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.