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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Civil Disorder in England

The riots that tore through England burning down whole blocks of buildings, threatening the lives of its occupants and murdering innocent bystanders came as a shock to social commentators and the chattering classes alike.  Criminal gangs exploited this violence for their own ends – a brilliant move by them.  Why were we surprised?

At the end of the World War II people talked of a new beginning where wealth would cease to be an important predicator of social mobility.  Class would stop positioning people in stratified layers that defined them.  But in the last half century the opposite has been the case.  Income inequality has worsened. The traditional measure of income inequality in society is called the Gini Coefficient (after Corrado Gini, an Italian Statistician who invented the measure in 1912).  While success is the measure of ambition and translates into reward, the theory does not take into account the widening disparity between separate groups based on sex, education, race and other criteria relating to society.  The gap between rich and poor has continued to expand as the lingering perception of what is possible has simultaneously, in our materialistic society, psychically expanded as it has physically receded.

A liberal will see the merits of income equality but put freedom first. But the ultimate test of a person’s personal morality is their pursuit of life’s goals without violating the freedom of others.  A meritocracy without equal opportunity is not a meritocracy but the continuance of Class advantage. Former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz noted that “markets do not lead to efficient outcomes, let alone outcomes that comport with social justice” but like all things it is because markets are of human design they take on the greed or altruism of the society in which they operate.  And Social Democracy has become inseparable from materialism and the Markets.

Competition can be rationalised and socially engineered to the point of delusion.  Competition without control and ethical guidelines is subject to a free market of ideas that can lead to totalitarianism.  No market can be truly free because absolute freedom becomes the antithesis of respect.

It would be a neat generalisation to condemn News Corp for the climate of aggressive individuality that created the News of the World scandal. The outraged cries for justice fuelled by a lynch mob mentality neatly disguised the partisan commercial considerations that accompanied the toppling of the news print behemoth.  Realistically News Corp is the fall guy that ultimately facilitated a bloodless coup by the BBC.  It allows global and hegemonic conglomerates such as the BBC to exercise control over news and entertainment. I find this even more frightening than mercantile exploitation by Rupert Murdoch’s capitalist empire. The BBC has the political ‘faith’ and unrestricted global power without even the limitations of commerce to restrain it. It is hardwired into the British establishment, into her government, her Foreign office and into the system of Royal patronage.  It is the propaganda arm of the British Treasury.

As I wrote in an earlier blog (“News of the World - a Peculiarly British Conspiracy”): “An unregulated press has dominated our lives and informed our intelligence since the dawn of the electronic age.  The internet and mobile phones have made the dissemination of information ubiquitous as it has prostituted knowledge to fashion and convenience, gratuitously bestowing sanitised nonsense on the believer.”   After the civil disorder in England much has been spoken about respect.  Respect is an idea, not just a word. Our respect is conditional on what we may gain from it.  And because immediacy of gratification is an affliction of our age we have little or no time for respecting that which does not bring an obvious or instant return.

The principle that legitimised intrusion into the private lives of individuals remains wholly supported across the media which in the electronic age has failed to address the issue of responsibility as it has enjoyed unprecedented power to influence society. The ends justifying the means precludes respecting the Individual and the Group.

There are those now arguing for national service as a sop to solving Britain’s social problems.  But in societies that need it, it is argued that the Army can never replace the social worker and those that committed much of the violence are likely to be excluded from national service.  So this is not the answer.

Respect is a contract that defines us at every level of our society but we as a society do not appreciate that it is intrinsic to every thing we do as individuals and as a group.  John McEnroe screaming at the umpire or the UK Guardian Newspaper columnist on a recent TV program constantly interrupting the other speakers are both of them equally guilty in instructing our bad behaviour.  The corrupt politician and the rap artist swearing are both delivering the same message that what is acceptable is defined by the individual and not by rules of behaviour; not by what society calls ‘ethics’.

Calling for a national commission of enquiry is also without purpose because it will be political and therefore unable to look at what society is, let alone what ails it.  Brutality has always been a hallmark of human society, it is not imagination or more money that we need. Until we recognise that it is society that is at fault at every level, we cannot expect respect to be a solution. Perhaps then, we are returning to darker times where respect is fear and control is the Establishment pulling our strings as perhaps it always has.

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