Crowdsourced Justice?

18 06 2011

Probably a bit late to be posting, but I’ve just found the most fascinating sites:

To summarise, in the wake of yesterday’s rioting in Vancouver, following a resounding defeat for the hometown Canucks against the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup final (ice hockey), websites have been established, dedicated to “naming and shaming” rioters. I’m hoping to make contact with the organisers for comment – can’t imagine that they’ll be back to me for a few days, things seem to be pretty hectic for them right at the moment.

I’ve never come upon anything like this before, will need to consider further before commenting.


Machines of Loving Grace #1

30 05 2011

Adam Curtisnew series is currently showing on BBC2, with the second episode airing tonight, and the third and final part next Monday. I’ll come around to the tonight’s episode at a later date, for now I’m going to concentrate on the first one. As always, it’s beautifully produced, with original interviews linked and contextualised by the judicious use of archive footage. The soundtrack is terrific as well, from Pizzacato 5’s dreamy J-Pop over the opening credits through Nine Inch Nails and Morricone to Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne as theme to the Clinton/Lewinski affair.

Aesthetics aside, the thrust of the first instalment, “Love and Power”, is that, during the 1990s, an emergent combination of radical individualism, exemplified by Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, combined with a faith in the ability of computer technology to facilitate a new, global, network-based economic model, served to obscure the role of old-fashioned political power; with the corollary that the model of a network of rational, self-interested agents cannot satisfactorily account for “irrational” human behaviours such as love, lust and altruism.

Much internet commentary that I’ve come upon to date has treated the episode as a critique of Rand, with many bloggers leaping to the defence of a lady wronged. Personally, Rand has always struck me as a tin-pot Nietzsche, whose writings are basically an unreadable mess. Admittedly, this may come down to a question of my own ideological biases, but, in any event, I think such criticisms fail to engage with the show’s more concrete conclusions.

Of particular note, from an Irish perspective, are the eerie parallels between our current predicament and that of the Asian economies in the late 90s. Just as in the Asian context, our government stood back and looked on with glee as the New Economy worked its magic, producing, in the words of interviewee Steven Roach, “manna from heaven, that candy that politicians only dream of”: permanent and dramatic growth based on the new technologies and connectivities of the global markets. In the process, they dismantled the regulatory restraints that might have curbed the worst excesses of “irrational exuberance“.

Of course, as we now know, the rising tide may have been lifting any and all boats, but there was no water in the ocean. Once the bubble burst, the IMF arrived in Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea, bearing massive loans, offers not to be refused. This strategy managed to stabilise the economies for only a short time, before the the speculators took this same money and ran, leading to dramatic collapses. I think Curtis’ narration understates the case slightly in saying that, “part of [the loans’] real function was to rescue the Western investors, not the countries”.

All of this was facilitated by the role, per Joseph Stiglitz, of “agents of the financial world embedded in the heart of government”. With Clinton already having willingly ceded much of his authority to the markets, and floundering in the wake of the Lewinski affair, Robert Rubin and the treasury were, by Rubin’s own admission, effectively running foreign policy.

From a selfish point of view, of which Rand would no doubt have approved, the critical point of the programme is that this process was repeated in the last decade, only in mirror image. For Curtis, in the past decade, Chinese political power has been the key catalyst in maintaining the stability of the world economic system, rather than the ability of self-directing networks to spontaneously attain equilibrium.

Thus, the consumer boom and attendant property bubble were the result of a conscious decision by the Chinese Politburo to hold down their exchange rate, flooding America with cheap goods and immediately re-investing the profits in American Government Bonds, as a system to “manage America”. This, in turn, allowed Rand’s accolyte, Alan Greenspan, to inundate the global system with cheap money.

Part of me chuckles at the image of a gnomic Greenspan sitting in his bath every morning, poring over page after page of data looking for the emperor’s new clothes, failing to see the real increases in productivity that would be expected given the state of the markets, but ultimately deciding, under political pressure, that the mysteries of the New Economy must be so profound that they are indecipherable by conventional means; and at the supreme irony of Wall Street’s Masters of the Universe, the ultimate Randian Heroes, being beholden to their authoritarian, communitarian antithesis.

Any smile turns bitter when it’s borne in mind that the overheating and eventual collapse of this fantasy has again seen the financial sector mobilising political power to preserve themselves, with “the price … being paid by the ordinary people of the countries”. Such as myself.

I’m a massive admirer of Curtis’ ability to pull back the curtain on the ideas that drive (or perhaps are used to justify the behaviour of) powerful elites. Of course, there is an element of polemics at play, but I think his visual style represents a tacit acknowledgement of the fact, and the constraints of a few hours of television mean that his programmes can only represent a springboard for the exploration of ideas rather than authoritative treatises. To his credit, I’ve invariably found that digging deeper into his sources reveals his exposition of ideas to be a balanced one.

So, I’ve always regarded Curtis as the acceptable face of the polemicist – one who encourages the exploration and consideration of the big ideas of our times, posing questions more than suggestion answers. The most important thing, love him or hate him, is that he’s got an unrivalled ability to initiate debate on important, complex ideas for a mass audience. This first episode, more than any of his previous work, represents a call to arms:

We know that the idea of market stability and market democracy has failed, but we cannot imagine any alternative. This task of the imagination is the imperative of our times, and we should be grateful to Curtis for posing it in a relatively accessible and entertaining form.

The first episode is available on the BBC iPlayer now, the second should be up shortly. If that doesn’t work for you, it can be streamed here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 or, for the time being, at the top of this post.

Larry Murphy: Some Brief Thoughts

17 08 2010

Despite the fact that I really don’t have the time to do it justice, I can’t resist a quick post on the media firestorm surrounding the release of convicted rapist Larry Murphy. Just a few quick thoughts, then.

Murphy remains the prime suspect in the disappearances of several women during the mid-90s, although “no evidence has yet been found” to link him to these cases. What is certain is that, in 2000, he committed an incredibly brutal and callous crime, kidnapping and raping a young woman, and that he refused to engage with treatment programmes during the ten years he spent in Arbour Hill Prison. Under these circumstances, there is some merit to the argument that he represents a risk to women, and that the media are performing a valuable civic duty in alerting the general public of his whereabouts.

However, the melodramatic, hysterical tone of the coverage goes far beyond the strict requirements of public information. “An air of fear gripped the country” as Murphy “nonchalantly” strolled out of prison, taking an unsuspecting taxi driver on a ride from hell, having the temerity to walk around Grafton Street (losing the press pack in the process), and even going so far as to take a train to Cork. It is important to note that Gardaí are aware of his whereabouts at all times, and that he apparently had seven plainclothes detectives for company on his travels. Murphy’s brother has been subject to threats, and it is unsurprising under the circumstances that he has effectively disowned his sibling. Mobs have gathered at locations where Murphy was thought to be staying, forcing him to take shelter in a secret location, under the supervision of the Probation Service.

It is important to recognise that the hysterical approach has not been pervasive, with a number of more thoughtful pieces considering, in particular, the media’s role in inciting this furious reaction. A brief survey of Twitter reveals nothing like the degree of popular “fury” that elements of the media purported to articulate, although this may be a measure of the reflexive savvy of the “Twitterati”, while the “Don’t let larry murphy out” (sic) facebook page, established, as the name suggests, well before his release, had, at the time of writing, been inundated with satirical posts.

The Press Ombudsman, Professor John Horgan, raised an interesting point, reported in the Irish Times, that what we are witnessing represents not only trial by media, but also punishment by media, and is a most unwelcome development. Certainly, there is a degree of consensus that Murphy is probably a serial killer, and not without reason. Be that as it may, this rush to judgement shows utter contempt for the presumption of innocence and the right to due process of law. It is also worrying that a nascent drive for reform seems to be forming around this, thankfully, exceptional case, without regard to the complexity of the issue.

I don’t propose to examine the substance the Larry Murphy case in any more detail for the moment, however I do wish to address one particular question – why are representations of “monsters” such a dominant feature of today’s media landscape? Certainly, since the moral panic surrounding the murder in 1996 of Veronica Guerin, crime has become an abiding concern, far beyond what could have been imagined in 1983, when Ireland was characterised by Freda Adler as a nation “not obsessed by crime”.

My feeling is that the transition to an atomised late modern society, encompassing the rise of neoliberal negative liberty and the decline of traditional belief systems: Catholicism, nationalism, organised labour and class solidarity, has created something of an ideological vacuum. As a nation, we simply don’t have anything left to believe in. Thus, the hatred of a common enemy, an absolute “other” so monstrous as to be undeserving of any pity, becomes one of the few available means means of fostering social solidarity. Indeed, Isaiah Berlin’s logic suggests that the alternative, solidarity through the positive invocation of a “greater good”, will inevitably lead to terrible results.

This conception of the role of punishment as a means of reinforcing societal values in the “collective consciousness” has been around since Durkheim, who famously stated that even a society of saints, “a perfect cloister of exemplary individuals”, would be compelled to punish the most venial of transgressions for this reason. Other explanations approach the issue from a psychoanalytical perspective, regarding the punitive urge as a form of “shadow projection” or the “projection of subconscious wishes“, a transference of frustrations owing to the repression of negative, shameful desires or urges. The brilliant Prof. Shadd Maruna from Queens covers this ground in the attached lecture on the social and cultural uses of psychopathy, excellent watching if you have the time and the interest.

None of the foregoing should be in any way taken as detracting from the abhorrence of Larry Murphy’s crime. However, it seems abundantly clear that we should take care to approach media histrionics with due circumspection. I must point out, also, that the correlation between the rise of neoliberalism and crime hysteria is pure conjecture at this point, and the attempt to unravel this connection, if any, will be one of the key focal issues of this blog. Nevertheless, this perspective does provide an explanatory framework by which to contextualise the media feeding frenzy that we have seen in the past week, and the increasingly hysterical pitch of media treatments of crime. In Aeschylus’ phrase, culled from Prof. Maruna’s lecture, “unanimous hatred is the greatest medicine for a human community”. However, real dangers arise when this hatred translates into action, and begins to drive criminal justice policy.