Left Luggage

The socialist strategy site

Stressing the social in anti-social behaviour

Posted by Left Luggage on June 27, 2009

Does the Left have any adequate answers to anti-social behaviour? And does it need to? These questions were posed to me by a friend recently who’s life has been made hellish by his neighbours. The story points to some critical issues regarding social liberalism and the Left’s approach to community politics:

My friend lives in back-to-back terrace house in a northern town. A few months ago, a young couple with a child moved in next door. At first there were a few minor problems: rubbish left piled up in the shared back yard, the dogs defecating in his garden and their owners not clearing the mess up. But the young man would take care of these things when asked.

Soon, though, the young man had left the scene, and was replaced by the comings-and-goings of numerous young men calling at the house at all hours. Problems intensified: more and more rubbish, then setting fire to the rubbish, a succession of loud parties until the earlier hours, drunk poeple spilling out of the house in the earlier hours, loud arguments, drug use, and the (now noticeably emaciated) dogs let out to roam the streets.

The response from the authorities has been negligible. The fire brigade wasn’t interested in the cause of the fire, the police didn’t follow-up on the matter as promised after sending a PCSO round, the council say they can’t remove the rubbish, and the RSPCA say they can’t do anything about the dogs unless they’re being “mistreated”.

Meanwhile, my friend has visited some his neighbours who are all equally sick of what has been going on. But all of them are too fearful to take action, either by contacting the authorities or doing anything else. It seems the young woman is notorious in the town and is well known to the police and many local people.

In essence this reads like the kind of “neighbours from hell” story you might find in right-wing tabloids like the Daily Mail or the Express. But that does not mean we should automatically discount it; there are real and serious issues here that those on the Left need to consider. So how would we approach this? I would argue two responses are most common:

1) Social liberalism: this approach typifies the instinctive response of many leftists when confronted with such a scenario. They would take a social-structural angle. In this frame, the perpetrators become the victims. Social forces that lead to this kind of behaviour take centre stage: for example, poverty, lack of educational and employment opportunities, criminalisation of young people by society, and a lack of provision for young people e.g. youth clubs. A corrolary of this view is frequently to play down the extent of the problem, for example arguing it has been “whipped up” or exaggerated by the media or politicians.

2) Reductive Marxism: this approach is less common than (1) and contains a more complex but ultimately abstract analysis. It tends to point to the characteristics of capitalism: class society, alienation, and the need for a “reserve army of labour”, for example, as being at the root of anti-social behaviour (and other phenomenon). Some on the Left might baulk at the idea that this is reductive, as it expresses underlying truths. But it leaves so much out that it is of little value to addressing the immediate question.

What follows from either approach – and they are frequently combined – is essentially political paralysis. If we explain such behaviour purely by reference to social or economic structures, we leave ourselves without a conception of how to address such problems. It’s another case of “after the revolution…” Some might be fine with this, feeling that it is not a job for the Left to take up such causes; we should leave such crusades to the right-wing press.

Unfortunately, such an attitude can only leave the Left further adrift from ordinary people it seeks to represent. Not only does it clash with how most people would view the situation, it also leaves the Left ineffective and politically impotent, provides no (practical) solutions to some of the most immediate concerns for ordinary people, and does nothing to resist the atomization of working class communities that can only lead to further political defeat. Four aspects seem pertinent here:

First, there is the issue of personal responsibility. Any stress on this aspect is in direct opposition to the typical responses outlined, but it is crucial to really understanding such an issue. It’s right that in a sense the perpetrators can be seen as victims. But not everyone makes such choices, even where they have faced similar life experiences; people choose to act in certain ways. The Left is not wont to talk about “responsibility”. While liberalism talks mostly in terms of rights, socialists should also talk about responsibility. We do this happily enough in the context of strikes and other forms of collective action and we should equally apply this to the communities we live in.

Second, in this case at least, there is the lamentable failure of the authorities to act. This is a target no one on the Left should feel hesitant to tackle. The lack of resources and effort to address such problems is a common feature of working class communitites. Even basic services such as rubbish collection and street cleaning are sometimes biased in favour of middle class areas where residents are often more organised in lobbying their local councils.

Third, there is the hugely destructive effect such behaviour has on the communities in which it takes place. One of the biggest problems in the case above was the fear local people felt to confront the couple. To some extent this expresses the atomisation of that particular community, something that is widely replicated elsewhere, but it also perpetuates these divisions and means local people are less likely to work together on other problems. Ultimately this leads to collective quiescense and political defeat; something the Left should be resisting as a priority.

Fouth, and finally, it should be obvious that in such cases there is the possibility of overcoming the atomization of communities through collective action around such problems. In this case, dozens of local people were experiencing the same issues, but were largely isolated from each other. It’s not difficult to see that this scenario contains a contradiction that can readily be transcended. This does not mean vigilantism, as some would suggest is inevitable. Bringing people together to discuss the issue is a starting point. Then there is a whole range of options open: from speaking collectively to the troublesome neighbours, to pressuring the authorities on certain points, or finding other ways to show that the community as a whole finds such behaviour unacceptable.

So, the answers to my initial questions are: (a) Does the Left have any adequate answers to anti-social behaviour? No, with some minor exceptions. (b) And does it need to? Yes.

How to develop these “adequate answers” should be an urgent task for the Left if it seeks to embed itself in working class communities and bridge the gulf Left Luggage has so frequently pointed to. The observations in this article are little more than a starting point.

Another good examination of similar themes is provided in a previous article on Left Luggage discussing the Left’s approach to crime and a bold article by the Independent Working Class Association (with a useful comments thread) on crime, the “underclass”, and working class culture. They argue:

It needs to be recognised that these lumpen elements represent a grouping that is quite separate from, and actively hostile to, the interests and well-being of the working class proper.

Their analysis will be heretical, and probably distasteful, to many on the Left. Nevertheless, is is worth taking seriously the IWCA’s arguments as valuable contributions to important and rarely discussed questions regarding the Left’s strategy.

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3 Responses to “Stressing the social in anti-social behaviour”

  1. wageslavedave said

    A useful and timely piece… The social liberalism approach to the issue of anti-social behaviour tends to come from people who have not had the day to day experience of living with the problem. As for the reductive Marxist stance, while analytically it may be correct, as you quite rightly say, its abstraction doesn’t offer a practical solution.

    I very much endorse the IWCA view of anti-social behaviour as it comes from the practical experience of having to deal with the problem. The easy way to avoid falling into the trap of being accused of voicing the opinions of rags like the Daily Mail is to view those indulging in anti-social behaviour as scabbing against their community. These people have made a conscious choice to live the life they lead and need to be made to face up to the consequences of their actions for the community at large.

    What really concerns me about the social liberalism approach is that not only does it portray the perpetrators as victims, it implicitly endorses the view that these people really cannot help themselves. It strips them of any responsibility for the choices they have made and also of any sense of agency in reversing that choice and changing the way they live. Once you start to make any concession to this view, you are on the dangerous route to accepting that the ‘underclass’ are the way they are because of their genetic make up.

  2. Reuben said

    Very good post. I broadly agree with the sentiments. I do think, however, that is worth stressing how expansively anti-social behaviour is defined. Sometimes it is of the kind described in this article. Elsewhere it is defined – legally, in guidance by councils – as groups of people hanging around and street drinking. It is worth differentiating thenm between genuinely harmful behaviour and behaviour which simply offends the tastes or values of the community.

  3. Bob said

    Altho Reuben is right that “anti-social behaviour” is a slippery term, and the relaxed rules of evidence around can constitute a licence for police harassment, nonetheless anti-social behaviour is a real issue. The people who suffer it worst are generally the people who are the most vulnerable to all the rest of the shit that capitalist society throws at us: terrible urban design, lack of access to affordable fresh food, postcode discrimination when going for jobs…

    I’m not sure about this, but I think I first actually heard the term “anti-social behaviour” in Class War long before it became a New Labour catch phrase. Am I imagining that?

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