A Fistful of Clockwork Oranges
What's it going to be, then?
Almost fifty years ago, I remember going with a group of university friends to see the recently-released film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick of Anthony Burgess’s dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange. Of course we argued all the back from the cinema and for some time in the bar afterwards: was Alex “cured” in any meaningful sense, or was Burgess’s and Kubrick’s implied message—that goodness is a moral choice—actually right? But I’m not really concerned with that particular issue today.
The film was deeply controversial when it came out because of its depiction of violence. There had been other violent films in the recent past—The Wild Bunch, for example had a much higher body count— but what was disturbing in A Clockwork Orange was the gratuitous nature of that violence. In, oh I don’t know, A Fistful of Dollars or Get Carter there was a lot of violence, but at least in pursuit of something. For Alex (whose name literally means “not law”, or by extension “outlaw”) and his “droogs,” robbery is only an incidental part of their activities. What they are primarily seeking is the excitement of violence and destruction.
Anthony Burgess’s original book was published in 1962 at a moment of social panic about the activities of “teenage gangs” organised into two tendencies: “Mods” who rode scooters and dressed sharply, and “Rockers” who rode motor-bikes and were distant and genteel predecessors of the Hell’s Angels. (If you have seen early photographs of The Who, well, they were the archetypal Mod band.) They would get together in places like the seaside resort of Brighton to have a punch-up. Occasionally, someone would be hurt.
That these things were considered worrying and scandalous at the time may astonish us now, but parents and authority figures were genuinely worried about “these young people,” who seemed bored with the prosperous conformity of pre-Beatles Britain, and were looking for any old excitement, even if it came with the possibility of a black eye attached. Kubrick’s film effectively took the Mod look, and the mindset of the Brighton weekend punch-ups, and projected it into a dystopian future, where the idea of violence as excitement was preserved, but the targets were no longer just other gangs, but the weak, the frail and the elderly as well. Burgess had a Catholic upbringing, and his story is an Augustinian one of free moral choices in a fallen world. The repeated question “what’s it going to be, then?” structures the different parts of the book, and it’s clear that Alex and his droogs make a conscious choice of evil, just as, at the end of the novel (but not in the film) Alex undergoes a genuine conversion and turns to good.
I thought of these things while reading accounts of the recent violence in France, as well as seeing some of it from a safe distance. There are many eerie resemblances: the rioters were young (Alex was fifteen in the novel) they smash things for the fun of it, they steal everything they can, and they use violence against women, and even children. As in the book and the film, we see that today’s rioters have no discernible ideology, no obvious objectives, and find their targets predominantly in their own communities. As in Alex’s case, the government in France today is completely incapable of understanding what is going on, still less of responding to it properly, but seeks nonetheless to instrumentalist it for its own purposes.
After the initial shock, the usual suspects have been quick out of the traps peddling their patented theories and looking for business. I won’t bother you with the “explanations” they are elbowing each other out of the way to present: it’s a competitive market, and they can’t be blamed for following commercial imperatives. If anything the coverage outside France has been worse: the world is everything that Anglo-Saxon journalists think is the case, as Wittgenstein nearly said. But I don’t want to get into all that now, because the “causes” in the ultimate sense—mass uncontrolled immigration, dumping populations in poor areas, no real attempt to deal with the social consequences, the decline of the education system, the retreat of the state, to name the most obvious—are tacitly agreed upon by almost everyone, and there’s not a lot of point going through them here. These are problems which have been identified for twenty to thirty years, but never addressed. They will not be publicly identified and acted on now, because that would put too many powerful people and too many received ideas into question, and anyway the problem is insoluble in the current political configuration.
Rather, I want to look beyond these events in France at some more mundane and general issues, to do with the consequences of such actions for the stability of the state and the safety of its citizens. Are we near to “civil war” as some have suggested? What will it be like to live in a society where such nihilistic violence is common? Are we going to see the same thing elsewhere? How should governments react? What’s likely to happen now? I have no special wisdom to offer on recent events (and as I say there isn’t much of a mystery about them anyway) and I want to move the discussion onto wider and longer-term issues. What’s it going to be, then?
First, let’s define a few terms. When we talk of “civil war” as has been the case in France recently, and in the US for some time now, we are talking of a war (or at least struggle) to control civis the state, or to change the state into a different configuration. A classic civil war would be something like the Spanish example in 1936-9, where two groups fought for control of an existing state, with no question of changing its borders. But you can also have a disintegrationist conflict, as in Bosnia from 1992-5, where the leaders of two of the three ethnic groups wanted to leave, and join their respective neighbours. The classic example at the moment is probably Libya, where different groups with power-bases in different areas are fighting for control of the country.
It’s obvious, I think, that we are nowhere near that situation in any western country today. The reasons for that are interesting, since, after all, western states are more fragile than they have been in generations, and western governments are almost universally very unpopular. Surely, it would be relatively easy to dislodge them? Well, here we might remember what Clausewitz said about a war requiring two sides. The problem is the lack of organised intermediate structures, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. You need structures to define political objectives, and to organise forces to fight for them. But we don’t have any of that. The great mass parties of the Left that would have structured resistance, and had sponsored actual violent contention in the past, don’t exist any more. Their successors sit around in circles holding hands and chanting “institutional racism” in the hope that they will solve social problems with magic. So as a purely technical point, and remembering that power is in practice always held by the group that is less weak and disorganised than the others, we can see that there are no organised groups capable of taking on western governments, no matter how weak those governments might be. So we can rule out “civil war” as a possibility. Even mass insurrection seems unlikely.
Even from the narrowest of technical perspectives, to protest and riot effectively you still need organisation. The crowds of young men who sacked the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 at least knew where it was. The twisted ideology of the Islamic State and its mass killings in Europe were not as random as people perhaps thought at the time. Their targets included places like bars and discotheques where unmarried men and women mingled, schools which taught a secular curriculum, and buildings affiliated to other religious faiths. In contrast, the demonstrators in Washington on 6 January 2021 had little idea where to go and what to do. Similarly, the Gilets jaunes wandered aimlessly around Paris at the height of the crisis in 2018/19 looking for symbols of power in a largely closed-down city. Had they managed to find the Elysée, the plan was to evacuate the building and take Macron out by helicopter: there was no possibility of defending it. But they didn’t find it. Likewise, the rioters in Paris recently ransacked shops in the Les Halles shopping centre in Paris, which to them probably represented the height of luxury, although there were genuine luxury shops and apartments only ten minutes’ walk away.
Nor are there competing ideologies. Mass movements went with mass ideologies, and the people who participated in demonstrations and riots in the past had at least some idea of what they wanted, as well as some idea of what they wanted to get rid of. Beyond a few environmental activist groups with very precise objectives, that hardy exists any more. Without objectives, you can’t have a plan of action, and you have no idea whether you are making progress towards what you want. Without an ideology, there is nothing to tell you whether what you are doing is practically right, let alone morally justifiable. We are in the world of Alex and his droogs, where violence is a self-justifying activity, because it provides the needed rush of adrenaline and a relief from boredom. If we understand ideology in the looser sense, as an organised and coherent way of making moral and political sense of the world, then our ideologies begin with our parents as role models, even if we later reject them. What’s striking in the recent riots in France is that the rioters come disproportionately from one-parent families, with absent or occasional fathers. In the absence of a live-in role model of course, children take them from where they can find them, and in the case of these boys it’s pretty much limited to rappers with violent and misanthropic lyrics and the local caids who control the drugs trade. Violence, from parental to peer group, is baked into the system. If you read French have a look at this sobering article by an adviser to the Mosquée de Paris.
Nor are there competing leaders. Not so long ago, opposition parties, trades unions and independent thinkers would come out in opposition to government policies they disapproved of. Whilst this tradition isn’t entirely dead, it’s massively attenuated in a world where political leaders of all parties seem to be peas from the same pod, where trades unions have become marginal actors, where thinkers who want to get published and be noticed have to toe the line. (And then the Professional and Managerial Caste are surprised that dissident Youtube presenters rack up millions of views.)
And similarly, there are no competing discourses. How many times have you run into even quite intelligent people who confess after a while that they “have no idea what’s going on,” that it’s “hard to know what to think.” They are repelled by the discourse of the PMC, but struggle to express themselves in any other terms. The PMC has been quite successful in banishing alternative discourses, such that, as Orwell warned, the unthinkable necessarily becomes the unspeakable. People are angry but do not have the vocabulary to express their anger, they want something different but struggle to define what it is. What’s it going to be, then?
Finally, there is no prospect of success. This is logically true, because if you cannot articulate an objective, and you don’t know when you will reach it, you can’t address demands to the government, or whoever. Because you can’t address specific demands, the government cannot, even theoretically, meet those demands, therefore you cannot win. But maybe winning is not the point: in many of the areas in France where riots took place, society is structured into “clans” with loyalty enforced by fear. The police, but also schools, hospitals and social services are just rival clans with whom they are in a state of constant warfare, like Billy Boy’s gang in A Clockwork Orange.
Disorganised groups with no clear ideology and no way of expressing their objectives degenerate, almost mathematically, into nihilistic riots of the type seen recently. That’s why these riots are important, because the same lethal cocktail described above is now present in most western countries. Whilst the trigger may be different—in France it was a police shooting—almost any event can potentially trigger such an outbreak of nihilistic violence. These days, political demands at all levels tend to be incoherent and poorly thought out, and to be incompatible with, or even contradictory to, each other, because our political culture no longer encourages the construction of rational demands and programmes of action. At the macro level, this produces “surprises” such as the election of Donald Trump or the Brexit vote, both explicable as the rejection of the status quo and the demand for an alternative, even if that alternative is poorly defined, and means different things to different people. At the micro level it produces riots and violence without purpose or objective.
So not civil wars or insurrection then. What about large-scale violence between identity groups? I don’t think so, because for that there have to be clearly defined grievances between the groups, some idea of what is alleged to be wrong and needs to be put right, and leaders to articulate demands. None of that applies in the West today, where the essential forces involved are economic and social. Some ethnic groups always fare worse than others on average, obviously, but there are huge differences in income and living conditions within pretty much all groups, certainly in Europe. There are political entrepreneurs on different parts of the political spectrum who make careers out of encouraging disaffection between groups for career purposes, but that’s about it. And in any event, even large-scale disorganised violence on an ethnic basis usually burns itself out quite quickly.
So on one hand, no, this is not a civil war, a revolt or an insurrection in preparation, We probably won’t see large-scale violence between identity groups in the West, at least not in the reasonably near future. And that looks like good news for western governments. But on the other hand, as these sorts of riots become more common, and as they start to bleed into other forms of protest such as improvised demonstrations and occupations of buildings or territory, then they become progressively more difficult, or even impossible, to deal with, and the political reaction to them is impossible to predict.
It’s important remember how stimulating, how exciting, how fulfilling, violence is for some people, especially the young, and especially the young who feel helpless and frustrated. A Clockwork Orange came out at the end of the Vietnam War, when young Americans were sent a long way across the sea, and given heavy weapons that they could employ with near-total impunity. Nick Turse’s book describes in graphic detail what happened next, as nineteen-year olds manning heavy machine guns discovered the orgiastic joys of pure destruction. For many French youngsters of a similar age as the American conscripts, burning down a school, smashing their way into a library or stealing trainers from a Nike shop must have been the most exciting thing they had ever done in their lives, which doesn’t say much for their lives. At least they weren’t carrying the automatic weapons that are increasingly becoming the arm of choice for settling scores between the criminal gangs in the poorer areas. The nightmare of many European governments is that these weapons—and others that are already starting to appear from Ukraine—will become readily available to everyone. Yes, you need training to operate even an AK-47, but there are plenty of veterans of Syria who can provide that.
So if there is a suitable prompt, there is every prospect of large-scale, violent riots in western European cities, possibly involving firearms. And for a number of technical reasons which I’ll go into here, few western governments are prepared: indeed, it’s not clear that it is even possible to prepare.
Much of government preparation is built around the idea of “public order.” That says that the streets must be safe for the population to use, and so demonstrations, for example, need to be announced in advance and have their routes approved, such that roads can be closed, traffic diverted and shops can close, thus limiting the disruptive effects on the population. In addition, the authorities know that unauthorised or radical groups may join or oppose the demonstrators, and try to destroy things or seek violent confrontation. For that reason, public order units will generally be in reserve, able to deploy quickly if there is any trouble. This is how the system is supposed to work, and how it did work, for example, in the demonstrations against the raising of the pensionable age in the first few months of this year. Routes were agreed, the organisers provided marshals, and there was little or no confrontation or violence.
The problem starts to arise with “unofficial” actions. In many cases, these are just small protest groupings, and they disperse peacefully after a while. But these days, and especially with the use of the Internet, it is possible to concentrate reasonably large numbers at an agreed point, to smash their way into a town hall or loot a shopping centre, perhaps for a notionally political objective, perhaps not. During the Gilet jaunes period this was often seen: in some cases the perpetrators hid themselves in the main body of peaceful demonstrators, in others they appeared in unexpected places. From the point of view of the authorities and the public, this is a nightmare, because it was impossible to know where they would turn up, and impossible to cover all likely targets.
Indeed, the question of what a “target” is now has little meaning. In the old days, demonstrations would have some kind of functional relationship to their targets. Thus, ”peace” protesters would go to military bases, anti-nuclear protesters to nuclear power stations, anti-capitalist protesters to the financial districts of cities etc. So the authorities could have forces standing by, and those who feared trouble could board up shop windows or close their businesses for the day. Demonstrations against the Vietnam War generally finished outside American Embassies. More general protests often finished at an agreed point, such as Trafalgar Square in London, or the Place de la République in Paris. Even the riots in France 2005 were essentially local, because the Internet had not yet enabled rapid convergence of demonstrators on a particular point.
Without going into a detailed history of the development of protests, it’s enough to say that, as actions have become more disorganised and less centralised and hierarchical, but also more quickly organised by social networks, they have become effectively impossible to predict. Because there is so single overriding logic behind the choice of targets, it is impossible to know in advance what needs to be protected. This started with the Gilet jaunes, where demonstrations were arranged quickly by social media, but where outsiders could and did join in, interested primarily in destruction. As a result, shopping centres all over France were closed on Saturdays, since it was impossible to protect all of them. City centres then tended to be deserted, as shops closed and customers stayed at home, although the chances of any particular shop being targeted were very small. Sometimes, indeed, there appeared to be no logic at all in the attacks: who could have predicted that protesters would smash their way into a children’s hospital in Paris in 2019, for example?
The other classic way of stopping attacks and destruction was through intelligence work, to identify and investigate organisers and militants. In the case of small, disciplined organisations such as the Irish Republican Army, this worked to an extent in the UK, and some attacks were prevented. But in Ulster, the iRA enjoyed the active support of perhaps ten per cent of the Catholic population, this would involve investigating a number of people that, whilst not objectively that large, was nonetheless beyond anything the authorities could hope to achieve.
We are now in a world where none of the traditional rules and methods apply. We saw this for the first time in the attacks in western Europe that began in 2015, where small groups communicating through social media were able to continually surprise the authorities, who were forced into reactive mode, essentially nailing shut the stable door the the horse was well away. (An example is the introduction of a machine to X-ray luggage of passengers boarding the Thalys in Paris for Brussels, after the attack of 2015. Because the station design in Brussels does not permit it there was no similar machine there. After a while, the checks were abandoned.)
Even when potential miscreants are on surveillance lists, attacks can still happen. In September 2016, a serious attempt was made to attack Notre Dame cathedral in Paris with a car bomb. The attack failed, and it soon became clear that the perpetrators (all women) were on various watch lists, but the resources simply didn’t exist to keep an eye on everyone all the time. So the authorities had no choice but to send soldiers to patrol the Ïle de la Cité, and introduce security checks for the Cathedral: a sad situation for any church to be in. But where do you go from there? Armed guards on every church in Paris? In France? Some of the attacks in the last couple of weeks have been on Jewish targets. What do you do, station policemen outside every synagogue and every Jewish school in France?
Now I am deliberately running together incidents at different levels of violence, because they share the characteristics of organisation by social media, attacks on non-traditional (and sometimes randomly selected) targets, and a nihilistic, or at a minimum very rudimentary belief system, with no obvious demands or objectives. As indicated above, this is pretty much what one would expect from a decayed political culture and a fragmented society and economy.
In effect, the PMC is now seeing the fruits of thirty years of globalisation, job exports, massive uncontrolled immigration and the abandonment of frontiers, at the same time as deindustrialisation, the end of secure and well-paid employment, the economic and social abandonment of entire communities, the end of mass political parties and trades unions and the endless cuts in public services. But do they feel discouraged? I do not think they do. And do they feel responsible? I do not think they do, either.
Consider: in all the violent demonstrations, occupations, vandalism and terrorist attacks of the last ten years, the PMC itself has not been threatened, and does not therefore feel vulnerable. And as long as it does not feel vulnerable, nothing will change . Take, for example, a PMC-adjacent media pundit who has been working all day on an article about the dangers of racism, apart from that excellent lunch, and is now feeling peckish at nine in the evening. How agreeable to get up from your expensive desk, cleaned, like the rest of your apartment by a woman from the Maghreb who you pay in cash, and pick up your telephone and with a few clicks summon a young man of African extraction on a bike with a properly cooked meal, for all the world like a colonial administrator a hundred years ago. Who would want to change such an agreeable way of life, even if there are riots elsewhere? As on previous occasions in different countries, the PMC in France has already collectively decided what the riots were all about: it’s blah blah police violence blah blah structural racism blah blah, so there will be plenty of articles, conferences and TV programmes, and plenty of contracts for white “anti-racism” experts to tell non-white public officials how racist they are. Or something. Problem solved, and PMC absolved from all responsibility.
Or maybe not. It’s too early to say what the wider political repercussions of these riots will be, still less what might follow in other countries later. But a few things are already clear, and there is no reason to suppose that other countries will be different: the French tradition of violent protest simply means that they are likely to be ahead of the rush.
The first is that episodes like this will further undermine the Left, or as I prefer to call it, the Notional Left. Again, France may not be entirely typical (the UK will be different because of its rigid party structure) but in any country with a more fluid party system, the result will be that political power will move towards parties of the Right, and parties of the Left will decline further. This will be represented by worried pundits as “Europe turning Right” but in fact the parties that will benefit are often further to the left on some issues than the parties of the Notional Left itself. It would be truer to describe what is happening as “voters supporting right-wing parties,” not because they happen to agree with their entire platforms, but rather because these parties are the only ones that even talk about issues of concern to ordinary people. The difference is subtle, but important, because of course it means that a genuine Left party that began to talk about the same issues could expect to do well. But the Notional Left, like other parts of the dominant political machine, believes that you can insult your way to power, and that you can simply declare that some subjects—immigration is the great example—should not even be mentioned, let alone rationally discussed. A small straw in the wind: opinion polls show that most French people condemn the recent riots, but that people living in the areas most affected condemn them the most. This is hardly surprising, but does rather put the rhetoric about a “popular uprising” back in its box. Moreover, when asked which political party made the best public comments, only 5% thought it was LFI of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who seemed to be using the occasion to live out vicariously his fantasies of another 1968 (he was at school during the original.) Oh, and 19% thought it was Marine Le Pen, who has largely kept a dignified silence. If I were a conspiracy theorist, which I notoriously am not, I would see this as a dark plot by the Left to put Le Pen in power. Certainly, they couldn’t have done better if they tried.
The second is the end of the effective immunity of the PMC from the consequences of its follies. This happened to a small extent during the Gilets jaunes episode, and the well-off became temporarily frightened and demanded protection, but the GJ were essentially a movement from the countryside and the small towns, and didn’t always have the money and organisation to go to the big cities. By contrast the “difficult areas” of most European cities are only a few kilometres away from the up-market areas. The barriers to movement are entirely conceptual and social. And if the kind of riots we saw recently spill over into wealthy areas, if luxury shops and government buildings are attacked, there won’t be much the authorities can do about it. Partly this is because of the logistic problems I mentioned earlier: you simply can’t protect everything, especially from groups that can appear unexpectedly. Partly also it is because the use of force to protect property is legally and politically tricky, as the French and others have found. In practical terms, security forces limit themselves to intervening when lives, or at least safety, are in danger. Anything else would rapidly disperse them to the point where they were useless anyway. And you can’t station a policeman in front of every expensive restaurant in the country, even assuming that would be a deterrent. In most countries, the security forces can be relied upon to protect buildings where there are people inside and potentially at risk. There are also specialist units to protect VIPs and political leaders, and they would no doubt do their job. But if western politicians have fantasies of turning out the police and the military to fire on rioters (and some appear to) then in most countries they can forget it. The security forces are not going to die to stop the banks being burnt down. In France, we have seen clear evidence of the dissatisfaction of the police and the Army with Macron, most recently because of his clumsy attempt to get in the first tweet about the death of poor 17-year old Nahel, without pausing to think first. If the crowds come for Macron, nobody is going to die to protect him. I hope he has the Uber application on his phone.
Finally, as well as bringing governments of the “Right” to power, these sorts of events are already beginning to generate grass-roots responses. One of the strongest demands of people living in the areas where the riots took place is for more security. If the police won’t provide it (and in France there are signs that they will be pulled back even further as a result of the recent shooting) then local people will. Anecdotes are already coming thick and fast: shop owners are buying dogs and keeping iron bars handy, retired military veterans are organising deterrent patrols. Even the drug caids are telling people to calm down: riots are bad for business. It seems as if the government, having long ago lost control of the problem, is now also losing control of the solution as well.
There have always been two possibilities as we approach the degree zero of neoliberalism. Either we go sailing on to the apocalypse, or some kind of popular resistance will start to appear. By the time the PMC find their apartments and restaurants burning, it will be too late, but the next few years will show whether ordinary people still have the capacity to organise and make a difference. I wouldn’t count on that, but you never know.
What’s it going to be then?
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