Tuesday, 9 August 2011

John Protevi: "Mindless"


'Mindless' indeed. As ever conservative politics is methodologically individualist. They want to focus only on the individuals, the 'rotten apples' on whom all blame can be placed (you conserve the whole by sacrificing the parts - the parts that don't matter, anyway). This is, of course, tied into all the pseudo-Biblical 'fall of man' nonsense that gets regurgitated as so many 'Broken Britain' cliches - the idea that the 'decline of traditional values' is (a) somehow uncaused, emergent from itself and (b) responsible for all our ills. The more powerful rhetorical strategy, however, is to try to collapse the distinction between explanation and justification. To try to explain the actions of the rioters, looters and muggers (and these, we are told, are all equivalent), it is supposed, is in some way to justify them. After all, doesn't it detract from denunciation? And denunciation is the only response politicians can muster. Anyone who tries to think beyond the mere, brute fact of criminality to any degree seems to make the denunciation less radical and so, it is inferred, that person must be a sympathiser merely mouthing the words of disapproval as opposed to the true believers who damn the perpetrators unconditionally. This is, of course, complete nonsense. One can explain actions in terms broader than essentialised, moralised, individualism without justifying those actions. All this constitutes a total refusal to engage in politics, to recognise the possibility of politics even occurring. Denunciation is the opposite of politics insofar as it cannot tolerate the separation of justification and explanation. One needn't justify action to explain it; one needn't endorse action to engage with it. Are these actions criminal? Yes. Must they be punished? Yes. But none of that need stop us thinking politically - that is, thinking of an explanation we can justify and a course of action to prevent these kinds of events. That, however, is of no use to conservatives who want nothing more than these people to shut up and make do with their lot.

Dave Hill on the London Riots

Dave Hill's five-point analysis in the Guardian is spot on.

Theresa May and the London Riots

When asked whether the economy and jobs had anything to do with the London riots Theresa May replied that it was 'sheer criminality, nothing more.' Saying that these acts are unjustifiable, criminal and that the people involved must be prosecuted is of course completely correct, however it does little more than state the obvious. It is the 'nothing more' that is telling. We are told that there is 'nothing more' to this than 'mindless thuggery' (one wonders how a messy scramble of youths have been able to run rings around the entire police force while being 'mindless').

To say that the riots are 'sheer criminality and nothing more' makes claims on two registers: justification and explanation. With respect to justification I am wholly in agreement: nothing justifies these acts and those responsible must be made responsible. But it also carries a subtextual explanation: these things have happened because these people are criminals; bad people do bad things; the context is irrelevant, the individuals are responsible. This is completely wrong. The 'nothing more' suffix tries to distract us from pondering the obvious questions: why now? why there? If these acts are the result of bad people then we cannot understand why they happened now and where they have as badness is everywhere and always. Moreover we cannot understand how these people became 'bad.' They just are, and that is all there is to say about it. In this respect it isn't much of an explanation at all. It's just a device to try and stop people thinking, to cut thought short.

It is perfectly possible to explain the riots in broader social terms while giving no justification or sympathy whatsoever to those involved. To cut explanation short is just a political device that attempts to distract attention from the obvious: that these riots are the result of serious, long-term and worsening deprivation. The claim that any such social explanation is necessarily a justification of the acts is the same: a political device that tries to cut thought short and focus solely on the individuals involved in the most reductive fashion.

So, I agree with Mrs May - there is no justification for these acts - but I also completely disagree with her - there is a great deal more to be said than a simple condemnation. After all, in analysing a war we don't just say 'well, they should just stop being so violent and nasty and resolve their differences peacefully', no matter how true that may be; instead we see what can be done to bring the conflict to an end, we see what the grievances are and we try understand how they can be resolved. None of that involves justification for killing, much less an endorsement of it. Justification is beside the point, we neither begin nor end there; we, instead, engage in politics. This is precisely what politicians are refusing to do.

To explain in terms broader than the circular and really quite stupid 'bad people do bad things for no particular reason' explanation in no way leads to justification or sympathy with the perpetrators of the acts. Instead it tries to understand how our society could become so fractured. And in contrast to the consonance of 'Broken Britain' it isn't the 'decline of traditional values' or any other pseudo-Biblical 'fall of man' bullshit: it's the economy, stupid.