Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1917

Moral panics, crime and punishment

This article is over 19 years, 8 months old
There is nothing new about today’s moral panic over anti-social behaviour, says Michael Lavalette, Preston Respect councillor and senior lecturer in social policy
Issue 1917

HARDLY A week goes by without a media story about crime, violence, anti-social behaviour or lawlessness in our towns and cities. Even the last two issues of Socialist Worker have carried letters from readers debating whether Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) are necessary to protect working class communities from “delinquent youth”.

It’s not just the press. All the main political parties argue that crime needs to be tackled and more police should be on the beat to protect us.

Home secretary David Blunkett has recently announced a “crime target” which will aim to reduce crime by 15 percent by 2007. Across the country Lib Dem and Labour councils try to outdo each other by passing more ASBOs, drink bans and exclusion zones.

One bizarre example comes from Preston. At a council meeting last year a motion by the Lib Dems to ban the sale and use of fireworks to individuals with no licence was passed overwhelmingly.

Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors argued that young people were using fireworks “anti-socially”.

They were letting off fireworks late at night, terrifying older people by throwing bangers at them and

“attacking people in cars” with them, so more controls were needed.

Only myself and three others voted against the proposals, despite the fact that there was little evidence of any of the behaviour described taking place and that, if it was taking place, there were already laws in place that would make such activity illegal.

The impression that we get from the media and mainstream parties is that we are in the midst of a crimewave.

This is used to justify more powers for the police, to give powers to local authority wardens, to issue ASBOs to people who have not been charged with any criminal offence and to expand the huge network of survelliance devices used to monitor us—in Britain we have more CCTVs than any other European country.

Yet the facts do not support the notion of a crimewave. Every year the Home Office produces the British Crime Survey (BCS).

This is the most comprehensive review of people’s experiences of, and attitudes to, crime. Over 40,000 people in England and Wales are interviewed each year as part of the survey—a huge piece of social research.

The latest BCS for 2003 actually shows a significant year on year drop in crime.

Overall crime dropped by 5 percent from 2002 to 2003. And this drop continues a pattern that has been in place since 1995. Since 1995 the crime rate has dropped 39 percent—the longest sustained drop in crime since 1898.

In the last year, vandalism declined by 4 percent, burglary by 4 percent, vehicle theft by 11 percent, and theft from the person by 10 percent. In terms of violent crime, common assaults have declined by 3 percent, wounding by 8 percent, robbery by 7 percent, “acquaintance violence” by 5 percent and “stranger violence” by 1 percent.

The most likely victims of “stranger violence” are young men under the age of 24—and they are most likely to be the victims of this violence in the vicinity of pubs and clubs.

The BCS does show that increasing numbers of people fear being a victim of crime—despite the fact that the risk of being a victim of crime is at its lowest for 20 years. This suggests that we are in the midst of a media and politician induced “moral panic” over crime and lawlessness.

Some years ago the criminologist Geoff Pearson wrote a very good book called Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears. Pearson looked at the way in which such panics were fairly regular events over the past 100 years.

Pearson was writing in the midst of the moral panic over “mugging” that took place at the end of the 1970s. Mugging was an invented term for theft against the person. It was said to be a new, dangerous type of crime that was spiralling out of control.

And in the atmosphere of the time it was also highly racialised. It was said to be a crime committed by young black men. The media were full of mugging stories, in the way today’s papers are full of anti-social behaviour stories.

Politicians latched onto the theme in an attempt to prove they were tough on crime. And the police launched a series of operations that harassed young black men.

But Pearson found that around 20 years earlier the same things were written about the Teds, Mods and Rockers. In the 1930s it was “razor gangs”. At the turn of the century it was the original Hooligans and what were termed “street Arabs”.

Further, he noted that each time there was a panic over crime and violence the media and politicians blamed a mixture of “lefties”, families and teachers for not disciplining children enough.

Today’s “degenerates” are compared unfavourably with the disciplined young people of the previous generation. But as we go back, this “golden age” of happy, contented young people is revealed as a bit of a myth.

What these recurrent panics do reveal is the continuing problem capitalism has trying to control “problem” sections of the community.

Capitalism can, to a degree, control what we do while we are at work. It can force us to be in a particular location, it can try to set the pace of our work, or try to ensure that various machines or computers control what we are doing and how we do it.

This, of course, is never complete and is a serious source of conflict within the system. But nevertheless capitalists have some degree of control over these processes.

But we also spend some time away from work, at home and at leisure. We engage in less controlled activities. We can organise in trade unions, community groups and political parties.

To varying degrees these all represent a threat to the smooth functioning of the system and, from capitalism’s point of view, need to be controlled. Both crime control and law enforcement are part of the process of maintaining “order”—that is, protecting the existing social order.

There is another problem. What about those who are excluded from the labour market and therefore don’t have the means to access the commercialised culture that dominates our lives?

Petty theft and crime offer some the opportunity to operate in a society divided between a tiny minority of exceptionally wealthy individuals and the vast majority struggling to make ends meet.

Finally the very nature of capitalism means there are times when we can unite together—but it also divides us.

The capitalist system breeds competition between individuals, and divides us by fuelling things like racism, sexism and homophobia.

It sends us to work to produce goods we will never own, at a work process over which we have little control.

The system produces what Karl Marx called alienation. And this means that sometimes people get lost in despair and sometimes lash out against others.

So what we think of as crime is not neutral but actually shaped by the kind of society that capitalism is and what its priorities are. Some crimes are treated almost as accidents or natural disasters.

Think of the large number of people killed in Britain over the last 20 years because privatised industries and companies ignored safety regulations—train disasters, the drownings on the Herald of Free Enterprise, the Piper Alpha oilrig explosion.

Yet not a single person was charged with murder, nor a single company with corporate manslaughter.

Instead, crimewaves focus on the poor and dispossesed. Yet we cannot understand violence and brutality without understanding the violence and brutality generated by the system. Anti-social acts are inevitable in an anti-social world.

So what is the solution? The answer has three parts. First is to look at the facts and not get caught up in the moral panic. Crime is not on the increase, it’s actually in decline at present.

Second is to improve the conditions of social life. This means creating better paying, better regulated jobs, and providing an comprehensive welfare system that doesn’t criminalise the poor.

It means well financed community centres and youth centres where people have some say over what is provided.

It means re-establishing park wardens, bus conductors and platform attendants who provide some community control, and giving people a degree of hope and a sense of community.

Finally, we must recognise that crime is created by poverty, inequality and alienation. Crime is a horrible by-product of the system under which we live. Ultimately dealing with the problem of crime means dealing with the system that produces it.


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