Friday, February 16, 2007

Guns, families and the war on children

It is as official as the United Nations: Britain fucks over its children on a regular basis. The UNICEF report [PDF] dealing with the condition of children in advanced capitalist countries finds that the UK is way down the list on education, health, poverty, and well-being. UNICEF prefers to state that this is because of a "dog eat dog society", which is vague enough to satisfy everyone. Not wishing to please everyone, I note that it is those societies which have most embraced the nostrums of neoliberalism that are the most vicious toward their children, while it tends to be social democratic northern European countries who fare best. The UK is number 21, below the US at number 20. Both of these societies are in different ways deeply competitive ones in which the institutions not only of the labour movement but of civil society in general have been repeatedly and systematically run down in the interests of capital. A correlation, merely? Hardly.

The purpose of neoliberal measures was to fundamentally break with modestly redistributive arrangements, curb the power of labour, restore profitability to industry and facilitate a massive long-term transfer of wealth to the richest. In the UK, this was much less successful than Thatcher would have liked, much less than was expected of her by the ruling class: nevertheless, it produced some dramatic results. Professor John Hills of the London School of Economics was interviewed in 2005 about his book Inequality and the State, and I quote him here:

If you look at the whole period from 1979 to the end of the 1990s, you can put it in quite a dramatic way.

Of the total increase in national income, 40 percent of it went to the top tenth, 16 percent of it went to the top 1 percent, 13 percent to the top 0.5 percent. £5 out of every £100 went to the top one thousandth of the population.

There is no mysterious process here. Wage rises were suppressed because labour's bargaining power was curbed. Where wage growth was achieved, it was often transferred to the rich through increased rents due to the unleashing of the housing market, or through increased indebtedness and long-term interest repayments to creditors. Furthermore, working hours and the intensity of work increased, so that one produced more for less remuneration. What is more, successive governments pursued a policy of maintaining a sizeable reserve army of labour, the further to curb bargaining power. One can try, as New Labour has, to remedy the worst aspects of the poverty thus generated through various targeted measures (even while making repeated, gratuitous attacks on various welfare recipients), but so long as the current neoliberal arrangements are in place, massive and growing inequality is the default condition of the society. Underpinning these policies, of course, was an individualist ideology which might aptly be termed as "dog eat dog". For a few this meant aggravated opulence and hedonism, while for those at the bottom of society it translated into a survivalist dispensation: individual enterprise, legal or otherwise, was a way out when other forms of social mobility were being restricted and forms of social solidarity being undermined and beaten at every turn.

It has always been the case that those who suffer most from poverty and poor amenities are children. Not that I'm Oliver fucking Twist or anything, but I suppose I know a little bit about it. I grew up in some of these lifeless, concrete council estates, the windy little shitholes with bare scraps of bush and shrubbery to brighten up the pebbledash housefronts, potholed roads with broken glass scattered, bricked up garages, piss-infested mattresses and nothing going on but the rent. For young men who didn't want to go and work in the barber shop, or a supermarket, or on one of the industrial estates, there were the usual ways out of petty crime, burglary and drug-dealing (I suppose much of this must have been run by the paramilitary groups). For those who lacked money and meaning to be getting on with, there might be the very occasional opportunity for collective combat with the police, violent civil disobedience, or sectarian intrigue. But usually it was car thieving, petty vandalism and so on. Alternatively, one can escape with the ingestion of drugs that have been prohibited by the state, perhaps paid for by emptying mother's purse or nicking things from school. And if you are a young girl, you might find yourself subsidising such a serious habit by being prostituted. In other words, with the erosion of opportunities and forms of social solidarity, and given the prevailing "dog eat dog" conditions, illicit economies appear that are every bit as callous and brutal as the legal ones that drive hundreds of thousands of people into homelessness every time the housings market crashes, for instance.

When I saw this story, therefore, it made me unusually angry. It is about the Tory leader's reaction to the recent shootings in South London. I don't, as a rule, care what David Cameron says about anything, but he does stand a chance of becoming Prime Minister one day, and his greasy shibboleths could become policy in some perverted form. And it is the usual 'family values' drivel, this time with the noxious mytheme of 'deadbeat Dads' thrown in. He praises marriage, and wants to get tougher on men who have split up with their former spouses/partners and don't pay up. He talks about "gang culture", while Alan Duncan will later claim that parts of Britain are becoming "de-civilised". I don't suppose I'm alone in noting racist connotations introduced here. "Gang culture" is something that is usually applied by mainstream politicians to Britain's black or Asian communities, in the same way that "terrorism" is applied to Muslims and not BNP members. And of course the trope of de-civilisation shades so easily into bestialisation, which is not exactly unfamiliar. Moreover, "gang culture" isn't really a concept. It doesn't actually refer to anything other than a vague aura that accrues to those whom Tory voters would love to see banged up. But of course, it isn't only racist: it is also dripping with contempt for young people, the hoodie-wearers whom the Tories claim are running out of control, unwilling to be disciplined by their elders, in desperate need of a hard kick up the arse from the state which has already made them victims. The comments of Dr Larry Jones, who is organising the Black and Minority Ethnic Education Conference, were not as obnoxious, but they were totally and utterly vacuous. Young people don't communicate their emotions well, he said. "What is the most likely cause of uncontrollable emotional outburst? Insecurity. Wrong company. Choice of music and entertainment. Depression. Drug addict." The solution, therefore? Tell children that "you can be who you want to be, understand yourself." Somehow, the idea that two men broke into the house of Billy Cox and shot him in his bedroom did so out of a feeling of emotional insecurity or from listening to rap or simply falling into the wrong crowd doesn't convince.

This kind of evasive, insidious bilge is a dead giveaway, of course. I think most young people would recognise instantly that David Cameron and his creepy confederates don't give a toss about what's happening to their communities and their schools.