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.

  1. #1 by Black Flag® on August 11, 2011 - 00:25

    The riots have nothing to do with economics.

    They have to do with envy.

    The Socialist and Progressive dogma has taught many generations that they can get without earn.

    They are learning that this was a lie.

    They were taught envy – “hate the rich for what they have”.

    They were not taught ethics – “do what the rich do and you will be rich”.

    Your motto of pragmatism is now being played out.


    • #2 by Scott Erb on August 11, 2011 - 00:38

      Except unrest and revolution in response to economic difficulties and public anger predate socialism. Also, I don’t hear much envy or hatred for the rich in the US — even those of us who think the wealthier should pay more still don’t want huge tax increases (though to be honest, I’m in the category of those I think should pay more!) I disagree completely about ethics — it’s a core in school, college even pre-school. Ethics is fundamental if you’re to have a pragmatic approach — ethics is the essence of being a member in society, I incorporate ethical concerns and theories into all my courses and stress the foundational role of ethics. So I think you very much misread the situation.

  2. #3 by Black Flag® on August 11, 2011 - 00:47


    Except unrest and revolution in response to economic difficulties and public anger predate socialism.

    …yeah, and so does the common cold.

    But that is not the reason for this unrest and mayhem

    There have been no cuts

    Yet, the cities burn.

    There is far, far, far, more underlying here then merely a comment about a “maybe” a cut that “may” happen “decades from today”.

    It is a realization that the system has lied – and lied for generations – and a system that has been built upon “look at the other man’s wallet for your prosperity”

    Also, I don’t hear much envy or hatred for the rich in the US

    And that is what the UK would have said a week ago…..

    …but get out in the street, Scott….or you are deaf.

    (though to be honest, I’m in the category of those I think should pay more!)

    Here is the utter irony.

    So why do not you send a check to the government!??!?!?! for the amount you think you should pay?

    Nope… that thought doesn’t cross your mind for even a micro-second…..

    …because that is the philosophy of unearned gains…. you know you are paid by the effort of others and wholly depend on theft-by-proxy for your living.

    You know “you should pay it back”… because your heart is moral and good …but you won’t, because you have taught your brain to be “pragmatic”.

    • #4 by Scott Erb on August 11, 2011 - 01:02

      One person paying more than their share will do nothing, it would be a waste and would be contrary to the kind of just social relations that are to me the backbone of society. It would be unethical to do that and not demand others be taxed. For now, I’ll give more than the amount I think should be taxed to private charities. You have a weird and out of touch with reality concept of democratic society. Ithink you suffer a false view of what a human is, and under-estimate (or try to deny) our essentially social character.. Individuation has been recent and is a difficult and in many ways unnatural human development. I think it’s good development — it’s humans constructing social reality rather than being defined by nature — but it has to be balanced with keeping societies and communities functional, with social solidarity. I do think that in teaching and working extremely hard I give far more to society than I receive, and that is why I love what I do. Being part of a community and playing a positive role in peoples’ lives is far more important than stuff and money. If I wanted to be rich, I easily could have chosen that path.

  3. #5 by Black Flag® on August 11, 2011 - 01:28


    One person paying more than their share will do nothing, it would be a waste and would be contrary to the kind of just social relations that are to me the backbone of society.

    I am laughing, laughing, laughing, crying I am laughing so hard!!

    So you, paying what you think is your share would be a waste of money!!!

    God, tears are running down my cheeks I am laughing so hard!!

    The ultimate, pragmatic Socialist in action!

    Yep, I can see why you are so confused about individual action and freedom.

    You hold:
    If “everyone” isn’t doing it, you can’t do it

    Yep, the “sheep” mentality is alive and well.

    If I wanted to be rich, I easily could have chosen that path.


    You have no idea what that means, what it takes, the risks, nor the aptitude.

    Your only saving grace – which is admirable all by itself – is that you knew that and you didn’t even try.

    • #6 by Scott Erb on August 11, 2011 - 02:20

      Getting rich isn’t hard if you’re smart and willing to put in the necessary effort, and not be afraid to take chances. That seemed like a rather boring and pointless lifestyle to me. I mean, why focus on getting money and things when they’re all transient and ultimately cold and meaningless. Or to quote Dennis DeYoung: “Pieces of eight, treasures filled with emptiness, don’t let them turn your heart to stone.”

      Living to get more material stuff is to me an utterly meaningless and pointless existence. Living to communicate ideas, interact with others, and build a community does have meaning. Look at all the wealthy folk who are all screwed up — they get wealth and then realize that wealth doesn’t make life meaningful or better. A goal of getting rich is a goal for the ignorant, IMO.

      • #7 by Black Flag® on August 11, 2011 - 15:50


        By your comment, you do not understand what “rich” means nor what “wealth” is – you seem to believe that Oprah keeps her $500 million in a big vault somewhere – like “McScrooge ” of Disney cartoons – and regularly goes inside and throws it in the air for her entertainment.

        But the “rich” do not do this. They are rich because they uses their wealth to create more wealth – remembering that wealth merely is “a successful, repeatable solution to a human problem”.

        You are stuck – as you usually are – on the facades of wealth – the accumulation of toys – and there is nothing wrong here either.

        Further, you convoluted two unlinked human aspects – there are a lot of screwed up middle class and poor people too! The amount of wealth and material things does not make one screwed up or not screwed up!

        I am not surprised you disparage the seeking of wealth – you can’t do it (either by effort or want) – and you do not understand wealth at all.

        But was is worse – because you disparage it, you demand the right to steal it from those who have it.

        It is not enough for you to avoid it for yourself – you still envy those that have it – and you wish to destroy the wealth of others that what you do not have for yourself.

  4. #8 by Black Flag® on August 11, 2011 - 01:35

    Oh, and Scott:

    I have to say that you are a brave man to post as you do.

    It is easy for me to latch on to comments or thoughts you make and”‘bull dog” them to highlight your contradictions and fallacies.

    But I do recognize the bravery to put one’s self out there – belief’s unguarded and exposed – for such an assault.

    I do admire you for that, and do want to recognize you for your honesty in your own beliefs.

  5. #9 by Black Flag® on August 11, 2011 - 01:46


    And , ah, no.

    Individualism is NOT a recent phenomena.

    It has been a human character trait from “day one”.

    Do not confuse the expansion of “expression” with a previous “non-existence”.

    The forms of such expression have changed with the times, which is why we have “style” and “different color shirts” and neck ties – and as it has been a part of humanity from the being of humanity it cannot be, as you say, “unnatural”

    • #10 by Scott Erb on August 11, 2011 - 02:31

      Sigh. I see I shouldn’t respond to you, you always end up messing up a thread with wild assertions, insults, and rants that have no basis in reality. As an educator I have an instinctive desire to teach and help people learn. But some people like you get so caught up in a faith that you lose the capacity for critical reflection — you’re simply a ‘true believer.’

      I’ll consider whether I keep your posts up. Yes, that would be censorship, but this is my yard and just as a home owner has the right to stop people from crapping on his yard, I can protect my blog from rants that add nothing and stifle meaningful conversation. I can clean the crap from my yard. I thought you brought more to the table, but I see I was wrong. I’m slightly disappointed, I guess.

  6. #11 by modestypress on August 11, 2011 - 02:49

    Oh, dear. Usually, I am the one who gets in trouble for being too provocative, thus being banned from the evangelical website for World Magazine.. So my vote (in the tradition of Roger Williams), would be to let Black Flag post as much and as fervently as he wishes.

    On the whole topic of violence, envy, and the like, who said it better than Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht in the Three Penny Opera, specifically, the song of Pirate Jenny?

    • #12 by Scott Erb on August 11, 2011 - 03:01

      Yeah, I’m probably more mad at myself for taking his bait. That’s my fault. So his posts stay.

      I love Three Penny Opera! Germany in the 20s had some amazing work!

  7. #13 by modestypress on August 11, 2011 - 02:58

    Or instead of reading the song, watch/listen to one of the excellent performances to be found on You Tube by people such as Lotte Lenya (perhaps the best), Nina Simone, Marianne Faithful, etc.

    • #14 by Scott Erb on August 11, 2011 - 03:03

      Lotte Lenya was great! Though most Americans know her from one of the James Bond movies (I can’t recall which one off the top of my head). The original German is awesome, it loses something in the translation.

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