How and why do societies fall apart, without any external compulsion to do so? These are questions that, having spent a great deal of my life in Britain, preoccupy me.
It might be denied, of course, that societies ever truly fall apart: short of annihilation, they always continue in one fashion or another. There is a deal of ruin in a nation, as Adam Smith said; and in any case, from a certain rather narrow perspective, namely that of the per capita gross domestic product, Britain is a vastly better place to live than ever it was before, its current economic crisis notwithstanding.
But it has also managed the difficult trick of being both much richer and much nastier. I remember an Indian doctor whose exceptional sweetness of character inspired the instant affection of all who met him telling me more than a third of a century ago that he considered Britain the most civilized country in the world. No one could possibly make that mistake now, not for an instant, for even at the airport at which he arrived he will have noticed prominent written warnings to the British public that violence or abusive behavior towards staff will not be tolerated: meaning, of course, that in most instances it will be ignored.
How and why do societies fall apart, without any external compulsion to do so?
From having been among the most self-controlled populations in the world, the British have gone in half a century to being among the least self-controlled, and the most spied-upon. Britain has almost as many closed-circuit television cameras installed as the rest of the world put together, but they seem to have hardly any effect on the general level of civility (it is always possible, I suppose, that people might behave even worse without them). Testifying quite often in court as an expert witness in murder trials, I am astonished to discover in the course of those trials just how much of British life now takes place on camera: every Briton, indeed, spends more time on screen than the most ubiquitous of film stars, whether he knows and approves of it or not. At the same time, menace and incompetence have become the twin characteristics of British officialdom.
Societies fall apart when (among other causes) their ruling elites, political and intellectual, lose faith in their own right or duty to prescribe standards. They become Hamlet-like: the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, and they become persuaded that generosity of spirit and broad-mindedness are the only true virtues, even if they result in paralysis in the face of disorder, with all the accompanying miseries of those who suffer it.
The elite’s attitude to crime is an example. The French sociologist Durkheim once proposed that the criminal minority, provided it was small enough, performed a useful social function by uniting the non-criminal majority (who might otherwise have very little in common) against them, thus preserving society’s sense of unity; once the distinction between the criminal and the non-criminal becomes blurred or lost, however, criminals cease to serve even this unconsciously adopted social function and are predators without any unintentionally redeeming effects.
Of course, any civilized criminal justice system has always made room for extenuating circumstances and even for complete legal excuses, such as self-defense or duress. But it has done so on the basis of individual cases: an accused was prey to such-and-such circumstances, and was therefore less to be reprehended and punished than someone who committed the same act under different and more advantageous circumstances. Sympathy and mercy went hand in hand with condemnation and punishment, and the proportion of each that was to be exercised in any individual case required judgment.
But with the rise of mass-education, a different kind of extenuation and exculpation was propagated and became popular, sapping the certainty that crime was justly to be repressed: that of the criminal as a member of a class of unfortunates ex officio, as it were. From being a bad man, the criminal became the victim of social conditions, among which were the unjust arrangements of society as a whole, and in particular the division of property.
Propaganda in favor of this view of the matter came from many directions, and of course one looks in vain for the precise moment when one social attitude was supplanted by another. Most revolutions are revolutions by stealth, imperceptible except when they have taken effect.
Literary works helped to bring about the change of sensibility. Among them (but of course it is impossible to estimate the size of its actual effect) was a short story, first published in 1959, and subsequently made into a film, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, by Alan Sillitoe.
Sillitoe wrote movingly, and much more directly, honestly, and believably than D. H. Lawrence ever did, of the lives of the working classes in the East Midlands of Britain, with their grim gray industrial towns dominated by smoking factories, collieries, and potteries. The very climate seemed to conspire against a happy life, the perpetually lowering sky being but a celestial reflection of the man-made ugliness below. To those who lived there, the world might well have appeared unchanging: perpetual insecurity, low wages for unskilled work, few diversions, no opportunities for the imagination to soar, human relations rendered difficult by a mixture of monotony and despair, the only solace in drink.
The protagonist and narrator of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a seventeen-year-old inmate of a borstal called Smith (Borstal is a village in Sussex where the first penal institute in Britain for juvenile offenders was set up). He comes from a working-class home in the East Midlands which the reader, with no experience of that part of the world, will take as being typical: the mother a flibbertigibbet, the father a man defeated by life who dies in early middle age by bleeding to death from cancer of the throat.
For someone from such a background, he says, crime is as natural and unselfconscious as breathing itself. As soon as he arrives in the borstal, he is selected by the staff to be a long-distance or cross-country runner because of his lean physique.
I didn’t mind it much, to tell you the truth [he says in the very first paragraph], because running has always been made much of in our family, especially running away from the police.
This is not because he comes from a family of criminals, different from other families; it is because, for people of his class, criminality is both normal and honorable. Conventional honesty is out of the question for Smith, “being brought up as I was”; dishonesty is a class, not an individual, characteristic.
Smith is an intelligent and eloquent young man who has self-consciously decided on a life of crime. He divides the world mentally into them and us, them being what he calls the “In-laws” and us being what he calls the “Out-laws.” There can be nothing but opposition and antagonism between the two.
Crime for him is class war, the inevitable consequence of social injustice and the irreconcilable conflict of economic class interest. “This is war,” the young Smith says repeatedly. The criminal is not an individual who, for one reason or another, breaks the accepted rules, but on the contrary a worthy representative of those seeking restitution for what the In-laws have wrongfully deprived them of. He has numbers on his side.
If the In-laws are hoping to stop me making false moves [committing crimes] they’re wasting their time. They might as well stand me up against a wall and let fly with bullets. That’s the only way they’ll stop me, and a few million others.
Thus the Out-laws are not a relatively few misfits, such as Smith, but something approaching a popular social movement.
The In-laws unjustly oppress the Out-laws and are able to do so only because, for the moment, they hold the power. This might not be forever, though: the protagonist looks forward to the day when the oppressing power will get its comeuppance.
I hoped one day that him [the governor of the borstal] and all his pals would be the ones to get the black-eyes and kicks. It might come sooner than anyone thinks, like in Hungary.
In other words, crime is incipient revolution. It is ironic that the rulers of Hungary, against whom the population revolted, relied for their legitimacy on precisely Smith’s moral and political outlook, claiming to have emerged from, represent, and defend the interests of those whom Smith calls the Out-laws, that is to say, the poor and downtrodden.
Although Smith sometimes doubts that the Out-laws can ever win the war, at other times he views the overthrow of the In-laws as historically inevitable:
in the end the governor [of the borstal] is going to be doomed while blokes like me will take the pickings of his roasted bones and dance like maniacs around his Borstal’s ruins.
When everything changes, the In-laws are going to be treated much more harshly than they ever treated the Out-laws:
And if I had the whip-hand I wouldn’t even bother to build a place like this [borstal] to put all the cops, governors, posh whores, penpushers, army officers, Members of Parliament in; no, I’d stick them up against a wall and let them have it.
Quite the little Lenin, in fact.
It follows from the class analysis of crime that the police are merely the enforcers of the unjust division of property. They are corrupt, brutal, and stupid, the ferocious enemies of the millions to whom Smith refers: again, not as mere individuals, but by virtue of their function. It is true that some among the working class collaborate with the police, in the way that an invading army always finds collaborators, but the explanation for this is simple (and consistent with Marxism, if not actually inspired by it):
there are people who love to do a good turn for the coppers. Some people are so mean-gutted that even if they’ve only got tuppence more than you and they think you’re the sort that would take it if you have half the chance, they’d get you put inside if they saw you ripping lead out of lavatory, even if it weren’t their lavatory—just to keep their tuppence out of your reach.
The policeman being the inveterate enemy of the working class in any society with a bourgeois social order, those who wish the working class well will naturally work for the destruction, withdrawal or (as a minimum) emasculation of the police. As it happens, this is precisely what has been achieved in some areas of the two countries in which I live, Britain and France, with results that are—to put it mildly—not altogether happy for most of the inhabitants of those areas.
The policeman is not only brutal and stupid by nature (the one who came to Smith’s house to investigate a burglary he had committed was “like Hitler in the face … except that being six-foot tall made him seem worse. I straightened my shoulders to look into his illiterate blue eyes”), but suffering from a kind of false consciousness, in as much as he does not himself benefit from the social order that he is upholding. He had “never had as much in his pockets” as the protagonist has managed to steal and hide, and is therefore worthy of nothing but contempt.
But what is the injustice of which the young Smith believes himself, and millions like him, to have been the victim? He does not say in so many words, but from the nature of his resentment it is clear that the social and economic inequality of his society, irrespective of how it has come about, is that injustice. He was born poor, while others were born rich, and this is enough for him. Resentment is the sole source of his thought. Those higher than he in the social scale are “pig-faced,” “snotty-nosed,” and “pop-eyed,” with “lily-white workless hands”: the kind of characterization that would (rightly) appall us if applied to, say, Jews or asylum-seekers. Merely because of their relatively elevated social position, they do not have to be individually judged, good or bad as the case may be; membership of a group by birth is enough to put them beyond the pale of human consideration. The possible consequences of this kind of thought, when it guides those in power, hardly need to be pointed out.
Smith doesn’t have any idea of what would be more just than the world into which he was born. For him, all unearned advantages are unjust and the object of his resentment; it does not occur to him that civilization is in large part the accretion of unearned advantages, and that he himself is the beneficiary of many such unearned advantages. His own sense of justice is entirely egotistical. For example, he describes with cold neutrality how his companion in the burglary for which he was sent to borstal was strong, a good man in a fight, and quick to anger:
I saw him set on a bloke once for no more than fixing him in a funny way with his eyes, and it turned out that the bloke was cock-eyed [i.e., had a squint] but nobody knew it because he’d just come to live in our street.
Because he did not suffer personally from the attack, he expresses no outrage at its hideous brutality and injustice, piling injury as it did on to misfortune.
The governor of the borstal—naively but without cruelty—wants to turn Smith into an honest citizen. He encourages Smith in his long-distance running, thinking that this is a way to reform him; he wants him to win the long-distance race at an athletics competition between various borstals as a symbol of his reformation. But Smith, though easily capable of winning the race, declines to do so, and throws the race near its end, to the fury of the governor.
From having been among the most self-controlled populations in the world, the British have gone in half a century to being among the least self-controlled, and the most spied-upon.
He throws the race in the name of personal freedom and authenticity. To comply with the wishes of any of the In-laws is surrender, even if it brings him immediate advantages. To be authentic, he has to be true to his standpoint of total opposition to the In-laws (it does not occur to him that his desire to obtain luxuries by the theft of money presupposes a considerable infrastructure of In-lawry, and that therefore, contrary to what he may like to think, his opposition to the In-laws is, and can never be, total, and that he is therefore a hypocrite).
Smith’s view of authenticity is like his view of justice, egotistical to the point of solipsism. Using the long-distance running as a metaphor, he says:
You should think about nobody and go your own way, not on a course marked out for you.
Authenticity, the precondition of a good life, means not giving in under any circumstances:
It’s a good life … if you don’t give in to coppers and Borstal-bosses and the rest of them bastard-faced In-laws.
He admires his father who refused help from doctors when dying from cancer:
He got up in bed to throw them out and even followed them down the stairs in his shirt though he was no more than skin and stick. They tried to tell him that he’d want some drugs but he didn’t fall for it, and only took the pain-killer that mam and I got from a herb-seller in the next street.
Dostoyevsky tells us—correctly, I think—that, in a world in which others had, from sheer benevolence, arranged everything for our benefit, such that all was for the best, we would, for reasons of pure self-affirmation, subvert the arrangements by doing something that was against our own best interest. We shall never live in such a world, how- ever, and in this story, Smith takes self-affirmation as the only desideratum of life. He does not realize, just as artists who make a fetish of transgression do not realize, that to determine what one does by blind opposition to others is to be ruled by those others as surely as if one obeyed them absolutely. Man is so constituted that his independence of others cannot be total, nor can his freedom consist merely of defiance.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a work of fiction, an imaginative reconstruction of the mind of a young criminal. As such, it is a considerable success, both in literary and psychological terms. I have met quite a number of young criminals who have many of Smith’s attitudes.
But it is one thing to say that the depiction is accurate, and quite another to accept that Smith is entirely truthful or justified in his attitudes. It is comprehensible how someone in his circumstances might come to the conclusions that he comes to, but comprehensibility and justification are not the same. To understand all is not to pardon all.
Unfortunately, the intelligentsia have accepted many of Smith’s contentions as being both true and morally compelling. Unlike Sillitoe, most of the intelligentsia have never had experience of working-class life in an industrial town of the East Midlands, and therefore feel at as much of a disadvantage in assessing the significance of the story as a man who has never smoked cannabis feels in discussing the subjective effects of the drug.
The contentions are these:
That society is unjust because differentially inherited advantages are unjust.
That society is divided into two irreconcilably opposed classes.
That criminality is the inevitable and justified consequence of social injustice.
That the repression of crime is therefore itself unjust.
That the police are the enemies of the poor.
That the lower-class criminal leads a more honest and authentic existence than pusillanimously or hypocritically law-abiding persons.
That the majority of the poor are criminally inclined.
That self-affirmation is always desirable and may legitimately take the form of theft and burglary.
Internal evidence from the story actually undermines many of these propositions, but so subtly that it is easily overlooked. For example, when Smith commits the crime that lands him in borstal, theft of cash from a bakery (the thoughts and feelings of the robbed baker are not, as is usual in such circumstances, deemed worthy of literary depiction), the police immediately suspect Smith, precisely because they know that he is the person in the district overwhelmingly most likely to have done it. They can only know this, of course, if the great majority of people in the district—who, like him, are working class—are unlikely to have done it, that is to say, are not criminal. Once this is admitted, all the contentions that the intelligentsia are likely to have uncritically accepted, because stories like this are their only knowledge of the milieu with which they deal, are refuted. If, however, the contentions are sufficiently accepted, repeated, and disseminated, they will undermine a society’s ability to prevent and counteract crime. Having recently met two English Lord Chief Justices, I can confirm that this is precisely what has happened.
One last thing. The story mentions the Alfreton Road, and this brought memories back to me. I had a student friend who came from Alfreton, whose father was a coal miner who had retired early because of chronic lung disease. He was a quiet, humorous, mannerly, decent, honest man. At the time, I was too callow to appreciate the moral achievement that his character represented, but I later discovered that it was by no means uncommon. It is, of course, not so commonly encountered nowadays.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 27 Number 1, on page 23
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com