Frightening the life out of us
A wave of panic about juvenile crime and the moral collapse of modern society
is sweeping Britain. This culture of fear is a far bigger problem than any
crime. If it is allowed to go unchecked, it could sentence us all to a kind
of life imprisonment.
Crime panics appear in the popular press almost as regularly as guides to
sexual bliss. And there have always been voices complaining about the decline
of standards. ('The morals of the children are tenfold worse than formerly',
Lord Ashley told parliament in February 1843, exactly 150 years before the
latest furore about juvenile delinquency began.)
The question is, why have these things suddenly made such an impact on the
public consciousness today? What is it that people are really so scared
of in the nineties?
After the abduction and death of two-year old James Bulger in Liverpool,
for example, parents everywhere locked up their children and cast fearful
looks at the kids from next door. Yet as Ann Bradley points out in this
month's Living Marxism, the likelihood of any other child suffering
the same fate is as near to nil as it is possible to get.
What's more, similar cases have not prompted similar reactions in the past.
Amid all the millions of words written about the Bulger abduction there
were a few bewildered sentences from Ora and Geoffrey Joseph, wondering
why nobody had seemed interested when their two-year old daughter was taken
and killed by a 12-year old boy five years ago.
It is clear that the recent bout of hysteria has not really been based upon
experience, but on the popular perception that crime and behaviour
in Britain are much worse than they used to be. The important thing here
is not what is happening, but what people think is happening. A climate
has been created in which many are now predisposed to interpret any event
through the belief that the moral order has broken down.
So when Home Office figures suggest that juvenile crime has declined since
1985, everyone refuses to believe them. And when an elderly woman in Oldham
is injured and loses her pension book, the police, the papers and public
opinion all accept without question that she has been mugged by three 10-year
old girls. Even when it emerges that she hurt herself in a fall, and that
her pension book was pocketed by a woman who took her to hospital, the facts
fail to dent the firm belief that three wicked children are robbing Lancashire
This irrational response, rather than any explosion of juvenile crime, is
the true sign of our times. It reflects the deep-seated insecurity and fear
which now has Britain in its grip. The underlying factor responsible for
this climate of fear is not child murder or granny-mugging, but the impact
of the economic slump upon British society.
The slump has pulled the rug out from under people's lives. Mass unemployment
means that nobody is safe. Millions are already out of work, and millions
more are worried about hanging on to their jobs and homes at all costs.
More and more employers are able to get away with cutting wages and increasing
working hours, simply by threatening redundancies as the alternative. It
is getting scary out there.
The insecurities created by the slump have atomised communities. People
feel that they are on their own, each getting by as best they can in a hostile
world. Even though a problem like unemployment touches all of us, the collapse
of the old labour movement has ensured that as yet there has been no collective,
organised response to it from those on the receiving end.
Instead, every individual has been left to cope, to look out for themselves
and their families. This sense of isolation helps to explain why many now
seem to experience the crisis of capitalist society first through fears about
an issue such as crime.
When people begin from the stance of isolated and vulnerable individuals,
they will tend to see other individuals as the threat to their well-being,
rather than locating the problem at the level of society. That individual
outlook can leave them vulnerable to panics about crime, and particularly
about violent crime against the person. And the panic will be all the worse
when the persons in the spotlight are the most vulnerable individuals of
all - the young and the elderly.
The same tendency to react as insecure individuals can be spotted in current
responses to redundancy and unemployment. As illustrated elsewhere in this
issue of Living Marxism, the first response of people whose livelihoods
are threatened today will not be to call for a united strike against redundancies.
They will be more inclined to adopt an 'it's me or them' attitude of hanging
on to their job and hoping that somebody else gets sacked instead.
A fatalistic atmosphere is being created in which people seem only able
to relate to society as potential victims, rather than as active
participants who might do something to change their circumstances. And as
potential victims, our priorities will be clear. We will put our children
on safety leads, retreat behind locked front doors, and wait for the car
alarm to go off. We will all be home alone.
This is a very vicious circle. The more conservative and fearful we become,
the higher we build our private fortress against the world, the more cut-off
we become from the rest of society. And that in turn can only further intensify
our sense of vulnerability and isolation, and encourage us to withdraw further
into our shells. We are in danger of having the life frightened out of us.
Forced to live life under siege in this way, people are capable of inventing
the most fantastic fears about prowlers, horse maimers and other things
that go bump in the night. And they are likely to vent their anger against
some petty criminal or other misfit set up for sacrifice by the media, rather
than focusing on the deeper causes of social problems.
Shrouded in an atmosphere of insecurity and recrimination, society is turning
in on itself. Vulnerable people who feel unable to do anything positive
about their situation will often hit out blindly at the first thing that
comes to hand. This can be the force behind violence within the family.
Now it is being writ large in society.
Wider social problems such as unemployment seem out of reach, impossible
for threatened individuals to do anything about. What does seem real and
immediate, however, is the existence of immoral, 'evil' people like the
boys accused of killing James Bulger; so at least we can vent our spleen
What we are witnessing in the fearful climate of today is a reversal of
reality. The most powerless of people are being held responsible for the
problems of capitalist society.
At its most extreme, this involves a hate campaign against 10-year olds,
children who are treated as the devil's offspring. Alternatively it might
mean accusing an impoverished 'underclass' of causing decay in the inner
cities, or blaming 'greedy' credit card-holders for causing the financial
crisis. In any case, the finger seems always to be pointed at working people
rather than those who exploit them. Those who press the buttons and make
the decisions about whether the pound goes up or down, or how many thousands
should be sacked this week, never seem to be brought to book.
Worse still, the panics about crime and degeneracy invite the authorities
to introduce yet more measures of repression and control, to give further
powers to the police and the courts. They are able to accelerate the trend
towards militarising modern Britain and regimenting society under the guise
of a campaign to restore law and order and bring back discipline and decency.
It may mean the extension of video surveillance into every corner of our
cities. It may mean a revival of the old gits' call to 'bring back National
Service' - or 'compulsory community service', as Labour Party spokesmen now
prefer to call it. In any case, it means that the authorities prey upon
public fears to gain more control over our lives.
Instead of looking to the authorities to sort things out for us with repressive
measures, we need to try to find new ways to overcome our isolation and act
together, to start to tackle social problems such as unemployment for ourselves.
The trouble today is that, in a nation full of insecure and fearful individuals,
the sort of 'collective action' that appears to be in fashion is a crowd
baying for the blood of children outside a courtroom.
Despite what you read in some Scouse-bashing newspapers, such behaviour
is not caused by living in Liverpool. We are all living in a society temporarily
gripped by the spirit of the lynch-mob. Let's break it up, and get on with
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 54, April 1993