by Jez Strickley
When one observes how so many civilisations have arisen, paraded their apparent greatness for a time, then teetered and collapsed, later falling away into the pages of history, it’s hard not to look at present-day Western society, largely an industrial product only a few hundred years old, with its energy-hungry citizens and highly complex and sometimes fractious political relations, and not ponder just what exactly is it that stops everything from falling apart. In short, what is the glue, if you will, which holds contemporary Western society in place?
Addressing such a far-reaching question is far beyond the scope of this short essay. That being said, I would like to touch upon a possible answer, however tenuous, which is sure to prove not a little controversial.
In a deeply interconnected world, where a growing number of people live and work in an urban, digitally-driven environment, and in which whole economies are sown together and social mores shaped by global concerns, the functionality of the modern Western state can sometimes look almost incredible. Yet amongst other binding agents such as mutual utility and pleasure seeking, could there be a negative substance underpinning this stability, of which at least some of us are intuitively aware, but cannot quite see for fear of recognising a truly disturbing feature of the human species?
The dark matter to which I am alluding is criminality. Law breakers come in all manner of guises, each holding in common the same disregard for moral and social conventions and the legal rights of their fellow citizens. The presence – or possibility – of crime is the raison d’être for judiciaries and security forces the world over; and the very health of a nation state is measured by the transparency and integrity of its rule of law. But could there be a decidedly unpleasant link between law-breaking and the cohesion of a community, or even an entire state? In other words, and however paradoxical it may appear, is crime a way of keeping the majority of citizens safe in their beds?
The suspicion that governments collude with criminals for mutually beneficial purposes has long been with us; it goes hand in hand with the further notion that fear and loathing are deliberately encouraged amongst the populace for similarly grim reasons. Yet could it be that crime and social stability go beyond the concoctions of conspiracy theorists, and instead have been the most unlikely bedfellows since the first settled human communities gave rise to more sophisticated social fabrics?
The acclaimed British novelist, J G Ballard, plays on this idea in his 1996 thriller Cocaine Nights. In it, the protagonist seeks to clear his brother’s name of murder, only to realise that the criminality seeping into the Spanish resort where his brother’s alleged crime occurred, has revitalised this expat enclave, giving energy and purpose to what was once a scene of decay and entropy. It is a hugely provocative conceit, and arguably intended to feed upon the anxieties of those law-abiding readers who cannot quite believe that the minted retirees of holiday resorts, such as the one depicted by Ballard, are lilywhite characters free of foibles and peccadilloes.
I would very much like to concur with this last point, and to put aside Ballard’s fictive pondering as just that. And yet there remains a niggle, a glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye, which tells me that there might just be a kernel of truth in this particular conjecture, and that crime possesses the power to mend strained relations and restore hollowed out neighbourhoods, forming ties of sympathy and fellow feeling amongst those who would otherwise remain distant and estranged.
Of course, at this point it would be more than reasonable to look to those parts of the world which are ridden by criminality, where social bonds are stretched to their limit by law breaking, and to ask how a phenomenon which causes so much pain and misery could be considered as some sort of social cohesive. There is, clearly, no case to be made here. From casual anti-social behaviour to armed robbery and murder, the law-breaker is a threat to the well-being of the state and the citizen alike. But this is not the claim that Ballard’s novel is posing. Cocaine Nights portrays a group of individuals given new life by a crime wave passing through their resort. It is a crime wave with terrible consequences, and yet it points to the deviant as a stabilising agent for an otherwise dying community on the edge of entropic ruin.
I’m not sure I agree with this Ballardian perspective, however fictive it may be, but I do think that it raises a crucial observation regarding the shape of society. In the main, states tend to rest on the back of that age-old Hobbesian contract that sees the sovereign – read president or parliament – withhold certain freedoms from the citizen in return for safety and stability. The possibility of disregarding this contract – in other words law breaking – necessitates the building and maintaining of certain structures and bodies which, in turn, support the workings of the state. In a sense, then, we’re left with something of a quandary. If crime did not exist then there would be no need for the various state apparatuses designed to ensure the safety of the citizen. But since there remains the prospect that criminality can occur, the state is structured accordingly. Put another way, in Ballard’s world the presence of crime breathes life into a moribund environment, whereas in the actual world it is the possibility of crime that helps to create and sustain the shape of contemporary society. In this way, the social proposal which lies behind Cocaine Nights is one which, you might say, has long been made and agreed upon, however tacitly, by the citizenry of the Western world.
One of the reasons wheeled out in defence of evil existing in the world is the need to give contrast to good. However, it might be preferable to think that it is the possibility of evil which is required. In Cocaine Nights we are given a fictional account of evil reinvigorating a group of people. Let us hope that such fictive accounts are sufficient to sustain contemporary society and, where necessary, to glue its sometimes disparate parts into one unified whole.