The Chaos of Order


Boaventura de Sousa Santos*

In spite of their specificity, the violent riots in London and other
British cities should not be seen as an isolated phenomenon. They are a
disturbing sign of our time. In contemporary societies a high
inflammable fuel is flowing underneath our collective lives unsuspected
of families,communities, social organizations, and politicians. When it
rises to the surface, propelled by a spark-like incident, it may provoke
a social fire of unimaginable proportions.

Such fuel is made up of four components: endorsement of both social
inequality and individualism, mercantilization of individual and
collective life, racism renamed as tolerance, democracy highjacked by
the privileged elites followed by politics turned into management of the
loot “legally” taken from the citizens and the unease it provokes. Each
one of these components bears an internal contradiction.

When they overlap, any incident may bring about an explosion.

Inequality and individualism. With neoliberalism, the brutal increase of
inequality stopped being a problem to become the solution. The
ostentation of the super-rich became proof of the success of a social
model that condemns to pauperism the large majority of people, allegedly
because they do not strive enough to succeed. This was only possible
because individualism has become an absolute value which, paradoxically,
must be lived as a utopia of equality, i.e., each one equally
rescinding social solidarity, whether as its agents or beneficiaries.
Such an individual only considers inequality to be a problem when it is
adverse to him or her. When that is the case, it is considered unfair.

Mercantilization of life. Consumer society implies replacing relations
between people by relations between people and things. Rather than
fulfilling needs, consumer objects create them endlessly, personal
investment in objects being as strong when they are possessed as when
they are not. Shopping malls provide the ghostly vision of a network of
social relations beginning and ending in objects. Capital, ever yearning
for profitability, is now submitting to the law of the market goods
that we have always considered too common (water, air) or too personal
(privacy, political convictions) to be traded in the marketplace.
Between believing that money is the universal mediator and believing
that anything can be done to obtain it there is a smaller step than one
thinks. The powerful make this step everyday and nothing happens to
them. Seeing this, the destitute believe they can do the same – and end
up in jail.

Tolerance’s Racism. The unrest in England had a racial dimension at the
beginning. The same was true in 1981, as it was regarding the turmoil
that shook Paris and other French cities in the fall of 2005. This is no
coincidence; it rather reflects the colonial sociability which
continues to prevail in our society long after the end of political
colonialism. Racism is merely one among the components, since youngsters
of different ethnicities have been involved in the riots. But it is an
important component, because it adds corrosion of self-esteem to social
exclusion. In other words, being less is worsened by having less. A
young black person in our cities experiences daily a suspicion that
persists regardless of what he or she is or does. Such suspicion is all
the more poisonous by existing in a society distracted by official
policies fighting discrimination and by the fake appearance of
multiculturalism and the benevolence of tolerance. When everybody
dismisses racism, victims of racism are termed racist for fighting
against it.

Highjacking of democracy. What is there in common between the unrest in
England and the destruction of the citizen’s welfare brought about by
the austerity measures imposed by the rating agencies and the financial
markets? They both submit the democratic order to a stress test of
uncertain outcome. The rioting youngsters are criminals, but we are
certainly not facing here “pure and simple criminality,” as Prime
Minister David Cameron said. We are facing a violent, political
denunciation of a social and political model that finds resources to
bail out banks but not to bail out the youth faced with no future worthy
of the name, young people stuck in the nightmare of an increasingly
expensive education which may turn out to be irrelevant, given the rise
of unemployment. These are youngsters abandoned in communities, which
anti-social public policies have turned into training camps for wrath,
anomie, and revolt.

Between the neoliberal credo and the urban rioters there is a fearful
symmetry. Social indifference, arrogance, unfair sharing of sacrifices
are sowing chaos, violence, and fear. Tomorrow, the sowers, taking
offence, will argue that what they sowed had nothing to do with the
chaos, violence, and fear haunting our cities today. The true disorderly
are in power and soon will be emulated by those who have no power to
bring order back to political power. August , 2011

*Sociologist. Professor at the School of Economics of the University of
Coimbra, Portugal. Distinguished Legal Scholar at the University of
Wisconsin- Madison Law School


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