Archive for August 11th, 2011

London Burning

We live in an era of immense prosperity and security.   We can travel freely on foot or in a vehicle without worrying that we’ll be mugged or forced off the road by a gang of thieves.   Women can be out and about in most places without fearing assault, even children are generally safe – for all the fear of molesters and predators, it’s very rare that a child missing for awhile in Walmart or on the street isn’t returned safely without incident.

We don’t notice how secure our lives are because we worry about what could go wrong.   People do get mugged, even in nice neighborhoods.   Children are molested, women are raped, and people get carjacked.   Terrorists fly planes into buildings.   Yet if you look at all of this, especially with a dose of common sense (avoid obviously dangerous situations) the probability that we are going to suffer any of these is tremendously low.   People react in fear when seven people get sick from bad peanut butter — in a country of over 300 million.    From Japan to Europe to the US, we have more prosperity than anytime in history — and thus more security.

How thick is the veneer of civilization?   How deep does our 98% voluntary compliance with the rules and norms governing society penetrate?   Those with a really positive view on human nature tend to believe that people are good and naturally cooperate.   That describes the case in small close knit societies, but large mass social organizations (cities, states, etc.) security seems to require prosperity.   It’s too easy to rationalize looting, violence and theft if you can get away with it and be relatively invisible.

Consider what’s happening in Somalia, Uganda, and the Sudan.   Even small tribal communities with deep cultural bonds can fall into a spiral of violence when conditions go bad.   Darfur started with a drought.   Once violence and instability begin, they feed on themselves and grow.   At that point raw force is necessary to impose stability.  That requires a denial of basic freedoms and a powerful authority — what Thomas Hobbes would call a leviathan.

Hobbes would know.   He was born April 5, 1588, in a time of fear.   Less than two months after his birth the Spanish Armada took off towards England.  When baby Thomas was five months old people feared the Spaniards would decimate the British navy.   That didn’t happen — Britain’s defense became the stuff of legend — but it symbolized the world Thomas was born into.  On the continent the bloody “thirty years war” would start when he was just 30 years old; for most of his life Europe was mired in war, disorder and disease.  When the British civil war broke out when he was 54 years old he had seen enough to write The Leviathan, published in 1651 when Hobbes was 63.   In a world defined by war, fear and rebellion, the only way to maintain stability and protect civilization, he argued, was through a powerful authoritative state with a monopoly on force.

Hobbes is often used as a foil for those who value individual liberty over the state (he is also used to provide the name for a comic strip tiger).    And indeed, given the prosperity and stability of the last sixty years, we in the industrialized West cna be forgiven for thinking that security and voluntary compliance with social rules is the norm.   A powerful state scares us, leads us to protest, and is seen as a danger by people on both the left and right.

The reality is that human nature is capable of a variety of behaviors.  Given the right conditions we can be peaceful, cooperative and act out of both self- and other-interest.   Given other conditions we can be rivals who nonetheless maintain a sense of ‘fair play’ as we compete.    Under certain conditions something can also trigger a descent into barbarism, including the riots that have gone on for five days in London.

We seem to expect barbarism from places like Rwanda or Somalia.   Perhaps its a twinge of racism, perhaps its a kind of cultural chauvinism.   When it hits closer to home, as in London, it becomes far more worrisome — it reminds us that all of what we see abroad can happen in the industrialized West.    We are not immune from violence, we haven’t transcended the negative aspects of human nature.

We can debate the resilience of social stability.   Just as we may have too benign a view of human nature due to the times in which we live, Hobbes’ view erred on the negative side due to the times in which he lived.   Clearly even in impoverished regions communities often operate very well, with individual self-interest sacrificed for the greater good.   One of the challenges of western civilization is that due to individuation we now have placed a premium on self-interest.    For the first time, a successful civilization has been built around the idea of individual freedom and putting loyalty to self often above duty to society.   This is a noble experiment that relies on a fragile balance.

When there is no sense of social solidarity, it’s easy to “defect,” to break from the rules and expectations and try to benefit yourself — or give into emotional passion.  In such a case, two things keep order — a viable threat of force, or prosperity.   If the system creates prosperity and opportunity people realize that it’s in their interest to maintain it.   Instead of anger at “the man” or government, they are angered when people threaten unrest — if the comfortable way of life is threatened.

We are now facing an economic crisis as severe as that in the 30s.   That crisis crushed the veneer of civilization so that one of the most cultured and stable cultures engaged in war and mass atrocities.   Are the London riots a wake up call — a reminder that if we can’t solve our economic problems the whole core of a civilization we’ve come to take for granted is under threat?   Could this symbolize the possibility of the unthinkable — a breakdown in western civilization?   Is our greatest foe not Islamic extremism or communism, but our own greed and short sightedness?

The riots in London and a few years ago in Paris may be anomalies — outbursts of emotion and anger that dissipate when finished.   It does finally seem calmer in London, Manchester, Liverpool and a number of smaller cities to which the violence had spread.   Or it could be a warning of what might be to come if we can’t come together and repair the world economy.  Unlike Paris in 2008, these riots spread to other cities and were not the doings of a local ghettoized population.   We don’t need to agree with Thomas Hobbes to take the warning seriously.