Tuesday 9 August 2011

Mindless Society

If we all weren't mindless at times then we wouldn't have formed the irrational attachments to plasma TVs, sports cars and bijoux residences that keep our economy going (just about). There's clearly a difference between that sort of mindlessness and the mindlessness of children who slowly stream through a city centre breaking windows, starting fires and stealing goods. However, it's not easy to specify where the difference lies.

The concept of attachment is useful. In an increasingly consumerist society, the risk is that people become more attached to 'things' than they do to each other; that individual identity becomes more dependent on what you own than who you love and care for. What is shocking in the behaviour of the rioters is the degree of lack of attachment to those people who are directly injured by their actions. Many people may become attached to plasma TVs and mobiles phones, but still care deeply for their families and loved ones. But the balance between attachment to things, people and individual identity can tip when attachment to things becomes either a substitute for love or a means to attachment to a gang.

Fromm talks about what he sees as the existential terror facing young people as they face the challenge of individuation. The group (in this case, the gang) provides the alternative to individuation, and the rules of the group can lead to increased attachment to ideologies, symbols and commodities.

Our economy seems to teeter between mindlessness and risk: each of us walks the tightrope. Whilst we seek to establish our identities through mindless commodity attachments, which we covet partly to allay the existential anxieties of our condition, those anxieties themselves become part of the deeper mechanisms of self-regulation of the economy as we seek to remain within the regulatory system for fear of losing our status, our credit rating, our reputation, our freedom, our future ability to manage our anxieties.

But those regulators only work if people actually feel anxiety in the face of those risks to reputation, status, credit rating, freedom, etc. If they don't fear them, then the distribution of risks in society develops a 'hole' into which those who technically carry the greatest burden of risk (the most deprived) actually appear to bear none and move freely to do what they want.


Frances Bell said...

I don't know if the (young) people engaged in violence and looting in Salford and Manchester are part of a gang culture - this would need some investigation. However, my impression from various TV interviews and from observing the body language of youths I saw as I drove through Manchester this evening was that they might be be doing these things 'because they could'.
Risk-taking behaviour is a 'normal' aspect of teenage life http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/mind/articles/emotions/teenagers/rebellion.shtml and mass media provides an immediate gratification for thrill-seekers.
To me the overriding impression of these 'riots' and looting is of consumerist individualism overlaid with a veneer of networking, the surrogate of this being the Blackberry, and the kneejerk response to block Blackberry broadcast messages.
Are you saying that these young people acted as they did because of faulty attachment to significant others? I am not sure that we can draw those conclusions. I was very moved by watching a young couple engage in a fierce argument on the bridge adjacent to the gay village this evening. Of course, I don't know what they were arguing about but I guessed that he wanted to get in there and do something and she was opposed to this.
What was clear was that they had a strong attachment to each other.

Mark Johnson said...

Hi Frances,

There are two 'big questions' which I'm mulling over at the moment:
1. How is identity constituted?
2. How can the economic system be viewed in the light of the constitution of identity? I want to get behind the talk of 'veneers', 'consumerism', 'alienation' - because I don't find they explain anything.

I think identity and attachment are related. You are right that there is are probably strong personal attachments within the groups of kids. But Fromm would say that this sort of group behaviour is a symptom of the 'escape from freedom' - a response to the fear of individuation (which is what he diagnosed in Nazism, which has some strong similarities to what we've seen over the last few nights). I think there's something in that too. I do suspect there is an aspect of faulty attachments to 'significant others', and to demonstrate it quite a sophisticated model would have to be produced (off to a conference in America to talk about that today!), and that the motivation for the behaviour is a deep existential fear.
And clearly they're doing this 'because they can'. That is related to my second question, because if risk holds the economy together (as I'm thinking it might), what happens when someone turns round and says the emperor has no clothes on?