The Arches and the police; or the market and the law

Posted: June 21, 2015 in culture, politics and ideas
Tags: , , , , , ,

I live next to a train station in the southside of Glasgow. It’s close enough that I can wave to our cat from the platform as she watches me head to work from the back window.

I love to hear the trains late at night, heading into town as I get ready for bed. The last one passes just before midnight and always sets me off on a mental flight of fancy: who’s travelling into Glasgow this late on a Tuesday night? Where are they going? What will they get up to?

When I heard the last train rolling past the flat last night, my thoughts turned to the Arches.

The Arches is a multi-media arts venue in Glasgow city centre. People go there to engage in cultural work. Alongside its performance and exhibition spaces, bar and restaurant, the Arches features a subterranean space for live music and club nights. And if you know one thing about the Arches it will be that people go to its club nights to dance and, often, take pills. And have a famously good time.

Much has been written about the closure of the Arches recently, and I don’t propose to retread familiar terrain. The rights and wrongs of the Glasgow Licensing Board’s decision to restrict the Arches management team’s opening hours, and the actions of Police Scotland in setting the agenda that brought this decision about, have been widely commented on. You’ll have your own thoughts.

Instead, what I want to do in this post is explain how l’affaire l’Arches illustrates a much deeper and more fundamental political question: why should we have a government at all? And if you think there was an unconscionable conspiracy against the Arches before, you might be even more annoyed by the time I’ve finished with you.

The State of Nature

The justification for having a state and a government is a fundamental issue in political philosophy, and one of the most famous and enduring contributions to the debate was provided by Thomas Hobbes back in the seventeenth century.

Hobbes lived through the English Civil War and was affected profoundly by the social fracturing and fearful uncertainty of the period. In his most influential book, Leviathan, Hobbes channels those terrors into a forceful argument in favour of strong government. Any government, for Hobbes, is better than no government at all.

To build his case, Hobbes asks us to imagine what it would be like if there was no government. He presents us with the ‘state of nature’, which is the world stripped of all of the instruments of state and social organisation. There are no law-makers, therefore no human-made laws; there is no police force, therefore no means of enforcing the claims of justice except by force; there are no private property rights, arts, industry or leisure: in summary, as Hobbes put it, we are left with “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. In those circumstances, Hobbes argues, life would be so intolerable that you’d consent to any government to impose some degree of order.

Few philosophers have followed Hobbes in empowering the sovereign to rule virtually unchecked. For example, John Locke softened Hobbes’s vision of the state of nature as the war of all against all, arguing that life would be largely tolerable in the absence of government, albeit the benefits of government outweigh the attractions of natural freedom. And anarchist political thought has been much more optimistic than Hobbes about the prospects for human cooperation and flourishing in the absence of state power.

The existence of a police force is a good example of justifying state power from a state of nature perspective. Some libertarians argue that we don’t need a police force. Rather than taxing citizens and pooling the money to fund a police force under state control, why not leave it to private citizens to assess their own security needs? If people in a street are worried about crime they can club together to pay a security firm to protect them, and if they’re happy to take their chances then they keep their money and spend it on something else. However the consensus in democratic countries has generally been in favour of a common police force subject to rules of public accountability and common law. This is justified on the basis of fairness, since everyone (in principle) receives the same service irrespective of their ability to pay – after all, why should rich people live in gated communities patrolled by security guards with machine guns, while the poor live in fear in their townships? So, the idea is that we move out of a state of nature, where the only strongest or richest flourish, to the order and fairness of life under the state.

But there’s a curious aspect of this from the perspective of the Arches. Central to the state of nature justification of the state is the idea that people can’t defend themselves in the state of nature, whereas the law gives them protection and the promise of happiness. But paradoxically, dance culture in the UK has arguably experienced the opposite trajectory: ravers were free and happy in the state of nature, and then left unable to defend themselves when the state took an interest.

Free parties and superclubs

To make the above a bit clearer, let’s think about something else – the idea of the market. Everywhere, in both the state of nature or under state government, and in capitalist, socialist and mixed economies, the logic of the market applies, premised on the desirability and the availability of things. That is, if lots of people want something, and there isn’t much of it, that thing becomes more valuable than something that no one wants and that you can get anywhere.

Libertarians think capitalism is natural, but it’s not really – it requires a state to ensure contracts are honoured and to protect private property rights, for example. The state also makes laws to set limits on what can be traded – the fact it is illegal to be a hitman is a reflection of this. As such, a significant aspect of politics is the intervention of the state, in the form of law, to regulate otherwise spontaneous human action.

There were drugs before there were police, and people took drugs recreationally before there were laws against doing it. Drugs could be accessed, subject to market availability, and taken (perhaps even enjoyed) at the whim of the consumer.The reader may well be aware that the recipe for Coca Cola originally featured cocaine extract; and that’s just one example of many I could offer of entirely legal nineteenth- and early-twentieth century narcotic consumption.

During the twentieth century, state power was used, in the form of law, to criminalise drug use and drug users across the western world. (This piece here provides a very interesting way in to the subject if you’re interested). Whatever your view of this trend, one consequence was to change radically the market conditions under which people interacted with drugs. Supply no longer responded rationally to demand. Coca Cola once joined other firms in the market for cocaine-based soft drinks, and between them they would have forced the price down to the benefit of the consumer. Now, by contrast, supply became more dangerous and more scarce, since supplying drugs was now illegal. The goods were also now worthy of a higher price, inflated by danger money, while other firms struggled to enter the market since they might end up getting shot.

And then in the late 1980s and early 1990s the UK saw the explosion of acid house and rave culture, central to which was the phenomenon of the massive free outdoor party. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of people would gather in the middle of nowhere and dance for days. The free party movement reached its apotheosis, or its nadir, at Castlemorton in 1992, where tens of thousands of people attended a four-day event that was so messy it made the Six O’Clock News. The Criminal Justice Act soon put a stop to all of that.

Where the criminalisation of drugs served to turn a legal drug culture into an illegal subculture, the Criminal Justice Act shifted dance culture from its ambiguously illegal subculture towards the bright lights of legal nightclubs. So dancing went legal, while the drugs that fuelled it were outlawed.

The worst of all possible worlds

So what does this have to do with the Arches? Well, the venue opened in 1991, at the height of rave, and has reflected the energy of British youth culture ever since, in all its creativity and hedonism. As such, the Arches was an unwitting beneficiary of the Criminal Justice Act and the collapse of the free party movement, since rave culture largely moved indoors to spaces like the Arches itself. If you can’t party in a field without getting arrested, you might as well go to a legal nightclub featuring the same DJs, and better toilets (well, these things are relative).

And this is where the awkwardness comes in. If you were being charitable, the purpose of the Criminal Justice Act was to protect vulnerable ravers by moving them away from unregulated parties run by unaccountable promoters seeking a fast buck. Everyone would be safer in properly licensed premises subject to health and safety legislation and what have you. (I know that’s not actually what the Major government were up to, but it wouldn’t have been an entirely unreasonable perspective for them to have taken.)

Where this leaves us is with two legal regimes running side by side. You have drug use and supply, which is illegal, and you have nightclubs playing dance music, which is legal.

Clubs like the Arches are regulated by the state, whereas the promoters of free parties had only their consciences to guide them. Considered in this light, the shift to legal clubbing sounds like a move out of the state of nature. Yet at the same time, drug users were forcibly ejected from society and plunged into the state of nature by the decisions of governments to make drug-taking illegal. And since the logic of the Criminal Justice Act was to move drug-users out of the fields and into superclubs, it seems reasonable that the police would observe some degree of delicacy in regulating what happened next. And, to be fair, they often did.

If the state saw its role as regulating and safety-assuring drug taking, rather than criminalising it, then legal nightclubs like the Arches could co-exist with safe recreational drug use. But since it doesn’t, the legal credibility of clubs like the Arches is always at risk from the illegal status of the drug-taking that goes on behind their doors.

That’s uncomfortable. But what the authorities have now done in Glasgow is shut down the legal part of the operation. Not only are the drugs still illegal, the safe place people went to take them has been ruined. So if you want to go to a large-scale rave, your best bet now is probably to go to an unlicensed, unregulated free party in a field somewhere.

Well done everybody.

The puzzle

So who benefits?

Not Glasgow City Council, which has lost its flagship arts venue.

Not the Scottish Government, whose arts funding body will have to find new money to stimulate innovative activity in the absence of the Arches’s distinctive funding model.

(You’ll no doubt be aware that the nightclub bankrolled a substantial proportion of the cultural work of the Arches. As a counterfactual, imagine the Citizens Theatre generated 60% of its income from a betting shop in the foyer. Then imagine that word got around about a guy sitting in the corner of the betting shop, taking off-sheet wagers on illegal cock fights. The Citizens Theatre management then call the police to ask for him to be taken away. What should the police do? Well, if the experience of the Arches is anything to go by they shut down the betting shop. The tax payer will have to fund the rest of the Citizens Theatre’s budget as a result.)

Not Police Scotland either, since one gathers that the Arches had provided them with lots of easy arrest stats in recent months. That racket is now over.

And certainly not the people of Glasgow, whose young fellow-citizens might find now themselves traipsing into the middle of nowhere in search of techno, at the mercy of promoters who may or may not have their best interests at heart.

Back to nature

By the time the Hacienda shut down in Manchester, machine guns had been going off on the dance floor and the owners had been reduced to employing gangsters as security to manage the drug turf wars being waged on the premises. There was a clear public safety rationale for the closure, notwithstanding the substantial damage the loss of the club did to Manchester’s cultural life at the time.

It’s a long time since I was a regular participant in Glasgow’s night time economy, so maybe I’m just a bit out of touch. But I really don’t remember a great deal of serious crime in and around the doors of the Arches in recent years.

I’ve never actually liked the Arches that much as a club – I always felt a bit paranoid among the catacombs. My partner and I went to the bar all the time though, and we once took some foreign visitors to the Arches when they came to stay with us at our then-workplace. The bar is gorgeous – beautifully lit and spacious – and clearly quite a classy place. As such I’ll never forget the laughter when one of our visitors asked, “so, is it soon we get the drugs?”.

Er, no, we’re having a pizza in the bar. It’s 5pm.

“This then isn’t the Arches?”

So the place had a reputation, there’s no getting away from it, but it was a reputation that had our highly-educated, middle-class foreign guests giddy with excitement at the prospect of seeing the place. That’s something we’ve now lost as a community.


It’s getting late now, and it will soon be time for the last train to roll past my flat on its way to the city centre. Tonight, like every night, there will be a handful of bright-eyed people talking urgently in each carriage, speculating on the adventures that their night will hold in store for them.

They might have gone to the Arches, where they would have been made welcome, safe and happy. But, alas.

The market for fun won’t be eliminated by the closure of the Arches; it’ll just go somewhere more dangerous, and plunge decent people into the unregulated uncertainties of the state of nature.

I just hope Hobbes was wrong about it being so shit.


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