TCS Daily

The Politics of the Gang

By Lee Harris - March 2, 2004 12:00 AM

In my book, Civilization and Its Enemies, I argue that all successful civilizations tend to forget just how difficult it was for their ancestors to rise to a civilized state. Furthermore, I argue that if the civilization is spectacularly successful, as ours has been, it even begins to nurture the collective illusion that human beings come into the world predisposed to live harmoniously together. We get along fine, and so naturally we are puzzled when others don't. What makes them butcher each other, we wonder, when in fact the real question should be, What keeps us from doing the same thing?

As the proverb goes, A picture is worth a thousand words, and in Haiti today there are enough gruesome pictures to challenge many volumes of utopian political theory, regardless of whether these utopias emanate from the libertarian fantasies of the right or the cosmopolitan fantasies of the left. For the problem with all of these flights of political imagination is that they refuse to take seriously what is right before their eyes in the TV images coming from Haiti -- the hideous and obscene truth about the origins of political power.

Over a hundred years ago, the great French historian Albert Sorel wrote:

"...the origins of power...must be veiled....The mystery whereby the naked fact becomes legitimate right is something to be decently hidden from the sights of men. These are regions of fearful mist...."

And, he might have added, regions of appalling butchery and ruthless aggression.

In Civilization and Its Enemies, I have tried to lift up this veil and to show what lies behind it, and what I found was not a group of enlightened men and women entering under John Rawls' Veil of Ignorance in order to form the correct principle of justice, nor John Locke's prudent and calculatingly self-interested businessmen devising a workable community. Instead what I discovered was exactly what you would discover if you happened by some terrible misfortune to find yourself alone in the streets of Port-au-Prince right now, namely, swarming and ragtag troops of boys and young men, all of them willing to perform actions that no civilized man or woman could even imagine themselves doing, and all of them brandishing guns and knives and clubs.

Perhaps the most startling thesis of my book is the decisive historical role that I assigned to the boys' gang in the origins of civilization. Most people, if they give any thought about boys' gang, tend to think about them as a social plight affecting our impoverished inner cities -- it is the result of poverty or a lack of education, and perhaps even a pathology of modern capitalism. Too many jobless teenage dropouts, and you will soon have trouble.

On my reading, the boys' gang is both the first form that political power takes and the form that political power again assumes whenever there has been a complete breakdown of established authority.

Mao-tse Tung, the father of the Chinese Revolution, wrote in his once famous little red book that all power comes from the barrel of a gun; and most people who have read this remark have been shocked and outraged by this brutal characterization of the origin of power. Sadly enough, Mao was displaying that typical naiveté of the Marxist intellectual, locating the ultimate source of power in a piece of technology -- in this case, the gun. But, as the NRA slogan reminds us, "Guns don't kill people; people kill people," in which case the true source of power is not in the gun, but in the trigger finger of the gunman.

You can pass out all the guns you want, but if no one is willing to pick them up and fire them, then the guns have no more value to you than a heap of worthless scrap metal. This means that if guns -- or swords, or clubs -- are to be of any use to you, there must be a convenient pool of human beings who are willing to pick them up, to learn how to use them, or, most importantly, to think nothing of using them, even when they are being used on other human beings -- even their neighbors right across the street from them.

Now when you are looking for such a pool of human beings, to what demographic group would you naturally turn? To elderly matrons? To overweight and uxorious husbands? To bankers, to accountants, to school teachers? No, you turn, and you turn at once, to boys somewhere between the age of fourteen and twenty-five; and, what is perhaps most important, you turn to them not as individuals, but as gangs.

The boys' gang has only one motto: It is Us against the world. We stick together through thick and thin, and anyone who is not a member of our gang is fair prey.

The willingness to take risks, to act ruthlessly, to obey unthinkingly the general will of the gang -- all of these make the boys' gang by far the most formidable source of power in a world in which anarchy is the rule; and the reason for this is not hard to see.

When societies break down into anarchy, the normal channels of trust and allegiance are no longer operative. Each individual is cut off and isolated from the other individuals who are normally in his life; each seeks to hide himself from view, to lie low, to stay away from the windows, and certainly out of the streets. But this centrifugal tendency of the average person runs in the exact opposite direction from the centripetal tendency of the boys' gang. Under such circumstances, normal individuals fly apart, while teenage boys and young men collect together. And, before long, the only safety to be found is the safety in numbers of the gang. The gang rules.

They are ruling in Haiti right now.

Haiti should be a sobering lesson to those who entertain the fantasy of libertarianism. If the state is the ultimate source of evil, then what is turning all these boys into butchers? It should also be an equally sobering lesson to those intellectuals who urge us to pledge our allegiance to the community of all the men and women on the planet -- does this community include the roving teenage gangs of Haiti or of Liberia? And if not, what do you do with them? Do you force them to attend seminars on political ethics presided over by Martha Nussbaum and Noam Chomsky?

If you wish to grasp the origin of power, do not look to find it in the social contract so beloved of liberals, or in the rational self-interest of conservatives, or in the lullaby of natural rights or moral principles. It is over there, not very far from our shores, rioting and pillaging through the streets and shanties and isolated villages.

That is the world out of which our civilization somehow managed to emerge; and it is the harsh baseline to which all collapsing civilizations eventually return.

Lee Harris is a TCS contributing editor. He last wrote for TCS about "Bush-ite Cheerleading." He is the author of the new book, Civilization and Its Enemies.


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