The horrific case of two brothers aged ten and 11 who violently assaulted two other boys has re-opened the issue of children and violence. The media coverage has sparked panic, with a sharp rise in calls and referrals to already stretched social workers.
Barnado’s chief executive Martin Narey called for early intervention in “problem families” – in other words, putting more children into care.
There are echoes of the Baby P case, when the Sun newspaper ran a smear campaign against social workers. Its argument is that “political correctness” means they are too scared to act. Again in this instance the media’s first response was to blame Doncaster social workers for failing to “discipline” the “feral kids”.
But we shouldn’t blame social workers. They are overworked and overstressed. In any case they can’t be expected to solve problems that are caused by wider society. It is no coincidence that the children lived in the former mining village of Edlington, near Doncaster – the site of Yorkshire Main Colliery, one of the biggest coal mines in the country until it was shut down in the 1980s. It is an area where people suffer poverty, unemployment, drug addiction – and all the other symptoms of the towns destroyed by Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government.
What makes children turn violent?
The media has an easy answer: young people who commit violent acts are “evil” – so the Doncaster boys became the “devil brothers”.
Young working class people are derided as “hoodies” and “chavs” and assumed to have a special predisposition for crime.
The government now monitors mothers when they are pregnant, attempting even then to judge whether she is carrying a “problem child”.
Right wing scientists argue that crime can be predicted by looking at biology and genetics – so crime is hard-wired into us.
This approach goes back a long way. Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso developed a theory of biological determinism in the late 1800s. He claimed to be able to measure criminal tendencies by looking at physical characteristics such as skull size.
But his theory was really based on racist ideas and stereotypes of working class people.
Rafaele Garofolo expanded on Lombroso’s theories in 1885 by calling for the execution of criminals. He argued that as crime was genetically determined this was the only way for society to survive.
The Nazis’ racist theories were based on the same principle – and led to mass murder.
People are not born violent. The problem is one of nurture – how we are shaped by upbringing and society – not nature.
Do poorer people commit more crime?
Inequality, bad housing, poverty and abuse all play a role in pushing people to the limits. But there is no epidemic of working class crime. The biggest crimes in society – from war to corporate killings – are committed by the rich and the bosses.
The way crime is recorded and reported means there is a whole world of crime that there are barely any statistics for – the crimes of the rich.
These crimes cost the world millions, through fraud, dodgy business deals and corporate corruption. But these crimes are treated differently to those committed by working class people. Companies are let off the hook as well. Every year more than 200 workers die while doing their job. For example, in 2004 a gas explosion at the ICL Stockline plastics factory in Glasgow killed nine workers and maimed or badly injured another 30. Safety rules had been broken and corners cut to save money. But the company was fined just £400,000 – that’s less than £45,000 for each worker who died.
Such capitalist crimes are caused by the relentless pursuit of profit regardless of human cost. The crimes of the two boys from Doncaster, horrific as they are, were not caused by greed – they are products of despair.
The boys grew up in a deeply troubled home. They had been in and out of care and lived chaotic lives as the council passed them around, putting saving money before their wellbeing. Neighbours said they were left to “fend for themselves” and scavenged in the streets.
The boys had been bullied at school and then excluded, and the adults initially responsible for them were suffering from alcohol and drug addictions. The economic and social make up of their lives will have taken a heavy toll on them.
Of course it’s true that for every person who gets pushed to breaking point, there are thousands of others from similar backgrounds who will not. It is not automatic that people will respond to any combination of factors in the same way.
But we should not blame those whose response to abuse and deprivation is a mirror of their own experience.
What drives some people to crime?
Politicians and the media bang on about crime – but it is precisely their policies that create the problems and divisions that are the root of the crimes they focus on.
Poverty plays a large role in isolating and demoralising people. But there is a wider problem that socialists call “alienation” – the powerlessness behind people’s social detachment from the world around us. Our experience of living under capitalism distorts us, crushes our basic humanity, and detaches us from the world around us and each other.
When everything is bought and sold, we end up seeing everything in terms of the market. The system exploits us and our work, paying us wages to produce goods that we have no need for or interest in and may never see again.
Capitalism also distorts our relationships with other people. The relationships we have the potential to build as social creatures and the ones we actually have in the current system are miles apart. It is these aspects of alienation that contribute to destructive personal relationships.
The idea of “evil” hides the far more frightening truth – the factors that cause violence affect all of us, every day.
But that is not because violence is an inherent part of human nature – it’s bred by the capitalist system we live in.
Once evil, always evil?
Every time one of these horrific crimes is reported in the press, a cry goes up: “Lock them up and throw away the key”, or worse, “Hang them”.
These are false solutions. They don’t stop such acts happening in the future, because the conditions that caused the crime in the first place are not addressed. And they don’t acknowledge that people have the potential to change. The Doncaster boys are victims, like everyone else involved in the case. They should be helped, not hated.
Interventions can help people to overcome their past and move on. People can be rehabilitated.
Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, the killers of James Bulger, are an example. They committed their crime when they were just ten years old.
After their trial, one of the jurors wrote a letter to the Guardian.
“I felt that we were forced into a verdict of ‘guilty of murder’,” it said. “A more appropriate verdict would have been ‘guilty as frightened and largely unaware children who made a terrible mistake and now need psychiatric and social help’.”
When they were released from prison the tabloids attempted to incite vigilante “justice” against them.
The reality is that the two have not re-offended.
But our rulers prefer us to believe that some people are just inescapably “evil”.
For the government and the courts to acknowledge that individual violence has anything to do with society would be to risk admitting what their barbaric system does to ordinary people.
What is to be done?
Socialists should, and do, tirelessly campaign for better services for children, young people and adults – for better housing, for an end to school exclusion and access to services.
But there is more to it than that. What is needed is a fundamental change in society. We need a world where young people are free from bullying and destitution. And looking after the next generation should become the responsibility of communities and society as a whole.
The need for change is urgent – the price we pay for capitalism is obvious. The fight for humans to reach their full potential as compassionate beings is bound up with the struggle for the end of a system that brutalises us all.
Written by Siân Ruddick and Tom Walker