The Briefing Column from the May 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard
In the past few weeks several incidents of gang violence among young people have received a fair amount of adverse publicity. First there was the wrecking of a train and the attack on some of its passengers at Neasden tube station, one consequence of which is that London Transport staff are taking industrial action to press for better protection. The resultant inconvenience suffered by passengers is encouraging them to blame the weekend stoppages on “those mindless hooligans” who are threatening “law and order” as usual. Then there were the Bristol anti-police riots, provoked by a raid on the ‘Black and White Cafe’. Despite the demonstration offered by these disturbances of the unity of interest of the working class (of whatever ethnic origin) in the face of harrassment, they caused a great deal of suffering among the local population. Finally, over Easter weekend, there were turbulent scenes on the South Coast, as gangs of young wage-slaves celebrated their short holiday from work with a drunken spree of violence.
These are mere outbreaks, however, of a tension which ferments permanently and inevitably among working people. There will be many more similar riots for the newspapers to use to increase sales. One point that won’t be made by the capitalist press, though, is that there is unlikely ever to be, among the squalid struggles of violent rival gangs, a proportionate representation of young members of the capitalist class. The conditions which induce such behaviour in some young workers do not exist for children of the rich.
Reactions to the violence ranged from indignant demands for harsh punitive measures to “liberal” offers of care and rehabilitation. In the former category lies Home Secretary William Whitelaw’s “short, sharp shock”, the futility of which is dealt with in the April Socialist Standard. The “liberal” alternative may seem less harsh, but is just as futile, since it involves gently casing the so-called culprit back into the social relationships which caused his or her behaviour in the first place. The reason for society’s failure hitherto to prevent gang violence and all other manifestations of frustration and discontent is that only effects are treated. To remove the cause of the problem would entail the abolition on a world scale of the institution of class ownership of the means of life. Thus social engineers are employed for the farcical task of patching and mopping up after the perennial disturbances occur — truly a labour of Sisyphus.
The hypocrisy of capitalism is such, however, that violent behaviour is morally condemned and publicly abhorred only when the nation is not at war. As soon as a war is declared, unlimited kudos are gained by workers prepared to inflict the most barbaric cruelties upon workers of another nation. A system of society which is inherently violent and antagonistic, in which mass destruction is constantly recurrent in the form of war, and in which property has to be defended by intimidating, armed force, cannot be expected to produce anything other than violent behaviour on the part of its victims.
The cause of the frustration suffered by members of the working class has deeper roots than the reformers believe. At school we are prepared for lives of wage-slavery by subjection to discipline, rules, enforced working-hours and authorised punishment. The school-child soon learns to treat the hours from 4 o’clock onwards as his or her own, submitting, during the first part of each day, to such restraints as may be imposed by the authorities. When this pattern is transferred to the office, the warehouse, the workshop or the factory there is usually nothing but dull acceptance on the part of the victim. Inside the stipulated hours you belong to your employer with, once again, only the evening “your own”. Throughout every working day we are regulated, ruled and regimented for the sole purpose of creating profits. We arrive home, change our clothes (with all the satisfaction due to a symbolic rite) and try to relax. But before long we are setting alarm clocks for our next day’s donation; we spend our lives, even from our school days, waiting for the bell, the end of the day, the end of the week, the end of the year. It is this grinding monotony which creates frustration and leads, in some cases, to the few hours which are “our own” being frittered away in agonised rituals of a destructive kind. It does not foster thought or social harmony, but aggression and desolation.
When the working class organise politically and consciously for the establishment of socialism, the means of production and distribution will become the common heritage of all humanity and wage labour will give way to voluntary, co-operative work, with free access for all to the goods and services produced by society. No longer will the vast majority of the population spend all of their days making profits for employers; no longer will working people be alienated from the means of production, from their creative activity and its products, from each other or from themselves.
Gangs of youths trying to relieve their week’s frustrations and anxieties by getting drunk and going on a violent rampage epitomise the capitalist system, based as it is upon conflict, force and degradation. Only when social ownership has been instituted can interests be universally harmonised and sordid outbreaks of tension in the form of vandalism or gang-warfare become a thing of he past. Meanwhile, the cause of socialism can only be advanced by patient, peaceful persuasion. Those who have reached a state of positive and explicit dissatisfaction with the way things are should not give vent to their feelings with impotent, sporadic savagery, but organise democratically to establish a society geared to their material interest.