London burning: The cultural history of western society and the recent riots.

First Published: 2011-09-06

First published August 20, 2011 at the Business Standard, and is posted here without eh kind permission of the author. View the original article here…

My wife and I returned on August 8 at midnight to Gatwick in London from Sicily. Our taxi driver asked us what route he should take to our home in the north, as there were reports of rioting in South London. Taking the circular motorway route, we arrived home at 2 a m and turned on the television. The sight of London burning was something we might have expected in the Cosa Nostra’s home in Sicily which we had just left, but not in the leafy suburbs of South London.

London has burnt many times during its history (see Violent London: 2,000 Years of Riots, Rebels and Revolts by Clive Bloom) — recently in the 1980s in the race riot in Tottenham. Most of the riots in the past had some sort of political or economic cause, while the one this year was a mindless recreational riot. As the participants were being processed through Magistrates’ Courts over the days that followed, it became clear that most of them were young – some even children – and came predominantly from an underclass created by a dysfunctional welfare state. But there were also the “respectable” walking into broken shops to loot and pillage. So what went wrong?

The explanation is both economic and cultural. The standard economic explanation (emphasising “poverty”), however, will not do. As my late colleague Jack Hirshleifer from University of California, Los Angeles, used to emphasise, there are two ways of making a living: by “making” and by “taking” (The Dark Side of the Force, Cambridge, 2001). Conventional economics is about “making”, but the same technical apparatus can be applied to the economics of “taking”. Of course the mafia (like the state) is part of the economics of “taking” (a zero-sum game). But at the same time, through providing the “public good” of protection (like the state), it is one of “making” (a positive sum game). It is not surprising that many of the rioters were members of various gangs (involved in “taking”) that have proliferated in many inner-city London boroughs. The welfare state too is part of the economics of “taking”, although through the agency of the state. Here, the economic conflict is about redistribution, and the weak (the “poor”) defeating the strong (the “rich”) because “they have a comparative advantage in conflict as opposed to production”, which leads to the politics of populism (Hirshleifer, page 17).

This economics of “taking” has been worsened by the cultural consequences of the demoralisation of the West. Members of every society face various risks to their incomes, leading to destitution in extreme cases. Private social safety nets have provided insurance, chiefly through the traditional extended family. As I argued in Unintended Consequences, this was undermined by the western family revolution of Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century, by promoting individualism, the independence of the young and nuclear families. The creation of a fierce guilt culture built on “original sin” put a lid on the erosion of the traditional family. But, with the death of the Christian God with the Darwinian revolution this lid was removed, and the western family began to disintegrate as its male members reverted to the promiscuous practices of their hunter-gatherer ancestors.

For a time the continuing hold of traditional morality as embodied in the “Victorian virtues” – of work, discipline, thrift, self-help and self-discipline – and represented by the English gentleman still held. It was Nietzsche who clearly saw that the death of the Christian God would destroy the truth of western morality. “There would be no good and evil, no virtue and vice. There would be only ‘values’” (The Demoralization of Society, Gertrude Himmelfarb, page10). A shift was taken up enthusiastically by the Cambridge Apostles, whose leading light, J M Keynes, “repudiated entirely customary morals, conventions and traditional wisdom. We were … in the strict sense of the term, immoralists” (“My Early Beliefs” in Collected Writings, J M Keynes, page 446). The shift from “virtues” to “values” (which can be anything that an individual, group or society happens to value, at any time, for any reason) meant that instead of being an authoritative yardstick to judge behaviour, “morality” became a flexible ruler.

The Cultural Revolution of the 1960s provided the final coup de grâce to traditional morality. It changed traditional family relationships and created new standards of sexual behaviour. In the US and then in the UK there was a dual revolution (see The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass by Myron Magnet). A social revolution liberated the poor from political, economic and racial oppression. A cultural revolution offered the have-nots the same liberation that the haves had achieved from the moral restraints of a bourgeois society. This was lethal for the have-nots. It destroyed the sense of personal responsibility (and, thus, the basis for the employment of the moral emotions of guilt and shame) for the very people who needed it the most to ascend the economic ladder. Taken together, these two revolutions – the socio-economic one legitimising “taking” and the cultural one embodying the morality of “anything goes” – created a demoralised self-perpetuating “underclass” which has been burning London.

Prime Minister David Cameron is right to emphasise the demoralisation of Britain, which is the ultimate cause of this “sickness”. But given its deep historical causes, it is unlikely that he or anyone else can do anything about it. The reform of the welfare state can reduce the appeal of “taking”. But, as Hume understood clearly, social order ultimately depends upon the general populace being intimated by authority — the police and the courts. It is fear that creates the “opinion” which predisposes people to obey the law. For, as Hume said, “force is always on the side of the governed. The governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is on opinion only that government is founded”. It is to change the opinion that induced even the “respectable” to take to riot and pillage that, quite rightly, the full force of the law is now being brought against all the rioters. India too would do well to remember this truth.

DEEPAK LAL is James S. Coleman Professor of International Development Studies, University of California at Los Angeles, Professor Emeritus of Political Economy, University College London, and co-director of the Trade and Development Unit at the Institute of Economic Affairs, London.

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