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
'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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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