There are two main narratives circulating about the paroxysm of violence and looting that is still gripping the country. The right-wing see it simply in terms of a break-down of law and order, to which the only antidote is more law enforcement and an escalation in the means of restoring order. Thus we have calls for water cannon, for the deployment of the army, for the looters to feel the full force of the law. The left-wing see the immediate causes in short-term government policies such as the drastic cuts in public expenditure designed to correct our enormous and growing fiscal imbalance. And so we have calls for slowing down the austerity measures, for reversing specific actions such as scrapping the Educational Maintenance Allowances and the tripling of student fees. It will come as no surprise to readers here that of these two narratives I have more sympathy with the second than the first. But neither is remotely adequate.
In my judgement the looting expresses one simple human attribute: personal greed. Since the second world war, the Western democracies have assiduously and consistently built their societies on this one human impulse. But what we’ve also done is to create two contrasting ideological frameworks within which to talk about greed. Greed is simultaneously lauded as the engine of economic progress, and demonised as a personal sin. But greed is the same attribute no matter how we might try to justify it in some circumstances and castigate it in others. Greed is about wanting stuff for ourselves, whilst ignoring the consequences of our acquisitiveness on others. It is the embodiment of self-centredness. The main distinguishing factor which controls our collective attitude to this moral deficit is simply this: the immediacy with which our greed is connected with its consequences.
The collective greed of the country as a whole has devastating consequences for others in the world. Climate change and environmental degradation generally, oppressive regimes that we support in order to trade “efficiently”, the myth that our standards of living can be raised indefinitely without consequence, all these things flow from “institutionalised” greed every bit as destructive as institutionalised racism. The greed of those of us who have succeeded by one means or another within this society – our property-owning wealth, our indebtedness through which we finance our greed, our lack of interest in those who have not thus succeeded (until we see our shopping centres looted and our streets ablaze) – is encouraged and built into the very fabric of our social, political and economic assumptions. Enriching ourselves, and expressing that enrichment by the possession of things, have effectively become the purposes of our lives. It is what we’re here for.
This ideological hegemony stretches across everyone, but the means to pursue it do not. We have created swathes of our fellow citizens for whom this purpose of life, our individual enrichment, is not possible. But still the whole apparatus of our culture continues to tell us all that if we can’t be wealthy, can’t own what others own, our lives are pointless and we are failures. And the corollary of our greed, the self-centredness that hardens our hearts to the needs of others, is also universal. And thus the looters are doing nothing different from that which the rest of us have done: they are satisfying their own desires and ignoring the consequences. Unfortunately for the health of our society, they’re not playing by the rules.
The looting that’s engulfing us must become a game-changing moment for our society. Repressing the urges and desires that we have so carefully groomed will not work. We cannot police the problem out of existence. It may well be that in the very short term there must be a robust response because the consequences of this unrest are too devastating for too many of our comrades for it to be simply allowed to run its course. But if we think that crushing this revolt with unprecedented firepower and then carrying on as before will sort the problems out, we are deluded. We have to attack the root causes. We can’t continue to have “good” greed and “bad” greed. We have to regain the cultural understanding that we appear to have lost: that all greed is corrosive. That will require changes in us all, not just in those who are rampaging through our streets.