The United States is more lawless every day – at least, that is the tenor of a steady drumbeat of news headlines and commentary. Brazen, broad daylight, coordinated ransacking of luxury stores stun the San Francisco area. An Italian graduate student is stabbed to death in New York City. Philadelphia topped its all-time murder record – passing even the bloody 1990s – with a month left in the year, as a college student was shot to death in an attempted robbery. Similar stories and similar grim statistics emerge from Chicago. On 21 November, having just been released on bail, a man drove through a Christmas parade in Wisconsin, killing six people.
The political right demands measures to preserve social order, while sections of the left draw distinctions in the data – or push instead for measures to combat poverty, as the root cause of crime. But during the recent cause célèbre of Kyle Rittenhouse, the two sides’ positions were reversed. Rittenhouse was 17 when he travelled to Kenosha, Wisconsin during the violent 20 August disturbances that followed a police shooting of a black man, Jacob Blake. Intent on protecting businesses from looters on a night when police were largely absent from the streets, altercations between several white protestors and Rittenhouse ended with his shooting three of them, two fatally.
The trial turned a lenient left tough, while a tough right felt pangs of sympathy. Many on the left thought that a guilty verdict was necessary to deter violent vigilantism. A broad consensus on the right favoured acquittal, holding that the defendant’s actions were, at best, those of a hero preserving order where officers of the law had failed – or, at worst, an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of police pullback.
The jury acquitted Rittenhouse of the charges against him, including murder, appearing to accept his claim of having acted in his own defence. The acquittal served as a reminder of the broad protections that US law provides to violent actions undertaken in self-defence. Yet as for fears of vigilantism vindicated, a contrary indication was given by the separate, nearly simultaneous, less publicised verdict in the case of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. A jury rejected a broadly similar argument of self-defence in the fatal shooting of a black man and convicted three men of murder.
Americans are not giving carte blanche to those who take the law into their own hands, but there does appear to be an increase in those groups. Portland, Oregon, so recently the focal point for a vision of “hipster” paradise in the 2000s era of prosperity – its craft beer, music scene and laid-back culture a magnet for the comfortable, indolent young – is now portrayed in media as a mirror of America’s dark future. The Rittenhouse trial recently provided tinder for a reignition of the city’s ongoing issues with confrontations between extremist groups on the streets. Could the country be headed towards this prototype, an ultra-left city surrounded by deep Republican hinterland, its streets a stage for vigilante posing and confrontation, residents terrified as far-right groups of Proud Boys face off against black-masked anarchists?
That would be putting it too strongly. Yet with a rise in serious violent crime in many major US cities coupled with a brutal homelessness and substance abuse crisis, a generation of Americans too young to remember the high-crime 1990s are confronting a country more violent than they have ever known it. During the 2000s, it was easy to compare the US with Europe – if perhaps derisively, in one direction or the other. Now, as Sam Goldman has written in the Week, the country seems closer to the rest of its hemisphere, a nation of stark contrasts and precarious public safety.
Figures show a loss of a million public sector workers since the beginning of the pandemic, another suggestion of a hollowing out of the American state over the past two years. Is America in 2021 becoming a land of savage neoliberalism? The passage through Congress of two enormous flagship spending packages pushed by the Biden administration might suggest the contrary – and just a few months ago, we were being assured that social democracy had finally come to the US. Yet these bills in their final or latest form are unlikely to change the style of American government.
True, Americans can hope for moderately better infrastructure and some funding for clean energy and climate resilience – which may come along with tax cuts for the rich in the form of a raised “Salt (state and local tax) cap”. But few entirely novel social programmes are at present slated to result from the bill, the product of the most propitious environment in a generation for generous spending. Biden has so far fallen short of initial, breathless evaluations of him as the “next FDR”, while inflation seems to be exhausting the patience of business and officials at the Fed for loose monetary policy, and rate hikes are beginning to be mooted.
Biden presents government in a now familiar American mode: the outsourcing of enforcement from government to the private sector, generating inefficiency without reducing coercion. A bid to make rapid Covid tests cheaper involves forcing medical insurers to reimburse their clients, rather than simply paying for them to be produced and sold at lower cost. A half-hearted vaccine mandate requires large employers to enforce the measure on their own employees.
A weakening of public order, for which Biden is not chiefly to blame, has not yielded greater individual freedom. Whether the chief complaint is of safety on the streets or, depending on one’s political preference, vaccine passports or abortion restrictions – the latter currently under scrutiny at a conservative-dominated Supreme Court – few Americans are likely to consider themselves freer than they were even two years ago.
[See also: Why Christians should be pro-choice]
Not less in the cultural sphere than in the political one, the American situation seems calibrated to provide a counterargument to the libertarian doctrine that an absence of state coercion equals an absence of coercion. At least since Alexis de Tocqueville’s day in the mid-19th century, civil society has been not only the realm of American liberty but also the opposite – a means of social and moral control. Promising liberation, the proliferation of social media and technology has only concentrated and universalised the old American process of punishing through social shame – as a short glance at Twitter will demonstrate.
Prominent private sector organisations in higher education, technology, media and business are ever more jointly involved in the manufacture, uptake and internal enforcement of new rhetorical and behavioural codes – both “woke” and “anti-woke”. An extended dust-up over schooling, especially the presence of critical race theory on school curriculums, has conservative parents demanding offending books be removed from shelves, while in some liberal districts, children are exhorted to cultivate racial guilt.
Michel Foucault, ever more out of favour on the left, would have been right to see the American culture war itself as an engine of unfreedom, a means of disciplining thought and action on both sides. Nor has popular demonstration yet made possible a breakthrough in the stalemate. A year and a half on from the George Floyd protests, the most visible legacies of the largest mass protest for social justice in American history are a heightening of existing partisan dynamics on the one hand and, on the other, a largely unsuccessful campaign to cut spending on certain public services.
The US is not alone in witnessing disorder without liberty and discord without dialogue. A new wave of virus-related restrictions is sweeping across Europe, along with violent protests opposing them. Éric Zemmour and his adversaries translate the culture war into French. Ecuador struggles with a rash of bloody prison massacres; swathes of Mexican territory remain functionally outside the control of the national government. The future, American and global, looks unruly, and little can be safely taken for granted.