This is a blog for artists about art, not about politics, but I think the artist’s approach has much to offer the current “debate” surrounding the London riots last night. In the aftermath of the shocking events, the Twitterverse is awash with opinions, some of which actually cut to the nub of the issue. It’s funny how enforced concision and the demands of spontaneity can sometimes inadvertently reveal deeper truths, even if the tweeters are sometimes blissfully unaware of what just happened. More about that in a second…
The genesis of this blog post owes itself to a simple mistake I made last Monday. I haven’t bought an actual newspaper in several years, because I do not care for factual inexactitude. However, I was staying at a lovely, seaside, holiday apartment and wanted to do some pastel painting, so I needed something disposable, of broadsheet dimensions, to protect the furniture and beige carpet. I bought a copy of the Guardian (they were all out of Telegraphs, whose paper dimensions would also have rendered it fit for purpose, though its content would be no better) and before I began painting, made the unforgivable mistake of actually reading the damn thing. There were two articles in that paper that enraged me. The first one was about the Police suggesting that we should shop any anarchist as a terrorist. The second was about the feral elite. Here are the links:
Here’s what bothered me. The Police were equating all anarchists to terrorists and wanted to use the heavy-handed legislation designed to deal with suicide bombers against those that did not feel it right, anymore, to submit passively to the power of a plutocracy – run by the feral elite. I took exception to this.
There are two kinds of anarchy. Black hat anarchy is the kind where self-serving individuals take advantage of a lack of hierarchy (or “plutarchy”, or “kleptarchy”, in Britain’s case), using the absence of law enforcement and ineffectual government to make off with whatever they choose, enriching themselves, heedless of the effect on their community and fellow citizens. Rioters are black hat anarchists. So are the feral elite that believe themselves to be above the law, in fact.
White hat anarchists, on the other hand, are people that think that human affairs can be left to ordinary people to sort out, without resort to repressive government legislation, the crusty old mechanisms of the judiciary, the violence of wars and brutal police sanctions. A white hat anarchist is all about self-discipline and going the extra mile, out of generosity, to make the entire world a more beautiful place. They need no regulation, but in return they do not act selfishly. This is the artist’s way. It requires a great deal of self-knowledge, self-discipline and honesty.
Artists that are anything other than self-regulated seldom produce works of tremendous originality, innovation and beauty. Artists work by following their inner calling to work hard (often damn hard) to produce things, irrespective of any external compulsion to do so. The artists that are subject to heavy external production pressures are often the artists that suffer the most anguish and dissatisfaction.
So, it bothered me greatly that the Police were unwilling to consider the viewpoint of the white hat anarchists and wanted to consign them to the terrorist bin, along with all the other lawless people. In effect, the Police were saying, tacitly, that the feral elite can continue their plunder, at the expense of the wider populace, unimpeded, but that anybody challenging their power or authority, no matter how positive and practical their alternative forms of proposed governance, should be treated as terrorists. That’s a recipe for an abandonment of hope, if you ask me.
The London riots made clear the limits of hierarchy and the power of authority. Watch it with your own eyes:
The most astute tweet was from a journalist:
Quite true. There is no police force on Earth that can contend with a large population no longer respecting its authority. What the Police forgot is that they have authority only by the assent of the people and this assent is easily withdrawn. Some people thought that the rioters should stop (they should) because rioting will only cause more Draconian sanctions against everybody (it will):
He’s right. That’s the usual response. More repression. More violence. More police powers. But what are these powers actually good for, when the rubber hits the road? Watch the video again. There are no powers. At the face to face limit, it’s man on man.
What this is telling us is that any sort of rule (or archy) is only a sort of observance of agreed convention. For any system of rule to remain a powerful and useful tool of society, it must maintain the respect of the people. That respect must be earned and it places obligations on the rulers. In Britain, we disenfranchise and disaffect so many people, offering them a daily, constant barrage of insults to their very being. The rulers also shirk their responsibilities as often as not. Is it any wonder people begin to lose respect for rule and withdraw their consent?
The reaction of Britain’s ruling class and privileged was one of bewilderment, on the whole. They were surprised that anybody could act as the rioters had acted, irrespective of their grievances. These are some typical reactions:
The wife of a former Prime Minister apparently couldn’t make the connection between economic failure and the riots. Couldn’t or wouldn’t. What she did reveal was the thread of some hope. “daily community life continuing in good spirits”. Interesting observation. I remember Margaret Thatcher asserting that there was no such thing as community. David Cameron thinks community is a way to save the government a fortune. Community is actually alive and kicking and very important, as we shall soon see.
The leader of the opposition offered us this reassurance:
That’s all right then. I’m only relieved that he didn’t write to the PM. Speaking to him directly about the need for practical steps is much more urgent, isn’t it? What steps? What can they do? What, more importantly, are they willing to do? Restoring order isn’t the goal. The goal is to remove the root cause of the disorder; two very different things. I suspect that, in typical government fashion, all that will happen is more repression and suppression and nothing will be done to figure out and address why so many London citizens felt going on the rampage was the right thing to do.
To reassure her constituents, here’s Harriet Harman’s response:
What help can she offer? Money? At a time of stringent government cuts? While in opposition? Manpower? From where? About all she can offer is tea and sympathy for the victims and that isn’t going to cut it. She might be able to help people make insurance claims, but watch the insurance companies try to wriggle out of their contracts, as they did during the recent widespread flooding of the East Coast of Australia. In Japan, people whose homes and places of work were washed away by the Tsunami are still obliged, by their banks, to make mortgage payments on their now non-existent homes. I say hand the keys back. People already know that insurance companies, a branch of the feral elite, will try to renege on their obligations.
Another astute observation belonged to a singer:
Absolutely! Both of those figures knew that the solution lay in self-help, self-discipline and replacement of corrupt and oppressive government machinery with something that better served the people.
It was Radio 2 DJ Chris Evans that reminded us all about how good most people are, most of the time:
This is another one of those very interesting facts. It tells us that most people need no external compulsion to be good. Most people require very light and very little governance. The heavy machinery of law and government is therefore affecting us all, but really only necessary for a tiny minority of the population that still does not know self-discipline and creating via the artists’ way. Isn’t education of that small minority going to pay better dividends, in the long run, than increasing the powers of the police, surveillance, more Draconian laws and penalties and filling the prisons with people that will emerge as bad or worse than when they went in?
If so few people require governance, doesn’t that mean that white hat anarchy is actually a viable option? It assumes, of course, that the black hats can be persuaded to adopt white hats, but isn’t that worth a shot?
So having seen how ineffectual the police powers were and the “little child lost” responses of the political class, could people actually organize themselves, spontaneously and without the compulsion of law, to restore order in the community and clean up? My face lit up when I saw this tweet:
Fantastic! A person calling himself “artistsmakers” (I like the sound of that already) had organized people, via Twitter, to go and clean up after the riot. For free. Unpaid. No government involved.
Here is an article about their initiative:
Further research on Twitter revealed the following:
So here it was. In the face of ineffectual government action and ineffective policing, ordinary people, some not even from the communities affected, had organized themselves to pitch in and try to make things better. White hat anarchy in action. Proof. Lead by artistic people.
I’m not naive enough to believe that all of society’s ills can be eliminated by putting a paint brush into everybody’s hand, but I am saying that the whole approach to the world that artists must adopt to be artists is something that can work powerfully to change society. Everybody can be an artist of one sort or another.
I don’t know how all this rioting is going to play out over the coming days, weeks and months, but I do know that we have reached the limits of the previous paradigms of command and control, compulsion and punishment. People don’t respond to it anymore. Watch the video again. The people at the top have lost the respect and assent of the people at the bottom. The hierarchy is crumbling. What we need to think about now is not how to shore up something that is fatally broken and beyond repair, but what to replace it with. I think the artist’s outlook and white hat anarchy have useful ideas to contribute to that thinking. I hope the public debate moves on to this question sooner rather than later.
Here’s a map of where the riots were last night, as of midnight:
Broom power. Anarchists in action (white hat variety):
P.S. This is my two hundredth post in Creative Ideas for Starving Artists, so a bit of a milestone. If you keep reading them, I will keep posting them. Thanks for all the people that have stopped by and read my blog, offering their own feedback, encouragement and insights along the way. I would have given up long ago if it weren’t for the people that keep finding the site and reading the articles. Thank you all. I owe you a debt of sincere gratitude.