Friday, 12 August 2011

Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime

Tony Blair famously promised to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, but the current wave of riots and social unrest can be seen as a direct consequence of Labour’s failure to reverse Thatcherite neo-liberalism. Cameron’s draconian cuts may have triggered these events – with Mark Duggan’s shooting the catalyst – but the cuts alone are insufficient explanation for the remarkably swift spread of violence. A more robust rationalisation is Blair’s continuation of Thatcher’s legacy which crystallised social fragmentation through growing wealth inequality.

As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argue in the empirical masterpiece The Spirit Level – Why Equality is Better for Everyone all social problems – such as crime, obesity, mental illness, ill health, teenage pregnancy – are more prevalent in unequal societies.

Wilkinson and Pickett cite the American psychiatrist James Gilligan who argues that acts of violence “are attempts to ward off or eliminate the feeling of shame and humiliation – and replace it with its opposite, the feeling of pride”. Although Gilligan is discussing individual criminals, we can extrapolate this to whole communities. It is no surprise that violent riots have occurred in areas of poverty, mass unemployment and decimated youth services. In Tottenham, for instance, 75% of the youth services budget has been cut.

People feel alienated, shamed and humiliated because they cannot find work to provide for themselves or their families. The mob mentality – and the adrenaline-fuelled rush of consumerist ecstasy experienced through the looting of a plasma television – provides the panacea of temporary pride and purpose. The solution, therefore, is not to compound their humiliation through tabloid caterwauling and the removal of benefits.

Although the government refuse to admit it, there is strong correlation between violence and wealth inequality and, as Wilkinson and Pickett assert:
… violent behaviour comes from young men at the bottom of society, deprived of all the markers of status, who must struggle to maintain face and what little status they have, often reacting explosively when it is threatened
Seumas Milne – in a compelling Guardian article – contends that David Cameron must maintain that unrest has no cause except criminality otherwise the political establishment might be held responsible. Milne contrasts the behaviour of the rioters with bankers that:
publicly looted the country’s wealth and got away with it… it’s not hard to see why those who are locked out of the gravy train might think they were entitled to help themselves to a mobile phone.
Our society is predicated on unjust and unfair treatment which has reckless and dangerous consequences. If you dehumanise and alienate people – by cutting their services, demonising them in popular culture and undermining their quality of life – then it is no surprise that people react against it. If you treat someone like an animal then they will start behaving like one – and there’s nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal.

But the same is true of the other end of the spectrum. If you treat people – like bankers and media moguls – as though they are above the law then they start to believe they are above the law. If governments pander to their whim, then they believe they are above government and they become reckless, arrogant and aloof – as demonstrated by hackgate and the financial crisis.

This unfair treatment creates a more unequal and hierarchical society. Those at the bottom lack the social capital to achieve self-respect and status and this creates volatile and violent results. Those at the top lack restraint and ride roughshod over others. The true crime, for any Labour supporter, is that the gap between the richest and poorest increased under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. This is the key long-term factor for the recent explosion of destruction.

Of course violence is deplorable – and it is clear much of the unrest lacks political consciousness and represents nothing more than criminal opportunism – but it would be wrong to ignore the economic and socio-political context which has created this civil disobedience. As economic recovery stagnates and unemployment rises, so too will social alienation and the chance of further violence. Just like the financial crash, it is the selective blindness of the political establishment to the ills of neo-liberalism which endangers us all. The irony is that while Thatcher sought to create a stake-holder capitalism to appease working people, the vast majority of the population now has no interest in a dysfunctional and misfiring economic model.

If we don’t fully engage with the reasons behind the riots – and the government continues its na├»ve economic program – then we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of our past. It’s time we got tough on the causes of crime and tackled growing wealth inequality.


priggy said...

I think your right but of course we look at crime, obesity, mental illness, ill health, teenage pregnancy all in a rational way when they are usually completely irrational.

i wrote a blog post on this in relation to the English riots -

Bill Protection Insurance said...

Poverty and unemployment is one of the factors that causes crime.

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