A few days after the riots in Britain last summer, I happened to be at an academic conference. The British were well represented and I asked a few of them for their thoughts. They were appalled, of course, but they could certainly understand the motivations of the rioters, it seemed. The cuts that had been announced by the government bore a large part of the responsibility. These people were so deprived, and the cuts would take away whatever they had. So the riots were the government's fault, you see. And then there was the atrocious behavior of the rich, what with MPs diddling their expense accounts and all. So it was their fault, or perhaps the inequality in society that had given them the money to diddle with. Or it was the fault of capitalism, which had caused them to feel they needed things that they could not ever hope to buy, and so they had to do what they had to do in order to get them. Their method was regrettable, but they were not to blame; they had been forced into it.
Let's take a step back from this and see what we have here. Their country had just been through the most horrible riots in anyone's memory. Rioters had stolen everything they could carry and burned down a substantial fraction of what they could not. People had been killed. Family businesses that had, for decades, been integral parts of their communities had, within minutes, been thoroughly destroyed. The whole society had been shaken. And whose fault was it? Not the rioters, but the society itself.
I pointed out to my colleagues that if they interpreted the events that way, they would be morally incapable of defending themselves against such riots. A corrupt society was being attacked by innocents, in their view. The society was the guilty party. With whom was a good person supposed to sympathize?
But thinking about the matter later, something else occurred to me about their response to the riots, which is that it was not a response at all. What they were expressing was an ideological position that long antedated the riots. In fact, judging from the similar themes one could find in the voices of the rioters, the rioters, at least for the purposes of self-justification, took it as their script.
But they certainly did not initiate it. Rather, it came from the society's cultural elite. Arnold Toynbee famously observed that cultures do not die from outside causes; they commit suicide. You'll not see a better example of this than what we've got here.
The point is that the imputation of guilt is an attack in its own right. By making it more difficult for the society to defend itself, it makes the society more vulnerable. Pushed to an extreme, it can place the very existence of the society into jeopardy.
I need to be clear about what I am saying and what I am not. I am not saying that any social criticism poses a threat to society. On the contrary, a healthy society is not only not endangered by criticism, it positively needs criticism to stay healthy. The matter here is one of balance. When Joseph Schumpeter spoke of "creative destruction," he did not mean that destruction, by itself, is creative. He meant that alongside the destructive processes were constructive ones, that could thrive in the space created by the destruction. It is when social derogation becomes the sole expression of the cultural elite, that society is no longer healthy, and is on line to becoming less so. It is the unanimity of negative opinion here that indicates the problem. Anyone who doubts that it exists in Britain should spend some time listening to the BBC.
At any rate, this is no abstract matter, but can take concrete form. What I want to do in this essay is to illuminate the form that this destruction takes. I'll do this within my own frame of understanding, which is psychoanalytic theory.
The key here is that, from a classical psychoanalytic point of view, a riot requires little in the way of explanation. Freud posited the existence of an impulse toward destruction that he called, though we need not, the "death instinct." Nietzsche, whose account here is so close to Freud's that some say Freud cribbed it, is positively lyric in his description of it, and powerfully laments the loss of its direct expression.
We get a kick out of it, he says, and he offers an argument from the institution of punishment. Punishment for unpaid debt, he says, arises from an imposed reciprocation of pleasures. The debtor has deprived the creditor of a pleasure, and the society requires the former to give the latter an equal pleasure, at his own expense, by allowing the victim to inflict pain upon the body of the debtor. This can only make sense if we enjoy inflicting pain.
He makes this powerful observation:
it’s not so long ago that people wouldn’t think of an aristocratic wedding and folk festival in the grandest style without executions, tortures, or something like an auto-da-fé, and similarly no noble household lacked creatures on whom people could vent their malice and cruel taunts without a second thought
So Nietzsche would find nothing in our riots that was difficult to understand. All in a day's work for a good "blond beast."
But organized society, obviously cannot tolerate the free flow of aggression, and so, for both Freud and Nietzsche, two countervailing capacities develop. First is violence on the part of the authorities, who maintain social order through force. Second is that individuals learn, in the course of their socialization, to turn their aggression inward in the form of guilt. Freud and Nietzsche were ambivalent about this development, but both saw it as the key to civilization.
To sum up, then, aggression would be ubiquitous, except that it is inhibited through counter-aggression on the part of the authorities, and by the turning of aggression inward in the form of guilt.
Applying these to the August riots offers an interesting perspective. In the first place, it is clear enough that they were pure expressions of uninhibited aggression, as will be visible to anyone who checks out the footage on YouTube. The atmosphere, as many observers noted, was like a party. This was aggression directed entirely outward, with no apparent guilt.
But what was less apparent, but much more interesting, was the absence of counter-aggression on the part of the police. Observers of all sorts agreed, almost unanimously, that the police, especially early on, failed to apply the force necessary to contain the disorder. This lack of police action was widely noted, and reports of police holding back and simply observing what was going on were common. Equally unanimous was the judgment that it was this failure of the police that led to the amplification of the riots, transforming them from local disturbances to a country-wide upheaval. Equally clear, though not as widely noted, was that the same failure of action corresponded to a transformation in the composition of the rioters from overwhelmingly poor black to full-scale diverse. People of every type realized that they could do whatever they wanted to, since the police were not going to stop them. What developed was a multicultural extravaganza that really was out of hand.
The question becomes, what was it that was responsible for this fatal hesitation on the part of the police?
As I have said, the rioters, at the outset, were overwhelmingly black. It does not stretch credibility to hypothesize that the police were reluctant to suppress the riots for reasons arising out of that.
One might suppose that they were afraid of being accused of racism, and we know that in British society, such charges are rife. But notice now that the charge of racism is an imputation of badness, of guilt. This could help explain the lack of counter-aggression on the part of the police. The rioters had taken the inhibitions off their own aggression and, remarkably, it was the police that had turned their aggression inward.
That would bring us back to where we started. My claim is that the guilt that inhibited police aggression was the same guilt with which the British elite had illuminated the society, both after the riots, when they blamed them on the society's moral deficiencies, and beforehand, when it was preparing the ground for them.
In Parts Two and Three, I will explore the connection between the charge of racism and the inhibition of police aggression. It will turn out that the matter is not so simple, but the complexities are interesting in their own right. All together, I believe that analysis of this connection reveals some very important things about the social dynamics of our time.