Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Anglo Spring: Sociopathocracy

Wisconsin's "unseemly circus"(2011); Gustave Courbet, The Burial at Ornan (1850)

When Gustave Courbet showed his painting, The Burial at Ornan, in 1850 it upset his Parisian audience. The historian TJ Clark explains that Courbet refused to depict peasants at pious and simple, instead he "painted worship without worshipers." But more maddening still, Courbet painted the peasants fashionably dressed, undermining the Parisian's patronizing vision of country people. Adding injury to insult, Courbet's massive canvas rubbed his audience wrong because of their own diminished prospects, burial had become a privilege that most Parisians could no longer afford: "Thus burial took on barbed and complex meanings; it became an institution, a privilege, a matter of envy and dispute." It now appears escaping justice is and institution, a privilege and a matter of envy and dispute. Those are the conditions that Socrates branded the "justice of a band of robbers."

When thousands of youths looted London and other cities around England this summer no part of me thought they were related to unemployment or food prices. They are a generation weaned on the contempt of authorities. Not contempt for authorities, but authorities' contempt. For decades economic, political and media elites have expressed, in word and action, contempt for government, for science, and most disturbingly, for the rule of law. If the super-rich and powerful don't at some level believe in the need for self-constraint, much less the need to constrain others like themselves, how can we expect anyone, at any level of society to honor the institutions that make modern life worth living?
Rough justice: Blackwater's Erik Prince; Abu Ghraib

"I think it's just about possible that you could see your actions refashioned into a noble cause if you were stealing the staples: bread, milk." Zoe Williams wrote of the looters in the Guardian. "If they were going for bare necessities" she explained, "I think one might incline towards sympathy. I could be wrong, but I don't get the impression that we're looking at people who are hungry. If they were going for more outlandish luxury, hitting Tiffany's and Gucci, they might seem more political, and thereby more respectable. Their achilles heel was in going for things they demonstrably want."

The author Philip Womack meanwhile likened the looters to the social entropy imagined by the novelist J.G. Ballard and found the looters lacking for simular reasons: "[Ballard's stories] concern the middle classes – journalists, politicians, children's writers – who, unable to cope with the psychological pressures of modern life, revert to primeval tendencies. They have some layer of civilisation which is removed... And it's a layer that is completely absent from these rioters."
Fist Crushing a U.S. Fighter Jet (1986); David Cameron Libyan photo op (2011)

When protests spread across the Middle East and one dictator after another toppled, "journalists, politicians, children's writers" could puff their chests and congratulate themselves. These young people rejected religious fundamentalism and nihilistic violence we were told, the protests were held up as proof that young Arabs want democracy and "meaningful work." This at the same time as democracy and meaningful work in America is under attack from super-rich corporations and individuals. An America where Warren Buffet was excoriated for "class warfare" because he dared to suggest a return to progressive taxation for the super-rich (like himself).

The scandal-ridden billionaire Rupert Murdoch's Fox News network meanwhile celebrated the super-rich as "job-creators," and continued their systematic attacks on organized labor and the poor. Fox commentators likened America's poor to "raccoons," and questioning the depth of poverty because so many people own refrigerators. And just as student debt surpasses household credit card dept for the first time, a service offered to match needy college students with wealthy men looking for sex. So it was a bit hard to swallow when Rupert Murdoch's pet MP, David Cameron, insisted that the only meaning that should be attributed to the riots was "criminality pure and simple."
Bernie Madoff reading John Grisham; Dominique Strauss-Kahn greeting the apparently forewarned Obamas. 

In her Guardian article Williams wondered, "How can you cease to believe in law and order, a moral universe, co-operation, the purpose of existence, and yet still believe in sportswear? How can you despise culture but still want the flatscreen TV from the bookies?" William's point was that the looters were not nihilists. And I agree. Using her measure they were no more nihilistic than the sociopaths that caused the economic collapse three years ago. The difference is that no one responsible for the meltdown of the global banking system has been punished. Anyone caught looting in England this summer can expect three times the nominal sentence for their crimes - and in some cases much more.

By William's measure not even Bernie Madoff can be considered a nihilist. Like Madoff, and his more fortunate cohorts who received bailouts instead of jail sentences, the young looters in England never stopped believing in the things they wanted for themselves. Williams describes the "crowds moving from shopping centre to shopping centre... actively trying to avoid a confrontation with police." She writes that we have never seen anything like this - but she is wrong. Shifting targets and actively avoiding authorities is exactly what sociopathic money managers, serial rapists, or other malignant corporate or political executives do. That is the behavior of anyone who has stopped believing that he or she owes anything to anyone but themselves. 
David Cameron and his backdoor political supporter Rupert Murdoch

And indeed there is absolutely no sign that looters ceased to believe in a moral universe or hated culture. One young looter interviewed by a journalist explained, he had no prior arrests, so he was going to keep looting until he got caught. That is an extremely canny measure of our moral universe. It is not unlike the sort of math a candidate for the French presidency might make before deciding whether or not to rape an immigrant maid. Like the sociopathic politician, the poor teenage boy weighs the immediate opportunity against the possible repercussions for himself. Unlike the candidate who is a sociopath and who has very little reason to feel he will ever be punished, the boy is weighing an inevitable arrest - sometime in his future he has no doubt that he will go to jail, whether or not he decides to loot now. That is the moral universe of a world run by sociopaths.

As for "culture hating," a particularly articulate man-man-on-the-street in this video points out that unlike the police who shot Mark Duggan, who faced no inquiry or discipline (before the riots), the officer who had allowed two dogs to die in a locked police car earlier this summer had been immediately suspended and investigated (and was so upset by what he did that he attempted suicide). That sort of story, the story of a man's life being worth less than a dog, is culture. It is the sort of story told by people living in a society where the political and economic elites are distant, unimpeachable powers, no matter how manifestly corrupt. It is also the sort of story that sparks riots. 
Rodney King beating; David Cameron coddling a puppy.

After passing back and fourth along the ideological spectrum Zoe Williams ends up blaming the riots on now ancient canard of alienation brought on by the vacuous nature of consumer culture, a "falsification of social life" additionally tainted by American pop that had British looters "calling the police 'feds', as though they think they are in The Wire," If it sounds like a bunch of kids playing a make-believe, that is because on a very real level that is what it was. Just as it was easy to forget that the awful spat of school shooting erupted in the US during the 1990s were not the product of "gunmen" but were in fact perpetrated by gunboys, it is import not to lose site of how young the looters were in London and elsewhere.

In his address to the press upon his return from his Tuscan vacation David Cameron repeatedly referred to "people" - only alluding to the age of the people in question when he vowed: "If you are old enough to commit these crimes you are old enough to face the punishments." One friend, who was in London during the riots, was quick to admit that while there were no doubt that there were looters who were in their thirties and that some of the "older chavers" were probably gang members, but what she found alarming was that the great majority where much much younger.
Gunboys caught on camera at Columbine high; Juvenile looter hiding from camera in London

What was most shocking about the riots for my friend was how many eight year olds were out on the streets looting. That lines up with the videos I saw - the crowds looked very young - more tween than teen. Like "people," the words "looter" and "rioter" are ageless. There is no diminutive, no looter-cub or riot-scouts. The language available disguises a crucial reality. These were mostly children. And like the boy who exclaimed that the "Emperor has no clothes!" these children are alerting us to something we should all be able to see.

In a talk on the structure of language, the experimental psychologist, Steven Pinker, asks: "Why do democracies enshrine freedom of assembly as a fundamental right and why there are so many political revolutions instigated when a crowd assembles in a public square?" The answer he gives is the difference between "shared identical knowledge" - i.e. I know something and you know something, but we don't know whether or not we both know it - and "mutual" or "common" knowledge - i.e. I know that you know that I know... What the massive protests of the Arab Spring communicated, was that the citizens of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria were not alone in their resentment, the resentment was widespread.
Authorities making a fetish of barriers is a dangerous fashion that started under Bush and Cheney but continues today.

The shared identical knowledge the riots in London tell us tells us is not that consumer culture is a vacuous "falsification of social life." If that were the case America would be a wasteland of blood soaked ash. Japan and South Korea abattoirs. Germany would be something out of Mad Max and North Korea, so untainted by the sin of consumerism should be an idyllic wonderland. It is not necessary to believe that North Korea is all bad or that consumer culture is without enormous drawbacks to see that something other than consumer backlash took place this summer. 

Consumerism is a social economy built on a model of wealth that presumes that the more people with wealth the more wealth there is to be had. That is the deal. When that deal is broken and the very few try to gather the wealth to themselves at the expense of the very many, our shared social life breaks down. What was most shocking about the riots is that something each of us knows privately - a contempt that we are all guilty of as we watch one villain after another fleece, skin, gut and butcher our body politic - a contempt that is now visible for all to see: When 8 kids go on a rampage and beat a jogger senseless, we can believe it is a mater of "a few bad-apples." When thousands of kids sack one of the great capitals of the world, the emperor has no clothes.
A portrait of sociopathic leadership: BoA Ceo James Mahoney, Gov. Rick Perry, George W Bush and Dick Cheney

1 comment:

  1. Nicely written. I like the mystic's take on these times, that the base frequency of collective consciousness has risen faster than old institutions and systems can handle.