Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Riotous Individualism

This weeks news; financial cataclysm coupled with looting and rioting on the streets of London. The young leftist radical in me wishes the two were interconnected, that 'neo-liberal capitalism' (all the people we don’t like) has been rejected by the enlightened proletariat rising up to liberate us all from the chains of servitude. Yet in reality any connections are far less obvious as well as less significant. A wider perspective, nonetheless, shows more systemic links between the two, a lattice of coincidence, influencing both events. Of course, this does not justify the thuggish hedonism displayed by the rioters, but does help illuminate the roots of the disturbances.

Firstly, the current stock market plummeting is something of an ironic crisis. Free marketeers, will often take pride in their belief in man's rational, self promoting Machiavellianism, the problem is it means in a world where 'greed is good', trust is fleeting. And when the money men cannot trust each other to pay their debts, the crisis seems almost fitting, were it not for the potential economic tragedies for us all. The main surface causes of this; the tea party wrangling over the debt causing a credit rating downgrade of the USA, by Standard and Poor, appears to show the free market dream being undermined by its greatest advocates. The very thought that some random company could trash the economy of a whole nation, simply by spreading, what are in effect rumours, would only make sense in the mind of the deranged, faux libertarians that populate America's right wing. In this sense Standard and Poor is a classic expression of neo-liberalism. The blind pursuit of almost riotous individualism (see what I did there) expressed by the tea party's refusal to raise tax during a recession has thus desecrated the very altars of its belief; stock markets. Obviously, they have not caused the end of free market capitalism which has survived such crises before, but with reports of a 20 year wait for the Western economies to fully adapt to the changes, they have hardly done it any favours.

As for the riots, these can be seen as a glimpse of the underclass. Those that, on the most part, do not vote, do not know and do not care. The Duggan confusion aside, their looting was simply a greedy, self-indulgent, attempt to relieve their boredom and frustration. No one really cares about them, politicians don't, because they don't vote or play well with the populist press and the other classes don’t because they are brash and impolite. They represent the failings of the individualism, so celebrated by neo-liberal advocates. As individuals, they do not try to better themselves, as the theory suggests, but merely to pleasure themselves, a key distinction for fans of JS Mill. In this way their individualism only destroys, when the economists say it should create. Such people have been let down by this hegemony, which has encouraged them to believe in instantaneous success and glory, only to offer in reality, a lack of opportunities (see 'False Meritocracy'). For the first time in human history we are ruled by an ideology that was not designed for or built around society, whether accurate or not, as were conservatism and socialism, but rather one that was designed primarily for the economy, seeing society and non-fiscal matters as inferior or irrelevant.

Generally, the left has seen the riots as a product of social and economic woes, whereas the right, with a negative view of human nature, has seen it as natural opportunism from mankind, unable to control their urges. There are of course both right, yet also wrong at the same time. It is natural for people to be opportunistic, but one cannot deny the role played by economic woes and austerity. Without real opportunities, their was no legitimate way to obtain material decency. The underclass needs hope, some feasible alternative, to be offered, or else their descent from humanity will go on.

The rioters do not care for politics, but we must. They cannot continue to be offered minimal prospects yet tempted by fabulous wealth via the 'celebrity' obsession. Just as the marketeers cannot continue to be allowed to gamble the wealth of nations so recklessly. For both, the solution lies in state action. True opportunities, apprenticeships, better education et al for the underclass and regulation for the money men. We will also need to uplift the underclass, make them care for politics or be doomed to ignorance over the issues that most affect them. I said it before; compulsory voting, but with a 'none of the above' option. For the want of a better word, solidarity is needed.

Riotous individualism partly caused both of this week's dilemmas. Hard working, decent folk, those individuals actually trying to better themselves, were harmed by both. Ergo the solution lies in diluting this individualism and promoting a sense of honour towards each other and society. I do not solely speak of socialistic ideals, this is a communal respect preached by many older institutions from the church right through to Disraelian conservatism. Without these strong institutions to bind us together, individuals at the bottom will merely feel abandoned and see their lives as the pursuit of pleasure rather than more meaningful achievements. But we must also refrain from sheer vengeance, this intricate lock will not be picked by a hammer.

Individualism has mostly been a boon for our civilization. Yet when it leads to hedonism over enlightenment, it requires restraint. There is no point in a life endured merely for the dwindling pursuits of false pleasures. There must be something more.

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