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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Bloody revolutions and the price of bread

Bloody revolutions

August is the cruellest month, setting fires which can’t be put out. So what does it mean, all this chaos and disorder? Perhaps it means nothing. A moment of madness unleashing a frenzy of theft. But if it means nothing, isn’t that more frightening than if it meant something? Is it possible for something to have no meaning, no structure, no cause, no narrative?

Which comes first, law or order? For there to be laws, there must first be some concept or idea of order, of regularity. In a totally random/chaotic situation there would be no regularities, no fixed points from which the idea/ potential/ possibility of laws could be generated/conceived.

The deep structure of reality is probably random and chaotic. Out of this structurlessness a tiny point of coherence randomly emerged- and survived. Out of the sea of infinite possibilities such a possibility may have occurred many times, to be rapidly extinguished. But when one such possibility survived, time and history could begin. An ordered and ordering reality could crystallise out of chaos.

We are the descendants of that initial moment of being/ moment of meaning and of the subsequent and similar emergence of life out of the lesser chaos of physical/chemical/ molecular reality. Only a moment ago- compared with the billions of years the universe and life on earth have existed- did we realise/ recognise/ discover the scientific laws which appear to structure and order reality. Even here there is still some confusion. Could other realities/ other universes exist with different scientific laws?

These are speculative questions, but have relevance to our situation. What is the relationship between the ordering of society and its laws?

For a start it is not very scientific. You can’t break the laws of science. If you do, and can repeat the trick, then the scientific law you have broken will have to be changed. The laws of science are describe what happens, based on lots of observations. The laws of society are based on what the people who make the laws want to happen (or not happen).

Who makes the laws? Once upon a time it was god/ the gods, or the ancestors through traditions. Until writing was invented about 5000 years ago, laws couldn’t be written down so they were passed on from generation to generation through myths and stories. Writing and written laws emerged out of a revolution- the farming revolution which domesticated plants and animals. This allowed people to settle in one place. First in villages, then in towns and cities. Domesticated crops like barley and wheat, rice and maize produced a surplus which could be stored. This allowed a division of labour and the beginnings of hierarchical society, where farmers produced food for people who weren’t farmers to eat.

The earliest known writing are lists of the food stored in a temple in Sumer in what is now Iraq. One of the earliest law codes also comes from Sumer. This gives a sequence in which there is first a new ordering of society - through the farming revolution- which gives rise to writing. Then through writing the ordering of society begins to become fixed in a set of laws.

So the phrase ’law and order’ is the wrong way round. First there is order, then there are laws. Laws on their own cannot create social order. When there is a ’breakdown of law and order’ this really means there has been a breakdown of the social order, a failure in /of society not a failure of the law.

Human beings are sociable animals. Breakdowns of social order are deeply distressing to us so there is an instinctive urge to punish those who threaten the social order. Against this instinct is our awareness or consciousness of history - the sum of knowledge accumulated since the invention of writing.

This form of social awareness/ collective consciousness has taught us that even the most seemingly stable and secure forms of social order can break down permanently. The world is littered with ruins of ancient civilisations and the recent past has added others. Some forms of social structure were overthrown by outside forces, but others collapsed in on themselves.

Internal collapse can take the form of a revolution. Revolutions occur when the cohesion of an existing social structure fails. This is often related to the laws of the existing social structure. A shift occurs when the relationship between social order and the law diverge so that laws are used/ enforced to try and check or hold back changes in the social order.

Revolutions occur when the attempts to hold back social change fail and a period of chaos (often involving a highly destructive civil war) ensues before a new form of social order emerges.

The problem with historical consciousness is that while it can make sense of / construct a meaning for events that have happened, it is not a predictive tool. Some outbreaks of rioting and looting precede/ lead to revolutions, but most do not. A lot seems to depend on the responses of the ruling elite. In Britain, Charles I lost his head and James II/VI lost his throne because they refused to compromise with the forces of social change and lost the confidence of all but their most loyal supporters.

The situation today is more complex and confused. The stresses on the social order are being created by global economic forces, by the neo-liberal form of capitalism. The fires of August were not ‘political’ -they were sparked by a short-circuiting of consumerism..

Since capitalism began in England, in late eighteenth/ early nineteenth century Manchester, that the breakdown of ‘law and order’ focussed on shops rather than political targets is significant. It means that in their moment of excess, those involved refused to be distracted by politics but went straight to the economic heart of the matter.

If actions speak louder than words, then this frenzy for the possession of fetishised commodities has revealed the poverty of politics. Or, as Guy Debord said in 1967 “ As soon as society discovers that it depends on the economy, the economy, in fact, depends on society.”

The laws now so strongly enforced on the looters are not based on the need to maintain social order, but on the need to maintain economic order and reflect the subservience of politics to economics. But, as first Hegel and then Marx explained, this subservience of the political ordering of society to economic ’laws’ is ultimately irrational, increasing rather than decreasing social disorder.

Marx anticipated that the progressive disordering of society would create the conditions for a revolutionary re-ordering. This would have to be a social rather than a political revolution, since simply changing the ruling elite would not alter the economic basis of society.

Until recently, the possibility of such a deep rooted re-ordering of social reality seemed unlikely. The neo-liberal form of capitalism seemed to be able to maintain itself through the production and consumption of an endless stream of fetishised commodities. While the accumulation of such commodities continues, problems with their distribution and consumption are beginning to arise.

Rioting and looting following the threatened closure of a circus can be discounted as just noise. But what if the price of bread continues to rise?


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