Like the rest of the media, potlatch is on summer hiatus right now, occasionally stirring to wonder whether public life is really such a trivial thing that it makes sense for all of its key protagonists and main analysts to holiday simultaneously. Say what you like about the bond markets, but you can at least rely on them to still be steam-rollering national sovereignty, even in mid-August.
The police are also all in Tuscany at the moment, which is why there are so many televisions going cheap in Tottenham this week. Some of the media's remaining members have picked up a social media angle to all of this: were the riots all a brilliantly coordinated ruse, based on innovations such as #meetoutsidedixonsat3am ? How long before the whole problem becomes framed in the rationalist, maximising terms of game-theory, and we discover that the modern state doesn't actually work? I've wondered about this before, on hearing that Hackney has 900 policemen to cope with 350,000 residents.
New Labour gave us the 'citizen-consumer' as a new model of the individual public service user. This is a participating member of 'the community', who nevertheless holds preferences which they act upon rationally and self-interestedly. They operate on the border between public and private interest. Could we witness the rise of the 'criminal-consumer', who employs lawlessness as a strategy for their own consumer goals? This was ultimately what Gary Becker proposed over 50 years ago, when he applied neo-classical price theory to understand crime and other non-market activities. Michel Foucault described Becker's version of neo-liberalism as follows:
Law enforcement is the set of instruments of action which, on the market for crime, opposes a negative demand to the supply of crime.
This is very close to what Jeremy Bentham had proposed in the late 18th century. Richard Posner has subsequently developed this approach, based on the notion that law's sole function is to alter incentives. Some activities such as illegal downloading, where obedience to the law is simply not efficient enough, make such a perspective faintly plausible.
Should one adopt this rationalist account of crime and deviance, then throw in social media, things start to appear very scary indeed. The 'criminal-consumer' acquires the capacity for widespread, mass co-operation (as allegedly was facilitated by twitter during the Arab Spring), in a way that is compatible with individual preferences for more consumer goods.
This is a kind of post-Thatcherite, neo-classical variant of what Marxists have hoped for, namely that bringing the proletariat together in the factory and the city will eventually lead to the emergence of a reflexive class consciousness, in which individuals discover that co-operation is more rational than competition. Revolution would follow. Neo-classical economics famously lacks any theory of production, and so when homo economicus assembles en masse in the city, with the new capacity of social media, the only form of co-operation that can emerge is riotous consumption, otherwise known as looting. If socialism promised to democratise the means of production, social media might be democratising the means of consumption, with both omelettes requiring a few eggs to be broken along the way.
Under these circumstances, the role of the state becomes like that of the anti-trust authority. Crime, in the age of twitter, comes to appear as a form of cartel, that needs busting. Above all else, the state must prevent co-operation, and maintain homo economicus in the state of mutually suspicious individualism. In a bizarre new form of neo-classical performativity, the prisoners dilemma travels from the realm of scholarly game theory, to being a strategy for policing the city.
Naturally all of the above is a nonsense. Co-operation happens for reasons other than strategy and shared preference, and strategy and share preference are seldom enough to generate co-operation. The law remains tinged with a metaphysical authority, that is not reducible to its effects on incentives. In any case, behavioural 'nudges', brains and 'choice architectures' have knocked the Benthamites and neo-classical dogmatists out of the policy limelight. But perhaps that's just as well. If the lessons of Becker, Bentham et al were learnt too closely, attaining law and order on the streets of the digitally-enabled city might soon come to appear tougher than a Nash equilibrium.