Burnt out van by Wikimedia Commons
One of the saddest things about the recent rioting in UK cities is the divisive nature of it, for there's nothing a ruling elite loves more than division among the hoi polloi. "Divide and conquer", is how Julius Caesar described the tried and tested tactic in his day.
Just the other morning I heard on the BBC news that 600,000 people have signed a petition for government to introduce legislation that would mean the courts could dock benefits (social security) from anyone involved in rioting and looting. Maybe the rationale is that if they don't have any money, they won't be able to afford the bus fare into town to attend any future riots.
I dread to think of the social consequences of chucking entire families out onto the streets for the sins of individual members of each brood - so I shan't. However, as I've already alluded to the Romans, maybe Pontius Pilate could help us understand the mentality of a disinterested elite sitting in its tax havens, washing its hands of the whole affair and letting the peasantry stew in its own juice - as if they should care that the peasants are revolting. I suspect that at this moment, they're more concerned that we might not revolt. For they thrive on the conflict of others, and on the competition they force-feed us, knowing that it's something they'll never have to swallow themselves.
Another interesting thing to emerge in the aftermath, is the disproportionately severe sentencing: One young woman who'd been asleep during the rioting got five months in jail for buying a pair of looted shorts; two young men got four years each for trying to incite riots on websites to which pathetically, no one responded (except GCHQ, no doubt). Another man received eighteen months for stealing a bag of doughnuts. Yuck, was my response, when I heard that. For being made to eat such disgusting mass-produced gunk, would be rougher justice to me. Someone else got the jail for stealing a 3.50 (GDP) bottle of water. If he'd done that here, in Scotland, taking into account the rainfall we get, they'd simply put him in a mental institution, more to be pitied than punished.
The upshot of all this might be that, before you can say Joseph Stalin, internet access will be subject to the kind of sanctions that the authorities in the People's Republic of China would envy. Furthermore, I bet that the global plutocracy would be co*k-a-hoop were 600,000 UK plebs to sign a petition for blanket censorship of the internet under the pretext that it would protect the public from the rioting hoards.
However, the question is how we deal with the divisiveness of it all. How do the decent ordinary people who make up the majority of society come together and deal with those who would riot in our streets, at the same time as hold to account those who are responsible for the societal and economic conditions that are at the root of the problem? It's a difficult question, because we all experience the World differently and 80s ideology seeped into our culture insidiously.
Many people even of my age and still yet, seem unaware of the dangerous creeping changes exemplified in the anti-union legislation and government repeals to such as the Glass-Steagall Act, that formed the noose that choked off our democratic freedom. Few people see treachery until the treachery reaches them. We know very well too, that many people just switch on the mainstream news and swallow what's dished up. Many accept political, economic and societal change, on the hope that there's something in it for them. That, I believe, facilitated the privatisation of public assets and council housing, at a time when outsourcing of 'the means of production', made it less likely that there would be the jobs needed to pay for the scheme. However, everyone's views differ, and of course, those who don't have to compromise, don't compromise - so here we are, reaping what we've sown.
All of the above tend to strengthen autocracy, and weaken democracy. Much of the change permeated our lives by the impersonal non-negotiability of computerisation, imposed by those who are geographically, and empathetically distant and who've somehow managed to convince our representatives and many of the rest of us, that this will serve our societal needs better than proper representational government. Seemingly, we should replace that with 'small government', on the vague rationale of its efficiency - when it really just looks like another tool for hamstringing democracy.
These days, when we air our problems, we get a facetious 'tell me about it', instead of a sympathetic ear. "Laugh and the World laughs with you", wrote the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox. "Weep and you weep alone". Yet 'what goes around comes around', and weeping alone in an overcrowded World of gadgetry, and mechanised production, mightn't best exemplify human progress. My parents' generation seemed to know that instinctively. I call them the War generation, because I think their wartime experiences helped them to value camaraderie much better than we do now - to our detriment.
Mohandas K. Gandhi by Wikimedia Commons
Mohandas Gandhi said, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world". Does that make the mountain seem too high? Should that mean that the best we can do is look after number one? Similarly, do we turn to rioting and looting, or petitioning for draconian measures against others - all of which would only serve to exacerbate further violence? The odds of one in six billion (in the unlikely chance that it were reduced to such odds) might seem almost impossible, however, zero in six billion is impossible odds - and that's where we'd be, if no one ever took steps to "be the change".
For the small acts of kindness and the empathy that we can all achieve as individuals, can make a difference to our own lives. It affects others, who respond in kind. That reciprocity can ripple outwards, rolling back the crass ideological tides of the 80s. We might think of these small steps on the road back to a more egalitarian society in a similar way to the proverbial 'first step' with which, 'the longest journey begins' - because the building of culture, good or bad, is myriad, and is the result of multitudinous small steps made by many individuals.
Values will ebb and flow, as they have done through the ages: Were you a Christian, you might call them Christian values; were you a Muslim, you might call them Islamic, and were you humanitarian you might have similar values too. Those values change according to circumstances. During times of turmoil, the dichotomy seems much greater than usual, but the 'silent majority' is normally just that: silent. They're willing to neither riot nor petition in a way that would hurt others unnecessarily. Yet it's from that majority that most change emanates.
Politicians are like water, they're inclined to take the route of least resistance - as most of us do. I suspect that even medieval tyrants knew that their fortunes were subject to the ebbs and flow of the tides of popular support - though King Canute might've thought differently, for a while. Modern tyrants whether their methods are economic or militaristic, do better when they recognise that. Hence, the almost blanket control of media, and the use of focus groups and security services, all over the World by those who hold dominion.
Therefore, regardless of current political and economic problems, we together, are our own best hope of a more equitable future. Sometimes change is slow; sometimes it's sudden. Some few individuals are in better positions to affect change than others, yet no individual can do it alone, because cultural change is the sum total of the change coming from us all.
We might sympathise with the family of a looter forced out onto the streets because of the petitioning of others. Our hearts might go out to the bereaved families of the murdered men who tried to protect their property, in the absence of proper police funding from a state that nevertheless found billions to refund a coterie of gamblers. We might join the petitioners. We might sympathise with the banksters; that happens. Yet all of the options above are divisive, whereas surely cooperation is the key to the greater democracy that most of us desire. For that, we must empathise with everyone - even, (dare I say) the banksters and the corporation chiefs. Yet we should give them no quarter where their assault on democracy is concerned.
Above all, we should be aware that the only change the majority of us can hope to influence is the change within ourselves, and the only hope we have that that will duly influence others, will come in the message of our own example.