Saturday, July 19, 2008
Nonetheless, this being the topic du jour, and quite a serious one, what is the cause of it? One hears from pundits that young black men in particular are prone to violence because they exist in a survivalist subculture that values macho behaviour and endorses violence (blame Fifty Cent again). One also hears that they often come from 'broken homes' (those 'deadbeat dads' and 'absent black fathers') and thus don't form a strong identification with social norms. Various associated explanations - drugs, 'gang culture' etc - are posited with equal gravity. I simply take it as obvious that these kinds of explanations, more often than not, are about scapegoating population groups deemed in the ruling culture to be somehow 'alien' and a problem in and of themselves. Moreover, these explanations are incoherent. There are those who have listened to the So Solid Crew without blasting someone's head off. There are those who have bought and even sold drugs without knifing someone to death. And some people from single parent families are perfectly average human beings who don't carry knives with them. Again, the fact that these explanations neither explain nor cohere is not strictly relevant, since their purpose is to create an overriding impression of menace and disorder. A problem whose boundaries are not defined by race is given a racist twist in such analyses. It is the 'New Barbarism' thesis transplanted into New Cross and Stockwell. Even where it isn't explicitly racist, it is doggedly reactionary, as when commentators recycle Blair's old speeches on 'respect' and its putative breakdown. Can't we just go back to the 1930s, when everyone knew their place and the kids could get a clip round the ear from a disgruntled bobby if they misbehaved?
The scholarly research points to alternative conclusions, with radical policy implications. For example, one recent study by Fajnzylber et al on the causes of violent crime took a trans-national analysis of various trends and found one outstanding factor: income inequality raises violent crime rates dramatically. This is backed up by earlier research. Related factors such as educational inequality, and 'ethnic polarisation' (racism in the society) contribute as well, while the rate of such crimes fluctuates with the economic cycle (much of violent crime being property-related). The dry statistics point to a reality that is palpable for anyone who lives in London, where all of these social ills co-exist, and where inequality of all kinds is glaringly apparent. It is not so surprising that there are a relatively small number of extremely damaged individuals who, as Yuri Prasad argues, "see little value in human life – neither theirs, nor anyone else's".
What about drugs? Andrew Resignato at Florida State University has summed up a wealth of literature on this topic, and concludes that there is in fact scarce data to support the thesis of a positive correlation between drug use and violent crime. On the contrary, there is a much stronger correlation between the enforcement of drug laws and violent crime. Drug users who do have to support the cost of their habit (inflated by dint of its control by criminal cartels) through crime tend to opt for non-violent means. On the other hand, the more investment in policing to control the sumptuary habits of the poor, the more likely there is to be violent crime. This is unsurprising. Create an illicit capitalist economy in the hands of extra-legal cartels embroiled in competition with one another, with that competition delegated down to those lowest in the hierarchy, and you get a great deal of violence in the process. I strongly suspect that states which impose drug laws are well aware of this, and that their function is to facilitate a strongly interventionist police force with ready-made pretexts for detaining and imprisoning people considered dysfunctional to the society's requirements. It keeps 'problem' populations, generally the urban poor, under tight surveillance. It criminalises them before they have necessarily even broken the law.
If talking tough and ratcheting up repression, with heavily policed schools and widely used stop-and-search applied in a racist fashion, worked, then American cities would be the safest in the world. Yet this is exactly what New Labour, and the Tories after them, will continue to do. Can we even take them seriously when they claim to want to deal with the problem? Is it not obvious that the periodic episodes of hysteria on what are chronic problems are opportunistic attempts to expand the state's repressive capacities? Isn't this just what we have seen in other fields, such as 'anti-terror' legislation, whose dystopian precepts were being driven through parliament by New Labour well before 9/11 or 7/7? We now have a criminal justice system with an extraordinary scope for control, with such disgraceful policies as curfews and ASBOs, in which non-criminal behaviour becomes the subject of sanction. Given that crime rates are not soaring, given that the risks that people face of encountering violence have not substantially altered, the most likely explanation is that as the neoliberal era enters its most decadent phase, states are attempting to manage the adverse social by-products of the descent with an iron fist.
And next year, when they've got round to blunt object crime, the newspapers and politicians will pretend that it's all new again, that we've never been here before, and that whatever repression is in place isn't enough.