Posted Under: Criminal Justice,Uncategorized
Apologies for the deliberately provocative title but over recent weeks I have become increasingly pissed off. A few weeks ago my room was turned over after my house was broken into. The burglars were targetting a working class neighbourhood. Last night one of my good friends had her bag nicked. It was an incident which generated minimal material gain for the robber, but seriously disrupted this young woman’s life – who at 10pm was left without her front door keys and much else. When I get on the bus I can’t sit quietly reading a book because some neanderthals have decided to mark out their territory by blasting out bad music.
The standard line on the far left has been to argue that crime is caused by soial conditions, or by “alienation” – a word that gets used very elastically to connect any form of undesirable behaviour to the socio-economic structure – and that the answer is to challenge capitalism. Yet if such approach touches on a basic truth, it is also massively insufficient. Apart from anything, many people, many ordinary people have to get through their daily lives between now and the new dawn. And I stress ordinary because most petty criminals are not robin hood figures. Indeed the burden of crime falls most heavily on the working class. It is people messing up the lives of the low paid. And it is also attacks on our communal infrastructure, on those parts of the economy which have been socialised. It is our public transport that is vandalized, our pavements which are made to feel unsafe.
Equally, there comes a point at which attempts to trace criminal behaviour back to a social cause begin to seem a bit desperate, As one sociologist once noted, this is especially the case with “non-utilitarian crime”, that is to say, crime which is of no material benefit to the criminal. A few weeks ago I was walking around north london when a teenager demanded I give him my stuff. I said no and he quickly relaised he wasnt going to get anything so instead he changed tack and started shouting at me to run, indeed getting rather irate with me for not running or showing fear. (When he yelled “this is north london not south london” I elected not to inform him that the former implied the latter.) But anyway, this incident – and others like it – give me the impression that a lot of streetcrime is motivated as much by the desire to go on a bit of a masculine trip, to make real certain gendered fantasies, as it is by basic material ends.
So how should we feel about “social filth”? Should we apply to them the old labour maxim of “the many not the few”, and stand on the side of the decent many? Was John Major right in his call for a bit more condemnation? Should the left take the attitude that it already takes to certain crimes – hatecrimes and rape – and call on the police to do more about street scum?