OK, this is getting weird.
I’ve already pointed out that I found it mildly disconcerting when an idea I’d expressed about the causes of the riots matched pretty closely with an idea later expressed by Peter Oborne in The Telegraph. I know Oborne is one of the more reasonable and measured of right wing commentators, in that he tends to tailor his ideas to fit reality – a notable contrast to many commentators on the right (and plenty on the left), who instead attempt to tailor reality to fit their ideas. But he is still of the right, and so I find it disquieting to be in agreement with him: does the fact we agree signal a shift in his ideas, or a shift in mine? One of my perennial fears is that, as I age, I will gradually become a reactionary – it’s something I’ve seen happen to a lot of people – so to find myself nodding along in agreement with an article in The Telegraph was a bit of a worry.
That worry has been intensified by finding that Prince Charles – Prince Charles! – has been expressing sentiments that differ only slightly from another idea I had about the long-term causes of the riot: namely, that there are ‘people who feel they have no hope, no future, and no chance of escape’. HRH doesn’t put it in quite those terms, but there are parallels:
Half the problem is that people join gangs because it’s a cry for help and they’re looking for a sense of belonging. Schools don’t have enough extra-curricular activities. There are not enough organised games or other kinds of activities. Young people need self-confidence, we have to motivate and encourage them and give them responsibility.
Personally, I wouldn’t be inclined to give much credence to the gang theory at all, at least in terms of the looting. If the trouble had been gang-related, I’d have expected to see rival gangs taking advantage of the situation to fight each other, and problems at their most intense along the boundaries between different gangs’ territories, which is, as I understand it, not what happened. I think the gang issue is pretty much a red-herring raised by David Cameron so that he can pretend consulting with Bill Bratton is in some way a useful or relevant thing to be doing, and not just a knee-jerk PR stunt. I’d also shy away from the ‘jolly hockey sticks’ assumption that a few more school games would make everything all better. I think the politest I can be about that idea is to say that it seems to date from another era. (Although, to be fair, one of the most successful methods of getting young men off the streets has been to offer them free training in boxing gyms, and that’s a strategy that was first pursued in the Victorian era – but this is perhaps because a boxing career was and remains one of the few routes out of relative poverty that are open to members of the urban working class.)
Other parts of his comments chime much more closely, though; ‘looking for a sense of belonging’, ‘we have to motivate and encourage them’: those all sound not too different to what I said. So is it just that the things I said are so obvious that everyone is saying them? Or have I, without realising it, come to have the social attitudes of a tweedy old codger surveying society with a patronising air from atop a pillar of unearned privilege?
Obviously, I’d like to think not. I think it’s not hugely unfair to suggest that Prince Charles’ ideas may have been influenced by the principle of noblesse oblige, and that this contributes fairly heavily to the rather pungent stench of condescension that surrounds his remarks. I’d like to think that aspect is absent from what I’ve said, and that when I talk about changes I’d like to see, I do so as a member of the community, not a patronising-benevolent outsider talking about what we need to do for them. I’d also like to think that certain other of my suggestions – remaking our culture in such a way that it ‘teaches us to value, not what we keep for ourselves, but what we share’ – would be fairly unlikely to find a receptive listener in a man who counts among the things he keeps for himself ‘53,628 hectares of land in 23 counties’.
If it’s a little disconcerting to find myself in the company of people I’d normally expect to be way to my right, I do find some reassurance that I may be maintaining my usual place on the political spectrum when ideas which seem to me absurdly right wing are picking up mainstream support. Ideas such as the suggestion that making the families of convicted looters homeless and destitute is an entirely reasonable and proportionate response (after all, they can always eat their own babies if they don’t want to starve…). So long as ideas like this seem vindictive, unfair, disproportionate and self-defeating to me, I think I can be reasonably sure that I haven’t become a reactionary. But might I, though, have become a liberal? Someone who’s aware, in a dim way, of injustice and inequality, but incapable of doing much more about it than wringing his hands and saying, “Oh, dear”?
Again, I’d like to think not. I’d like to think that, while I may share some of the liberal analysis of problems, I don’t share the liberal penchant for proposing sticking-plaster solutions. I’d like to think the contrast between the liberal solution to the looting – “let’s find a way for the disadvantaged to join in the hell-for-leather pursuit of consumerist heaven” – and my recognition that such a solution can’t help to do away with the fundamental problem of inequality (all it can do is replace haves and have-nots with those who have more and those who have less) speaks for itself. I’d like to think that encouraging people to value what they share, not what they keep to themselves is – given the way that principle relates to the idea of a gift economy – an example of a radical approach, not a reformist one.
I remain a little unsure how to treat the rather surprising discovery that people who usually see the world rather differently to me are suddenly talking about things in the same terms. I’d like to think it’s not a sign that I’ve become more conventional in my political thinking (though, really, who am I to judge?). But is it a sign of a new consensus emerging, one of those pitifully rare moments in history when there’s a sudden recognition that the system is broken, and needs to change? It’s a little hard to reconcile that with the extreme popularity of reactionary accounts of the riots, the angry calls for the working class to be slapped back hard into place so that the middle classes and higher can continue to enjoy the fruits of an unequal distribution of wealth.
Maybe it’s just that the rioting and looting was sufficiently unexpected that the response is in flux, with some people reaching towards new ideas even while others fall back on old familiar ones. This is pretty close to a point Kapitano made in a comment on my last post:
Community stunts, media paranoia, hand-wringing of ‘alienation’, intimidation, draconian laws, pseudo-conciliatory talking heads on TV – we could have all of these at once. Which would be…interesting.
We do seem to have all of these at the moment, and it is interesting. Maybe it also accounts for the strange alliances that I seem to have found myself an unwitting part of over the last few days (unless, of course, I’m one of the hand-wringers). It’s an interesting way of looking at it, I think: the present moment as a time of flux, when the pieces of the jigsaw are all up in the air. And, not coincidentally, this is all happening at a time when finance capitalism is suffering under what may well be the greatest strain it’s ever seen; even politicians of the right are coming to recognise that consumer spending based on personal debt can’t sustain an economy in the long term, which only adds to the sense of a situation in flux.
Perhaps the most interesting thing of all is what pattern the pieces will fall in when they settle. The right wing media and David Cameron are making a hard play for the forces of reaction to win out, but will they succeed? It’s a fair assumption, you’d think. But, then again, some of those we might have expected to jump towards reaction have jumped the other way instead, and the coalition of opposing voices is broad enough to include left wingers of all kinds alongside the Labour party, Peter Oborne and the Prince of Wales. So maybe there’s a chance history might look back on this as the moment at which things started to change.
Probably not, I realise. It would be a brave gambler who would bet against the status quo, given it has power and wealth on its side, and the forces on the other side have – well, nothing. But if things are ever to change, they have to start sometime, and the present moment – with its high price inflation and low wage inflation making everyone poorer; with its high profile crises in the financial markets and jobs market; with its bizarre spectacle of the tabloid media, mainstream politicians and police apparently locked in a mutually destructive spiral headed towards the utter destruction of all three of their reputations – is a likelier candidate than some.