Fear spreads as society of spoilt brats runs riot
by: John Carroll The Australian 22 Oct 2011
THE riots in England in August stimulated widespread interpretation. This is understandable, given the fear they symbolised a deep malaise in that country, and even throughout the West.
The sociological tradition warns that the modernising process causes atomisation, weakening community ties and leaving individuals poorly integrated into society, and with little attachment to higher ideals. On a second front, it warns that Western modernity has disenchanted the world, reducing individuals to an egocentric and half-hearted pursuit of consumerism.
The pessimistic implication in the sociological reading of modernity is there may be a tipping point, resulting in social breakdown, so the English riots may be a harbinger of disintegration.
I don’t share this pessimistic reading, at least as far as the West is concerned. While there is great interpretive force to both lines of sociological interpretation, at their extreme they underestimate the antibodies at work in the social organism as a whole.
I offer two comments on the English riots. First, riots as spontaneous and widespread as these signal problems of social legitimacy. A central task for every culture is to bring up new generations that identify with the society into which they have been born, feeling at home in it and sharing its habits, customs and ideals. This is education in the grand sense.
The two institutions mainly responsible for education are the family and the school. Many commentators asked where the parents were as teenagers looted and vandalised shops. Looting, vandalism and arson are not a petty testing of the social limits.
The major social role most senior government schools in the West play today is the teaching of self-discipline. Schools socialise teenagers, turning potential hotbeds of vagrant, uncontrolled instinct into calm and law-abiding adults. This requires a slow, painstaking and usually thankless slog from teachers. For them, it is a struggle for survival. For society, it is a struggle for the future.
High school teachers discover that out-of-control 15-year-olds, waging tantrum wars against the classroom authority, need rules and enforced discipline, including punishment, to settle them down and maintain order. Tolerance and compassion are not options: they merely show the student the teacher is weak and the school does not care.
Thousands of Australian teachers spend time teaching in English schools. For a couple of decades, I have heard reports of them being shocked at the brazen incivility, the shameless rudeness of English teenagers, and not just in tough city areas. The shock is that many of the 14 to 18-year-olds are sociopathic, that is coldly uncaring about other people, especially those in authority such as teachers.
This is a question of degree, like the riots themselves. If there had been a single riot this year, then as time passed it might have been discounted as an aberration, like the 2005 Cronulla riots.
The fact that in England a plague of copycat looting and vandalism followed in cities across the country changes the narrative and with it the plausible lines of interpretation.
If there is truth to what the Australian teachers report, the implication is that in many English suburbs and towns today, society – which essentially means families and schools – has given up.
My second observation about the English riots is that they reflect a more widespread mentality that has developed in Britain and parts of Europe. It might be termed the “spoilt brat mentality”.
Greece is the cautionary tale. There, a malign symbiosis of government and people has plunged the nation into irrecoverable bankruptcy. At the core is an absence of a sense of collective or individual responsibility.
Greek governments of all persuasions have borrowed funds to fund large deficits, as if there is no such thing as a balance sheet or the necessary repayment of debt, like a spoilt child whose parents satisfy every wish.
The Greek people have responded with their own brand of dependency: on government for jobs and welfare. About 75 per cent of the population lives off the public purse. The remaining 25 per cent, who generate the national wealth, pay minimal tax, with the bribing of tax officials accepted as standard practice: another reflection of the Greeks’ low sense of social responsibility.
Athens and Heraklion (the capital of Crete) are run-down, typified by decaying concrete buildings and municipal squalor. The visitor leaves with the impression the citizens take no pride in their cities. Workers striking against the government cuts never seem to ask who is going to pay their wages, given that the public purse is empty, and one day soon the Germans will turn off the charity tap. The lack of a sense of reality is suggestive of civic childishness.
Britain is dividing into two parts. The southeast of England, centred on London, is where most of the productive industry and economic dynamism is concentrated. Much of the rest, especially the north, is increasingly dependent on government support, with the accompanying risk of a shift into the Greek mentality.
In Australia, sections of the Aboriginal leadership want to end welfare dependence, stopping what they call “sit-down money”. They have realised that living off public money without obligation breeds a vicious cycle of low self-esteem and hopelessness, feeding addiction to alcohol and other substances, and causing communal violence and poor health.
The development of the welfare state is one of the achievements of the modern West. But the welfare state has brought a mentality of dependency, which in Greece will only be remedied by necessity: national bankruptcy leading to a much lower standard of living, with sections of the population forced to return to small farming. Britain, and with it much of southern Europe, may face much the same necessity.
Welfare dependency and the spoilt brat mentality result from disenchantment with the old culture and its beliefs. In the Aboriginal case, the elders have lost the authority to carry out their most important traditional role, the retelling of the foundation stories of the culture, stories that made sense of the world. The result is a crisis of meaning.
Where do people in secular societies such as Britain and Australia find their sense of meaning? Generally, they do so in their everyday world: at work, in their families, with friends, playing and watching sport, and at leisure.
How fragile is all this? We simply don’t know, hence the anxieties about the English riots. And when such a culture does break down, restoration is unlikely to come from some grand overarching framework of belief.
John Carroll is professor of sociology at La Trobe University. A longer version of this article will appear in the journal Thesis 11.
Original article here