Tuesday, September 18, 2007

This Year's Moral Panic

This summer has seen a moral panic grip the UK media. The death in Liverpool of Rhys Jones, the 11-year old boy killed by a bullet from a teenage gang was preceded by a number of gang-related murders, and resulted in much circulation-driven hyperbole about “what sort of society we live in”.

This is nothing new. In the 60s it was Glasgow’s razor gangs that made the headlines. The technology has advanced a little now, that’s all. There have in fact been countless episodes of social panic because of a perceived rise in violent crime. A recent Home Office study (National Crime Survey) found that when polled, people always over-estimate the crime rate in their locality. (Unsurprisingly the greatest disconnect from reality was for tabloid readers).

Nevertheless, law and order is back at the top of media and voters’ concerns. The media debate – and politicians’ response – has focussed on the problems of youth, their schools and their parents. One suggestion amongst the various boot camps being proposed, is to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 8 years old. The Prime Minister himself has commissioned a study into the effect of violent videos on children. The last ten years has seen an unprecedented 2700 new laws introduced. We can expect that trend to continue.

Why people behave the way they do is of course a hugely complex and multi-faceted subject. World socialists don’t lay claim to any specialist understanding in this respect, suffice to say that how people behave is usually down to what they have learnt, be that formally or informally. This learning may be psychological (e.g. secure emotional attachment and nurturing with a parent in the first few years of life), or it may be material, in terms of (for example) the physical environment, or nutrition during childhood.

Much has been made of the fact that gang-members dripping with “bling” (an average teenager on the street may wear close to one thousand pounds-worth of digital accessories) don’t appear to fit the traditional image of impoverished and desperate members of the working class such as the Glasgow razor gangs. It is likely however that the foot soldiers of the gangs do not make that much money, and this certainly applies to the very young members who are the focus of so much media concern.

However, in a world that increasingly only looks at the price tag, the outward display of some sort of wealth masks perhaps a desperate cry for some sort of recognition. For the market system a pair of training shoes accords status and belonging. This skewed perspective is a measure of just how warped capitalism is. But in any case, world socialists have never just viewed poverty as being about the absence of things, such as cars or money. Increasingly in the older capitalist nations at least, poverty may owe more to an absence of less concrete – but no less critical – human needs such as self-esteem, a sense of belonging or a purposeful, creative and productive life. (There is plenty of evidence that above a certain level, as a society becomes economically better off, it simply becomes a less healthy place for humans in terms of mental wellbeing).

It is likely then, that membership of a gang provides its members with some of the things that this society denies them outright. However warped or misplaced, a gang may provide some sort of shared experience and common purpose, a little excitement and a lot of status. After all, the apparent cause of most of these gang murders is not usually down to drug-related battles, but appears to be summed up in one word: respect.

Certainly it would be churlish to ignore that a lot of the gangs are commercially-focussed, profit-driven drugs operations. According to Assistant Commissioner Tarique Ghaffur, head of the specialist crime directorate, this is an expanding economy. “It is a huge growth industry and it has not peaked. The challenge is when you do a big operation there are people, gangs, ready to replace and replace and replace". Take away the market system by abolishing money and wages and commodities, and you end at a stroke most of the “drugs” problem.

The market system allows us only limited access to wealth. At the same time it bombards us with images and messages of what we could be having. It pressures us into valuing ourselves against everyone else, then offers an arbitrary set of rules to be followed.

Predictably, less media attention was given to the death – only a few weeks after the killing of Rhys Jones – of 18-year old Ben Ford, who was the youngest soldier to die in Afghanistan. Perhaps if we want to genuinely try and understand what sort of society we are bringing our children into we could start by asking why a youth with a gun in his hand defending “his” turf in Moss Side or Brixton is viewed so very differently from the uniformed youth in Afghanistan or Iraq with an Army issue rifle.