Thursday, 11 August 2011

Riots, the State of Nature and the Social Contract

The scenes of rioting in the UK over the last few days have been pretty awful, involving, as they have, widespread destruction of property and of some people's homes. The responses to the riots have had problems of their own, resting largely, as they have, on appeals for repressive state measures and ritual incantations of the need for re-moralising society. Amidst this fevered hubbub it has become apparent that the reflex responses of members of the public, as well as of the leading politicians in the country, are basically punitive in nature. 

To an extent these responses are understandable since it is true that threats to livelihoods, homes and basic physical security, do tend to panic people. And I am far from wanting to engage in extended responses here concerning the question of what drives people to engage in behaviour that puts such things at risk, though not because I think such discussion is otiose. Rather it is because, in the first instance, what strikes me as important here is to reflect on the question of what philosophically there is to say about what these riots reveal to us about social order and social cohesion.

In the first instance, what comes to mind is the way that these riots reveal the need for discussion of the notion of the "state of nature". This notion has been misunderstood as either a historical one or as being something that is only at the edges of political theory, something preliminary, as it were, to its real business. What disturbances of the sort we have witnessed have revealed, however, is how central to the task of political philosophy the discussion of the state of nature really is. It is not only that the riots reveal well how a state of nature can be re-created in advanced societies, even if only in a few streets and for a short time. It is, even more, that the problems that the social contract is meant to resolve, problems of assurance and the overcoming of isolation, are not conclusively solved in any of the societies in which we live which is why they remain beset by recurrences of reversion to the state of nature.

Hence it is not only false to think that the state of nature is an historically closed episode, it is also wrong to think that it is not of continuous relevance in the comprehension of the bases of social order. A state of nature is constituted whenever it is the case that there exists in a situation no conclusively established and reliably applicable authority. In this sense our societies, whilst based on social contracts for the most part, are riven with exceptions that place us either as individuals or members of groups, back into the state of nature. Once placed there we have the basic problems revealed again that require recourse to the social contract. In this sense the need for social order is much more basic than the ritual incantations of politicians, commentators and social theorists, suggest.

It is not merely a problem of appealing for 'parents to parent' or for measures that alleviate problems of poverty and neglect, it is also a problem of articulating both within the spaces governed by the social contract and those apertures through which authority disappears, the need for a regulation of behaviour that enables the formation and re-formation of ordered connections such that something like cohesion can be said to exist. The ritual noises that we hear on such occasions point to formations that allegedly threaten such order, whether what is meant here are loose morals or chasms of inequality. Such factors are not without interest in the overall understanding of social order but the basis of it is elsewhere. It is in the simple view that there is an interest in order existing and being maintained in a manner that supersedes that which can tie together a band of robbers. This case is far from simple and cannot be regarded as conclusively established  but that it requires to be made and re-made is the basic philosophical lesson that emerges from these disturbances, a lesson that is of more lasting interest and importance than either the disturbances themselves or the ritual denunciations that are made when they take place.

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