Before the recent English riots began, some in the Right of the UK Tory Party might have been tempted to conclude that such events would not be a bad thing. After all, the sequence is a core feature of right-wing politics in the post-WW2 era — impose a series of cuts on social services, kick away whatever meagre ladders have been put in to lessen inequality of opportunity, light the blue touch paper, and step back. When it all kicks off, send the police in hard, lay waste and re-affirm the moral narrative: these are people who want something for nothing, raised in a society of the hand-out/moral relativism/post-colonial guilt (the language changes with the decade), force quivering left-liberals to come down on one side or the other, and roll on to victory.
That was the Margaret Thatcher method following the Brixton uprising of 1981, a motif capped off by her minister Norman Tebbit’ epochal speech to parliament, saying “When my father was unemployed, he didn’t riot. He got on his bike! Get on your bike!”. Tebbit was a working-class Tory from Essex, and unlike some, he’d never bothered to have his accent altered through speech lessons. His invocation, delivered through a flat nasality, had full moral force. Before the Falklands War, when Thatcher’s first government was facing defeat, it rallied the troops behind the party, and the ideology. When people remember the “iron” character of Thatcherism — which had not yet developed as a full-bore movement — it is in fact that speech they often remember.
Many raddled, confused people in the UK this week might have hoped for such a rallying-cry from somewhere in the Tory Party. The truly delusional might have hoped for it from David Cameron, the smooth-cheeked boy-king; the more realistic might have hoped for it from one of the remaining old-school Tories. But it did not come. There was no “on your bike” moment — which was an invocation to simply live or die in the jungle of the cities, a statement of Hayekian propriety, that the state had no interest in you, until you broke the law, at which point it would turn its attentions. The best that could be mustered up was a true David Cameron moment — a nagging, prefectish admonition that there is no excuse for this sort of behaviour.
Such remarks concede what Thatcher and Tebbit never did — that no matter how much they would wish to disown the rioters, to damn them to the outer darkness, they cannot. Why? The short answer is that they lack the moral authority because they never signed on to the full Thatcherite moral discourse that separated state and private enterprise, and damned the latter as inherently parasitic (as now animates the US Republican Party). From the moment he gained the Tory leadership, David Cameron worked hard to present himself as the first truly post-Thatcherite leader in the UK — aware, after three big electoral losses, that it was only by thoroughly distancing themselves from that era that the Tories would persuade a section of the prosperous but socially liberal middle class to vote for them again.
The centrepiece of that strategy was the “Big Society”. Ostensibly and theoretically, it was an argument that both state and market had evacuated voluntary and communal social life. The implicit theory was humanist and social — a philosophical repudiation of Thatcherite individualism and her extreme Hayekian notion that “there is no such thing as society — there are individuals and there are families”. Yet in practice, and as probably always intended, the “big society” argument focused almost exclusively on the allegedly morale-sapping and disempowering effects of the state, and had nothing to say about the market. The argument was a way of making significant cuts to public services, while avoiding owning them as a moral discourse — a big state was not an immoral end, as Thatcher presented it, it was an error of means, because it made people dependent, powerless and resentful. It was a way for the Tories to distinguish themselves from Labour, while also accepting the social desire that Labour had tapped into — for a degree of social reconstruction following the Thatcher years.
Having thus adopted the language of systemic and sociological thinking, the Cameron government has no rock on which to stand to deliver a sermon. So all it can do is speak of technical means to control a population — evicting those convicted of theft (or their families) from public housing, stopping anarchists using Facebook, etc. It is a mixture of the vindictive and the laughable, and it concedes the idea that the rioters are not subjects to be judged as “right” or “wrong” according to a moral code, or as political friends or enemies, but as social units to be managed by behavioural control and “nudge” theory.
The Cameron government plays this game, because that has been its game plan all along, as a way of managing British society. Deep down, it does not believe, as Thatcher and her cohorts did, in the idea that capitalism is an expression of an innate moral system — indeed for a genuine classical liberal, the whole label of “capitalism” is an error, because it periodises a universal human trait that of freely trading goods and services. Moral classical liberalism of Thatcher’s type was formed in the postwar era, defined against social democracy. Those who took over the Tory Party in the new era grew up long past those battles. Oxbridge PPE graduates, from the administrative world of PR and professional politics, they are creatures of large state and corporate institutions — the market is distant from their lives, and always has been. Smoothly running global financial-consumer corporate capital is the goal, one generating steady predictable growth, with the business cycle rendered as even in its fluctuations as possible.
When you see capitalism as a system in that way, you understand it, in the last analysis, as a management and planning issue. Homo oeconomicus becomes replaced by homo sociologicus — an understanding of social life and subjectivity that was once the hallmark of the left becomes a set of tools for the right. Industrial capitalism demanded the management of object — steel from the mills, flowing to factories for cars. Post-industrial capitalism demands the management of subjects — it frankly accepts, whether it will admit it or not, that running Western economies in a neo-liberal fashion involves managing large numbers of people who are surplus to requirements — hence one talks not of “layabouts” but of “welfare dependency”, not of the “feckless” but of the excluded. Hence the sneaky, piecemeal way in which the Cameron government has introduced cuts — as a series of broken promises about what would not be cut, about tuition fees and the like. In adapting the language and techniques of sociology to their cause, they concede a basic and fundamental point to the left,and fight on our terrain.
However, the sociologisation of the Right occurs with one crucial and defining omission — it shears off any critical account of the effects of the market, of social inequality, of commodification, consumerism and advertising, and their effects on social life and subjectivity. Indeed, the whole purpose of adapting sociological thinking on the Right is to find tools to compensate for the corrosive effects of the market — while rendering those effects invisible. In many cases this is not done consciously — it is simply a product of the ideology that is pumped through PPE courses, right-wing think tanks, etc, etc. Thus, the smooth-cheeked Cameroonians emerge knowing that the market may have deleterious effects that must be compensated for in the interests of social management — but will not or cannot concede that the core of the system is doing the social, cultural and psychological damage.
This is the character also of the right-wing commentariat in the UK and Australia, most of whom regard Cameron and his clones as detestable wimps. Yet they too speak the language of sociology and social effect, careful to exclude the market from any blame. Why do this rather than tell a simple moral tale of neer do wells robbing shops? Because it is obvious to anyone that the English riots were a social occurrence and not a series of individual ones, and that England — the only Western society to be truly Thatcherised (people such as Sarkozy and Merkel long ago wimped out of any similar transformation) is the ideological battleground of postmodern capitalism. Crucial to this, in an era when the structural inadequacy of global finance capitalism is made obvious, is to deny that it produces systemic social deformation as well.
Thus, while kids make it clear what they are smashing up — the windows that separate them from the stuff they want, stuff presented as the only route to a meaningful life in hour upon hour of ads, movies, games and music videos — the Right misdirect their anger to … well anything else. Culprits so far include the liberal intelligentsia, television in bedrooms, teachers wearing jeans, Amy Winehouse, and the phasing out of Enid Blyton from the primary school curriculum. Though the market dominates social and psychological life, it apparently plays no role in social and psychological formation.
Indeed, the need to deny that the market has any role in this, leads the right to the ultimate absurdity — they must deny any subjective role for the rioters in their own actions, essentially adopting a wholly sociological explanation for the event. Thus when rioters say, less articulately than a professional op-ed writer, that they are taking stuff cos they want it, cos the rich have it, and cos its the government, this clear statement of intent must be denied. Really, they’re taking trainers and plasma because they weren’t taught spelling. It’s a measure of the total demoralisation of the Right intellectually over the past few years — after Iraq, Katrina, and the GFC — that they retreat to these consoling fantasies. Nor is it any coincidence that their favoured writers become the most pessimistic, doom-laden and borderline unhinged — Andrew Bolt, the Calvinist in the desert, “mad” Melanie Phillips, and Theodore Dalrymple, part Spengler, all Eeyore. They know now that any fantasies they may have entertained of a political Right with backbone in the UK are gone. The Cameron government was so timid about speaking morally that it chose for its target the police, a truly foolish move. But the government knows better than the right-wing pundits what the riots portend — that deep down, no one really believes this system is an expression of morality. And now, with a second recession on the way, it is clear that it cannot claim efficiency either. They’re a long way from Brixton, with no way to get home.