Vigilantes in vogue
Rob Knight on why vigilantism suddenly seems popular among establishment
figures who have always hated 'mob rule'
The case of the two Norfolk men jailed after kidnapping and threatening
a suspected bicycle thief prompted a spate of media stories about vigilantism
in Britain. The impression created is that across the country, ordinary
people are being forced to take the law into their own hands because of
the crime wave and the inability of the police to stop it.
Commentators are divided between two responses to the vigilantism debate.
Most have sympathised with the vigilantes for taking action where the police
have failed. Others have condemned what they did as an exercise in mob rule
which itself threatens the rule of law. In different ways, both sides uphold
a project dear to the heart of the British establishment; an old-fashioned
law and order campaign, fought to strengthen the authority of the police
and the courts.
The amount of newspaper column inches devoted to the Norfolk case might
suggest that a sizeable chunk of society is forming itself into vigilante
squads to deal with criminals flouting the law. Have the towns and villages
of Britain really become like the wild west, with upright citizens forming
posses to root out the bad men?
There have been a few well-publicised instances of people taking the law
into their own hands, but most of the supposed cases of vigilantism reported
in the media have been of the 'farmer shoots trespassers with shotgun' character,
or people telling kids on estates to keep the noise down at night. In some
suburban areas middle class citizens have clubbed together to pay for security
guards to patrol their estates. This is just a more developed, Americanised
form of the well-established Neighbourhood Watch scheme. None of these examples
suggest a new surge of popular vigilantism.
The vigilante is largely a media creation, and not representative of normal
life. But he does play a walk-on part in the law and order campaign being
conducted by establishment figures.
Dixons of Dock Green
When Stanley Kalms, chairman of Dixons, the electrical goods retailers,
talked in June about 'the need to legitimise the meaning of vigilantism'
because of the inefficiency of the police, he was not talking about ordinary
people dealing with anti-social elements in their communities. He was talking
about giving security guards 'some sort of semi-official status' to defend
Kalms wants shopping centres to be closed to traffic at night and the courts
to be given more powers to deal with offenders. In short, he wants both
to create a private police force to act as an adjunct to the state, and
for the official, legal authorities to be given greater powers and resources.
While the discussion of vigilantes was taking off, home secretary Michael
Howard announced measures to strengthen the police, including longer batons
and more special constables.
People like Kalms and Howard have always been in favour of stronger law
and order. As the owners and representatives of big business they have every
interest in maintaining order and dealing with any threat to their property.
What is different today is that their calls for stronger policing appear
to strike a chord with many more people than in the past.
The lobby for more law and order used to be confined to the delegates of
Tory Party conferences, known as the 'Hang 'em and flog 'em' brigade. Now
law and order is one of the major concerns throughout British society. New
policing methods such as surveillance cameras, roadblocks and searches all
meet with either general approval or at least indifference. How has it come
about that measures which only a few years ago would have been identified
with an Eastern European police state are now widely seen as both acceptable
and inevitable in Britain?
In the past if people were dissatisfied with the quality of their lives
they could, and did, involve themselves in organisations which aimed to
protect their interests. That is why millions of people joined trade unions
and voted for the Labour Party, and why thousands were active in these organisations.
There was a sense that society could and should be changed to solve problems
such as bad housing and unemployment.
Often, in the course of organising collective action such as a strike or
a protest, it became clear that the law and the police were actively opposed
to the interests of working people. In those circumstances people were loath
to support greater police powers, because they understood that these were
likely to be used against them. As a general rule, the more active you were
in trying to change society, the more you saw the police as a problem.
Now these options for change no longer exist. Nobody believes that either
the old trade unions or the Labour Party can achieve anything. It seems
to many people that things will remain as they are, or even get worse. What
used to be seen as social problems which were susceptible to a collective
solution - such as unemployment or inadequate housing - now seem to be permanent
and insoluble facts of life. In the absence of available solutions to society's
problems, there is a growing sense of powerlessness among ordinary people.
The calls for more law and order feed upon this sense of powerlessness.
While it no longer seems possible to solve the causes of social problems,
the consequences of them still affect the way people live. On the estates
of Britain it can seem as if joyriders and thieves are the main problem.
Crime, and the policing of it, become a concern for more and more people.
Vigilantism may be a minority sport, but the sense that something must be
done to deal with anti-social behaviour is strong and pervasive. In this
climate calls for action to deal with crime receive a positive response.
Sympathy for vigilante action falls into this category.
In many circumstances there would be something positive about people wanting
to take matters into their own hands, to defend themselves and their communities.
It represents a desire to do something to improve your own life without
relying on outside agencies to do it for you. Indeed, when interviewed in
the media, some of those involved in vigilante-type action have made the
point that they wanted to take more control over their lives. They are expressing
the same impulse which in different situations leads people to join picket
lines to defend their jobs and working conditions. Such action has always
been called 'mob rule' by the authorities.
However, the fact that the establishment today takes a relatively relaxed
attitude towards vigilantism is an indication of how little it now feels
threatened by this type of working class action. Today, when individuals
do take action against problems on their estates, they are likely to be
patronised by the authorities and told to join the special constabulary.
People's frustrated responses to anti-social behaviour are being used to
back up an official law and order campaign.
Whatever positive impulses lie behind the attempt by people to take matters
into their own hands, in today's law and order climate the consequence is
to strengthen the authority and legitimacy of the police and the courts
This explains the sympathetic responses that vigilantism has had from the
People like Stanley Kalms, who are the first to react against working people
when they take action to defend their jobs, and those like him who support
the policing of the Timex picket line to stop 'mob rule', are now applauding
the idea of vigilantism. While cracking down on individuals who take the
law into their own hands, the authorities are always careful to sympathise
with the objectives of the so-called vigilantes, and to use them to call
for greater police and state powers to deal with the crime problem.
The debate about vigilantes is designed to reinforce the idea that crime
is the biggest problem faced by working people today. It aims to mobilise
support, not for people to take more control over their own lives, but for
the reverse: another increase in the authority of the state over society.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 58, August 1993