In Which Moral Entrepreneurs Should STFU

So, everybody seems to be discussing this:

As Atrios notes,

“BBC News keeps bringing people on to ask them why the rioting in London is happening, and when they try to answer the question and provide an explanation (with any validity or not, who knows) the newscasters chastise them for justifying the violence.”

It is interesting to compare this to the way the quasi-riots organized by the Tea Party in townhall meetings regarding the health care bill were treated with utmost respect. When the riff-raff get restless, it is a riot. When older, wealthier white people get restless, it is due to legitimate grievances. Class matters people.

And in the class war, the media are not neutral observers. They clearly side with the privileged and play the role of moral entrepreneurs, or give much airtime to moral entrepreneurs, to scold the rioters, as is the case in London, and supplying convenient prescriptions as to how disadvantaged people should behave.

For those of you unfamiliar with Howard S. Becker‘s sociology, the concept of moral entrepreneurs refer to these individuals, groups and institutions that take it upon themselves to create, generalize and enforce norms directly or indirectly (through the coercive means of the state, for instance). Moral entrepreneurs are central in the construction and re-definition of certain behaviors are socially problematic. Once they have done so, they usually marshal whatever social power they have to demand immediate action to eliminate or, at least, limit and restrain such behavior. The goal of moral entrepreneurs is to make their morality the morality of society, backed by the major social institutions. It is in this sense that deviance is socially produced and maintained.

And let’s not forget that, according to Becker himself, moral entrepreneurs are usually from the upper classes. Moral entrepreneurship is a way of enforcing class norms on the lower classes. And, of course, if members of the lower classes fail to live up to the standards of more privileged categories, social sanctions and stigma follow. It is especially the case when public policy pulls the rug under disadvantaged people’s feet (as cut and austerity measures do), which makes it impossible to legitimately follow upper middle class norms. Then, moral entrepreneurs shake their heads at the moral decay of the lower classes and ask for further disciplining.

In the case of the London riots, in the same that there are repertoires of contention in social movements, there are repertoires of repression for the state:

Here, it is interesting to see the media play the role of moral entrepreneur through several things:

(1) the reinforcement of the “destruction of private property” is bad narrative;

(2) “looting proves that the motive is not political but purely bad and greedy behavior” (the subtext of this one goes something like this: “poor people just want things handed to them – like welfare – instead of working for them – like middle-class, hardworking, law-abiding, tax-paying people do – and use criminal activities to obtain them”);

(3) an extension of that is that the poor are poor because of defective value systems and lack of proper community socialization, and

(4) the problem is therefore larger their moral shortcomings and bad choices (as one such scold put on Twitter, they should be stealing food rather than TV sets if they were really poor) rather than public policy, so, let’s talk about these shortcomings and their consequences rather than policy.

Again, reminiscent of the culture of poverty argument, the reiteration of these memes solidly places the blame with the unruly rioters, dismissing their grievances out of hand. It demands from individual commentators that they repudiate their actions before any discussion can take place, thereby framing the discussion in such one-sided terms. And the focus on rioters and looters is to be discussed without any context, as irrational eruption of under-socialized hordes. No public policy discussion is allowed to take place except those pertaining to how to end the riots.

Because, if the context is allowed to enter mainstream discourse, then, it might get uncomfortable:

Since the coalition came to power just over a year ago, the country has seen multiple student protests, occupations of dozens of universities, several strikes, a half-a-million-strong trade union march and now unrest on the streets of the capital (preceded by clashes with Bristol police in Stokes Croft earlier in the year). Each of these events was sparked by a different cause, yet all take place against a backdrop of brutal cuts and enforced austerity measures. The government knows very well that it is taking a gamble, and that its policies run the risk of sparking mass unrest on a scale we haven’t seen since the early 1980s. With people taking to the streets of Tottenham, Edmonton, Brixton and elsewhere over the past few nights, we could be about to see the government enter a sustained and serious losing streak.

The policies of the past year may have clarified the division between the entitled and the dispossessed in extreme terms, but the context for social unrest cuts much deeper. The fatal shooting of Mark Duggan last Thursday, where it appears, contrary to initial accounts, that only police bullets were fired, is another tragic event in a longer history of the Metropolitan police’s treatment of ordinary Londoners, especially those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and the singling out of specific areas and individuals for monitoring, stop and search and daily harassment.

One journalist wrote that he was surprised how many people in Tottenham knew of and were critical of the IPCC, but there should be nothing surprising about this. When you look at the figures for deaths in police custody (at least 333 since 1998 and not a single conviction of any police officer for any of them), then the IPCC and the courts are seen by many, quite reasonably, to be protecting the police rather than the people.

Combine understandable suspicion of and resentment towards the police based on experience and memory with high poverty and large unemployment and the reasons why people are taking to the streets become clear. (Haringey, the borough that includes Tottenham, has the fourth highest level of child poverty in London and an unemployment rate of 8.8%, double the national average, with one vacancy for every 54 seeking work in the borough.)

Those condemning the events of the past couple of nights in north London and elsewhere would do well to take a step back and consider the bigger picture: a country in which the richest 10% are now 100 times better off than the poorest, where consumerism predicated on personal debt has been pushed for years as the solution to a faltering economy, and where, according to the OECD, social mobility is worse than any other developed country.”

Nina Power does NOT say that austerity = riots but that the policies implemented by the British government (and other governments around the world) provide the context for this.

A similar point is made here emphasizing the lack of irrationality of the riots (and the incidents of looting are easily explained through the illegitimate opportunity theory)

“In London today people were on the streets tidying up the damage. The hashtag #riotcleanup on Twitter is being used by councils and residents to coordinate the work. The decision to act in this way, to make the streets a little more safe, to reclaim them for peaceful sociability, steps away from the temptation to condemn the violence or explain it in terms that inevitably simplify or distort it. Those who come together like this will be less likely to conclude that the country is on the verge of chaos, less likely to call for harsh measures and the further erosion of liberty in the name of security. It is the one shrewd thing one can do in present circumstances and it is to be celebrated.

So there is no single meaning in what is happening in London and elsewhere. But there are connections that we can make, and that we should make. We have a major problem with youth unemployment. There have already been cuts in services for young people. State education in poor areas is sometimes shockingly bad. Young people cannot afford adequate private housing and there is a shortage of council-built stock. Economic inequality has reached quite startling levels. All this is the consequence of decisions made by governments and there is little hope of rapid improvement. The same politicians now denouncing the mindless violence of the mob all supported a system of political economy that was as unstable as it was pernicious. They should have known that their policies would lead to disaster. They didn’t know. Who then is more mindless?

The global economic crisis is at least as political as the riots we’ve seen in the last few days. It has lasted far longer and done far more damage. We need not draw a straight line from the decision to bail out the banks to what’s going on now in London. But we must not lose sight of what both events tell us about our current condition. Those who want to see law and order restored must turn their attention to a menace that no amount of riot police will disperse; a social and political order that rewards vandalism and the looting of public property, so long as the perpetrators are sufficiently rich and powerful.”

And the specific context of police actions certainly points to the crisis of legitimacy I was discussing yesterday:

“This scepticism toward the potency of democratic politicians – and therefore democratic politics itself – is oddly echoed by the looters themselves. Certainly no one outside the Iranian state media is calling them “protesters”, but even “rioters” seems the wrong word, carrying with it a hint of political purpose. For some, especially at the start in Tottenham, there was clearly a political dimension – with the police the prime focus of their anger. But many of the copycat actions across London and elsewhere have no apparent drive beyond the opportunistic desire to steal and get away with it. It’s striking that the targets have not been town halls or, say, Tory HQ – stormed by students last November – but branches of Dixons, Boots and Carphone Warehouse. If they are making a political statement, it is that politics does not matter.

And while the revulsion at the looting has been widespread and bipartisan – with plenty of liberals admitting to “coming over all Daily Mail” at the ugliness of the vandalism – that sense of the impotence of politics is widespread, too. One aspect of the phone-hacking scandal that went deep was its revelation that those we might think exert authority – police and politicians – were in fact supine before an unelected media corporation. The sheer power of News Corp contrasted with the craven behaviour of those we elect or entrust to look out for us.

Even if few years have brought the news congestion of 2011, there has been trouble before, with 1981 an obvious precedent. But in previous periods of instability the assumption was that if only political power was in different hands, or if key institutions like the police modified their behaviour, things would be better. Now what small glimmers of optimism there are come from pockets of communal action, like the collective clean-ups that started in London . Democratic institutions themselves are seen as weak or broken.

The irony of all this is that outside Britain, Europe and the US, the great story of 2011 has been the Arab spring, as the people of Syria, Yemen and beyond have taken to the streets. It seems that just as those nations demand the tools of democracy, we are finding them rusting and blunt in our hands.”

Finally, one last point, to those who deplore the looting and the apparent lack of proper socialization of the looters and rioters, and sometimes wax nostalgic that old working class communities of yore where the youngsters were kept on the straight and narrow by their elders, as Owen Jones has amply demonstrated in Chavs, they only have conservative policies to blame. Indeed, who systematically destroyed the centers of community life in working class areas, at the time of accelerated deindustrialization? Who pushed instead for a culture of individualization and mass consumerism? Who created a cultural context where one’s social status is determined by one’s ability to consumer (as Zygmunt Bauman pointed out today)?

So, to all the moral entrepreneurs who have been filling the airwaves, Twitter timelines and Facebook feeds:

One thought on “In Which Moral Entrepreneurs Should STFU

  1. I am still baffled to see that for the moment, most explainations focus on the socio-political conditions of the rioters and sort of deduct that poor material conditions necesseraly imply that the problem of collective action is instantanously solved. Centuries of history have demonstrated that neither grievance nor greed are sufficient conditions for the emergence of social movements. What you need is an explanation of why people can organize, not why they are committing mindless thuggery in the streets they actually live in. As for the former, it is clear to me that two things are at play: 1) the poor have a comparative advantage in violence and appropriation over the rest of the population 2) the opportunity cost of organizing is dramatically reduced by social media: you can easily attain critical mass before being detected by law enforcement. Once a group of people is big enough, it spreads out the risk of getting caught among all members and therefore can attract a lot of new members quickly, espacially in urban areas. Now as for the moral part, it strikes me that all of this violence was targeted at stores and not public buildings and other signs of authority. This is a pure expression of the nihilistic state of mind in which western states have descended, being unable to offer any kind of perspective to their citizens. Individualism is a necessary consequence of democracy but it also shows that coupled with some sort of economic development it can obliterate the minds of youths into a black hole of consumerism and intellectual apathy. I live in London and have witnessed some of the events with my own eyes. I never thought this could have happened here. It is still to be seen whether this movement will extend outside of the uk or remain circumscribed to the british isles…

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