07 September 2011

Of physics, politics and morality

My text for today is the closing paragraph of Naomi Klein's column for The Nation on the recent riots in Great Britain.

[W]hen you rob people of what little they have, in order to protect the interests of those who have more than anyone deserves, you should expect resistance—whether organized protests or spontaneous looting.And that’s not politics. It’s physics.

I understand what Klein means, but I don't necessarily agree with her exclusive distinction between "politics" and "physics." Her article accepts the premise that the riots weren't an explicitly political protest, in that they didn't promote any particular party or policy agenda, but I don't see why the "physics" by which Klein determines resistance to be inevitable can't be part of political science. I assume that by "politics" Klein means "party politics," but politics in the sense of the science (or art) of collective self-government is not hostile, or shouldn't be, to the hypothesis of a "physical" law of cause and effect or provocation and response. A wise politician should be governed by such laws in making policy, so long as they stand up to the scientific method of history.

I can also see why some readers will find Klein's column objectionable. It wouldn't surprise me to see it cited on Republican blogs or radio programs as evidence that Klein condones, applauds or encourages rioting. From a perspective that isn't strictly Republican or conservative, her assertion of "physics" must look alarmingly amoral or outright immoral. Just in time for the inescapable commemoration of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., Klein's article will likely revive the debate between "physical" and "moral" readings of mass violence. For many readers -- though perhaps not so many readers of The Nation -- Klein's "physics" will seem designed to absolve rioters of moral responsibility for their actions. Ever since September 2001, similar critics have treated any discussion of possible provocations for the al-Qaeda attacks the same way; to say that Mohammed Atta was provoked by anything that might have been prevented by a more pragmatic American foreign policy is to "justify" his crime and absolve him of his actually permanent moral responsibility not to commit mass murder. From the moralist perspective, there can be no such thing as a "physics" that makes violence inevitable. No matter how poor, oppressed or generally downtrodden you are, no matter whether you perceive that crimes have been committed against you and yours, you remain morally obliged not to answer crime with crime. If a Briton breaks a shop window, or an Arab breaks a skyscraper, moral responsibility lies entirely with the perpetrator in either case because he could always refuse to give in to his rage.

In a way she may not have intended, Klein may have drawn a meaningful distinction between a physics of collective behavior and a politics designed to deny or suppress the laws of that physics. It is political to deny any causal relationship between an alleged provocation and a violent reaction, just as it is to condemn the violent reaction as immoral without inquiring whether it had anything to do with prior immorality from other sources. It is political to assert a self-serving morality that endorses one's own actions, no matter what their consequences for others, while forbidding what might seem an inevitable or necessary reaction from another perspective. It's political for multiple moralities to contradict and clash with each other in the apparent absence of an objective morality that judges actions equally regardless of the actors. As each seeks to impose itself upon all, and each constituency insists on a primal right to take what it needs, whether by the "daytime robbery" of austerity and privatization or by the "nighttime robbery" of rioting and looting, conflict -- if not violence -- is inevitable. And it's probably just as inevitable, just as much a matter of "physics," for some to insist that it's not.


Anonymous said...

I disagree. A human being can only take so much before he has every right to turn on his oppressor. Those at the top who keep squeezing and squeezing those at the bottom have every reason to expect a bullet in the face. And those at the bottom have every right to shoot. If you can condone the idea of a "revolution" by people against a tyrant, there is NO difference. You can whitewash it all you want, but the cause and effect are the same. Just because a corporation doesn't constitutionally have political power does not mean they are not behind "austerity" measure they demand and impose on the poor, while they are making no sacrifice whatsoever. There will come a time when rivers of blood will flow - moral or not - because those at the top want too much and are willing to give too little. That is "physics".

Samuel Wilson said...

I'm not sure what you disagree with in the post, but I don't disagree with your response. In your scenario, the political moralist will attempt to deny the "physics" of the situation by denying that anyone is actually oppressing the poor. He'll deny that anyone is treating the poor immorally in a way that "justifies" a violent response, but the claim that morality is on his side and not with the poor is obviously a political claim that defies what we might call political physics.