Taking crime seriously
Posted by Left Luggage on April 8, 2009
Last year, two teenage boys in the East London college where I work were stabbed to death. The killings happened on separate occasions and in different parts of East London, but there were many similarities between the two cases. Both were killed after refusing to hand over mobile phones. Neither had a history of involvement in violence. Both were murdered a year before they planned to go to university. I didn’t know either student personally, but it is likely they would have been among the first in their families to reach higher education, had their lives not been ended prematurely.
At least half a dozen teenagers have been killed in the immediate vicinity of the college in the three years I have worked there. Communities in the area are extremely tight-knit, and many of my students have been personally affected by the killings. In my first term, I remember reading the account one girl wrote of the night her friend was stabbed through the heart in front of her at a party. A male student of mine took time off college after seeing his female friend murdered. Staff have also been attacked. A security guard was stabbed in the back in broad daylight outside the college gates after he allegedly offended a friend of the attacker. He survived.
One of the most pernicious affects of crime is the way it alters the social and political views of those whose lives it blights. Most of the young people I work with have a pessimistic view of human nature, refusing to believe that people have altruistic motivations. Far from having pride in their communities, they can’t wait to leave what they see as dangerous and neglected neighbourhoods. Whenever we discuss crime they voice support for the most authoritarian policies, including longer prison terms and the death penalty. They largely reject the liberal view that crime might have social causes.
My students are not alone. Concern about violent crime is widespread and growing in working class areas. 57% of respondents to a BBC poll in 2008 said they had become more concerned about knife crime in the past year. Among manual workers, the figure was 66%. On attitudes to punishment, class differences are even clearer. 53% overall supported an automatic four year prison sentence for anyone caught carrying a knife; among manual workers the figure leapt to 65%.
The Left often explains attitudes like these as the result of media over-reporting and sensationalism. The way the media frame the issue of crime is clearly important, but the relationship between the media and their audiences is a complex and reflexive one. Media messages must resonate with audiences if they are to be effective. To imply that people get their views on crime solely from the media is simplistic. In any case, to argue that public opinion on crime (or immigration, or anything else) is attributable to media influence is to miss the point. We have to deal with public opinion as we find it, not as we would like it to be. Telling people their views are “based on media lies” is unlikely to produce positive results.
The Left is more out of touch with public opinion on crime than on almost any other issue. A perfect illustration of this was provided by an article in Socialist Worker last month headlined “Capitalism and rape”. After criticising judicial and police attitudes to rape, the writer points out that rape is a “social problem” and “Socialist Worker has no tradition of calling for more arrests or harsher sentencing to deal with social problems.” The root cause of this social problem, we are told, is the alienation brought about by capitalism. As for the solution, we read:
Abusers should receive treatment and counselling to help them to live normal lives and prevent them repeating their behaviour. But to eradicate all forms of sexual violence we need to fight together to create a very different kind of society.
There are several things wrong with this analysis. To argue that there will be no rape “after the revolution” dodges two very important issues. Firstly, how should we deal with sexual violence until we abolish capitalism (assuming this is a long way off)? Should we console rape victims with the news that there will be no rape in the new socialist society? Secondly, it is utopian to argue that sexual violence will not take place “after capitalism”. While removing alienation might dramatically reduce instances of rape, it is unlikely to completely abolish the crime. All societies are faced with the problem of how to deal with anti-social behaviour, of which rape is an extreme example.
The worst aspect of the article cited above is the way it appears to absolve individual rapists of personal responsibility for the heinous crimes they commit. People act within a social context and every individual action will have been influenced by numerous social factors, but ultimately we choose to act the way we do. If this were not the case, it would be impossible for criminals to change their ways or for people to resist the temptation to commit crime. Capitalism “causes” crime in the sense that it destroys bonds of solidarity between individuals, promotes the ruthless pursuit of self interest and creates material deprivation. It puts certain people in situations where they are likely to decide to commit crime. In the same way, any other social phenomenon can be said to be “caused by capitalism”, from sex trafficking to short selling, but it makes no sense to disregard personal responsibility in these cases.
Part of the reluctance on the Left to blame criminals for their actions might be due to the fact that the perpetrators of certain crimes tend to be working class. It is equally true, however, that the victims of anti-social crime are disproportionately working class. Crime in working class communities is generally committed by a small minority of individuals who enrich themselves at the direct expense of the majority. In this sense, the drug dealer is a miniature version of the capitalist exploiter.
There is also a concern on the Left that addressing crime is inherently reactionary. It is true that arguing for more police powers and bigger prisons legitimises and strengthens the state. However, being anti-crime does not necessarily mean being pro-police or pro-punishment. Experiences in the North of Ireland show how communities can address crime themselves, by standing up to the criminal minority and forcing criminals to atone for their actions. Such restorative justice schemes have more recently been adopted in other parts of the UK, for instance by the Independent Working Class Association in Oxford. This is not to say crime can be addressed by completely bypassing the police. Clearly they are needed to help find perpetrators and deter future crimes, but at the moment there is a perception in many working class areas that the police are more concerned with public relations than with tackling the problems that communities face. Rather than argue for more police powers, the Left should put pressure on the police to respond to the needs of the communities they serve. Like any collective action, community campaigns against crime can help to strengthen solidarity and build community pride.
According to the 2008 poll, 38% of people do not trust any of the three main parties to deal with crime (43% of manual workers). Working class people will look for alternatives if the Left is unwilling to represent them and address these concerns. At the moment, that alternative is the British National Party, which has already started to give crime as much prominence as immigration in some of its campaigns.
To begin to reconnect with the working class, we must listen to the concerns of communities on issues like crime and formulate a progressive response. To do this, the Left urgently needs to build the roots in communities that it currently lacks. If we fail, we open the door to the far right, with catastrophic consequences.