While commentators are busy conjuring some political or economic “cause” behind the British riots – one which, not surprisingly, validates some preexisting ideological agenda, whether it be “left” or “right” – what seems clear is that nothing about the motives of the rioters is at all clear. The ostensible reason for the initial outbreak of violence and looting appears to have been the police shooting of Mark Duggan, a minor criminal: police claimed Duggan shot first, but a subsequent investigation has produced no evidence of that. The widespread looting of stores, and the random violence, is apparently unrelated to this incident, and Duggan’s family has appealed to the mobs to disperse.
They haven’t. It is now four days since the first rioters raised their ugly heads, and there has been no let up in the violence: big plasma television sets and Nike sneakers, rather than “social justice,” seem to be the rioters’ main concern. One group of girl looters, confronted by a newsman with the question “Are you proud of what you’re doing?”, asserted “We’re just getting our taxes back!”
Before the Huffington Post and Salon.com conclude that this is simply a “Tea Party” revolt of the enraged petty-bourgeoisie, however, we should point out that these hooded-and-sneakered Poujadists are mostly young hoodlums whose favorite targets are small local shops, like that furniture store in Croydon – founded in 1867 – burned to the ground. And while left-wing commentators are already blaming the Tory-LibDem government’s austerity budget for the anger boiling up from the lumpen-proletarian depths of British society, even the anarchists – who, you ‘ll recall, were subjected to a police alert shortly before the riots erupted – have denounced the looting mobs, and, far from valorizing the thugs, have called for citizens’ militias to fight them.
This isn’t a political protest – it’s techno-nihilism. They’re doing it because they can. One key aspect of the driving force behind both the British riots and the “Arab Spring” protests (which were and are political, no doubt) is the role played by social networking devices. Contacting their fellow looters and criminals via a covert messaging system on their BlackBerrys – of course, all these “disadvantaged” youth have BlackBerrys – these techno-thugs are able to outwit and outmaneuver the police, who are badly outnumbered in any event.
Empowered by technology, the worst elements in society have been unleashed – and they are winning. Indeed, after four days of their reign of terror, their victory is complete: no matter what happens on day five, they have exposed the complete inability – and unwillingness – of the authorities to defend the nation. This is what emboldens them, and spreads what I call the Madness – which, I predict, will soon pop up all over Europe, and parts of the United States, if it hasn’t already. Matt Drudge has recently been publicizing similar technology-driven incidents of random thuggery in the US, and, although these stories all appear to have a racial angle, the potential for far broader disruptions, on the British model, lies smoldering just beneath the surface.
The Madness is upon us, and it will be a long time before future historians diagnose its causes. For now, we can only describe what we see, and make some preliminary assessment of what is happening to significant portions of what used to be the civilized world.
Such an assessment must begin by looking at the thugs’ level of organization, which seems quite sophisticated. Their messaging networks send out orders to appear at this or that location – but who is issuing the orders? The makers of the British BlackBerry have vowed to cooperate with law enforcement in tracking down the culprits, and their Tweet-trails also provide leads, but it’s hard to believe the British authorities have either the capacity or – more importantly – the will to bring the thugs to justice.
Instead of responding immediately and lethally, the British elites have agonized and dithered, underscoring their utter helplessness – and egging the techno-thugs on. Sensing weakness, these predators won’t stop until the Brits call out their armed forces, as they will have to eventually – or risk losing control completely.
What is happening in Britain is a forewarning of things to come not only in Europe, but here in the States. The phenomenon will leap the Atlantic because the economic and cultural factors that bred these thugs are nearly universal: the only societies immune to the madness are either inherently resistant to the nihilist virus – such as Japan, with its group solidarity ethos – or else ruled over by totalitarian regimes, e.g. North Korea, where any such behavior is nipped in the bud long before it infects en masse.
The economic aspect of this is all too clear: the rapidly disintegrating international economic order was bound to end in social chaos. Yet it isn’t all about massive unemployment and welfare states having to cut back on benefits. The intersection of large scale economic dislocation with recent cultural and technological developments is the key to understanding the Madness.
While technology – those BlackBerrys – has advanced, the cultural evolution of humankind – especially in the developed West – has not kept up. Indeed, the split between science and the humanities has widened, in modern times. Science has made it possible for us to live more human lives than ever before in history: on the other hand, culturally, we seem to have devolved to earlier forms. Atavism is the leitmotif of Western culture – in the arts, in mass entertainment, in declining standards of literacy and the disintegration of familial structures. In short, we seem to be reverting to an earlier epoch – around the time Rome was just about to fall. As we approach the 1,601st anniversary of the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths – it happened on August 24, 410 A.D. – Western elites would do well to imagine what the sacking of Britain by its own internal Visigoths means for the future of their rule.
The great gap between the sciences and the humanities has finally caught up with humankind. Clever at designing tools, but not good for much else, these over-evolved apes who fell out of the trees and overran much of the earth haven’t progressed mentally much beyond the level of their earliest ancestors. Indeed, they seem to be afflicted with a severe case of devolution, and headed for another long Dark Age, albeit one imposed by an army of Visigoths armed with BlackBerrys.
Each and every ideological faction is even now preparing its agenda-driven “analysis” of the causes – and cure – of the Madness. The left will point to the Tory government’s austerity measures, such as they are: the right will point to the welfare state mentality, the racialists will call it a race war, the immigration restrictionists will naturally target immigrants – and yet none of these explanations cover all the bases, and most are completely off-base.
The racists and the anti-immigrationists, i.e. the English Defense League/Robert Spencer/Anders Breivik/Pam Geller crowd, no doubt will have some explanation for the Turkish and Kurdish shopkeepers who drove the techno-thugs from their neighborhood, but we didn’t see the EDL in there fighting to preserve their supposedly beloved England, now did we? Indeed, the techno-thugs are a multi-racial lot, with both white and non-white “yobs” joining forces and going wild in the streets.
As for the standard right-wing explanation – a welfare state mentality has bred an underclass that is now morally disadvantaged – this doesn’t answer the question: why now? There have been welfare states throughout the history of Western Europe and the Americas, and yet we haven’t seen anything like these mindless non-ideological random eruptions of pure criminality before.
The standard explanation of the British left – it’s the Tories, stupid – won’t do either: some watered-down version of the austerity measures introduced by the present government would have been carried out by the Labor party, if it had stayed in power. Whatever egalitarian proclivities the looters may have appear to have been invented after the fact: as one young girl carrying clothing out of a looted store told an interviewer, “We’re showing the police we can do what we want.” As to what they want – beyond free plasma TVs and Nikes – none of them has the capacity to answer. It is like asking the Visigoths why they sacked Rome.
The answer is: because they can. They don’t need a reason to act: they are creatures of pure action, like leopards. These predators of the human jungle, these barbarians with BlackBerrys, are the new men, the rising species of the new millennium.
So you thought human evolution was an ever-ascending process, a progression from animality to godhood? But what if it isn’t? What if our Panglossian notion of “progress” is utterly wrong, and, instead of going from height to height, we’ve already reached the height, and are now … descending? What if human evolution has gone into reverse? What Alexandre Kojève pondered in his Note to the second edition of his Introduction to the Reading of Hegel – that the “end of history” meant mankind’s return to animality, complete with the “end of Discourse” and the reduction of music to “the language of bees” – seems to me more persuasive than ever.
In any case, the Madness has profound political and foreign policy implications, and concerning the latter it certainly looks like the British will be temporarily diverted from trying to overthrow Gadhafi and pacify Libya if they have to call the Army in to keep order. In a more general sense, however, the mindless anger and potential for violence that hovers over the West at this moment is not by any means a signal that we’re in for an era of peace.
While it’s true that the economic unraveling will force governments worldwide to choose between the welfare state and the warfare state, the Madness will give the latter more weight. All that anger needs to be diverted to a safe target, preferably one in a faraway foreign country: that’s going to be the first thought of Western elites as they struggle to maintain their position and minimize disorder on the home front.
All those unemployed techno-thugs can’t be allowed to roam the streets, looking for trouble: better to ship them off to some trouble spot – hey, why not Libya, or, better yet, Iran? – where their thuggishness can serve a “good” cause. It’s interesting that President Obama, in his speech addressing the downgrading of US bonds, invoked the example of the “unity” of the US military as a model to solve our economic woes. As Rahm Emanuel once put it:
“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
The BlackBerry messaging system that enabled the techno-thugs to coordinate their thuggery undetected will be the first to go, and with it the archaic right to privacy, which was already well on the way out. Pushed far enough, the ruling elites of the West will react with repression, and, if necessary, ruthless violence that will make Bashar al-Assad and Hosni Mubarak look like pikers.
Yet in the face of general economic and social disintegration, and guerrilla warfare carried out by hooligans out of A Clockwork Orange, a crackdown can only have a limited effect. What the authorities are facing is not an external enemy, but a cancer eating away at the idea of what it means to be human – an epidemic of nihilism. When lemmings leap into the abyss, there is no stopping them. If large segments of the human race are intent on committing collective suicide, then I can see no way – and no reason – to stop them. The only problem is that they seem intent on dragging down the rest of us with them.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
In stark contrast to the unrelieved pessimism of the above, I must note the latest Gallup GOP presidential poll, which shows the only antiwar libertarian candidate, Ron Paul, in third place nationally, with 14%, behind Mitt Romney (24%) and Rick Perry (17%). Perry has not yet entered the race. So while it looks like some segments of humanity are going backward, and actually devolving, a growing number are resisting this trend.