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A neo-Londoner, who silently longs for his native countryside. Beau, beau, beau et con à la fois.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Buy-in to the social contract

There is certainly no worth in people like myself, with too many opinions on too many subjects, pretending that we understand all the causes, and have the solutions to the problems of the last few days. I have also read a lot of drivel across the interweb, with some truly notable exceptions commenting with wisdom and understanding (such as Zoe Williams of the Guardian here, and Camila Batmanghelidjh in the Independent here).

But then, watching the gradual destruction and disintegration of this city’s already declining built environment, caused by the very people it is designed to protect, nurture and serve, is undeniably powerful, and I don’t judge the results of an immediate compulsion to tweet in a less than considered manner; to blog a list of causes and solutions from a position of ignorance; to describe human beings as ‘feral rats’ who, quite frankly, have fairly shit life-prospects compared to the owner of a baby clothes shop in Ealing.

I’ve seen reactionary, racist, authoritarian points of view expressed by close friends, and I must admit, on listening to an audio-boo of a couple of girls describing the thrill of looting, a quick whack with a police baton didn’t seem too concerning. 

I think Ed Miliband is playing the political discourse just about right. Condemning the criminality first and foremost, ensuring order is restored (not at the expense of civil liberties and human rights), but keeping in mind the societal messiness and the need for nationwide soul-searching. The sooner we can restore the rule of law, the sooner we can sit back and ask ourselves how so many young people, from so many areas across the UK, have total disregard for their own lives and for the communities still in the process of bringing them up.

The problem with ‘Broken Britain’ and the ‘Big Society’ that was trumpeted to fix it  (I use the past tense because I cannot see any politician daring to use either term with seriousness after this week) was that it saw simple reasons for individuals’ decisions not to buy into the social contract of liberal democracy. Apparently, Labour had made it too easy for individuals to decide to ‘opt out’ of respectful, hard-working, law-abiding Britain. They could sit on their arses, practically haemorrhaging babies, because Labour would pay them to.

But what of the converse? Did I, aged 13, decide that I would opt into a social contract? Did I decide, having had the morals of right and wrong explained to me, that I would not covet my neighbour’s flat screen TV and blue-ray player? Of course I didn’t – the truth is simply that there was no other frame of reference throughout my upbringing other than that which involved buying into the social contract.

However, this ‘frame of reference’ is more complicated than simply not having been exposed to breaking the law – it’s about understanding what is lost if you do. I have been mugged twice since living in London, and both times my mind went through the same thought process: ‘I can stand here and fight, risking injury, or I can let go of my bag and stamp my foot as they run away’. Both times I let go, because there is too much to lose in fighting back and perhaps being beaten up. There was clearly not 'too much to lose' for my attackers in mugging me. I also have too much to lose in smashing up a shop window, or setting fire to businesses on my local high street. My liberty, my family, my friends, the joy I gain from simply living my life – these are all too precious to risk losing. This is my frame of reference instilled since childhood. 

How would I feel if this weren’t the case, if I didn't know the thrill of achievement, the love of a supportive family, the freedom to travel and see the world?

It’s a quite breathtaking piece of good-bad timing that last Friday saw a performance in London from the Simón Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela. This orchestra is the pinnacle of the country’s El Sistema musical-education-cum-social-inclusion programme, within which 90% are youngsters from severe social disadvantage. I don’t have time to write about how a similar nation-wide programme in the UK might affect our social fabric. It is interesting, however, to consider what happens if you give a child an instrument, give them the prospect of excelling in it and the ultimate goal of touring the world with it. It instils a frame of reference across society which includes long-term goal-setting, and perhaps most important, the chance of failing, and losing it.

The liberal-democratic social contract works because we understand and value that which is lost if we don’t keep up our side of the bargain. It’s the same with religion: not wishing to be inflammatory, but Christianity exists through fear of eternal separation from God following the day of judgement, and belief in the value of his eternal presence.

I don’t buy into the Christian contract, because I don’t care about eternal separation from God (I don’t believe in it, in other words). The same is true of those rioters:

Why buy into the social contract of liberal democracy if you don’t believe in what is lost in breaking it?