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The crisis of the liberal as a schizophrenic Britain burns

by Rory Smith // 10 August 2011 // 14 Comments

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ENGLAND is schizophrenic. There is one country on television, an End-of-Days-land, where swarms of black-hooded youths saunter from shop to shop, unchallenged, unabashed, looting, smashing, their destruction wanton and their authority absolute. This is England, broken glass and shattered delusion.

And there is the country of the mind’s eye, not the Arcadian idyll it maybe once was, or at least was once supposed to be, no longer a Sceptr’d Isle, but a nation with a sense of nation, governed by the rule of law and for the best interests of society. That is England, too. That was England, before.

Before this. Before the gangs emerged from the shadows and into the light, showing their power. Showing their numbers, their morals, their beliefs and their lack of belief. Their desire only to acquire, their demand that those who offer no respect should be respected absolutely. Their boredom and their rage.

And the English, too, are schizophrenic. Not in the sense that there are those who observe the looting that has ravaged the country’s streets for four nights, initially under the thin guise of a protest at a police shooting, now openly, brazenly, a race for as many people as dare to acquire as much as they can carry, and there are those who participate. Humanity has always been divided between those who will and those who won’t.

But in the discussion over how to respond to rule of the mob, England’s schizophrenia has been laid bare. This is a country in the grip of a crisis. There is the one on the streets, and the one in the mind. The former is rather more pressing, rather more urgent. The resolution of the latter will decide whether the flames of August 2011 are the first flickers of a fire that will burn for years.

Quite why the streets of London, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Nottingham, Birmingham, Leicester and Gloucester – even Gloucester! – are this morning spattered with broken glass is a question I am not qualified to answer. Most people aren’t. That has not stopped the majority trying.

There are, as far as is possible to tell, two basic schools of thought on the subject. One, infused from the right, is that this is simply the rising up of an underclass – meaning a group of people who have fallen out of society, thanks to endemic poverty – who are simply grasping whatever they can. There is no purpose, no greater meaning. They are robbing Currys and JD Sports to get what they want, the trainers and the TVs they cannot afford.

And there is one borne on the left which states that this is what happens when politicians neglects an entire stratum of the populace; when the non-vote winning poor are left to rot. They have been “disconnected” from their community, their country. This is not a place that exists for them, it exists despite them, and this is their attempt to find their voice. They must be engaged, listened to, understood, if they are to understand in turn why what they have done is wrong.

The former dogma suggests it is the kids in the black hoods who have failed society. The latter insists it is society who has failed them.

That may be oversimplifying it, but to listen to the debate over both short and long-term responses, it is evident that this is the theoretical divide which exists.
In the age of the saturated, 24-hour media, of the phone-in show and You To Us At Sky Dot Com, that debate has been endless, a white noise to deafen the senses as the eyes watch scenes the brain cannot process. It is rendered worse by the fact that there are two different questions being asked.

One is how to stop the looting tonight and tomorrow. That is one the right can answer. They issue the angry calls of the indignant: send in the army. Fire plastic bullets. Water cannon. Crack skulls. Police. Forget consent, police. The left responds, but in unconvincing jargon, almost like a sociological rugby scrum. Connect, engage, understand.

The problem with that is that these are not responses for today. They are responses for the next year, for the next decade. The right does not offer answers for tomorrow. The harder the crackdown, the greater the backlash.

The right does not care about that, of course. True rightists would suggest that a long-term crackdown is hardly a bad thing. It is not a great leap of faith to suggest that those who would favour sending in the troops would then see the culprits sent to the army. There are buzzwords, leitmotifs, here, too: discipline, most notably.

And yet, with every passing night, with every smouldering fire, it is harder and harder to argue. I was raised a liberal, taught the values of tolerance and understanding. I do not want to see a Tory-run martial state. And yet I find myself in the midst of an existential crisis: I want to stop watching cities in which I live, have lived and in which I work and have worked destroyed by a mob. And I find that the liberal response just is not enough. So I start wondering if maybe sending the army in isn’t such a bad idea. I ask myself why the police stand by and watch when no other country would have allowed things to degenerate so far. The French would have fired already, not to kill but certainly to warn. The Italians too. Why don’t we?

I tweeted on Monday night that this, to me, is not a riot: that implies some degree of politicisation, some degree of cause. This is a crime spree, conducted by an underclass. The response from some correspondents was one of agreement, from others of disgust at the use of such a polarising, such a loaded term.

I think I understand – as much as someone not versed in sociological theory can – why it is happening: it is the ultimate effect of a youth culture centred on the expression of success through acquisition, the consequence of a society obsessed by consumerism. It started in London because that is where the gap between rich and poor is most visible, most tangible, and it has spread elsewhere as the urban deprived have realised there is no crime if enough people do it.

And I comprehend the idea that we need to assess, when the rubble is rebuilt and the flames have died down, what has driven people to such anger, why there is a generation of Britons who feel such resentment to authority, who demand respect but refuse to give it, who see society as something that stands in the way of doing what they want.

Again, I have my own theories, and again, it is hard not to question the validity of modern liberalism. It is easy to blame Thatcher, and her wilful destruction of society as a unit, her evident belief in the primacy of the individual. Whose side are you on? My own.

And yet the liberal theories that have built our society seem at fault, too: discipline has been removed from families and from schools. This would seem to be the second, perhaps third, generation where children have been raised to believe there are no consequences for their actions, where teachers cannot touch them for fear of dismissal, where the police have been told they need the consent of the community.

Maybe more discipline is required. Maybe what we have always considered understanding is mollycoddling. Maybe we are culpable. That does not excuse what has happened, of course, but nothing happens without a reason, without triggers and factors. But maybe not.

It is a hard time to be a liberal. It is a schizophrenic time in a schizophrenic land. This is a country that has lost its mind. As we all seek answers, it is hard not to do the same.

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14 Comments

  1. I think its more like the parents have failed everybody.

  2. Really interesting piece Rory. The real divide I’m finding is between people who are in some way interested in discussing causes and those who seem to think everything exists in a vacuum and buy the government line that this is ‘just criminality’.

    Whether coming from the left or the right there are plenty of convincing arguments out there about some of the cause of this. Lack of discipline in schools and homes, police bureaucracy, selfish consumerism promoted as a means for economic growth, cuts to the essential services which form one of the few threads which connect those at the very bottom to the rest of society. Some combination of all these factors and more is at the root of this.

    Making the case that, regardless of our political starting point, it’s the responsibility of everyone to at least consider the long-term rather than the short, is the first step towards any kind of wider, mature debate.

  3. Superb… best i’ve read on the issue so far

  4. Agreed, an excellent piece. My first read on TAW and you’ve set high standards to keep up. Looking forward to reading similar quality on happier subjects (the Reds winning hopefully)

  5. Good honest article.

    To me it is all about balance. If you take any one of the ideologies you reference to their extreme position you generally end up in the same place. There is a measure of truth in each position, but if we become dogmatic about our political beliefs, in the same way as many do with religious beliefs, then we risk absurdity.

    The simple fact of the matter is that society can never be fair to all men/women. It can only ever hope to be fair to a majority of people. The more laws you introduce to liberate the minority, the more you tread on the freedom of the majority. The purpose of the law is to strike the right balance wherever possible.

    With the riots, the mob are threatening and taking lives and livelihoods and action needs to be taken to protect the freedom of their victims regardless of the mitigating circumstances every individual within the swarm will no doubt rehearse.

    To justify these actions by a blind assessment of their financial positions just does not work. There are many, many working class families that abhor this behaviour and there are almost certainly middle classes involved in the riots too. If they were exclusively stealing food and blankets then fair enough, but not luxuries.

  6. Rory – just an excellent piece, really well done. Puts into words how I’ve been feeling exactly.

  7. Excellent piece Rory – sums up many of my thoughts & sentiments, & I amsure it will resonate with many. My only question is: will your employer publish it? They should.

  8. Great stuff. Written as if you had actually read my mind. Almost identical to how I’m seeing all this and trying to assume some sort of final opinion why.

    Raised as a bolshy scouser, I find myself laying blame to all things upper class and Tory, simply feeling like this is the final overflowing of what has been brewing for years. Ignore the kids at your peril. Disconnect them, disenfranchise them, then act surprised. As Janis Joplin said, “Freedom’s just another word for ;nothing left to lose’ “.
    Same time, I have been thinking this is a scar of liberality and political correctness, when parents could no longer discipline kids, etc.. The existence of ASBO was an early warning that these generations of teens in hoodies were on a bad path.

    I wish i knew how this will all end, or at least in short term, subside. I just know it’s all wrong, and by that, I mean more than whats occurring on the streets this week.

    Well done Rory. Well done indeed.

  9. Well-written and thought provoking piece. I especially liked your reminder about the inherent problems of a society that defines success based on one’s capacity for consumerism yet at the same time actively denies a significant portion of the population the resources to participate in that race. It’s about balance and what happens when the gap between the extremes of both sides gets wider and wider – not between the political left and the right, but between people who have money to spend (and thus are deemed worthy) and those who have far limited opportunites for playing their parts in the Buy Now! show.
    All that being said, whatever happened to the (seemingly now quaint) notion of personal responsibility? Negotiating the demands of a capitalist society is one thing; stepping up and making decisions for yourself about what you want your role in it to be is quite another.

  10. From the title I thought it would be a load of lefty, let’s give them a hug Bollocks but its superb and spot on. Especially about the materialism. Top work.

  11. Excellent article, excellent website..

  12. Rory,

    I’m just in the midst of an 8% craft American IPA, Flying Dog Raging Bitch, after a few Kernel’s (London) cracking drops by the way but alas a bit pished so I’ll stay on point and try not to drift. Why in this country are we so obsessed with being left or right. We were brought up on the idea’s of Shankly, a socialism based on a sound core of ideas and values. Why can’t those ideas progress beyond what they started out as, taking the good out of them and moving forward without being left or right. Why isn’t it possible to take good ideas from both sides and move forward as a progressive instead of being fixed, why fix ourselves down to a root that has maybe outgrown it’s pot.

    There are few excuses in this country, we know there is poverty, below the breadline existence, 3rd world situations on our doorstep. But education up to a point is free, you don’t have to look far over the fence to see places that it’s withheld, truly keeping a people down.

    Unfortunately for us in the UK there is a lack of vision by the people living here and the people running this place. There are those in power that steal from under the table and those that steal from the street. They are the same and between those two lies the ills that we all suffer from that stops us being a great nation.

  13. From the British Medical Journal:

    The name schizophrenia derives from the early observation that the illness is typified by “the disconnection or splitting of the psychic functions.”

    *Unfortunately, this has led to the misconception that the illness is characterised by a “split personality,” which it is not.*

    http://www.bmj.com/content/335/7610/91

  14. Excellent piece, Rory. Sadly, I think both Britains are real, and we in the US are creating–perhaps already have created–such an underclass too. We’re certainly widening the gap between top and bottom.

    On Tuesday I heard a youth worker on the BBC live coverage. He acknowledged the criminality of the looting going on, and said that many of the people involved were part of a class that is “totally cut off from any way of advancing and improving their lot in British society. And if they were somehow given access to the means to improve themselves, they would have no idea of how to behave.” The quote is approximate, but I think I got the gist.

    So I think the “right” response that this is criminal behavior that cannot go unpunished is correct, and the “left” response that the behavior has not come out of nowhere is also correct. It’s a very nasty dilemma, and what I’ve read of the PM’s remarks today suggest that he has little grasp of the situation beyond the standard rightist response.

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