Tuesday, May 17, 2022

The Moral Craze (1998)

From the June 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard
A miserable moral anxiety is in the air. The self-righteous are on the march. Wrong. Right. Good. Evil. Simplistic moral certainties blast from the megaphones of the media, as the high priests of Capital cast their judgements upon everything but the lousy system of class exploitation that keeps the vicars, the rabbis, the mullahs and assorted other bullies in business.
From presidential blow jobs to ex-murderers signing book deals, an obsession with the trivia of individual transgressions serves as a soap opera distraction from the pervasive atrocities of the system. How much easier it is to incite crowds of under-educated, aimless, embittered kids to riot in Bristol because a sex offender released from prison is sitting in a police cell thinking deranged thoughts than to attend to the malignant rationality of a social system which condemns millions of children to the fatal abuse of starving in a world of plenty.

We know what the Moors’ murderers did. We know where they are. We know that Evil is getting its due reward. And how easy it is to sit in perpetual anger, demonising their villainy. We are told their names and their crimes are repeated with regularity in a frenzy of tabloid outrage, as if these were the sole disrupters of an otherwise tranquil society. We do not see published the names of those decision-makers in the World Bank whose determination to cut aid here and finance dictators there has led to millions dwelling in poverty and perishing needlessly. There are no scowling mugshots of those men in suits from the IMF who enrich themselves upon the corpses of those who cannot be milked for profit. Where are the lurid tabloid accounts of the sordid merchants of death who jet from nation to nation attending arms fairs, exchanging millions of dollars for the latest weapons of murder, the most sophisticated torture equipment, the means of creating hell on earth? For such callous inhumanity they will be medalled, given knighthoods, made richer than the most violent of gangsters could hope to become. It is a highly selective morality that capitalism embraces.

Jack Straw, the man who shopped his own son to the police for possessing dope, appears in front of every camera that will recognise him. He is in a denouncing mood. He has been taking lessons from Michael Howard. He is Disgusted of New Labour, ready to write to his MP and demand that something is done when it occurs to him–I am an MP, so I can pursue my philistine rage in the name of justice. So the tabloid rags, with their naked models and naked lies, provide space for the Straw man to denounce the child killer who was paid money for helping to write a book about what, as a deranged child, had made her kill. Thatcher demands $25,000 a time to appear before worshipping Americans with her kiss-and-tell Falklands memories. The murdered conscript crew of the Belgrano is conveniently unmentioned either by Thatcher or the tabloid bog rolls. But Straw is not denouncing Thatcher. Neither is Blair. They are out to pick on an old woman who has written a book regretting that she had once committed a hideous offence. Is it the money that they begrudge her? Or the fact that she has dared to confuse the simplicity of witch-hunting by expressing remorse?

Sickening hypocrisy
How convenient these moral distractions are for those with an indefensible system to sustain. So, Robin Cook insists that he did not know–or forgot–or wasn’t as bad as the Tories had been if he did indeed know–that arms were being sold to mercenaries in Sierra Leone, even though international law forbade it. Call in the broadsheet detectives who will piece by piece, in the manner of a bad Agatha Christie novel, seek to unravel the story. There is a rather bigger story they will ignore, of course. Who are the regimes to which Mr Cook is quite happy and legally free to sell weapons of mass destruction? When last did the Foreign Office publish a list of those companies in Britain which make profits from selling torture equipment to dictators? And how big are those profits? And what precisely has happened to those upon whom they have been used? Can we expect a statement about that, Mr Cook? Perhaps the tortured and the bombed should be informed that these

British weapons have been sold in the name of an “ethical foreign policy”. A further twist of the knife. But Cook can rest easy in his bed, for the journalists are much more concerned about who he shares it with than how many lives he helps to ruin as head of one of the biggest arms-exporting nations in the world. Now, that’s what the public need to know: Was Robin Cook unfaithful to his wife? Will he be unfaithful to his new wife? And was Bill Clinton the innocent victim of a crazed young girl’s fantasy or was she the victim of a dirty old man’s fantasy? And what about OJ Simpson–and George Michael–and Michael Jackson–and on and on until a frenzy or moral anxiety scares everyone into trusting no-one, particularly themselves. Because when the majority are frightened and unconfident they trust the nearest bully who will tell them that his mob can keep the streets safe.

Law and Order.
We have always known that Labour and Tories support the same system. The current fashion for shocked or amused realisation that Blair is to Major what Major was to Blair is no postmodern irony–just what socialists have been saying for decades. But can even the most hardened of scientific socialists be permitted just the merest morsel of surprise at the ease with which New Labour has taken to its very heart–or, more probably, its Christian soul–the indecently unforgiving, excessively punitive, uncouthly scapegoating rhetoric which seeks to monopolise virtue as a state asset while condoning every crime of capitalism as if it has nothing at all to do with them? The fine-tuned skills of sickening hypocrisy have exceeded all negative expectations.

The worst of this obsession with personal moral transgressions is its failure to see anti-social behaviour as anything but inner weakness: an inherent flaw. So the fault must be purged–isolated–tormented–anything but understood. And this is the right way for capitalism to respond. Because the alternative would be to go beyond the tabloid simplicities of crime and punishment and seek the cause of what makes killers kill and sex offenders offend and muggers mug. There is the Saudi Arabian response–of which New Labour’s toughness is a cowardly imitation–which refuses to ask questions. And if you cut off the hands of enough shoplifters and whip enough adulterers it will not be too long before the message is driven home and only the most persistent offenders need to be tortured, killed or incarcerated. Elegantly simple. The more complicated alternative of seeking causes is not that difficult. Most child sex abusers were themselves victims of child sex abuse. Most muggers are from families that are poor and uneducated rather than affluent and privileged. Many rapists have immersed themselves in commercially packaged porn, appealing to their disempowered craving for respect and power, before they rape women. In short, the behaviour of those we least like arises from specific social relationships. We cannot ignore or approve of the relationships and then indulge in orgies of moral indignation because they produce inevitable social effects.
Steve Coleman

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