Occupy Wall Street: An 8-Point Non-manifesto

I’m stuck in a bit of a dilemma over ‘Occupy Wall Street.’ I support it, of course, but I feel torn over what to say about it. On the one hand, as a supporter, and someone paid to think about things like ‘justice’, if I don’t make an effort to articulate what I think it’s about, I seem to be playing into the hands of those who accuse it of having no message beyond “smash capitalism and replace it with something nicer”.

On the other hand, if I try to say something I run several risks: Who told me I can speak for a movement of hundreds of thousands? And then it could too easily become long, elaborate, over-theorised, explaining how everything everywhere fits into my favoured framework. Or I might say something really stupid – I am an amateur, and about as good at detailed institutional design and political strategising as I am at carpentry or volleyball.

So what follows is an attempt to find some middle path between saying nothing and burdening a promising movement with one more philosophy student’s half-baked ill-edited manifesto. I’m throwing out this non-manifesto (it’s honestly not a manifesto) mainly to see if people agree with me behind the shared-but-sometimes-uninformative slogans.

Eight Points, Beginning with ‘Why Want More Economic Equality?’

1)      Firstly, economic equality promotes equality of consumption, and this promotes net happiness, due to the diminishing marginal utility of money.

(That is, the same resources can do more to improve people’s lives if distributed equally. If you lack food, shelter, security, or healthcare, then the money to pay for that can be a huge benefit, whereas if you’ve already met all your pressing needs, and spend the same money on comparative luxuries, you won’t benefit as much.

This way of putting the point is fairly abstract, but is implicit in complaints about poverty and related suffering – the suffering of the poor is objectionable because it’s avoidable, i.e. because we could avoid it without inflicting equal suffering on someone else.)

2)      Secondly, economic equality promotes equality of power, and this promotes better and fairer collective outcomes.

(Money gives power in obvious political senses, campaign funds etc., but also in changing the bargaining positions in lots of individual dealings – making employees less dependent on employers, and non-working partners less dependent on working partners, allowing people to respond more effectively if they’re abused or mistreated.

This also affects large-scale but unplanned market outcomes. If people have money to spend, there’s an incentive to meet their needs; if they have no money, then there’s no incentive. And if people have so much money that the whole economy depends on them not going bankrupt, then there’s a powerful incentive for others to make sure they don’t go bankrupt.)

3)      Thirdly, economic equality expresses and symbolises equality of value. Two people who have equal ‘human dignity’ should have similar chances to live happy and comfortable lives.

(This could be taken as a matter of moral principle, or simply as a question of psychology: that people a likely to be less alienated, less inclined to anti-social behaviour, etc. when their economic position makes them feel respected – at least, under some cultural conditions)

4)      Fourthly, right now greater economic equality will tend to promote overall economic growth.

(Because economies are governed by extensive feedback, more money, services, and jobs for the majority of the population means more money for them to spend, more jobs in providing them with things to spend that money on, etc.

Of course the money has to come from somewhere, most likely either borrowing or increased progressive taxation. But both of these are fine. If funded by government borrowing (i.e. if an economic stimulus) then there are more goods and services in circulation, borrowed at extremely low present interest rates, which will be easier to pay back if growth raises state revenues and reduces state expenditures.

If funded by taxation (i.e. if a redistribution of wealth), it still has a net stimulating effect because poorer people tend to spend more of their money, while firms are at present spending and investing little.)

5)      Consequently, the requirements of general economic growth presently coincide with the principled considerations of egalitarian philosophy, forming an powerful case for measures to increase economic equality.

(Such measures would, in particular, include redistribution of wealth downwards, increased provision of public services available to all, increased organisational power and legal rights for unions and workers generally, and increased restrictions on actions by wealthy individuals and companies, especially financial ones, that might enrich them at the expense of others.)

6)      In spite of the above points, the general trend of political change across the Western world is the opposite.

(That is, governments are either leaving inequality untouched, or increasing it, by cutting public services, providing the rich with advantageous tax regimes, etc. There does not at present appear, nor has there in recent years appeared, a major electoral option that would reverse this trend.)

7)      Consequently we can infer that for some reason  the present political system of the Western world will not act to promote economic inequality unless compelled to so.

(The ‘some reason’ might be the vices of individual politicians, the prevalence of right-wing ideology, the political influence of powerful economic actors, or some subtle combination. What is widespread at the occupations, it seems, is not an analysis of why the state serves the rich, merely a sense that it does.)

8)      Hence it is necessary for a social force supporting greater economic equality to be formed. The congregation of large numbers of people in symbolically important locations can serve as one step in the formation of such a force. 

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Why I Hate Grading

(EDIT: I keep meaning to give some link-love to a friend’s new blog, If Truth Were a Tomboy, but then forgetting to, so here – go read it)

I hate grading.

(this post is partly inspired by reading the comments here, and partly by the fact I’m in the middle of grading right now)

It’s not because it’s hard. Sometimes it is, because it combines the wearying, mechanical repetition that stops you getting mentally engaged, with the challenge of synthesising features of a complex written object, which stops you from coasting through on auto-pilot. And when it is hard I dislike it for that reason, but that’s not why I hate it.

I hate it because it makes me feel dishonest. When grading student work, whether I like it or not, I’m participating in the manufacture of authority on a number of levels.

Firstly, the authority of certain texts. Why should they wrack their brains learning what this dead man meant? It’s not enough that he’s smart and has interesting things to say – thousands of people were, and the students are being forced to learn about a particular few, because they’re the ones it would be embarassing not to have heard of, in certain conversations. And they have that status because everyone else has been taught them, because their teachers were taught them, etc.

Secondly, the authority of certain styles and methods. I have to correct people on their format, their writing style, their correct use of symbolic notation, etc. And it is genuinely necessary to do this, not because certain sorts of notation are objectively better but because if they don’t know how to use them, people won’t take them seriously.

But I think the message such corrections send out is ‘this way of putting things is objectively superior’. Even if I don’t say that, even if I deny it, that’s what the brain learns if it’s punished for not fitting them.

Thirdly, and most importantly, I’m reinforcing the authority of the grading process. I have to try and trick my students into thinking that grading is a reliable procedure, and that each numerical grade reflects a set of judgements that could be publically explained and justified.

It really isn’t. It’s a ‘judgement’ in the sense that it involves processing large quantities of subtle information without being able to distinguish all of the pieces of information. As far as I can tell, rubrics with ‘5 sections and 5 sub-sections in each’, supposedly meant to let you calculate a mark in a transparent, reliable way, just disguise and intensify the subjectivity of that judgement.

And I don’t think that’s a bad thing, in itself. It’s just an argument for focusing less on grades and more on comments, discussions, etc. As anyone will tell you, I have absolutely no problem telling people what they’re doing wrong, or how they should improve. I just hate having to back it up with “and that’s why you got a 78 and not an 80, possibly changing some number in your future life that will stop you getting a job.”

I mean, imagine trying to have a seminar discussion where each comment was immediately assigned a mark out of 10 by the chair. It would be the worst possible way to encourage lively debate.

Anyway. That’s why I hate grading.

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One of the More Idiotic of False Equivalences

Sometimes you hear people complain about ‘politically correct’ changes in language by comparing them to Orwellian ‘newspeak’ – for instance, this article makes that claim about the BBC’s move to use ‘CE’ and ‘BCE’ in place of ‘AD’ and ‘BC’. This article doesn’t go quite that far but does call it “an example of the BBC trying to undermine Christianity by pushing an aggressive secularism.”

Without wanting to dignify with a response the claim that this represents “a Marxist plot to destroy civilisation from within”, I think it’s worth pointing out that the aims of ‘political correctness’ and of ‘newspeak’ are actually precise opposites.

The goal of newspeak, in 1984, was the narrow the range of available thoughts, by having fewer words, so that each word would cover and blur together a greater range of meanings. The goal of the linguistic tendencies labelled ‘PC’ are, at bottom, to widen the range of available thoughts, by separating distinct meanings.

For instance, replacing ‘chairman’ with ‘chairperson’ doesn’t abolish the words ‘chairman’ and ‘chairwoman’, it keeps them as gender-specific terms for when you want to convey information about gender, rather than having a single term that means both ‘person who chairs, of unspecified gender’ and ‘man who chairs’. That’s not a narrowing of the range of available meanings.

The AD/CE case is similar, though the meanings here are very subtle associations. If you want to specify a year and also suggest that the birth of Jesus of Nazareth was the most important event in human history, you can still do that, but saying CE also allows you to do the former without doing the latter. Maybe that’s a trivial benefit, but if it’s not worth doing it’s also not worth predicting the end of Western Civilization over.

As for the idea that these linguistic changes make bigoted claims impossible, it seems they do quite the opposite. If the people who just want to specify sexual orientation, and the people who want be generically insulting, both stop using the word ‘faggot’, your ability to use it to insult people with specific reference to their sexual orientation is increased. And if you’re worried people will misunderstand, you can still always fall back on more complex phrases like “your romantic habits render you subhuman”.

Now, this diversification of words might work against ease and naturalness of speech, might make people inconveniently self-conscious; indeed in the short-term that’s probably inevitable. But that’s the opposite of what you would go for if your aim was to make people docile and unthinking drones who automatically accept a party line. If you want to indoctrinate people you want to make the words just slip from their mouths like a vegan lactose-free spread that mimics the viscosity and melting point of butter. If you see what I mean. You can be a pedant or a populist but not both at once.

Anyway, I’m probably beating a dead horse in a barrel of fish, but I’ve seen this link made a few times and it just struck me how upside-down it is.

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Bush is a War Criminal, but I don’t believe that Bush is a War Criminal

“Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has been stripped of legal immunity for acts of torture against US citizens authorized while he was in office.

The 7th Circuit ruling is the latest in a growing number…Criminal complaints have been filed against Rumsfeld and other Bush administration officials in Germany, France, and Spain.

Bush recently curbed travel to Switzerland due to fear of arrest following criminal complaints lodged in Geneva… And this month Canadian citizens forced Bush to cancel an invitation-only appearance in Toronto.

The Mayor of London threatened Bush with arrest for war crimes earlier this year should he ever set foot in his city, saying that were he to land in London to “flog his memoirs”

Colin Powell’s Chief-of-Staff Col. Lawrence Wilkerson surmised on MSNBC earlier this year that soon, Saudi Arabia and Israel will be “the only two countries Cheney, Rumsfeld and the rest will travel too.”

When I saw the title of the article linked to here, which includes the phrase “Mr. Rumsfeld, you’re under arrest”, I felt an unexpectedly strong surge of happiness. Upon reading it, of course, I found that such an arrest was merely being speculated about, not reported. But still the thought of it makes me happy. They deserve it if anyone does, and it would be a sort of symbolic execution of the king, and I’m not ashamed to admit how much I love that idea.

But there’s not much point telling you how much I’d like to see those fuckers in court. For one thing, it’s unlikely to happen – what’s exciting here is only that it’s become not-quite-certain to not happen.

For another thing, sharing strong expressions ofanger, hatred, or vengefulness on a blog is rarely edifying or informative. So instead, I want to say something about the war crimes themselves, and my representations of them.

The paradox is that to me, these facts seem both obviously real, and yet only pretend.

I mean, there’s no need for you to click the above link, really, and read all about the deaths and the penis-slicing is that you probaly already know enough. After you’ve read that they killed a bunch of guys, or that warlords arrest random people and give them to the Americans to torture just because it builds their relationship, or seen a video of kids being gunned down from a helicopter, etc. etc. why do you need to know more?

And it’s not like this is speculation, really. I’ll admit I haven’t done in-depth research, but the drip-feed of information, whistleblowers, allegations, etc. doesn’t leave me in that much doubt. There’s official denials, of course, but they’re not persuading anyone.

And yet… and yet it still feels slightly unreal. Like, sure these people had thousands of people abused in various ways, but it’s not as though they’re criminals. I mean, you wouldn’t be scared talking to them. It wouldn’t be like talking to Hannibal Lecter, or that creepy homeless guy who stabbed someone.

At the back of my mind, this all feels like partisan rhetoric, like calling Bush a ‘Nazi’. He’s not a Nazi. He’s a bad, bad, man but that concept just factually doesn’t fit him, or his political role. If we call him a Nazi, it’s a sort of inflated rhetoric, exaggerating things, demonising him because it feels good. Like telling a crowd that they live in the world’s greatest country, or that we should make poverty history. It’s standard politics:  you say things that fit the emotional tone you’re going for, even if everyone knows they’re not strictly true.

And when you’re engaged in that sort of rhetoric, you know you are, at some level. You can feel, if you pay attention, that you don’t really believe what you’re saying. You can feel that at bottom you’re pretending, even though it may be the sort of pretence where you tell people you believe it.

The strange thing is that when I say that the US committed war crimes, I still have that feeling. And I don’t think there’s any amount of evidence that would get rid of it. Without actually seeing it first-hand, I will always feel like the authorities of Western countries can’t really be murderers.

It produces a pattern of feelings typical of such pretence. When I read about some horrific thing, I get angry, and I feel frustrated – at my actual powerlessness, but also that I don’t really believe it. I want to believe it, and what do you do when you want to believe something but know you really don’t? You express it more strongly – you search desperately for words you can say that will have enough force to make you believe them. Like, “Bush is Hitler”, or “Bush eats babies.”

Maybe it works at first, but later when you look back at it, it only reinforces the problem, because here you are were just pretending. Bush is not Hitler, and doesn’t eat babies. You picked those words because they were emotive, not because they were true. And that just reinforces the feeling that the whole thing is that kind of rhetorical pretence.

What underlies this phenomenon? I think it’s about social relations. If you think someone is guilty of massive and egregious crimes,  you have to act like it – you can’t just meet them and make small talk, shake their hand and make polite eye contact, on pain of implicitly normalising them.

That’s what the ‘moralised’ notion of criminal I’m using here means – not that they broke some specific human law, but that they broke the basic requirements for human interaction. They put themselves outside of the human community. They are a ‘public enemy’, and hence your enemy, so you should treat them like one.

But in the case of Western political leaders, I’m socially required to treat them, not as enemies, but as authorities. Of course I don’t interact with them directly, but I interact with a sort of ‘collective agent’ of which they are an influential part. I interact, for instance, with US border guards, and with US laws, and institutions funded by the US government, etc. I can’t treat them as enemies, and at some level of my mind that behaviour determines what I can genuinely believe.

So even if I try to tell you that I regard all capitalist governments as public enemies and hence my own enemies, no evidence or argument will make me actually believe that – subconsciously I still look at these figures as authorities, and so it seems like a fantasy that I might judge them murderous criminals.

So I end up in the bizarre position of pretending to believe what I honestly believe I ought to believe.

As Marx said “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”

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Communism and Community

Is there a link between the meanings of ‘communism’ and ‘community’? My interest here is partly etymological, partly analysis of concepts, and partly pragmatic clarification of how words might best be used. I know this whole area is a quagmire, but then quagmires are often very interesting areas for a wildlife enthusiast.

Anyway, I think there is a link, but it’s indirect. The more direct links are between ‘communism’ and two other words, ‘commune’ and ‘common’.

If we confine our attention to the economic ‘nuts and bolts’ of what these words mean, these links become quite simple. A commune is a group of people who ‘hold things in common’, or who have ‘common property’, or ‘common ownership’. Communism is the belief that all things should be owned in common (or, ambiguously, the form of society in which they are). Thus communism is also the belief that society should be organised as either a single commune or a network of communes. A nice, tight triangle of perspicuous definitional links.

‘Community’ is left outside of this triangle because it has no definite economic meaning. But of course it too is closely connected with these terms, because they all have a robust penumbra of non-economic meanings, connotations, and associations.

One thread to pick out would be: what is ‘common’ among people is what they share or have ‘together’. Members of a community are people who ‘live together’, so that their ‘living’ is somehow ‘shared’ or ‘common’. But ‘live’ here is shorthand for something much broader than ‘be alive in a place’, as we see when we consider that two opposing armies might ‘be alive together’ on a battlefield without ‘living together’, even if their campaign lasts for months.

What is the relevant sense of ‘living together’? I could go into a long analysis of how different people have used the word ‘community’, since I was recently working on the topic, but instead I’ll just report the conclusion I came to: the core meaning of ‘community’ in this sense is a group of people who 1) benefit each other in various ways, and 2) value each in some non-instrumental fashion.

That ‘valuing’ could involve spontaneous feelings of affection, or it might involve shared dedication to a cause or ideal or activity, or it might involve formulating and following a set of rules which are meant to promote everybody’s welfare.

That’s the core meaning – there are other derived meanings, that somehow relate to the core one. But if that’s the sense of ‘living’ which is ‘shared’ and hence ‘common’ in a ‘community’, what does that have to do with ‘communism’?

That becomes clearer if we consider that the market is to a great extent a paradigm non-community. That claim needs certain qualifications, but the basic point is simple: in a market, people will often benefit each other but not because they mean to, or because they care. It is a characteristically self-interested way of securing co-operation.

That doesn’t automatically mean it’s bad, though it might establish a suspicion that it’s likely to have a number of quite pernicious outcomes. Communists think that suspicion turns out to be amply justified. They think that, as it turns out, the only way to secure optimal, or even acceptable, outcomes for everyone is if that goal is incorporated directly into the way the economy is run: that’s at least part of what is meant by ‘rational planning’.

If I’m right about the core meaning of ‘community’, then it follows that communism stands for the control of the economy by ‘minimally communal institutions’, i.e. those run on the basis of explicitly seeking everyone’s good. So that gives us a link between ‘community’ and ‘communism’.

(Note that the way I’m using these words, ‘communism’ is by definition anti-market, whereas ‘socialism’ need not be, as long as capital is owned collectively)

An upstanding member of the community?

What about ‘commune’? This word can have different sorts of meaning; above I said that in an economic sense it means people with common property. But contrasted with ‘community’, its major connotation is intention – a commune is a group who ‘live together’ (a ‘community’) by choice, as part of a deliberate plan. This implies that they had some reason for such a choice, but that reason might be many things – a desire for closeness, a desire for fairness, a desire for freedom, or a desire for discipline.

In this sense, ‘commune’ again links together ‘community’ with ‘communism’, but in two ways. Firstly, ‘communism’ as a term emerged (according to my somewhat shallow research) in the context of many attempts to establish new utopian communes, such as Robert Owen’s “New Harmony”. So communes like that might be models of, or means of developing, communism.

But there’s also been a strain of criticism of such communal experiments, expressed here by Kropotkin. And, after all, much of the motive for founding one is disagreement with present society, so why would you still want to if you had succeeded in reforming society? So maybe communism shouldn’t be burdened by too close a connection with such communes.

An alternative semantic link is that both movements share the goal of creating deliberate, intentional, ‘communal’ institutions – but that in the one case this may be global, or otherwise filled with many more people than the average hippy camp. That is, communism need not be interested in ‘tight-knit’ communities, but just in having co-ordinating economic institutions which are ‘communal’ (in the sense of organising and expressing collective concern for each individual’s good) and not just accepting or strengthening existing communities.

This distinction might be phrased in terms of ‘communal self-awareness’ (individuals feeling strongly identified with and involved in a concrete network of people) and ‘self-aware community’ (groups ruling themselves deliberately and directly for their collective benefit). One need not imply the other, at least not directly.

In this respect, the ‘commune’ to look to would be the ‘Paris Commune’ of 1871, which is clearly not a ‘small, tight-knit community’, given how big Paris was even then – my superficial researches suggest that just the executions that followed its defeat involved many times the total population of New Harmony.

So in summary: a collection of semantic links connect ‘communism’, ‘community’, ‘commune’, and ‘common’, generally involving the idea of ‘sharing’ something, either economically or in a more robust sense of sharing (either directly or via. institutions) a concern for each others good.

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Broken Britain

Most of us will by now have noticed the growing wave of mindless, destructive violence that is sweeping the country in response to last week’s riots. Hundreds or thousands of people are being locked into the same set of dangerous, unfair, dehumanising cages that we have become all too familiar with.

Of course, all right-thinking people will condemn this orgy of state violence, but we should not rush to judgement. Those who denounce this as ‘bigoted’, ‘obscene’, or ‘fascistic’ are missing the crucial context of these events. We can’t understand these moves to indiscriminately victimise and incarcerate people without understanding the events that preceded them.

Similarly, the constant refrain that “there can be no excuse for using violent punishment against mere expropriation” serves simply to salve the consciences of those public figures who want to avoid taking a long hard look at the causes of this sudden outbreak of repression.

The people who are carrying out these acts, who are master-minding them or cheering them on from the sidelines, have very real greivances. Many of them have a history of being harassed, humiliated, or intimidated by poor youths, or have seen their families languish in poverty due to constant petty thefts or vandalism.

All of this came to head last week, when the irresponsible actions of poor youths went from merely humiliating to actively lethal. The handling of these events, especially the lies that were told by various individuals and groups to obscure their own role in those deaths, further exacerbated widespread anger and resentment.

But it’s more than that. This explosion has been brewing for a long time. The persistent, outrageous poverty of our political class’s discourse, the endless spirals of expressing and pandering to ignorance and prejudice, together with a steady growth in inequality that leaves far too many wealthy people completely out of touch with the realities of national life, makes outbreaks like this inevitable. People have come to feel they have no future, and so they lash out in a desperate bid to feel important.

And there have always been too many working class people who would make excuses for these people, or endorse their views, out of a misplaced feeling of guilt.

Now, let there be no mistake: understanding is not the same as justifying. There can be no excuse for snatching up relatives of rioters, or shoplifters, or people who just took home valuable goods lying in the street, and subjecting them to prison, or homelessness, or destitution. Such actions are completely inconsistent with the principles of a civilised society, and they can have crushing effects on the lives of their victims.

Especially in the present economic climate, to give already-struggling people the stigma of a criminal record, or of homelessness, or to remove them from education or from their social support network, and put them somewhere known to be psychologically harmful in addition to its evident humiliations and deprivations, amounts to little more than pushing to the edge of a self-sustaining cycle of imprisonment, homelessness, joblessness, or drug addiction, and then pretend to hope that they don’t fall in.

Perhaps the saddest thing of all is how pointless this violence is. They are ruining their own communities,  further ripping up the social fabric whose frayed, ragged character originally provoked them. The people lashing out like this won’t even benefit from the cathartic outburst of aggression, because by their own actions they guarantee a backlash, more riots, more clashes with the police. Their actions are not just destructive, but self-destructive.

Ultimately, what this reflects is a problem of culture. A certain section of our society has been allowed to develop a victim mentality, where everyone but them is responsible for their problems. Rather than looking at themselves and how they can change, they blame the media, they blame immigration, they blame political correctness, they blame women’s rights, they blame muslims or the nanny state or liberalism or the BBC.

This attitude generates a toxic cycle, whereby people lash out at any symbol of non-authority, strengthening their own conviction of persecution while also breeding hostility in their own victims that just leads to more trouble down the line. Of course, we must never allow ourselves to slip into the easy conflation of culture with race. It is not white people who are the problem, but we should be able to criticise a culture without being accused of racism.

Britain is broken. How can we get it back on track?

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The Absence of Anarchy in the UK

So apparently my home-town is on fire. It’s all too easy to find people explaining how these events show their personal theories to have been right all along, so I’m going to do the opposite: explain why these events pose problems for my personal theories.

In particular, I want to talk about how riots relate to ‘consent-based politics’ – a broad collection of theories and movements including various forms of democracy, various sorts of ‘social contract theories’, and various forms of anarchism at the extreme. What unites them is the idea that legitimate political authority derives from people’s free, voluntary choices to grant that authority, that consent is in some respect central to what justice means.

What happens when people withdraw consent? Some consent-based theories don’t bother with this question, because they say that people can’t withdraw consent, that actual consent is not required. For example, both Kant’s hyper-moralistic version, and Hobbes’ hyper-egoistic version, of social contract theory, say that people’s consent to be governed can be presumed. But that’s less widely accepted nowadays.

Other theories, like liberal representative democracy, institutionalise mechanisms to allow for controlled forms of such consent-withdrawl, in particular emigration and election. Most people accept that there are conditions under which these mechanisms are inadequate – if the countries you might emigrate to are either equally bad, or refuse to admit you, if elections are dominated by the influence of plutocrats or elected leaders tear up their manifestos. Some people even think that they’re inherently inadequate; typically, anarchists think that they’re inherently inadequate, and that adequate institutions are possible.

But if we don’t live in a society with adequate mechanisms for people’s free choices to determine political outcomes, what do people do when they no longer consent to the terms which the law proposes? The natural consequence of anarchism is that in such a case, people are perfectly within their rights to ignore the law, and obey it only so far as is advantageous to them.

Now, I’m not going to say that watching these riots poses a problem for that view, that “this is what happens” when people stop respecting the law. Theoretically speaking, I can easily say that this is not anarchy, and that anarchists can be outraged and disgusted at indiscriminate destruction, burning of homes, physical violence and robbing people of their personal possessions. They can be outraged not because such things are against the particular laws of one society but because they are against the straightforward principles that would have to be respected in any decent society.

(That said, I don’t think looting itself is inherently wrong; changes in the distribution of wealth are to be judged in utilitarian terms, and are often beneficial)

The problem is the way that the riots illustrate the social constitution of consent and non-consent. This august line of criticism says that you can’t base society on people’s choices, because what people choose largely reflects their socialisation, and thus their society.

That’s a rather abstract-sounding point, but I feel it somewhat more concretely after reflecting on the competing explanations I saw people exchanging for these events.

Those explanations tend to fall on a spectrum between two extremes. One extreme is that this is “pure” criminality, committed by “mindless” thugs; the other extreme is sees this as just a long extension of the protest march on Saturday – people were making a political point about police violence, economic inequality, or something like that, and it spread into a riot, and then more joined in because of how angry they were about poverty and racism and whatnot.

Obviously not everyone involved will have had the same motives. But the difficult thing is that I’m not sure it’s possible to distinguish these two explanations even in principle. Even when people aren’t consciously focused on a political sense of greivance, the content of their peripheral consciousness can be political.

For instance, even if you’re not rioting because you disapprove of economic policies that fail to prioritise employment, you probably wouldn’t be rioting if you had, or anticipated having, a brilliant job that a brush with the cops would imperil.

And even if you’re not rioting because you’re angry about the killing of Mark Duggan, you may be rioting because you want some new stuff, and you’re not the sort of person who refrains from things out of ‘moral scruples’ or ‘respect for others’, and you may see yourself in that way partly because you feel that fairness is an empty concept in a society where the police can get away with murder.

But the fact that I can extract some political content from a set of motivations doesn’t mean they really are political, just in disguise. What it means is that factors which should be expressed politically are being expressed in egoistic, or self-destructive, or otherwise anti-social ways.

That’s the opposite of what’s meant to happen for a consent-based political theory.What’s meant to happen is that when people lose faith in the moral trustworthiness of their rulers, and/or come to feel that society’s terms of co-operation offer them nothing of value, they express this in an articulate, consistent way, by withdrawing from the terms of their particular society, seeking to establish better terms for an alternative society, and therefore necessarily respecting the basic rules that are presupposed in any attempt at dialogue (e.g. don’t set fire to someone’s house).

Moreover, this is meant to happen at both the individual level and the social level – people who withdraw consent should be able to communicate this to each other and associate together on the terms they prefer.

But none of that happens automatically. Indeed, it’s very difficult, and certainly not made easier when processes of that sort are usually either repressed or ineffective. And it’s dependent on the pre-existing social conditions, in all their complexity.

That is, people’s ability to coherently express political dissent from their social structure, even to themselves, is dependent on features of that social structure itself. So in some settings, huge quantities of anger and defiance appear, not as a political revolt, but mingled with greater quantities of machismo, spite, and stupidity.

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