Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Fires in London... could they spread to our shores? Do we understand the danger of neglecting the social contract? Something to think about...

Burning buildings in the streets of London should be a warning to those of us living in her former colony.

It is maddeningly difficult to find even speculation about the causes or grievances of the London rioters in the articles I've read today. One article cited similar riots in 1985 led by “black youth” living in rotten housing projects. Sounds familiar. This time it is “minority” youth turning over cars and throwing Molotov Cocktails. The New York Times’ account implies, without saying so, the austerity measures forced on the British government, similar to those we are now about to embrace, are to blame.

Now, riots have causes and grievances but they’re usually hard to see through the smoke and mayhem. Riots simply take on a life of their own. Hey, they’re a lot of fun, somewhat profitable, and they are attractive to rebels, outlaws and people who just like to hear glass break. Nonetheless, they don’t happen without provocation. Many times they are ignited by a killing or a beating – usually at the hands of police – or some other perceived injustice inflicted by the authorities. Usually, when thinkers try to deconstruct the environment of the riot, they find the underbrush was already dry and primed to explode.

Look at it this way. Riots like those in London the last four nights tell you an awful lot of people don’t have to get up and go to work in the morning. They tell you a lot of people are blind with anger and hate. They tell you a lot of people feel left out and powerless. They tell you a lot of people do not see the law, or the police, on their side.

In short, riots like those in London show you a lot of people with nothing to lose.

Now, I’m just speculating and from quite a distance. But if I’m right about this, we need to pay attention. This movie could be coming to a theater near you.

Here I’m going to speak plainly, which means I intend to just state what is, not whether I think it is good or bad. What I’m about to say may seem foolish to some and heartless to others. It is meant only as an attempt at some sort of unvarnished truth. The situation exactly as I see it.

We live, as do the British, in a community connected by contract law. We are fond of saying this when we describe the difference between our civilized society and some more barbaric nation or when some obviously guilty murderer or murderess is set free by a jury of his or her peers.

But we don’t really know what the social contract is, or why it exists.

It is an agreement with clear give and take. I give up some of my freedom to the community. In exchange, I get peace (sometimes), protection, some form of prosperity or at least the hope of prosperity, and stuff like clean water and safe food. Simply put, I get hope for a better future and a tolerable existence today.

Now, I grew up in a working class neighborhood and that is a lot different from going up in a non-working neighborhood. We always believed we could work for a better life, have a job and a family, save some money, take a vacation each year, and live long enough to collect social security. That turned out to be a bit off; after 19 years of school my economic situation was far more tenuous then my Teamster father. Thank god I didn't get a PhD. Then I’d really be broke.

But the social contract did deliver a pretty damned good life for me and for the other folks who grew up in our neighborhood and more or less played by the rules. We’d be fools to complain. But make no mistake, life in a non-working neighborhood provides no such promise and no such reality.

Back to the contract. In essence, I give up my wild ass desires – some of them anyway – to live in basic harmony with everyone else. I don’t do this because it is the nice thing to do; I do it to get back what a solid community can provide in social and economic rewards. That is the central point.

But what if the community doesn't give me anything in return. What if I just have to give up my wild ass desires and get nothing in return? What if I live only on the margins of this community; if I have to bow and scrape to eat; if I see no hope for a better life; if I have no sense that I matter in that community? What if I feel powerless, feel everything is a set-up, manipulated by the wealthy, by the corporations, by the religious interest groups, by the relentless media? What if I have nothing at all to lose in this grand bargain?

Why should I play by the rules, especially if I had nothing to do with making the rules?

Which brings me to why the social contract has become the natural way to organize many communities: The social contract is designed to prevent precisely what is happening in London and has happened in several periods of American history. The social contract offers a reason to behave. And the reason is self-interest.

I respect the contract because I believe I can prosper in the peaceful community it creates.

Take that away and the Molotov Cocktail rules the night.

Now, if I've made you mad enough there’s smoke coming out of your ears, don’t stand too close to the gas pump. This part will really make you mad.

The reason for the social contract – in my reading of politics – is to keep a lid on insurrection. Conservatives like to think liberals and misguided conservatives spend tax dollars on social programs and entitlement programs out of na├»ve, soft-hearted, altruistic motives. They’re dangerously wrong. Today’s Tea Party bravado about small government and big debt is wrong for the same reason. The reason for these expensive social programs, for the safety net, is to prevent exactly what is happening in London tonight.

If you don’t want Those People burning down your precious Country Club Plaza, you better be sure they are either massively distracted or they have some small sense of hope of a decent life within the system.

If you were charged with inventing three things to keep poor people out of the streets, you’d invent 1) the social contract to provide hope or food stamps, or to appear to provide hope on the basis of daily rags-to-riches stories in the media… and food stamps; 2) cable television and American Idol; and 3) cocaine.

This crazy fixation with the national debt at the cost of jobs, education and hope, is eliminating the first of those inventions. We’d better hope cable television and cocaine are enough to keep the lid on our non-working neighborhoods. I’m guessing they aren’t enough in non-working London neighborhoods.

Instead of this crazy fixation, we better make sure everyone who lives in this contract society is – symbolically at least – getting a dollar of good for every dollar of freedom they pay in. It’s pretty easy to see on the telly what happens when a whole lot of people have nothing to lose.



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