Our old friend Phillip Blond has offered his solution to the English riots (note English, no riots occurred in Scotland or Wales – which is important). Apparently for Blond criminal gangs just magically form after hearing liberalism’s social ontology, and then randomly move to loot unprovoked by any concrete socio-economic situation. Gangs have nothing to do with poverty and its resultant territoriality. The linked Joesph Rowntree Foundation report suggests that violent teenage gangs are not the result of rampant individualism, but actually “a source of friendship and group solidarity” and are “sometimes motivated by a sense of ownership over the area, and the desire to protect the area or oneself” – a dark version of voluntary association and localism Red Toryism! His solution in part is that apparently we need to really crack down on the poor areas, that we have abandoned to policing. This is a new level of idiocy, since one of the initial causes of the rioting was the fact that policing of the areas was over zealous, with near constant stop and searches, particularly for black and minority ethnic men.
But it reveals something that has been common to the right-wing commentariat responses to the incidents. From the left there is a notion that sociological causes for the riots, give some sense of mitigation of the responsibility of participants, that it isn’t ultimately their fault. This does not mean events cannot be condemned, but that the reasons for them tell us that those involved may have reasons that should promote leniency. The left attempt to solve the problem at its source rather than its surface effects of the disturbance – admitting firmly that the problem has deep roots. The responses, they claim – i.e. throwing alleged rioters families out of their council accommodation will only exacerbate the problem. However, on the right, no explanation can be rendered, it is criminality pure and simple, to be cracked down upon a la Blond. To explain is to endorse. Yet, in the same breath, it is the result of the dominance of liberal elites, the lack of discipline in schools, the end of family life, rap music and so on. Yet despite these causes of the individuation of the ‘feral youth’, that are not their fault, but the fault of wider liberal society, they must be cracked down on as hard as possible.
How does this add up? At the same time – individualism is really bad, and likely the cause of these riots. Yet, we must entirely individualise and punish the rioters, rather than see them as part of a wider social order. Plus, we need a healthy does of individual responsibility as a solution. Yet the problem is family up bringing…but this is destroyed by the atmosphere created by liberal social elites. And so on. I sense that Blond is intelligent enough to want to have his cake and eat it – both the riots are the result of poverty and we therefore need to ‘re-capitalise the poor’ and that the individuals are ultimately responsible.
This points to the wider problem in communitarian versus liberal debates – the shuttling between seeming true belief in individualism as casual and possible and belief that society individualises persons somehow, when it is simple (negatively) an aggregate of individuals. Conservatives, I propose, can well be one form of communitarian. On one level, liberalism is wrong because it focuses analytically on a fantasy – the asocial atomistic individual, whereas we are always embedded in various social contexts – so far I firmly agree. Then liberalism promotes atomistic individuality that it manages to perform, desolating communities – this argument is now rehearsed as the cause of the riots. But in between these two statements there is a serious problem – if liberalism is so wrong at understanding social reality, why is it possible to it to atomise? Indeed, that a liberal society continues to reproduce itself, suggests that people are not really all that atomised, because otherwise they would have not have the common set of liberal values. MacIntyre appears to realise this, when he finally begins to consider that liberalism may not be outside tradition but a tradition itself. This is especially when the truer notion of humanity is supposedly community. I think overall, Andrew Jason Cohen has it:
though communitarians claim that individualism mis-describes persons, they also claim we can only improve our lot by re-emphasizing community and our community-bonds. But if individualism is wrong as communitarians claim, then individuals are, in fact, now dependent upon their communities. Communitarians, in fact, make this claim. On the other hand, they urge us to re-emphasize community because they also recognize that liberal individualism is accurate.
The analysis then rests on a contradiction. Some may talk about the way characters are formulated by virtues and vices in society, but if they do so they had better drop their analysis therefore that it is individualising, because this is precisely social. The same is true of consumerism, the other bug bear blamed for the riots. Consumerism only works if rather than being asocial, atomistic individuals a group of consumers assign value to a particular goods collectively in order to buy them and create profit. Capitalism may at times posit an individualised consumer in its neo-classical economic models that is very much Marx’s ‘Robinson Crusoe’, but as the anthropology shows, no actual capitalist in the board room takes this idea seriously, but rather appeals to collective notions of value, notions of value that have widespread social appeal.
In short then, communitarians actually believe rather too much in liberalism. What is required is a proper sociological analysis which sees groups – one that would necessarily begin considering problems of class.