Rioting Nonconsumers

by Rob Horning

10 August 2011

Why now? Why riots in London all of a sudden, if this sort of exclusion has been persistently present? Is it just random when one of the land mines Zygmunt Bauman sees littering consumer society gets stepped on?

Is rioting an expression of envy, or something more political, or something that is ultimately inexplicable? From Zygmunt Bauman’s response to the London riots:

We are all consumers now, consumers first and foremost, consumers by right and by duty… It is the level of our shopping activity and the ease with which we dispose of one object of consumption in order to replace it with a “new and improved” one which serves us as the prime measure of our social standing and the score in the life-success competition. To all problems we encounter on the road away from trouble and towards satisfaction we seek solutions in shops. From cradle to coffin we are trained and drilled to treat shops as pharmacies filled with drugs to cure or at least mitigate all illnesses and afflictions of our lives and lives in common. Shops and shopping acquire thereby a fully and truly eschatological dimension. Buying on impulse and getting rid of possessions no longer sufficiently attractive in order to put more attractive ones in their place are our most enthusing emotions. The fullness of consumer enjoyment means fullness of life….

For defective consumers, those contemporary have-nots, non-shopping is the jarring and festering stigma of a life unfulfilled – and of own nonentity and good-for-nothingness. Not just the absence of pleasure: absence of human dignity. Of life meaning. Ultimately, of humanity and any other ground for self-respect and respect of the others around.

Supermarkets may be temples of worship for the members of the congregation. For the anathemised, found wanting and banished by the Church of Consumers, they are the outposts of the enemy erected on the land of their exile. Those heavily guarded ramparts bar access to the goods which protect others from a similar fate: as George W. Bush would have to agree, they bar return (and for the youngsters who never yet sat on a pew, the access) to “normality”. Steel gratings and blinds, CCTV cameras, security guards at the entry and hidden inside only add to the atmosphere of a battlefield and on-going hostilities. Those armed and closely watched citadels of enemy-in-our-midst serve as a day in, day out reminder of the natives’ misery, low worth, humiliation. Defiant in their haughty and arrogant inaccessibility, they seem to shout: I dare you! But dare you what?

Here Bauman is drawing on ideas he’s developed over his series of books from the past decade: Liquid Modernity, Consuming Life, Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers? (which I wrote about here). Modern identity is fluid, unmoored, and the consumer society has hijacked it to serve its ends, making our sense of self and the meaning of our life contingent on consumer desire; cravings for novelty; the ability to want, get and discard the “right” things, and so on.

In Consuming Life he argues that “if one agrees with Carl Schmitt’s proposition that the ultimate, defining prerogative of sovereign is the right to exempt, then one must accept that the true carrier of sovereign power in the society of consumers is the commodity market; it is there, at the meeting place of sellers and buyers, that selecting and setting apart the damned from the saved, insiders from outsiders, the included from the excluded (or, more to the point, right-and-proper consumers from flawed ones) is daily performed.” Thus it should not be surprising that feelings of social exclusion play themselves out as attacks on shops.

But why now? Why riots in London all of a sudden, if this sort of exclusion has been persistently present? Is it just random when one of the land mines Bauman sees littering consumer society gets stepped on? Chris Dillow asks this question and attributes it to information cascades, which allow would-be looters to confirm for themselves that their behavior is sufficiently correlated with others that they will collectively get away with it. But he adds, as “illuminating as the theory of information cascades can be, there is a problem with it. We cannot forecast when such cascades will emerge. We can only identify them in hindsight. They allow us to explain behaviour, but not predict it.” This is kind of reminiscent of Badiou’s theory of the event, or at least what I understand of it. It can’t be predicted because it is a total disruption of how we understand the procession of ordinary occurrences. Would appreciate a link to anyone interpreting the London rioting in Badiou’s terms.

Dillow’s questions also reminded me of Andrew Potter’s response to the Vancouver hockey rioting:

The point is that if you can get enough people to riot, then you all get away with it. The trick, then, is getting enough people willing to do it, in the same place and at the same time, to create a tipping point effect. And so when it comes to starting a riot, what the participants are faced with is essentially a coordination problem.

Potter thought that social media might simplify the coordination problem the way a big hockey game (or an egregious example of police brutality) can, but might also provide enough surveillance to discourage it. Facial recognition technology is being used on looters in London, as it was after the Vancouver incident. Social media potentially adds to the number of cameras pointed at everyone to protect the consumer citadels.

Anyway, I think one of the most interesting things Bauman writes about is his interpretation of Levinas’s theory of the infinite responsibility to the other. As infinite responsibility is a pretty serious burden for anyone, one of society’s purposes, Bauman argues, is to limit our sense of obligation, to give us rationalizations for watching out mainly for ourselves or some limited subset of society, or to give us a way of ranking our responsibilities to others. In a consumer society, the celebration of individualism and our “right” to convenience and novelties work to convince us that we have a duty to free ourselves from having to consider other people’s needs—and the market works to supply us the tools to avoid impinging human contact. It sells us ways to avoid having to deal with other people and the “hassle” they represent. If we can’t afford those or if we become sick of strictly being that hassle to others, then looting works just as well as an expression of our own right to not give a shit about others. If purchasing power represents freedom, so then can looting.

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