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It matters if you’re black or whit­e

Segregated communities are the norm in the US and they seem to be spreading, aggravating social ineq

The consensus at Ian's Bakery, where the scones seem to take their inspiration from the Rocky Mountains framing us, is that the police should have shot back. Footage of the riots in England played for days on the news - a rare penetration of British news that isn't about the royal family into mainstream American consciousness.

A woman in London whose shop had been ran­sacked was shown pleading for police protection. The response was unanimous: give her a gun. "What the hell they doin'?" asked one man. "Shoot 'em." Admittedly this was the Mid­west, where the baker shoots bears in his spare time and hands out the roasted meat free with the breakfast burritos. Still, these people reflected a healthy dose of American opinion that simply would not have put up with what they were watching. They couldn't believe the shop owners were not allowed to defend them­selves, and shook their heads in amazement when I said the police were banned from shooting, too - not even plastic bullets or water cannon.

Another man, a retired army officer studying post-colonial literature - no honky-tonk cowboy - racked his brains to recall disorder of this sort in the US and came up with the Watts riots of 1965. There has been plenty of rioting in the US since then, but it largely occurs around colleges and in poor inner-city areas, so he had not noticed it. The reason why is evident in the suburbs, where I'm writing this: mile upon mile of tasteful clapboard, a low-density sprawl that the writer Eric Schlosser has described as "the architectural equivalent of fast food".

Over the past 20 years, immense subdivisions of small towns have sprung up all over Colorado: "the houses seem not to have been constructed by hand but manufactured by some gigantic machine, cast in the same mould and somehow dropped here fully made. You can easily get lost in these new subdivisions . . . without ever finding anything of significance to differentiate one block from another - except their numbers. Roads end without warning, and sidewalks run straight into the prairie, blocked by tall, wild grasses that have not yet been turned into lawns."

Here is where the white people live, segregated from black America. More than half of America lives in suburban areas; in Europe, two-thirds of us are urban. In tidy houses in neat suburbs, policed by small private armies of security guards and homeowners' committees, white America insulates itself from black.

House rules

With the new suburbs come rules: rules about the size of your trash can, the number of Christmas lights you may display, the colour of your curtains, the weight of the family dog. Professor Setha Low, a former president of the American Anthropological Association, says these rules entrench middle-class values. "Middle-class families imprint their landscapes with 'niceness', reflecting their own landscape aesthetic of orderliness, consistency and control," she observes in Behind the Gates: Life, Security and the Pursuit of Happiness in Fortress America.
This homogeneity in effect excludes ethnic minorities. "Racist fears about the 'threat' of a visible minority, whether it is blacks, Latinos, 'Orientals', or Koreans, are remarkably similar. This is because many neighbourhoods in the US are racially homogeneous. Thus, the physical space of the neighbourhood and its racial composition become synonymous."

You can gate without putting in gates - property prices, residents' associations and just knowing one another's business act as effective barriers to outsiders. "Quiet laws" and indirect economic strategies limiting the minimum lot or house size, cul-de-sacs that allow for easy monitoring of who is where and social regulations complete the separation. In major metropolitan areas of the US, half of all new housing is built and sold as part of a collective regime, with privatised rubbish collection and security, and covenants regulated by governing bodies. One man was fined because his car leaked a spot of oil on the street. A woman was threatened with expulsion for kissing her boyfriend in the driveway. I may not hang out any washing, nor can I leave the rubbish bin out except on Fridays.

The zenith of this "nice, happy" American suburban living is the physically gated community, a "purified" environment where outsiders can be spotted immediately. A third of all new communities in southern California are gated, as is a similar proportion around Phoenix, Arizona, in the suburbs of Washington and parts of Florida. In Tampa, Florida, four out of five home sales valued at $300,000 or more are of prop­erties in gated communities. They come with gates, swipe cards and tight security. And they largely isolate the white middle and upper classes from poorer blacks.

Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans six years ago was an eye-opener for middle-class America. One Midwesterner bemoaned to me the television pictures of all those people "sitting on their fat black asses" and waiting for government help. A more liberal man noted that it was a "wake-up call" to white America, which did not normally see inside the black inner cities.

In the US, as in Asia, Latin America and South Africa, the separation and gating of communities is an accepted symbol of vastly unequal societies in which the winners must be physically protected from the losers. Figures from the US Economic Policy Institute show that, in 2009, the median net worth for white households in America was $97,860 (a fall of 27 per cent in five years); for black households, it was $2,170 (a fall of 84 per cent over the same period).

Black America is finding ways to fight back, with a trend towards flash-mob attacks in upscale department stores and the restaurant districts of cities such as Philadelphia and Chicago. On 29 July, two dozen youths, one as young as 11, beat up and robbed bystanders in central Philadelphia. The city has imposed a weekend curfew of 9pm for minors. In Chicago in June, up to 20 young men violently robbed people in Streeterville, a usually trouble-free area dominated by upmarket shops and skyscrapers. These forays into middle-class white American territory are rare, but becoming less so.

In Europe, we segregate less - and we are less unequal. Median total wealth per household in the UK, according to last year's National Equality Panel report, is £21,000 for black Africans, £76,000 for black Caribbeans and £221,000 for white British. For Bangladeshis, it is £15,000; for Muslims, £42,000; for Indians, £204,000. The figures are not directly comparable with those for the US, but the relative poverty levels are: black America is far poorer relative to white America than black Britain is to white Britain.

Not that we have anything to be smug about. The Equality Panel reported that, by 2008, the UK had the highest level of income inequality since soon after the Second World War. And the average household wealth of the top 10 per cent, at £853,000, was nearly 100 times higher than the wealth of the poorest 10 per cent, at less than £9,000. These figures include property, savings, cars and pension rights.

Geographical segregation, too, is increasing in the UK, not just between north and south, but within regions and local authorities. The north might be far poorer than the south - household wealth in the south-east is 1.7 times that in the north-west - but the variation in wealth is higher in the south and especially stark in London. There is some evidence that the social marginalisation of poorer wards is increasing all over England, with the gap widening between these areas and their locality in terms of health, education, employment and income.

Urban paranoia

The degree of geographical segregation and privatisation of public space in the US will never be matched in England. First, we do not have the space. As John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge point out in The Right Nation, the US has enough land to give every household an acre and still populate only one-twentieth of the continental United States (excluding Alaska). Second, we do not have the same culture of privatisation, even though our security-patrolled shopping centres mirror the trend and gated living is becoming more popular. The research is mixed as to whether it makes people feel more secure; some say their segregated communities make them feel safe, others have become more paranoid about strangers.
So, without segregation and without guns, what is to be Europe's solution to civic unrest in the face of soaring economic inequality? David Cameron has reached for an answer in the shape of Bill Bratton, the former New York City police chief hired to advise the Prime Minister. Bratton is associated with falling crime rates in US cities due to a "zero-tolerance" approach that Cameron has said he will adopt in the UK. He may be disappointed.

The economist Steven Levitt has conducted research suggesting that the decline in New York's crime rate had more to do with rising numbers of (armed) police, a higher prison population and the legalisation of abortion than Bratton's methods. The drop began before Bratton was appointed, Levitt argues, and other cities that did not employ his style of policing experienced similar falls in crime, once police numbers were taken into account.

Bratton may be a good headline, but he is not the solution. That leaves Cameron with the options of spending more on police and prisons
to match incarceration rates in the US, where black people are three times as likely to be jailed as in England and Wales. Or he could tackle inequality: in inherited wealth, in employment, in wages, in opportunity. But that, as Labour can painfully attest, is the hardest headline to win of them all.

This article first appeared in the 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?

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A nervous breakdown in the body politic

Are we too complacent in thinking that the toxic brew of paranoia and populism that brought Hitler to power will never be repeated?

The conventional wisdom holds that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, in Edmund Burke’s familiar phrase; but this is at best a half-truth. Studying the biography of a moral monster triumphantly unleashed on the political and international stage points us to another perspective, no less important. What is necessary for the triumph of evil is that the ground should have been thoroughly prepared by countless small or not-so-small acts of petty malice, unthinking prejudice and collusion. Burke’s axiom, though it represents a powerful challenge to apathy, risks crediting evil with too much of a life of its own: out there, there are evil agencies, hostile to “us”, and we (good men and women) must mobilise to resist.

No doubt; but mobilising intelligently demands being willing to ask what habits and assumptions, as well as what chances and conditions, have made possible the risk of evil triumphing. And that leads us into deep waters, to a recognition of how what we tolerate or ignore or underestimate opens the way for disaster, the ways in which we are at least half-consciously complicit. If this is not to be the silly we-are-all-guilty response that has rightly been so much mocked, nor an absolution for the direct agents of great horrors, it needs a careful and unsparing scrutiny of the processes by which cultures become corruptible, vulnerable to the agendas of damaged and obsessional individuals.

This can be uncomfortable. It raises the awkward issue of what philosophers have learned to call “moral luck” – the fact that some people with immense potential for evil don’t actualise it, because the circumstances don’t present them with the chance, and that some others who might have spent their lives in blameless normality end up supervising transports to Auschwitz. Or, to take a sharply contemporary example, that one Muslim youth from a disturbed or challenging background becomes a suicide bomber but another from exactly the same background doesn’t. It is as though there were a sort of diabolical mirror image for the biblical Parable of the Sower: some seeds grow and some don’t, depending on the ground they fall on, or what chance external stimulus touches them at critical moments.

If what interests us is simply how to assign individuals rapidly and definitively to the categories of sheep and goats, saved and damned, this is offensively frustrating. But if we recognise that evil is in important respects a shared enterprise, we may be prompted to look harder at those patterns of behaviour and interaction that – in the worst cases – give permission to those who are most capable of extreme destructiveness, and to examine our personal, political and social life in the light of this.

***

It would be possible to argue that the anti-Semitism of a lot of German culture – as of European Christian culture overall – was never (at least in the modern period) genocidal and obsessed with absolute racial purity; limited but real possibilities of integration were taken for granted, converts to Christianity were not disadvantaged merely because of their race, and so on. Yet the truth is that this cultural hinterland offered a foothold to the mania of Adolf Hitler; that it gave him just enough of the permission he needed to identify his society’s problems with this clearly definable “alien” presence. In his new book, Hitler: the Ascent, Volker Ullrich compellingly tells us once again that no one could have been under any illusion about Hitler’s general intentions towards the Jews from his very first appearance as a political figure, even if the detailed planning of genocide (lucidly traced in the late David Cesarani’s recent, encyclopaedic Final Solution) took some time to solidify. Yet so much of the German public heard Hitler’s language as the slightly exaggerated version of a familiar trope and felt able to treat it as at worst an embarrassing overstatement of a common, even a common-sense, view. One of the most disturbing things about this story is the failure of so many (inside and outside Germany) to grasp that Hitler meant what he said; and this failure in turn reinforced the delusion of those who thought they could use and then sideline Hitler.

To say that Hitler “meant what he said”, however, can be misleading. It is one of the repeated and focal themes in Ullrich’s book that Hitler was a brazen, almost compulsive liar – or, perhaps better, a compulsive and inventive actor, devising a huge range of dramatic roles for himself: frustrated artist, creative patron, philosopher-king (there is a fine chapter on the intellectual and artistic circle he assembled frequently at his Berchtesgaden residence), workers’ friend, martyr for his people (he constantly insinuated that he believed himself doomed to a tragic and premature death), military or economic messiah and a good deal else besides. His notorious outbursts of hysterical rage seem to have been skilfully orchestrated as instruments of intimidation (though this did not exactly indicate that he was otherwise predictable). Ullrich devotes a fair measure of attention to the literal staging of National Socialism, the architectural gigantism of Albert Speer which gave the Führer the sophisticated theatre he craved. In all sorts of ways, Hitler’s regime was a profoundly theatrical exercise, from the great public displays at Nuremberg and the replanning of Berlin to the various private fantasies enacted by him and his close associates (Göring above all), and from the emotional roller coaster he created for his circle to the dangerously accelerated rate of military-industrial expansion with which he concealed the void at the centre of the German economy.

Theatre both presupposes and creates a public. In the anxiety and despair of post-Versailles Germany, there was a ready audience for the high drama of Nazism, including its scapegoating of demonic enemies within and without. And in turn, the shrill pitch of Hitler’s quasi-liturgies normalised a whole set of bizarre and fantastic constructions of reality. A N Wilson’s challenging novel Winnie and Wolf, a fantasia on Hitler’s relations with Winifred Wagner, culminates in a scene at the end of the war where refugees and destitute citizens in Bayreuth raid the wardrobe of the opera house and wander the streets dressed in moth-eaten costumes; it is an unforgettable metaphor for one of the effects of Hitlerian theatre. Ullrich leaves his readers contemplating the picture of a vast collective drama centred on a personality that was not – as some biographers have suggested – something of a cipher, but that of a fantasist on a grand scale, endowed with a huge literal and metaphorical budget for staging his work.

All of this prompts questions about how it is that apparently sophisticated political systems succumb to corporate nervous breakdowns. It is anything but an academic question in a contemporary world where theatrical politics, tribal scapegoating and variegated confusions about the rule of law are increasingly in evidence. On this last point, it is still shocking to realise how rapidly post-Versailles Germany came to regard violent public conflict between heavily armed militias as almost routine, and this is an important background to the embittered negotiations later on around the relation between Hitler’s Sturmabteilung and the official organs of state coercion. Ullrich’s insightful account of a de facto civil war in Bavaria in the early 1920s makes it mercilessly plain that any pretensions to a state monopoly of coercion in Germany in this period were empty.

Yet the idea of such a state monopoly is in fact essential to anything that could be called a legitimate democracy. In effect, the polity of the Third Reich “privatised” coer­cion: again and again in Ullrich’s book, in the struggles for power before 1933, we see Nazi politicians successfully bidding for control of the mechanisms of public order in the German regions, and more or less franchising public order to their own agencies. A classical democratic political philosophy would argue that the state alone has the right to use force because the state is the guarantor of every community’s and every individual’s access to redress for injury or injustice. If state coercion becomes a tool for any one element in the social complex, it loses legitimacy. It is bound up with the rule of law, which is about something more than mere majority consent. One way of reading the rise of Hitler and National Socialism is as the steady and consistent normalising of illegitimate or partisan force, undermining any concept of an independent guarantee of lawfulness in society. It is the deliberate dissolution of the idea of a Rechtsstaat, a law-governed state order that can be recognised by citizens as organised for their common and individual good. Rule by decree, the common pattern of Nazi governmental practice, worked in harness with law enforcement by a force that was essentially a toxic hybrid, combining what was left of an independent police operation with a highly organised party militia system.

So, one of the general imperatives with which Hitler’s story might leave us is the need to keep a clear sense of what the proper work of the state involves. Arguments about the ideal “size” of the state are often spectacularly indifferent to the basic question of what the irreducible functions of state authority are – and so to the question of what cannot be franchised or delegated to non-state actors (it is extraordinary that we have in the UK apparently accepted without much debate the idea that prison security can be sold off to private interests). This is not the same as saying that privatisation in general leads to fascism; the issues around the limits to state direction of an economy are complex. However, a refusal to ask some fundamental questions about the limits of “franchising” corrodes the idea of real democratic legitimacy – the legitimacy that arises from an assurance to every citizen that, whatever their convictions or their purchasing power, the state is there to secure their access to justice. And, connected with this, there are issues about how we legislate: what are the proper processes of scrutiny for legislation, and how is populist and short-view legislation avoided? The Third Reich offers a masterclass in executive tyranny, and we need not only robust and intelligent counter-models, but a clear political theory to make sense of and defend those models.

***

Theatre has always been an aspect of the political. But there are different kinds of theatre. In ancient Athens, the annual Dionysia festival included the performance of tragedies that forced members of the audience to acknowledge the fragility of the political order and encouraged them to meditate on the divine interventions that set a boundary to vendetta and strife. Classical tragedy is, as political theatre, the exact opposite of Hitlerian drama, which repeatedly asserted the solid power of the Reich, the overcoming of weakness and division by the sheer, innate force of popular will as expressed through the Führer.

Contemporary political theatre is not – outside the more nakedly totalitarian states – a matter of Albert Speer-like spectacle and affirmation of a quasi-divine leader; but it is increasingly the product of a populist-oriented market, the parading of celebrities for popular approval, with limited possibilities for deep public discussion of policies advanced, and an assumption that politicians will be, above all, performers. It is not – to warn once again against cliché and exaggeration – that celebrity culture in politics is a short route to fascism. But a political theatre that never deals with the fragility of the context in which law and civility operate, that never admits the internal flaws and conflicts of a society, and never allows some corporate opening-up to the possibilities of reconciliation and reparation, is one that exploits, rather than resolves our anxieties. And, as such, it makes us politically weaker, more confused and fragmented.

The extraordinary mixture of farce and menace in Donald Trump’s campaign is a potent distillation of all this: a political theatre, divorced from realism, patience and human solidarity, bringing to the surface the buried poisons of a whole system and threatening its entire viability and rationality. But it is an extreme version of the way in which modern technology-and-image-driven communication intensifies the risks that beset the ideals of legitimate democracy.

And – think of Trump once again – one of the most seductively available tricks of such a theatre is the rhetoric of what could be called triumphant victimhood: we are menaced by such and such a group (Jews, mig­rants, Muslims, Freemasons, international business, Zionism, Marxism . . .), which has exerted its vast but covert influence to destroy us; but our native strength has brought us through and, given clear leadership, will soon, once and for all, guarantee our safety from these nightmare aliens.

***

This is a rhetoric that depends on ideas of collective guilt or collective malignity: plots ascribed to the agency of some dangerous minority are brandished in order to tarnish the name of entire communities. The dark legacy of much popular Christian language about collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus could be translated without much difficulty into talk about the responsibility of Jews for the violence and poverty afflicting Germans in the 1920s. (Shadows of the same myths still affect the way in which – as recent reports suggest – sinister, vague talk about Zionism and assumptions of a collective Jewish guilt for the actions of various Israeli politicians can become part of a climate that condones anti-Semitic bullying, or text messages saying “Hitler had a point”, on university campuses.)

Granted that there is no shortage of other candidates for demonic otherness in Europe and the United States (witness Trump’s language about Muslims and Mexicans), the specific and abiding lesson of Nazi anti-Semitism is the twofold recognition of the ease with which actually disadvantaged communities can be cast in the role of all-powerful subverters, and the way in which the path to violent exclusion of one kind or another can be prepared by cultures of casual bigotry and collective anxiety or self-pity, dramatised by high-temperature styles of media communication.

Marie Luise Knott’s recent short book Unlearning With Hannah Arendt (2014) revisits the controversy over Arendt’s notorious characterisation of the mindset of Nazism as “the banality of evil”, and brilliantly shows how her point is to do with the erosion in Hitlerian Germany of the capacity to think, to understand one’s agency as answerable to more than public pressure and fashion, to hold to notions of honour and dignity independent of status, convention or influence – but also, ultimately, the erosion of a sense of the ridiculous. The victory of public cliché and stereotype is, in Arendt’s terms, a protection against reality, “against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence”, as she memorably wrote in The Life of the Mind. Hitler was committed to the destruction of anything that challenged the simple self-identity and self-justification of the race and the nation; hence, as Ullrich shows in an acutely argued chapter of Hitler: a Biography, the Führer’s venom against the churches, despite their (generally) embarrassingly lukewarm resistance to the horrors of the Reich. The problem was that the churches’ rationale entailed just that accountability to more than power and political self-identity that Nazi philosophy treated as absolute. They had grounds for thinking Nazism not only evil, but absurd. Perhaps, then, one of the more unexpected questions we are left with by a study of political nightmare such as Ullrich’s excellent book is how we find the resources for identifying the absurd as well as for clarifying the grounds of law and honour.

The threats now faced by “developed” democracy are not those of the 1920s and 1930s; whatever rough beasts are on their way are unlikely to have the exact features of Hitler’s distinctive blend of criminality and melodrama. But this does not mean that we shouldn’t be looking as hard as we can at the lessons to be learned from the collapse of political legality, the collective panics and myths, the acceptance of delusional and violent public theatre that characterised Hitler’s Germany. For evil to triumph, what is necessary is for societies to stop thinking, to stop developing an eye for the absurd as well as the corrupt in language and action, public or private.

Hitler: a Biography – Volume I: Ascent by Volker Ullrich is published by the Bodley Head

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism