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.