly Season this year. My mind seeks to make sense of it - to find a pattern. With the chaos in the global economy and the corruption in our media, everything seems to be falling apart. It can only be a matter of time.
The other, more rational part of me though, wants to know if this is really anything new. It's my attempt at an antidote to Daily Mail style knee-jerk outrage - to see the broader pattern, look for counter examples. For a start, it's irrational to expect that extreme news stories will be evenly spaced through time. Sometimes they come along several at once. And haven't we seen all this, and worse, before, at other times, in other places?

Let me, for a moment, indulge the first part. There could be something big and dramatic going on. The thing that immediately pops into my mind is that there has been over the last twenty to thirty years a loss of a sense of morality - the idea that there are things you simply do not do, no matter how much you may feel you can get away with them, and that conversely, some things are simply right and worth doing whether they make economic sense or not. So -
The markets are in turmoil because the only thing that mattered to the traders and investors was making as much money as possible as quickly as possible, irrespective of what was being bought and sold. The media is in trouble because the only thing that counted was selling papers, and it didn't matter how the 'stories' were obtained or whether they were worth telling. What's happening in English city centres right now is happening because people have realised that if enough of them turn up in one place at one time and are prepared to be violent, that they can get away with pretty much anything. Civilised society, for all its faults (see pretty much any of my other postings) works not because there's an armed policeman on every corner but because people generally agree to go along with it. Without that agreement nothing matters except what you can get away with. And if you get caught? Well - you wouldn't want to be seen as 'Risk-Averse' would you? It's no different to rock-climbing, or snow-boarding, or market trading.

But is this anything new? Haven't there been crises, scandals and riots before? Not on this scale perhaps? Maybe. The Radio 4 programme The Long View is an especially useful resource here. There is always an historical precedent it seems. Go back a bit and you can always find something uncannily similar going on somewhere. Plus ça change, plus la même bloody old chose as I always say.

Part of me wants this to be different though. I don't want the world to be going to Hell in a wheelie bin but there's something seductive about it - The End of Days, partly because, being nearly 50, I probably won't be around to witness the denouement. Actually I'm much more deeply distressed by what's happening to the environment - for example in Brazil and China in the name of economic growth. I watched Avatar again over the weekend and was in tears, not because of what was happening on screen so much but because I know that huge swathes of Amazon rainforest will soon be under water due to a new dam they're building and the fish will no longer be able to migrate and breed and the locals will no longer be able to sustain themselves as a result, the way they have for generations. And yet it does feel like part of the same thing. The Brazilian government has decided that making money is their priority and everything else - wilderness, biodiversity, indigenous cultures, are just not definable, not measurable, not valuable enough to count. 'But what of the favelas?' you might ask. 'What about the poverty, the lack of proper jobs, the lack of a decent place to live?' but we all know there's more than enough for everybody, still, in the world, as it is. It's just not shared out properly. The Brazilian government says it wants to deal with the poverty, but only if it means not disrupting the wealth. That's the bottom line.
There was some finance pundit on the radio yesterday (I didn't catch his name) commenting on the power, or lack of it, of governments to deal with the economic chaos. He seemed to see The Market as this wonderful perfect democracy - where ordinary people could spend or invest their money as they wished, on what they wanted, expressing in the purest form, how they wanted the world to be run. Government was therefore redundant. But in that case, what of those with no money, or very little? Not that long ago the only people allowed to vote in parliament were the wealthy landowners, and then they let the wealthier merchants join in.
I might be able to vote with my cash whether to buy Freedom Foods chicken breasts or the factory-farmed alternative, but this other guy can choose whether to buy BSkyB Ltd or not.
And what about things that don't have a monetary value, and yet which are intrinsically worth having anyway, whether you have the money to buy them or not? (I know - such things are anathema to The Market.)

I could blame the parents. For all the good it did, since the sixties, parents have not seen it as being their job to teach their children right and wrong. 'Who are we to tell them what to do?' they say. 'What right have we?' And they feel so guilty for not being at home as much as they'd like, and for getting a divorce, so they want to be 'nice' to their children no matter what they do, and don't feel they are really justified in being in any way 'nasty'. (I actually have a lot of time for Supernanny popularising the concepts of 'Firmness' and 'Boundaries' but that's for another topic.) The pre-sixties authoritarianism where the husband and the father (the priest, the teacher, the policeman) enjoyed his arbitrary power I suspect stands as the bogeyman alternative - one none of us, quiet rightly, want to go back to. So morality is seen as something relative - a matter of opinion. We're all entitled to our opinions and the childrens' (because they are natural and unspoiled, until we get our greasy mits on them) are more valid than most.
But children are not perfect beings. They have no in-built morality of their own. Children, like other animals, are naturally amoral, selfish, inconsiderate and interested in immediate gratification unless taught otherwise. They don't think 'What is the right thing to do?' They think 'What am I allowed to do?' They don't think 'Is this a good thing to do?' They think 'What will get me the most attention?' They don't think 'Is this wrong?' They think 'Can I get away with it?' Only later on, if at all, does a more detached sense of right and wrong develop, and it has to be taught, like any other skill. That is our job as parents. It is not 'nasty' or authoritarian. It is necessary.

So - you can see where I'm going with this. Is what is going on in Tottenham and Wapping and The City of London a simple result of modern parenting? Are they really just spoilt brats writ large?
Of course not. How much have any of us ever really done simply because it was the right thing to do? How good has parenting ever been, really?
Isn't the magnitude of the chaos just about the size of the organisations - their global reach, or, in the case of the rioters, their ability to communicate via their Blackberries? Isn't it just all about technology and globalisation?
I honestly don't know.


Vincent said...

I agree with the substance of all that you've written here, and the tone too - the modest hesitance and lack of a clear solution.

Taking it no further, perhaps but emphasising what you have perhaps lightly hinted, I'd add my own feeling, one of 'bubbles' (unbalanced growth) bursting, chickens coming home to roost etc.

The feeling that these events have been waiting to happen, the come-uppance of foolish optimism and untried ideas.

You and I might see it from opposite political corners, but the important thing is - we see the same thing!

This is what the country needs: a united voice in the matter, so that there's nobody talking in the usual mealy-mouthed way, & giving excuses for any of it, or using it as a blame game.

In all these matters, I'd go further and say, police & parliament need to be clear and firm. It's no time for point-scoring.

I have an obscure prophetic sense that the global rumblings are part of a very big change, painful but needed, where the powerful (nations, institutions or individuals) are curbed.

But as you've said, self-interest rules and the powerful don't hand in their weapons of power in order to be virtuous.

There's one thing that brings our species more or less to its senses: disaster. Or catastrophe.

Only that will turn the world into a health farm, I reckon, to purge its blood and shed its bloatedness.

Steve Law said...

Hello Vincent.
It's pleasant isn't it - to find a bit of common ground. I suspect there's more than recent exchanges have suggested.
Anyway - yes - disaster (and massacre, war, despotism, oppression) can always be relied upon to bring our species to its senses. I always hope that we might one day learn to get it together without the blood-letting. I refuse to be pessimistic.
In this case though, I suspect the violence will subside not because of some collective catharsis or police action but because it's no longer cool.
The sad thing here is that, whatever grievance against poverty or the Met might have begun it, it's basically a bunch of kids trying to get hold of more stuff. I'm pretty sure that's the whole story. They'll stop when they're bored.
I'm struck by the contrast with, for example, Syria where they're up against genuine oppression and deprivation.
We really are a decadent lot.

paulgrand said...

I'm not getting into the petty - 'where did we go wrong' bleating, its quite obvious that something is rotten in England.

One thing is for certain, its brought English Gang culture out into the open, and so the government will finally have to do something about it.
They have been so busy fighting America's wars around the globe that they had taken their eye off their own countries problems, thus now America's gang land culture has sneaked in though the back door, its all copy cat, spiced up by the blackburry's ease to organize.

Blackberries have been tested for a force of good for years with Art-Happenings, but now that creativity has fallen into evil, idle hands the proverbial Pandora's box is now open.
For me its doubly ironic because its what the UK government workers and politicians always use to round up and keep On-Message!

Unfortunately I think this rioting is a sign of things to come, unless its nipped in the bud.

My answer is - make Education compulsory until 21, and stop the fighting abroad so they could easily afford it.
Its not rocket science, its giving a proper education to an uneducated workforce and harnessing all that excess energy for good.

Locking up a generation in prison is going to cost far more than giving them a skill or an education.
It would also sow the seeds of hate for several generations.

Finally, I think the PM's unfortunate 'Hug a Hoody' has backfired on him beautifully!;-D

Steve Law said...

Ooh... I wouldn't envy anyone trying to motivate a classroom full of these 'kids' aged 18-21. It's hard enough with kids of pre school leaving age (it's hard enough with those post school leaving age who've chosen to study!) But maybe some sort of national service? It doesn't have to be military - care work, or conservation work? VSO? It won't happen of course because it's 'anti-competitive'. That way the private sector loses out. This way the tax payer foots the bill.
But in any case, I think if we're trying to put things right when they've reached late adolescence we've left it too late. I do think it's about parenting and it's about the first five years (seven at the most, pace the Jesuits)
I have a lot more to say about parenting and education and no doubt will in the future.

paulgrand said...

Come on Steve, I would have expected a bit more than the Old Farts constant; "Bring Back national service" - from you!
Job creation was and will always a sad and crap way to go.
But just giving people the chance of a good education that is now out of reach of poor families, would pay dividends, keeping peeps off the streets and educating them in the process, rather than pushing violence through continual armed conflicts around the world.
As I said, it isn't rocket science,
and is the norm in other civilized countries.

Steve Law said...

Well it's marginally less silly than your idea of trying to force them to sit in a classroom for 3 more years.
Any other ideas, anyone?
But no, obviously you're right, for those of below compulsory school leaving age (which perhaps should be 18?) access to a decent education is a major part of the solution, and absolutely, I have no simple explanation for why so many other parts of the world seem to be able to do this and we can't.
A topic for a future entry I think.
But I still think it's the parenting that's the key in the long run.

Steve Law said...

"a good education ... is the norm in other civilized countries"
I'm always impressed by how much school is valued in most 'uncivilised' countries too. They, the kids, seem to have a very clear sense of how important it is. I don't think British kids have any real sense of that at all.

Vincent said...

Responding to your invitation ...

There’s much which could be said about education, but I don’t think it has a direct bearing in this instance.

I would sum it up in one word--alienation. Alienation means that you don’t have anything proper to attach yourself to. The world talks of freedom and opportunity, but you are a child and you don’t know what’s what. Home life is lacking in authority. The authority of a parent is the most significant form of caring, the most useful manifestation of love, more useful than hugs and open-ended indulgence.

When school replicates the non-authoritative don’t care home life, when teachers fear the children more than the children fear the teacher, alienation breeds like cholera in tainted water supplies.

The child still unconsciously craving authority will come under the magnetic influence of violent gangs, whilst dreaming of the riches of celebrities.

I’m ever the optimist, but don’t exactly have a solution-blueprint. I think the biggest help in the short term would be some sense of unity amongst the adult world: a co-operation amongst the four groups that a child encounters: parent/guardians, teachers, police, the local community of adults---to present a more or less united expectation of good and respectful behaviour: “this is how you must be to live in this society”.

One excellent way to achieve this is to work with gangs themselves, co-opting them as a fifth group which works for the common good.

I’m aware of the role of poverty, sense of exclusion, problems with education system, imperfections of policing, lack of funding, multicultural misunderstandings, welfare dependency, unemployment, teenage pregnancies and so forth.

But I still think the five-way co-operation and sense of unity outlined above is the most direct way to make a difference.

Steve Law said...

I pretty much agree with all that.

Vincent said...

wow, Steve! I feel I want to celebrate this with a (manly) hug, and some open-ended indulgence. The drinks are on me, dear boy