Racist violence, membership & virtue

What appears at first sight [1] to be an incident of racist violence on school premises has been filmed and widely distributed across social media.

Sunny’s instinct for tells them that expelling the alleged main perpetrator of the violence is a bad idea:

I don’t think the child who bullied the Syrian kid should be expelled [sic] from school. He’ll only grow up to hate refugees / brown people even more. Instead, why not take him to meet a refugee family? Get him to understand the pain the boy went through?…..
Just pointing out the obvious here. Restorative Justice isn’t a slogan, you have to practice what you preach.

I have sympathy with the broad sentiment. It could well be that expulsion would lead to a hardening of racist attitudes through a combination of perceived victimhood at an individual level and, as Ayesha suggests, a ‘martyrdom’ narrative exploited by the far right, both locally and nationally.

And I probably wouldn’t be the Chair of Governors at a secondary school, playing a significant personal role in the schools disciplinary and conduct systems, if I didn’t believe that young people who have strayed off the “straight and narrow” can be helped back on to it while continuing in mainstream education.

But my sympathy for the broad sentiment of rehabilitation being more effective than retribution is tempered by a key concern: that this kind of reaction to social problems is what most damages the left, and with it proper social justice, in the long term.

Here, I am not falling for the obvious narrative: that the left deserves to be unpopular because it’s seen to be too soft on miscreance, at cost to the people who live law-abiding lives.

What I do mean is that the impulse to restore social order, by suggesting how this school should go about its business, reflects a deep flaw at the heart of mainstream left thinking — the mistaken belief that taking hierarchical control rather than respecting institutional autonomy is what improves the social fabric and makes for happier, more fulfilling lives.

Look at the term Sunny uses: he does not want to see this young person “expelled”.

If Sunny knew more about schools, he would know that the term “expel” is on longer used. Instead, schools talk of exclusions — both fixed term and permanent. This is neither a random shift in language nor a question of “political correctness gone mad”. The shift toward the use of “exclusion” is it is the opposite of “inclusion”.

The notion and ethos of inclusion of all students (and staff) is at the heart of any good school, because developing that notion and ethos into practices means, in good schools, that almost all students and staff come to share the rules of internal membership of the school, not least because they recognize that this brings rewards for all.

So a consensus that it’s good to have calm school corridors where the younger ones feel at ease, and a consensus that if you do get into a bit of trouble by an irresistible urge to make fart noises at the back of class you abide by the detention consequences, leads to an educational institution in which the vast majority of students and staff feel proud to be included.

Exclusion is the opposite. It happens, for a fixed term or permanently, where the rules of membership have been broken, either to such an extent that re-inclusion is simply not possible (because other students will be too scared to enjoy school, for example) or because the rules about accepting consequences of not accepting mutually beneficial rules are deliberately broken.

That question of membership of the institution, with its own set of membership rules, has been at the heart of any exclusion meeting I have been part of, though often not explicitly so — often the notion of balance is invoked, between the needs/rights of the individual for a good, mainstream education and the rights of the other staff and students to a safe and welcoming learning environment.

The most important feature of all this, though, is that these membership rules and norms are internal to the institution. They exist primarily to make a school a place of excellent educational practice, as a good in itself.

What Sunny wants — however inadvertently — is to subvert the integrity of those rules, and hence the value of membership of the school community, in the interests of a social purpose extraneous to the life of the school; he wants the school to be obliged to keep including someone within its membership, even at harm to that membership, because doing so will, he suggests, lead to a greater social good.

In other words Sunny, like most in the mainstream modern left, is a utilitarian who seeks to impose his conception of a single social good (albeit one shared with many) even at the expense of the integrity of self-governing institutions.

And this impulse to seek to meet single social good

This is not a leftism that attracts me. When taken to its logical conclusion, such a utilitarianism imposes upon us the iron cage of Weberian managerialism, critiqued by Alasdair MacIntyre, in which the arbiter of what the social good is necessarily becomes the “bureacratic authority” aka. the state:

For on Weber’s view no type of authority no type of authority can appeal to rational criteria to vindicate itself except that type of bureaucratic authority which appeals precisely to its own effectiveness. And what this appeal reveals is that bureaucratic authority is nothing other than successful power. (p.26)

Now, as wielders of bureaucratic authority go, Sunny would be greatly preferable to the ones we have at the moment, whose conception and imposition of the social good has directly contributed to the kind of alleged racist violence we started with here.

But that he would have a better effectiveness is not the point. The point is that validating the notion of a single social good to which all institutions are bound, ultimately by state control, will always have a negative effect on the kind of communities of practice in which (MacIntryean) virtue [2] flourishes, and in so doing will harm the overall social good, however defined.

Or, as Chris has long pointed out, managerialism is bad for us, whoever is doing it to us.

So is there a better way?

Well yes, I think there is. The kind of leftism to which I now aspire to [3] requires a dedication not to the attainment of a centrally ordained social good, but to a deliberate fostering of pluralism, in which membership of institutions/communities of practice creates the kind virtuous feedback loop on, well, virtue, that Nancy Rosenblum desribes in her exhaustive study.

In such a world, the concept of/need for universal rights falls away, to be replaced by a broad right to participate (and with that goes a requirement for minimum material security provided by a smaller state re-engineered towards a its own membership rules of constitutional patriotism).

As such, it shares many of the features set out in Anthony Painter’s woefully neglected Left without a Future; Social Justice in Anxious Times, which focuses on the need to develop self-governing institutions not unlike, in ethos, the kind of school I have depicted (as an ideal) above, but with additional focus on the need to embed a pluralism of re-professionalisation which over time challenges and then overturns managerial legitimacy, and does so not least by developing its own set of rules for inclusion (ideally modelled on Habermas’ grounded theories of moral consciousness and communicative action).

That bold (some will say pie-in-the-sky) aspiration is quite a long way on from the interpretation of a hasty tweet about a nasty racist incident in a school, but you have to start somewhere.


[1] Those who have seen the video may be in little doubt about the nature of the incident, but the norms of justice should always prevail.

[2] MacIntrye’s definition of a virtue is;

A virtue is an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those good which are internal to practices and the lack of which prevents us from achieving any such goods (p.195)

[3] I do not pretend to have worked all this through yet into a normative programme for a new associational socialism (and transition through re-professionalisation, but this is my first sketch of how such a new associational leftism, rooted in earlier socialist traditions, might meet the main challenges facing the modern left in terms of popular anti-left narrative.