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Why have crime and punishment been the big issues this year? Why does the murder of a two-year old today make so much more public impact than similar killings have done in the past?
Frank Füredi links the current wave of crime scares to the fears created by the economic slump, and suggests that, for the authorities at least, focusing attention on crime certainly does pay

Prime time for crime panics

This year the issues of crime, law and order and morality have featured prominently in the media and have heavily influenced discussion in British political life. In the aftermath of the murder of two-year old James Bulger in Liverpool, the issue of crime virtually monopolised the news. And the debate about the causes of crime and the allocation of responsibility for today's sense of moral decline continues. Unfortunately, too often the consequence of this debate is to demoralise, and to foster a sense of anxiety among those who feel most vulnerable and insecure. It is worth stepping back to reflect on what the crime debate is really about.

Perceptions of crime have little to do with actual behaviour. Fear for our security and a general sense of disorder are not direct consequences of criminal action. It became clear during the controversy surrounding the Bulger case that there is no significant link between the facts of criminality and how people perceive it.

One child was killed, and suddenly every mother was warned to keep a constant eye on her children. The initial reaction made it appear that every child in the United Kingdom now faced imminent danger. When a few specialists and journalists pointed out that in fact the murder of children by strangers was rare, and that during the previous decade there were fewer than a dozen such cases, the reaction was one of incredulity. Serious commentators said that they did not believe these statistics. They were certain that there must have been more children murdered, and that the figures were understating the truth. In other words their intuition regarding the danger to children would make no concession to the available facts.

This studied rejection of statistics in favour of raw prejudice illustrates the relationship between perceptions of crime and actual anti-social behaviour. The point here is not to defend crime statistics. Such statistics reveal little about what is really going on in society. The question worth probing is what is it that some claim there is more of while others disagree? In other words, what constitutes crime?

Social theorists have long known that crime has nothing to do with a particular act. The killing of a person, for instance, is not necessarily a crime. In certain circumstances soldiers and police officers are praised and rewarded for such acts. So crime is not about what people do. It is not the act of killing, but particular types of homicide that earn the label of a crime.

Selling a daughter to improve the family fortune is legal, but selling your body to a punter around King's Cross station risks prosecution. Nor do crimes need victims. Consenting homosexuals, individuals consuming marijuana and many others are potential criminals. Nor is crime necessarily about breaking the law. Businessmen fiddling their taxes or involved with major financial rip-offs are seldom considered to be criminals. Their reputations remain intact; indeed we often envy them for their entrepreneurial skills.

Crime and criminality are constructed concepts which play a critical role in the creation of a moral order. Ideas about crime are integral to the evolving norms and values which help the authorities to regulate society. The concept of crime is not so much about anti-social behaviour as about the construction of a socially accepted code of behaviour. In short, to fight crime is to uphold the prevailing order, its morality and its values.

John Major's intervention in the current discussion is telling in this respect. 'There is a distinction between right and wrong', he told the Mail on Sunday:

'The public need to draw that distinction in the case of people who are guilty of wrongdoing. If they do not condemn, they may appear tacitly to approve and tacit approval will lead to repetition.' (21 February 1993)

Major's emphasis on 'right' and 'wrong', on 'condemnation' and 'approval' indicates that the 'crime crusade' is about the construction of a public consensus around an accepted moral order. Put bluntly, if the problem is anti-social behaviour then the solution must be the affirmation of society as it exists. That is why the conservative worldview so readily interprets the problems facing society as those of law and order.

Why now?

In a sense crime is always an issue. Changing behaviour means that what is acceptable and what is not are far from fixed. Views about right and wrong also undergo modification. John Birt walked a fine line when his dubious tax affairs were revealed. He was not right, but as director general of the BBC he could not be wrong. In this case Major chose not to act upon his own call to condemn. But others are condemned and values are affirmed, and as long as society feels prey to child violence, swindles in high places will go 'uncondemned'.

The social construction of crime is a permanent process. The more interesting question is why people become more anxious about the threat of crime at one time as opposed to another. Again this cannot have much to do with a particular act. A murder of a child in one situation might provoke virtually no public response, while in other circumstances it can become a focus of nationwide concern.

The impact of the present crime panic rests upon the fact that people are experiencing an intense degree of insecurity about the future. Many of the anxieties which they articulate reflect the perception that society seems to be out of control.

Uncertain future

Imagine the position of the Maxwell pensioners who discovered from one minute to the next that the future they planned had disappeared along with their money. Or what about the bank clerk who was certain that she had a job for life, until the redundancy notices came down from head office. It seems as if nothing can be taken for granted any longer. The wild fluctuation of interest rates means that millions of mortgage holders have little idea as to what financial demands will be made on them six months from now.

Capitalism in Britain is now so out of control that nothing seems to be immutable. It is not surprising that people regard the future with fear. Social surveys suggest widespread pessimism about what lies ahead. Such anxieties foster a sense of atomisation, as people turn in on themselves and look for individual solutions or try to survive through their family. Often this individuation is experienced as the breakdown of communities or the erosion of communication between generations. Nothing seems like it used to be as old conventions fall apart.

Expecting the worst

Responding to social fragmentation by seeking individual solutions itself helps to reinforce the sense of isolation. And the experience of isolation in turn encourages a sense of vulnerability and suspicion. In this situation we often expect the worst and other individuals can appear threatening. People become particularly sensitive to the threat of crime and anti-social behaviour.

Isolation and vulnerability provide fertile ground for panics about crime. The lack of control which people have over their lives is symbolised by the unseen and unknown criminal. A crackdown on the criminal appears as an attractive proposition because it seems to promise an assertion of control over a threatening situation. That is why society today is so hospitable to law and order crusades, and why panics about crime occur so regularly.

People are receptive to crime panics because they experience the consequences of a society out of control as the fault of individuals who are out of control. The symptom, out-of-control individuals, is confused with the cause, the fragmentation of capitalist society. This perception is prevalent among the different classes of the British public. It means that the usual moans about the deterioration of the quality of life are now likely to be linked to the behaviour of deviants rather than associated with the underlying social arrangements. In these circumstances, conservative law and order politics can find a resonance among those seeking some measure of control over their lives. Cracking down on out-of-control individuals appears to hold out the promise of a more secure existence.

Law and order politics breed on insecurity. They are highly regarded by ruling elites because they assist in the task of social control. The affinity of the British establishment with law and order policies is also influenced by its tendency to interpret the problems of society as those of morality. From this perspective, the problems faced by working people are recast as moral ones.

The perfect crime

Poverty, unemployment, poor facilities and lack of opportunities are presented as facts of life that do not cause our real problems. Instead moral decline, an inability to distinguish between right and wrong, promiscuity and lack of respect for authority are blamed for the deterioration in the quality of life. In this scenario bad parents, poor teachers and immoral habits are the villains. From the point of view of the capitalists this is an admirable interpretation of our problems, since it absolves their system of its responsibility for the difficulties it creates.

Focusing on crime contributes to the process by which social problems are converted into moral ones. After all, crime is not about a bad society; it is about bad individuals, who have been let down by bad parents and teachers. Moreover, concentrating attention on crime serves to remind us that there are essentially evil forces at work.

Moralists make a special effort to pinpoint the evil content of crime. That is why the authorities like to make so much out of senseless crime. They will highlight essentially petty offences to get their message across. For instance, vandalism and joyriding bring the perpetrator no economic benefits. So how, ask the moralists, could these acts have any social or economic cause? They must be examples of individual weakness and failure.

It should now be clear why, from this perspective, the murder of a child is the perfect crime. Nobody gains anything material from the killing of a child. It can be portrayed not just as senseless, but as the embodiment of wickedness. It serves as proof that unadulterated evil exists, and so strengthens the case for focusing on moral matters rather than social problems.

Incidentally, the fact that very young children have been accused of murdering James Bulger is an unexpected bonus for the upholders of the law and order approach. It can be used to suggest that some individuals are inherently evil, that criminals are born not made. Rather than blaming society for their acts, it appears to make sense to see society in the role of the victim of evil deeds.

Why is there so little serious criticism of the irrational outbursts of the law and order campaigners? At times their arguments go so far as to depict delinquent children as the main menace to society. It seems as if the most bizarre suggestions regarding children can now be floated without any serious contestation.

The lack of questioning of irrational prejudices about crime reflects the wider absence of critical thinking today. The stagnation of politics means that the contemporary crisis is seldom interpreted as having something to do with the nature of society.

Of course, people are aware that the recession has undermined their standard of living, and there is a rational fear regarding future prospects. However, in the present climate there is a tendency to experience the crisis of capitalism in a general and unspecific way. So, when people discuss what is going on, unemployment is considered alongside insecurity in the community, breakdown in harmony and crime. There is today a tendency to perceive economic decline through the prism of moral decay. Consequently the depression, the process of social and economic decay, is often perceived as the deterioration of the moral fabric of society. That is why panics about crime are always waiting to happen.

Distracting the mind

There are limits to the consolidation of moral panics. Like evil, morality is at its most powerful when it is non-specific and ill-defined. Once a 'devil-child' is placed under public scrutiny the absurdity of moral condemnation of a 10-year old becomes self-evident. It is all very well for the media to call for the return of 'family values', but the more these demands are elaborated the more they reveal the intrinsic weakness of this institution.

In the course of pursuing moral strategies the lack of practical consequences also becomes evident. For instance, it is easy enough to target single mothers as a cause of moral decline, but what is society then to do with these women? Shoot them? Forcibly sterilise them? Force them to find husbands? The more the issue is probed, the more it becomes evident that what is at stake is finding targets for moral condemnation rather than tackling real problems.

Moral panics seldom result in a practical crusade, because it would soon become clear that they were not even identifying the right problems, never mind coming up with meaningful solutions. Instead, the role of moral panics is periodically to remind us of what constitutes right and what constitutes wrong.

Today, when there is so much that is wrong with society, moral panics serve to distract the mind. They act as a powerful antidote to social criticism. Since they key into our well-established fears, these panics have a real impact on the lives of those at the sharp end of the depression. As a result, they are distorting the response of many people to the capitalist slump. That is why those committed to the project of human progress have a duty to combat every crime scare, and every attempt to twist the discussion of social problems into a moral panic.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 55, May 1993

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