Is Britain Broken?

Charlie Chaplin’s remarkable Monsieur Verdoux (1947) one of his best films in terms of social criticism and unsurprisingly one of his lesser financial successes, features the exploits of a charming confidence trickster and killer. He is something of an Henri Désiré Landru, the French serial-killing ‘Bluebeard’ who preyed on widows during the First World War with rich results. 

In the final part of the film, Verdoux is convicted for the murder of some various unsuspectingly bigamous wives whose insurance money he appropriated to support his own family. His rationale was coldly simple: murder is business.  Then again, so is the manufacturing of arms.  But he who kills a few, Verdoux reminds us, is deemed a villain.  Those who kill millions are sanctified heroes.  Goodness is in poor supply, and evil casts its permanent shadow over it.  Film critic Parker Tyler in the Kenyon Review called this a ‘hoary platitude’ – yet such platitudes are gifts from the divine.

The moral is this: where crime thrives, some do in fact call it crime, while others will be rather selective.  A pilfering rioter may think differently – where crime prospers none dare call it crime, but that’s just his fault.  It’s all a matter of perspective.  ‘Others’ in this case are the members of society who express revulsion at the theft of a pair of shoes in Hackney as opposed to the theft of billions, illegally sanctioned wars and the like. ‘This,’ to quote Prime Minister David Cameron on August 9 in reference to the looting, ‘is criminality pure and simple.’ 

One is tempted to use the term ‘governing class’ in this case but it may be more appropriate to term the moral ones the ‘managerial class’, the anonymous shufflers who no one elected but who run everything from ailing banks to sterile universities.  Society is now ordered, or rather disordered, in the manner of a firm, operating to the grating tunes of economic ‘rationalism’ which undermines value in favour of figures.  Risks are ‘managed’; fear is farmed for popular consumption; budgets are slashed to accord with the auditing reports for that firm.

The cunning in Cameron’s strategy lies in his attempt to appropriate this rhetoric of ethical bankruptcy to shore up his government’s own failings.  In his speech on ‘broken Britain’, Cameron promised to address the problems of 120,000 families who have, effectively, been deemed dysfunctional cases.  In doing so, he is incapable of transcending the language of the dull, plodding manager.  What does not fit, is merely irregular.  The figures will eventually balance – the question is how?

He now admits to a particular culture of ‘entitlement’ and unadorned criminality that may have coloured the context of the riots.  Matters of phone hacking following a News of the World blueprint, or the issue of bailing out banks that should have, by their own economic program, collapsed, suggest a society, whatever we take society to mean, with no compass by which to judge the activities of the rioting youths.  

Cameron’s panacea will involve the tried and the failed: the family.  His verdict on the rioters: ‘Either there was no one at home, they didn’t care or they’d lost control.’ Social policy shall involve a ‘family test’.  If the policy ‘stops families from being together then we should not do it.’  Youths of Britain – you are grounded. 

The attempt to package the problem into a neat number to sell to the British public is itself absurd (why just the unfortunate 120,000?) designating a convenient figure.  Whatever can be said, Cameron remains addicted to the rationale of management.  At a time when austerity is the preferred word over prosperity (some of the foolish claim that one leads to the other), it remains to be seen how this will work.  Given that the government also promises to deprive more than a million families of child benefits from 2013 suggests that the selected families are not the only dysfunctional ones.  The ‘family test’ is patently stillborn.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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