The Evil of Ken Livingstone

August 8, 2011

With regard to the current fad for looting, Ken Livingstone said:

“The economic stagnation and cuts being imposed by the Tory government inevitably create social division. As when Margaret Thatcher imposed such policies during her recessions this creates the threat of people losing control, acting in completely unacceptable ways that threaten everyone, and culminating in events of the type we saw in Tottenham.”

There are two ways of interpreting Ken’s position here:

(1) The looters (oh, how Randroids must be loving drawing equivalences today) are the product of a given social context and are not responsible for their actions. Confronted with feelings of inadequacy and social failure, they react by lashing out with the only thing they know – violence. They are fundamentally incapable of determining their own actions.

(2) The looters have assessed the social contract, and determined that it is underperforming with regard to their share of resources. Having taken a view that a negotiated solution – i.e. traditional democratic politics – has failed to deliver what they regard as an adequate outcome, they have decided to use force to redress this balance.

On (1), Ken is describing the looters as fundamentally less than himself; as incapable of expressing moral agency. This is functionally equivalent to Tories dismissing them as feckless savages; both dehumanise and belittle the individuals involved. If all the looters were black, it would be racist; as it is, it’s a particular variant of misanthropy.

The claim that a particular subset of society is less human than oneself is evil. It permits sectarian division, it permits violence, and – of particular relevance when talking about Red Ken – it permits forms of social control that are fundamentally illiberal. So let’s be charitable to Ken, and assume he’s taking position (2).

I would support position (2) on a purely descriptive level. This was not a riot against an injustice, however it started, but a very clear effort to redress a perceived economic imbalance. The looters will have rationalised this to themselves by their perception of their social worth and economic opportunities in relation to the better off. Unlike (1), this is a rational human choice in a given context. This, of course, does not make it the correct choice.

Ken appears to be saying that policies which create social division through the removal of a given percentage of the proceeds of growth from a subset of society should expect to see that subset react violently. This is not an argument based on justice, but rather on social stability. It is not the case that last night’s looters ‘deserve’ new laptops, trainers and televisions purely because they live in a society in which other people possess these goods. The fact that they believe they do is the problem, not the imbalance of goods. Ken is supporting this position by saying that riots should be expected, instead of working to counteract that belief. That is fundamentally unwise – not evil, but certainly not clever.

Your share of society’s resources should be in proportion to the effort you put in to increasing them, above the fundamental level necessary for the development of judgement. Advocating a position other than this – that the relative wealth of others creates an additional share for you – is to advocate looting. And here, I do mean in the Randroid sense.

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12 Responses to “The Evil of Ken Livingstone”

  1. Straw men there sorry. Ken Livingstone may be wrong but he is not evil, that is daft.
    He never said the rioters are not responsible for their actions. That is the flaw in your article. Rather than use his words, you insert your own.
    I think that 75% cuts to youth services are an aggravating factor. They are not the cause. the cause is that many men enjoy being violent, and internet technology makes this easier to organise. However if the youth services are available it gives them something else to do that is not violent. Likewise also if you get a job.
    Even if you have good youth services and a job you might still be violent. Without one or both you get more time on your hands where you can be violent.
    The upshot is that whatever the context, those guilty of a crime deserve punishment through the judiceral system. However what policy makers do not want is to implement cuts that end up generating greater costs (ie false economies) and so defeat the object of the exercise.

    • Adam Bell said

      I was about to be polite to you Geoff, but you just wrote ‘many men enjoy being violent’, which is just about the most dehumanising thing you could’ve possibly written. Apparently this ‘violence’ problem can be solved through youth clubs, rather than the men involved not being, y’know, violent.

      I think you’re going to need some proper research to back up your assertion that men enjoy being violent. I’m going to point to the continued existence of our society as evidence for the other option.

  2. Alix said

    “a very clear effort to redress a perceived economic imbalance”

    I’m not quite with you on point 2. What I found interesting was precisely that there didn’t seem to be any sort of social or economic consciousness entering into it. Otherwise surely they’d have looted Crouch End, or Muswell Hill, or any of the other easily accessible wealthy areas. Surely it only makes sense to smash up your own neighbourhood and steal stuff from it if you’re *not* particularly conscious of your wider economic environment. (That and there aren’t many plasmaTV and sportswear shops in Crouch End or Muswell Hill, of course.)

    • Adam Bell said

      Perhaps I should add ‘personal’ in there – my argument was that there appeared to be a collective decision to address an aggregate of individual economic imbalances, rather than an aggregate of individual decisions to address a collective economic imbalance. The economic impact of an individual looting in their neighbourhood is relatively small, and that appeared to be the calculation used by everyone.

      The conclusion is that, yes, they were stupid.

  3. Fran said

    Adam, I can’t see why you’re dismissing Geoff’s suggestion that some people just enjoy violence and welcomed the chance to have a go with greater than usual impunity. It seems likely to me that this is the case. See also the tasteless twitter gloating of white, middle-class lefties vicariously enjoying the violence qua violence, whatever it’s meaning.

  4. Fran said

    Although the idea that recent cuts to youth services having anything to do with it also seems daft, because council youth clubs aren’t 24-hour cages for bored, potentially violent youths.

    It’s possible that early-intervention youth services might have been effective over several years at inculcating a more virtuous spirit, but I’m not sure there’s even any reliable (non-anecdotal) evidence for that.

    • Adam Bell said

      Because explaining what appears to be a majority black riot by saying ‘They just enjoy violence’ steers perilously close to (1) in the post, as well as an assortment of other really quite naughty perspectives. In order to make that sort of assertion, you need proper research backing you up.

      Totally agree with the loathing of the lefty Twitterati, though.

  5. Fran said

    But I think it also applies to white, middle class conservative students setting Christmas trees alight and prodding at Duchesses. Or, indeed, Friday nights outside many provincial nightclubs.

    This is not to say they are unable to make their own choices- rather, that they deliberately chose to be naughty to increase their own pleasure.

    • Adam Bell said

      See, I would accept ‘naughtiness’ as a motivation, largely because of my own experience as student being largely motivated by naughtiness. I’m not convinced that there’s a continuum between naughtiness and attempting to stave in a copper’s head with a paving slab, though.

  6. I went to a comprehensive school and I remember very well that there was a minority of boys there who enjoyed violence.
    I do not know if there is any empirical research on this. It is what I found out subjectively, and any objective research will always be better. However the evidence is who gets sent to prison/borstals; mostly teenage boys. Men in their 40s are much less likely to do that, so to women.
    It may be possible to overstate it. What happened was that boys formed gangs and the ringleaders were the ones who enjoyed fights, whilst the other tagged along, doing enough to avoid being labelled a wimp and themselves becoming victims.
    Winning a fight, proving you are the toughest, did wonders for the self-esteem of the ringleaders; this was one of their motivations. Losing on the other hand made you determined to get even.
    I know it is disappointing that this is the case, but not everyone in society qualifies as a nice liberal.
    @Francis – interesting comments. Bear in mind that what I wrote is that cuts in youth services and police numbers are aggravating effects not the primary cause. I wonder if the government will have the nerve to cut police numbers now? The last major set of riots in the 1980s also took place at a time of austerity. I think the website “false economy” is making some important points about what this government is doing. This government is making cuts without making an impact assessment.

  7. Geoffrey:
    “The last major set of riots in the 1980s also took place at a time of austerity.”

    Really? Only if you see 1981 as the last ‘major set’. But the ones in 1985 took place when the economy was growing, as did those in 2001. You’re possibly being somewhat selective in order to justify your view that these riots are related to the government spending cuts.

  8. From memory I think the scale of the riots in 1981 was larger than the others.
    That said you have a point, it is wrong to jump to conclusions with limeted data, which is what I did. So I take that part of it back.
    The other points I made I stick by, unless you can come up some other good arguments.

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