Opinion A Society on the Verge of a Meltdown

The riots in London are a social Fukushima for the Western world. Should we really be suprised that an increase in wealth for just a few, accompanied by simultaneous impoverishment of the masses, could not continue unabated?



"We know nothing about the form of future tragedy," German playwright Botho Strauss once wrote. But that isn't true any longer. Now we can picture the form of our tragedy -- all we have to do is watch it on YouTube. The images of the London riots are a preview of our future. Malaysian student Asyraf Haziq sits bleeding on the ground as a man approaches to help him up, only to then help three others plunder the contents of the defenseless man's rucksack, leaving him alone on the street.

This is rock bottom for humanity.

British Prime Minister David Cameron needed a few days to find the right words. "Social problems that have been festering for decades have exploded in our face," he said just this week, referring to a "broken society." For a Tory this was a step forward. "Society" is not a word that easily passes through the lips of a conservative.

"There is no such thing as society," former conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously said. "There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first."

But when society is broken, people break too. Thatcher and all the other neoliberal ideologues after her didn't want to believe this. But the market has no moral qualities, and without morals we all become animals.

Moral Meltdown

Suddenly this has occurred to everyone. Just weeks before the riots conservative commentator Charles Moore wrote in the Daily Telegraph: "It has taken me more than 30 years as a journalist to ask myself this question, but this week I find that I must: is the Left right after all? You see, one of the great arguments of the Left is that what the Right calls 'the free market' is actually a set-up."

In the conservative German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, commentator Frank Schirrmacher turns similar sentiments toward Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrats, complaining about the "ghostly coolness" with which she approaches the moral vacuum of conservative politics.

The riots in London have done to the West's social self-image what Fukushima did to the concept of nuclear energy. It was a super maximum credible accident -- the imagined, but never expected catastrophe. A moral meltdown.

But with all due respect, the only thing astonishing here is the actual astonishment. Who really thought it could simply go on indefinitely like this? Who believed there would be no consequences to the increase of obscene wealth for a few while impoverishment simultaneously plagued the masses. Wealth disparity is no accident of the capitalist system -- it is the system. Just as the Berlin Wall and the Russian Gulag were no accidents of socialism, this disparity is reality. Capitalism means that one person owns a yacht with a swimming pool and a hangar for their helicopter, while millions of others haven't had a salary increase in years. Socialism means equal fortune for all, except for those who don't play along and end up in prison.

The Rubble of Neoliberal Ideology

The neoliberals can now take their places alongside the Left on the rubble of their ideology. But it's no reason to rejoice. The German socialists have always been broken because they couldn't reconcile the ideas of fairness and freedom. The socialist Left Party has commandeered the word "left" and held on tight, just as the business-friendly Free Democrats have done their part to usurp the word "freedom." This is unbecoming to those words, which have degenerated through political wear.

Politicians like Gesine Lötzsch and Klaus Ernst, who head the Left Party, which includes politicians from the successor party to the former East German Communist Party, engage in undignified bickering about the sad history of communist East Germany, while the party's deputy chairwoman Sahra Wagenknecht and her passel of displaced East Germans tout nothing more than political folklore. If that's the left, then who wants to be a part of it?

The Junge Welt newspaper recently published a cynical article thanking the Berlin Wall for prisons run by the feared East German secret police, the Stasi, and suppression in schools under the East German regime. That's not leftist. That's indecent.

A Neglected Polity Will Founder

In the political sense, "left" would mean defending the parliamentary system against its enemies and fighting for more equality within our society. The position in the political system has been open since the Social Democrats quit government in 2005, unpopular and struggling to find their message. But if the Left Party wants to occupy it, then it must finally abandon the notion that the true consummation of society lies outside the parliamentary system. In that domain, it is only the Stasi that is waiting -- and nothing more.

The parliamentary system is under pressure and needs strong allies. Authoritarians smell their chance: Right-wing populism is on the rise everywhere. In England, the far-right has formed citizen militias, while Cameron is considering controls on Facebook and Twitter like those in place in the Arab states. Meanwhile in Germany, the interior minister supports the end of anonymity online.

The future of a democracy without democrats is grim. We famously learn little from history. But if we take one thing from the Weimar era it should be this: The res publica amissa, or the neglected polity, will fail in the end. When it comes down to what matters more to us -- democracy or capitalism -- what will we decide?

And will we be allowed to choose?

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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grickman 08/18/2011
1. Is Society on the Verge of a Breakdown
The events in London are due much less to poverty than to outright criminality. Teenagers stealing television sets and athletic shoes, burning stores and overturning cars are out of control criminals. There are millions of poverty stricken people all over the world who don't take the time to coordinate their criminality via mobile phones with their friends -- another sign of a lack of true poverty, namely having mobile phones in the first place. Its chic to do, its popular, but a sign of poverty, please. Don't make excuses for people doing bad things. India is full of poor people and they are not running to Dehli to burn it down.
BillCA 08/18/2011
2. Get the evidence first!
I've read multiple opinion pieces from multiple sources from the Left (it's immoral capitalism) to the Right (it's immorality or amorality). As of this moment, there are many theories as to why the disturbances occurred, and no solid evidence to support any of them. One missing fact from this opinion piece: the vast majority of British kids/young adults did not go onto the streets to burn and loot. I was once a member of this majority (decades ago) and can attest to the fact that it's not apathy; it's a commitment to civilised values inculcated in them by responsible parents who themselves respect the law.
ReneGayde 08/19/2011
3. A view from across the Atlantic
Many readers and commentors seem to have missed the true message that the author is presenting. I have come to similar conclusions about the situation here in the United States regarding the standoff between the Right (Republican Party) and the Left (Democratic Party). This article "hits the nail squarely on the head". In the United States the Right has sold its soul to the wealthy individuals and corporations and the Left has wandered off to defend the "minorities" and the poor. Both have left the middle of the road political believers and the middle class (economically) without any representation at all. Unless those in the middle of this crisis, which is occurring throught the world, take strong measures to wrest control of their respective governments for these two extreme ideologies, we are all doomed to more violence with the eventual outcome being the destruction of the modern society which has brought the whole world to the point that it is today.
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