Urban riots are usually complex events, in which people participate for many reasons, ranging from simple boredom and criminal opportunism on one end, to conscious political protest on the other.
Although its been a while since my last epistemological tweaking I'll contend that one-to-one causes for individual action is quite beside the point here simply because widespread rioting and looting are not individual events. It would be like citing the endless array of individual reasons given to a questionnaire which asked mobs of people why they end up packing into a stadium for a football match. Such data clearly takes place against a greater field of sociological meaning which attendees also share. This is not to say that all kinds of action rationally make sense or that they even can be justified; but even acts which may seem irrational or contradictory can be understood as a structure of meaning nonetheless insofar they can related to other structures of meaning and institutional patterns. Even if crowds are contestable, disagreeable lots, that doesn't mean they lack a raison d'etre. Actions also often have meaning for actors which is not exhausted by positivist data but which may be crucial to understanding their importance. So, for example, in participating in an event like voting one may also be contributing to the honor or demise of a political party, or vindicating the value of free elections, or defending law and order, justice, whatever. Campos completely misses the significance of the London riots.
Breakdowns of social order (or outbreaks of resistance) obviously reflect disenchantment. So with widening gaps of economic inequality, a slumping economy, high unemployment, and systemic theft and looting by the rich and powerful – all against the setting of increased budget cuts and enforced “austerity,” (and all of which are secrets to no one,) – can anyone lucidly claim that the UK rioting is surprising? Or, that the cynicism and distrust that many feel toward the powerful these days only denude the good ol’ social contract? Even former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, quipped that a whole “generation” is “growing up completely uncertain about their future,” citing economic and political insecurity specifically. Nina Power, writing in AlterNet, also reminds us that the relationship between the British police and people of color has been contentious as well. Clashes in Bristol between civilians and police already took place earlier this year, and, as reported last December in The Guardian, out of the 333 number of deaths that have occurred in police custody since 1998, only zero have led to any convictions.
The most sensible take on the riots I've seen so far is presented by Camila Batmanghelidjh, “Caring costs – but so do riots,” writing for The Independent. “Our leaders still speak about how protecting the community is vital,” she writes, but (t)he trouble is, the deal has gone sour.” Remarkably, I'd add, these leaders seem only ready and willing to continue taking its chances by continuing to turn their back on inequality, injustice, poverty, and political and economic blight. As Batmanghelidjh writes, “The insidious flourishing of anti-establishment attitudes is paradoxically helped by the establishment.” But Batmanghelidjh provides one particular insight into the enormous depth of the problem, and a problem many may prefer to deny.
Working at street level in London, over a number of years, many of us have been concerned about large groups of young adults creating their own parallel antisocial communities with different rules. The individual is responsible for their own survival because the established community is perceived to provide nothing. Acquisition of goods through violence is justified in neighbourhoods where the notion of dog eat dog pervades and the top dog survives the best.
But no need to be at street level. Two economists attend to the question of whether budget cuts in particular contribute to social unrest – and they conclude that they do. Via Henry Farrell at The Monkey Cage,
Expenditure cuts carry a significant risk of increasing the frequency of riots, anti-government demonstrations, general strikes, political assassinations, and attempts at revolutionary overthrow of the established order. While these are low- probability events in normal years, they become much more common as austerity measures are implemented. … We demonstrate that the general pattern of association between unrest and budget cuts holds in Europe for the period 1919-2009. It can be found in almost all sub-periods, and for all types of unrest. Strikingly, where we can trace the cause of each incident (during the period 1980-95), we can show that only austerity-inspired demonstrations respond to budget cuts in the time- series. Also, when we use recently-developed data that allows clean identification of policy-driven changes in the budget balance, our results hold.
Of course, the predictable response from the right is too render sociological realities completely irrelevant. Criminal behavior, like the kind exhibited in England the last few days, we’re told, can’t be explained – and it definitely shouldn’t be rationalized. Since angry youth and the underclass will clamor at the gates, and burst out periodically into what Cameron called, “criminality pure and simple,” the only thing that can be done is squelch it, clean-up the mess, and get back to business. Inequality, injustice, and economic and political crises, play absolutely no role. So as soon as you do refer to everyday facts on the ground, some ignorant whitey will query: “well, surely you don’t mean to condone rioting, do you?” Case in point, I find this exchange bloody outrageous…
Great discussion via Corey Robin on what’s really going on. Is Obama just a “bad negotiator”? Or something worse?
I post a few rounds….and provide my own takeaway at the end.
Corey Robin: What do you guys think of this Greenwald piece? I think it’s excellent, but I’m not convinced. Obama didn’t get the tax cuts he wanted. It’s not clear this will help him electorally (the state of the economy in the fall of 2012 will matter much more than his pose of bipartisanship now; there is zero evidence to suggest this deal will help the economy and lots of reasons to think it will hurt.) Though it’s true that Obama has wanted cuts to entitlement programs for some time, he doesn’t get them in the first phase of the deal, and in the second phase, assuming the trigger mechanism kicks in, Social Security remains off-limits.
What’s your sense of why Obama wants these cuts? We know why the GOP wants them. But what are the ideological underpinnings or economic/political interests of Obama’s position? Even within the framework of neoliberalism, I’m not sure I get the motivation. Have the financial markets really been pushing for these cuts? My anecdotal sense was that people like Summers — I know, now out of the administration, but I took him to be a fairly good representative of that sector — thought this wasn’t the way to go. My assumption is that the reason Obama has taken this route is that he thinks it’s a good way to position himself electorally, and that this is coming less from the money people than the politicos. But I am more than happy to be told otherwise.
So what do you guys think: Weak president? Moderate right president? Shrewd negotiator? What?
Doug Henwood: He’s going to position himself as the “reasonable” alternative to extremists, the man who can compromise where they can’t, etc. His partisan selling point will be his bipartisanship, unlike the other guys, who are just rigid ideologues. He’ll have to do this subtly, so he doesn’t sound too partisan.
Corey: Doug, so is your position that the motivation for this is electoral or do you also see pressure for this coming from the bond markets, the money men, etc?
Rick Perlstein: “The people hate partisan gridlock”; “I defeated partisan gridlock”; “The people will hail me as a hero, bearing me aloft on their shoulders.” The fellow’s not quite well.
Doug: He loves it that both “extremes” are complaining. Wall Street wants budget balance with no tax increases on itself. That means cuts. Their major jones has been for “entitlement” reform, which means anything from a squeeze (CPI gimmickry, etc.) to outright privatization. The squeezers are more the WS establishment, like Goldman; the outright privatizers are the hedge fund guys, who tend to be more libertarian, often rabidly so. A lot of WS doesn’t follow details closely – they just *know* that gov spends too much and needs to be “reined in.” A lot of the time, their “facts” are wrong. But there’s no doubt they want spending cuts, big ones. And the only way to get that is SS & Medicare. BTW, Summers is now a good guy, as these things go.
Jay Driskell: To me, he reads like a classic late 19th century progressive – that there are smart people who know smart things and it is they who should sit down in a room and hammer out the details above the “partisan fray.” The problem, then as now, is that there is no way above that fray – especially when one or both parties are trying to game the non-partisan/bi-partisan negotiations for their own partisan advantage. However, I really do think that Obama really believes that he is making progress. Otherwise, his negotiating strategies make absolutely no sense. I’d like to think he’s in the thrall of capital, but more and more of me think that he is naive and clueless and out of his depth. That is, if he were in the thrall of capital, that would at least be comprehensible (and reprehensible) to me.
Katha Pollitt: IMO, he’s weak. He made a strategic error in letting the debt ceiling, which has a rigid deadline, be connected to deficit reduction, a longterm and complicated issue. this allowed the Republicans to hold the debt ceiling hostage to their ongoing attack on entitlements and discretionary spending on anything good. he also failed to hold the line on raising revenues through taxation. That kind of disappeared.
And so it goes.
Now for the takeaway. Obama is personally not a fascist, perhaps not a “conservative,” likely not a “right wing Republican.” Actually, it makes little difference at this point what he is, where it is on the political spectrum he identifies, or what it is that he believes in his soul of souls. I know it may be difficult to accept but....“He” has become largely irrelevant. The more important issue is that the political system of the country has moved so far to the right over the decades, including the office of the Presidency, and that Obama, (as Adolph Reed says in the forum linked to above, and as Glenn Greenwald documents, also linked above,) has performed as President like another neo-liberal-opportunist-inside-man for today’s right-wing corporate plutocracy – or, what I would prefer to call, an inverted fascism. The dark truth: the political realm – from the government, the courts, the tax system, the laws, the military, the gamut of public bureaucracies at the federal, state, and local level, our everyday lives – has over the decades been increasingly saturated and taken over by “private” industries, as well as by various shadow institutions and bands of elites. The political culture itself has become one big neoliberal mind-fuck reduced to catering to the whims of spoiled rich kids and their daddies. And the country, only more reckless and belligerent, more destructive, more fearful, more xenophobic, and more heedless. Its tendency for self-destruction is evident; yet some elite few at the top continue to profit enormously from this dysfunction and collapse. It can only get worse. And so it goes.
Yet the office of the Presidency is still a powerful institution. And insofar the Presidency still matters, and I suspect it would still matter if we believe Presidential elections still matter, Obama's performance as President, as Greenwald shows, has been a failure. Instead of a promising leader of a progressive political movement Obama looks like a figure-head doing public relations for various elite powers who tug, push, extort, and coddle him in all sorts of ways. All the “negotiations” and “fights” he and his staff ostensibly enter into with the GOP, as well as with the tugging, pushing, extorting, and coddling elite class, (which he is part of anyway,) amounts to backroom deals and incremental number-crunching – not structural reform nor the Change We Can Believe In that the country needs and voted for.
Obama does not have the powerful political personality to make the Presidency a “progressive” lever of power, much less take on the GOP and his detractors. But the continued focus of Him,and what He is really up to, reflects the inability or unwillingness to see our systematic crisis accurately. And yet it is still in these respects that the real significance of “his” political performance, at least as an individual for objective assessment, will be difficult to ascertain in an epistemologically pure light. We’ll keep coming back to these kinds of questions: WTF Obama? Or less crudely, to what degree can it be said that “he,” or any other individual statesman of late modern post-industrial globalized nation-states, are indeed political actors capable of creating and taking responsibility for the policies enacted in their name? To what extent does Obama and his staff operate from a position of power? What kind of power does the President have? Or is it rather in terms of “weakness,” or some other characterization, we should be thinking? In what ways can it be said that these political actors, including the President, the Congress, and political parties, are autonomous agents – and not, say, merely a concentrated consortium of players very cognizant of their interests and of the discontented masses but which only play the Punch and Judy show for the cameras? Are the actors in the ring really battling it out? Or are they throwing phantom punches, taking dives? And does it even matter given the power structures in place which make their “battle” possible? When is a fight not a fight? A debate, not a debate? A negotiation, not a negotiation?
By continuing to offer various rhetorical palliatives and rationalizations Obama and the Democrats create the illusion that the interests and welfare of Americans are truly "their" priority. These campaign strategies are advertisements and slogans, and they define the compromised style that political opposition within a rigged system takes. Although I certainly disagree with Mattt Taibbi’s statement that the White House is “the most awesome repository of political power on the planet,” he is definitely onto something when he says,
We probably need to start wondering why this keeps happening. Also, this: if the Democrats suck so bad at political combat, then how come they continue to be rewarded with such massive quantities of campaign contributions? Is it possible that by ‘surrendering’ at the 11th hour and signing off on a deal that presages deep cuts in spending for the middle class, but avoids tax increases for the rich, Obama is doing exactly what was expected of him?
One last thing. The system is not static. Things still happen. Shit happens. And Obama and the rest of them still have to sell and spin whatever comes down the pike, at least for the public relations “battle” between them – even shit they accept, like, and push for. And the tact for re-election will likely remain, as Glenn Greenwald writes,“as a compromise-brokering, trans-partisan deficit cutter willing to ‘take considerable heat from his own party.’” Thus, “the ‘reasonable’ alternative to extremists,” in Doug Henwood’s portrayal, “the man who can compromise where they can’t, etc. His partisan selling point will be his bipartisanship, unlike the other guys, who are just rigid ideologues. He’ll have to do this subtly, so he doesn’t sound too partisan.” It may be the case after all, as Adolph Reed says, that “Obama’s one trick was good for getting him elected to successively higher offices, but now he’s where the buck stops where that trick — the equivalent of a short con — doesn’t work so well. And he doesn’t have a long con to operate. So all he has is a knack for getting himself out of the room he’s in at the moment.”