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Alas, London!

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August 2011
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It is an ironic and sad coincidence that the London Riots of August 7-9 (so far) occurred at a time when my desk was covered by books about London.  I have been studying it more closely and historically to get a firmer sense of Victorian London for the steampunk story I am writing, Return of the Time Machine.  There is a good deal of nostalgia about London for lovers of 19th century British Lit.  And steampunk is motivated in part by such nostalgia.  The London of Sherlock Holmes.  The Metropolis when Scotland Yard was young, and crime was premeditated murder or theft or blackmail.

Sherlock Holmes was never called in by the Prime Minister to solve the problem of riots in the East End among the unemployed and hopeless youth of a country driven into economic “austerity measures.”  Nor was he ever called upon to solve the sort of crimes that the newspapers and the BBC like to call “random acts of senseless violence and looting.”  Maybe he should be.

So far, I have heard or read very little analysis of the riots that offers more than unemployment and despair as causes.  Possibly gangs are involved and persons (mostly men) who were already theives, murderers, or drug dealers.  A peaceful protest against the police shooting of a young black man.  Gangs and organized crime take advantage of that to cause chaos for the purposes of robbery and attacking the hated police.  That is one possibility,  I suppose.  Another: Out of work and hopeless young students hit the streets to emulate the protest movements in the “Arab Spring” in order to show the world and the MP’s that the same problems of tyranny exist in their own backyards.  The same poverty and lack of opportunity for youths to make the career for which they have trained.

Who is involved?  Labeling them as “criminals” dehumanizes them and rejects the causes of the violence.  Violence is rarely, if ever, “senseless.”  People acting violently are thinking and feeling something and have some purpose in mind.  The Mayor of London can reject them wholesale as greedy theives, but that is the sort of thing that the rich have always said about the poor when they riot.  But are they poor?  The part of the metropolis would suggest so — poor and black.  If they are, on the other hand, college graduates who cannot get jobs, that is a different situation. Then you may have an English Summer to go with the Arab Spring.

At the very least, it looks as if London is experiencing the same kind of protests as Athens did when the Greek government cut social programs in their “austerity measures.”  When austerity is imposed upon the poor and middle class and the rich are left to their priviledged and insulated lives, then protest seems not only justified but inevitable.  Marx warned us about those kinds of historical forces back in Victorian England.  You can push people only so far before they start to revolt against the Tsar.

Despite all the Western conservative rhetoric about the “failure of communism” and the “dangers of socialism,” I suspect that most people in England and in the U.S. would like to see the nation’s wealth distributed better.  We are the other half of the world, that embraced the doctrine of private property instead of the idea that property and wealth generated by a nation belongs to the whole nation.  I would suggest that it was not communism or socialism that failed, but political systems.  The Soviet Union collapsed in revots and riots because a ruling class had developed that was just as bad as the Tsar’s ruling class before WWI.

If socialism fails in countries like Britain, that is because you cannot educate people to believe in the sanctity of private property and also the idea of sharing the wealth of the nation among all those who contribute to it, including the poor.  Yes, including the poor.  They are surplus labor, a necessary part of capitalism; or else they are disabled or too old to work.  Unless everyone shares the wealth of the whole nation, as we have seen historically, the old and the young suffer and society devolves into a class of haves and have-nots.

The usual conservative capitalist argument against government redistribution of wealth is that workers will not have any motivation to work or do a good job if they do not have the carrot of pay rises in front of them, and the stick of potentially losing their livelihood whacking them from behind.  This psychological theory seems to equate human beings with mules.  Hmmm.  I’m guessing probably a false analogy?

If we have learned one thing since Victorian times when capitalism and industrialism were born, we have learned a lot about human psychology.  I think better models of human motivation exist.  Yes, everyone wants to be rewarded for doing a good job.  Most humans have a sense of pride that includes pride in their work.  And most will work better if they feel they have “ownership” of a project.  This is the psychological model promoted in white collar business.

It may have been the Victorians who gave us the lust for owning stuff — what we call consumerism today.  We want to surround ourselves with things we have bought with our own money as a reminder of whatever wealth we have.  Conservatives and the average economist you hear on the news think of being a “consumer” as a good thing.  It means you are buying things and buying is what drives sales and profits.  The currrent recession is attributed to a slump in “consumer confidence” — i.e., the ability to buy stuff they do not need.

Personally, I do not think that buying stuff one does not need is a good thing.  Rewarding oneself with a few luxuries, books, recordings, travel vacations — those seem healthy to me.  But we have gone past the point of such sensible luxuries.  The whole “consumer electronics” industry is built on a model of planned obsolescence masquerading as “progress.”  One who starts buying personal computers or smart phones, usually is forced to go along with these “advances” in technology because the old computer or phone they have had for five years stops working.  It’s only a bit more honest than the fashion industry, where annual changes are just changes, not “upgrades.”

All of this desire for personal property as an expression of our self-worth, does drive the economy, but is it healthy or sustainable?  For one thing, is this system turning out more people with a solid sense of self-worth, or more people who, for lack of Stuff, have a miserably low sense of self-worth?  The latter, is not good for the economy and it is the sort of thing that leads to mass riots and protests.  Beaten down long enough, people will rise up and say, “I am worth more than this!  I deserve better than this!”

They do not deserve better because they have done a good job selling their labor to rich capitalists, nor because they are good and moral people.  They deserve better simply because they are human.  They are our fellow men.  The ideal of universal brotherhood taught by Freemasonry is a good idea, a modern idea.  A lot of Masons today are among the affluent class, and subject to the complacency of their class.  If they are political conservatives, brothers are even quite likely to think that poor people are poor because they are lazy.  God helps those who help themselves, is a good old conservative aphorism.

I suppose if you think your brother is a deadbeat, you might think he does not deserve your help.  I think that deadbeats usually have a reason they are such failures.  Maybe they are novelists.  Tough-love is sometimes a good thing.  Yet, universal brotherhood based on the virtue of charity is something different.  It is based on the teachings of Jesus — that helping others goes beyond judging their attitudes.  If they have mental health problems, then a true brother needs to help with those problems.

One good thing about a socio-economic system that shares the nation’s wealth among all its members, is that such a society can support artists and writers much better than a capitalist society in which artists and writers are forced to sell their labor to someone higher in the pecking order.  More on that next time.



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