As I’ve pondered over what I’ve written here in the last couple of days, and been generally heartened by the many very generous responses to it, I’ve begun to focus more and more on one of the questions I’ve posed. It’s the one from yesterday’s post that asks what we might do about many young people’s frighteningly reckless attitude to their personal futures.
Despite the politicians’ rather forlorn attempts to pretend that the rioting and looting is so serious that it’s somehow “above politics”, everywhere else there’s been the usual sharp divide between analyses from the left and right sides of the spectrum. I’ve tried to plough my own furrow, whilst not of course denying that I am from the left. The danger in so doing is obvious: I’ll piss everyone off, and please no-one. There is, though, one surprising place in which the two narratives coincide – and that’s the sudden popularity of an otherwise rather obscure term, nihilism. It seems we all agree that this word does indeed capture something important about the moment. The explanations for it are as polarised as you’d expect, with the left broadly blaming economics, and the right a lack of social discipline.
Nihilism. “Nihilism is the philosophical doctrine suggesting the negation of one or more putatively meaningful aspects of life” Wikipedia solemnly tells us, whilst Dictionary.com takes a more overtly political perspective with its talk of “total rejection of established laws and institutions” and “anarchy, terrorism, or other revolutionary activity”. I think Wikipedia must take the laurels here, since nihilism is a philosophical concept first and foremost, not a political one. I am convinced that in this concept lies the key to what’s happening. All the other important matters that I and others have discussed at length are derivatives. But in the rioters’ reckless disregard for themselves and others they display absolutely the “negation of one or more putatively meaningful aspects of life”. Unless we can reverse that mindset, all the talk of consequences, of facing the full might of justice, of tooling up the police, of bemoaning the absence of fathers, of broomstick solidarity, of taking back our streets – all of it is as chaff before the fire.
The nihilism we have witnessed has, it seems to me, two aspects. First there’s a material one. No matter how many individual rioters turn out to be “well-heeled” classroom assistants, the fact remains that poverty, and the lack of faith in its relief, lies at the heart. Poverty, we all know, is relative. And the rioters and looters have overwhelmingly been from inner-city areas of concentrated deprivation. My point here is not to decry inequality as such (although I do decry it) but to point up the consequences when young people lose hope that their circumstances can improve. There are some hard lessons here, I think, for the left as well as the right. We have all colluded in a fantasy that somehow education can lift everyone from their roots within a society where social mobility is constrained only by individual educational achievement. The Labour party has been guilty of this for many years. I was almost treated as a leper by a Labour cabinet member for young people when, as chair of governors of a large London secondary school, I had the temerity to question whether continuous improvement in exam results year on year was either possible, or even effective if the local economy could not offer enough work. Things are much worse economically now than they were then. And many of us in the left, and I definitely include myself here, have clung to the romantic notion that there is almost no such thing as difference in innate ability, and that everyone can be equally clever if only we could work out how to equalise opportunity. It’s not true. We have to create an economy that offers work to everyone, not just the clever ones. We need to stop seeing such work as menial. We need to pay more for it, recognising that it makes an important contribution both to those who thus earn a living, and to the society that gets things done that need to be done. A simple example: street cleaners are everywhere being replaced by men driving small vehicles that are similar to the gutter cleaning lorries. They are supposed to collect up rubbish with their whirling brushes, and they can sweep the streets in no time compared to a man with a broom. Except they can’t. They are, if you’ll forgive the pun, rubbish. They leave almost as much as they collect. And they also dis-employ unskilled workers, and remove human contact within communities. Why are they being introduced? Because they’re cheaper, and thus allow more of richer people’s income to remain immune from taxation. Greed, yet again. There needs to be the opportunity for employment of those who, either through inability or lack of ambition, do not want to go to further education. And that employment needs to be valued and appreciated, not looked down upon with sophisticated scorn. Such opportunities might give some of our young people more hope than they currently have.
And then there’s what might be termed the existential element of nihilism. I had a conversation with my 20 yr-old son recently. He’s at university. He’s not had a remotely deprived childhood. True, I’ve been an “absent” father (although I’ve always also been a present one) so what follows is probably my fault. He’s mixed race, as readers of this blog will know. I was frankly appalled at the bleakness of his view of his own, and society’s, future. He’s probably a perfect example of those youngsters who’ve had too much materially rather than too little. But he feels that his generation have been left to pick up the environmental and economic tab for our profligacy. That the future of the world and of society is in every respect dangerous and uncertain. We must stop our headlong rush to environmental Armageddon. We must set out a plan for economic well-being which is not predicated on unsustainable levels of energy and resource depletion. If we don’t, how can my son’s pessimism be addressed? He needs hope, and hope is not the same thing as denial and pretence.
I began by saying that fear cannot put right the things that have gone wrong. But in one sense, fear has its roots in hope. Unless we have hope for our individual and collective futures, we have no fear of acting in ways that damage that future. That fear cannot be sub-contracted to a militarised police force. It must come from within us. We should also be more honest about what keeps all of us on the straight and narrow. We like to see it as something to do with our personal morality, and castigate today’s youth for not having any. In truth I think it’s less pretty than that. We all make a kind of subliminal calculus about where our personal interests lie. In my youth I did a bit of minor shoplifting. I had as perfect a “moral” upbringing as it’s possible to imagine. What made me stop? It was when the calculus of risk shifted and fear about my future overcame the thrill and possession of what I was stealing. That’s the truth of it. In earlier times part of that internal subliminal calculus probably included the prospect of burning in hell fire, which is quite a disincentive. I’m not proposing that we can deal with our problems by commissioning public sermons on hell and damnation, but perhaps we need to find a substitute. Something that persuades our youngsters that part of what’s important are things that lie outside ourselves.
The most vicious rhetoric of the last few days has come from those paragons of right-wing virtue such as Melanie Philips. It’s all the fault of people like me. I beg to differ. She’s closer to the truth than she realises. Uncomfortably close. The problems in our society are symbolised exactly by the self-seeking, self-serving, self-righteous analysis that she represents. We don’t need more fear. We need more hope.