What should socialists say about crime?

Submitted by martin on 28 January, 2003 - 6:50

Develop a culture of solidarity

Crime waves and gun battles sell newspapers. If you believe the media, we live in a war zone, terrorised by feral children and gangsters. Such press coverage is, in reality, a libel on working-class areas. Politicians just love the momentum this gives them to parade their "toughness" again.

However, there is a real problem of crime and anti-social behaviour in working-class areas. It is not just a fiction composed by right-wing politicians and journalists. People rate this issue amongst their top concerns not because they have fallen for the hype but because it is happening to them... repeatedly burgled; kept awake all night; can't walk round the estate or use the play facilities because it is too dangerous.

by Janine Booth

One Monday night, a neighbour of mine came to our Estate Committee meeting to demand that the Council take action over security problems on her small block. She wanted the Council to fit a security door and to repair the broken stairwell window that was reported over a year ago. She hoped this might stop intruders shitting on the stairs and assaulting residents. After the meeting, several of us went for a drink, and cheerfully planned how we would organise residents to stand up for ourselves, and mocked the Council for its contempt for working-class communities. Then my neighbour went home and found that she had been burgled.

What if you can not go out of your house without being scared or harassed? You feel powerless to stop your kids getting drawn into gangs, guns and drugs? What are you going to do about it?

Socialists can explain it and we can analyse it. We can offer a vision of a future society in which it will no longer happen because the conflicts, cruelties and degradations of class society will be behind us. But what about now? What are we going to do now?

Ignore it? Write it off as hysteria? Abandon the victims of social decay to become victims of the reactionary right as well? No. Socialists can and must respond. And we can do so without chiming in with prejudices or endorsing state repression.

An anti-social system

For two decades or more, Government policy has abandoned many housing estates - and whole areas of our cities - to rot. Councils have closed youth clubs and other community facilities.

Housing tenure is less secure and communities more fractured. Poverty, unemployment, low pay and long working hours bring intolerable stress into people's lives. The laws that are supposed to deal with drug abuse make it worse, not better. Young people are growing up in a society which they feel offers them little hope and in which they have no power.

The workers who could help prevent or alleviate social problems - such as drugs counsellors or social workers - are over-stretched, under-resourced and demoralised. Many people want to get out of a downward spiral, but can not get the help they need.

It is obvious - or it should be - that these conditions drive some people into behaving in ways which are harmful to others: when you make people live in a jungle, they behave like animals. So it is utterly hypocritical for the Government to crusade against "anti-social behaviour". There is little that is more "anti-social" than the Government's own policies and the capitalist system it upholds.

The word "tough" has been an ugly addition to the political vocabulary: "tough" meaning unsympathetic; tough on the victims of capitalism, not on its fat-cat beneficiaries; "tough measures" - like Anti-Social Behaviour Orders or Police Priority Areas - usually being arbitrary, repressive and counter-productive.

"Tough" Blunkett proposes to withdraw social security benefits from parents whose children misbehave. As if making the poor even poorer helps them to raise their children better! Does Blunkett think that only benefit claimants have rowdy offspring? And what about the other agencies that have contributed to the children's "delinquency"? Close nurseries, starve schools of funds, price leisure facilities way beyond kids' pockets, sack youth workers ... then blame the parents. Cute.

Then there are "youth curfews", where if just one youngster has stepped out of line, all the kids on the block must be kept indoors. A civilised society would laugh off this nonsense as something from a barbaric, tyrannical past.

Nobody should be punished for something they have not done: and nobody should have fewer judicial rights because they are under 18.

Curfews are part of the demonisation of youth. "Youth", a word always followed by "crime" or "delinquency", as though all youngsters are wild animals who must be tamed. Never mind that although young people are more likely to be involved in crime, they are also more likely to be its victims. Never mind that the youngsters who get involved in crime or anti-social behaviour have been recruited into it by someone, and are on some level victims themselves.

A real answer to a real problem

Yes we can explain crime and anti-social behaviour. Yes, we should oppose "solutions" that are not solutions but are repressive measures that use our communities' suffering as an excuse. But no, we can not be neutral. After all, plenty of people live in dreadful conditions and do not take it out on their neighbours.
Socialists should oppose harmful anti-social behaviour, and we should side with and organise with the people who are suffering it to get it stopped.

The starting point for doing that is working-class self-organisation. Communities need to get organised, for example through a Tenants' and Residents' Association (TRA). Every community should have a TRA - you do not need to wait for an outbreak of anti-social behaviour!

In my experience, when TRAs and community groups discuss these issues, they usually come up with good, positive demands, calling on the authorities to take action, rather than victimising individuals. Your community organisation can demand a youth club, a concierge, renovation of housing and estate facilities, decent lighting, help from drugs outreach workers, and a hall to use for meetings and activities.

Right-wingers assume that when working-class people discuss crime, they only ever demand gun towers, searchlights and public executions. This pleases them - to the limited extent that they care what working-class people think. But on the other side of the mirror, there is also a common view on the left that working-class people think like this, and so the left recoils.

But the left should know better. We should respect people's intelligence, and we should not collaborate in making our fears come true. When people feel trapped and powerless, they can descend into pettiness and whingeing, or - worse - looking for neighbours to blame who are not the real problem but who can be pointed at because something about them is a bit different. Or they can glorify the "old days" when the truth is that you could leave your door open only because you had nothing worth nicking.

But if, instead of standing aside, socialists get involved in working-class community responses to harmful behaviour, we can put forward positive, progressive policies, and we can argue against some of the prejudices that attach to this issue.

We can fight for the Council to meet our demands, but until it does, activists should step in and organise initiatives such as youth clubs and self-defence classes on our estates. I have often heard the view that to do this lets the authorities off the hook. But I think that approach has failed: it leaves working-class communities, and youth, with nothing to build from, and distrustful of a left that offers them words but not results.

We have to give the idea of community solidarity a material infrastructure, a scaffold: self-organisation, self-sufficiency, self-confidence...

Such projects have the potential to become a base for a concerted working-class community fightback - which is why Councils and the government are so keen to neutralise them: put them on committees, cut away their radical edge, turn their organisers into form-fillers, give them a grant on the condition that they do not stray into politics.

Evictions? Police?

But even if they remain independent and resolute, even if they achieve real progress in alleviating or reducing harmful anti-social behaviour, community projects may not be able to solve the immediate problem. So what do we do then? What measures might we support?

The prospect of routine evictions of "trouble-makers" from Council housing is horrifying. It is a power that can so easily be abused to purge estates of anyone who steps out of line, on criteria set by the authorities that are not catering for them properly in the first place. By its nature, eviction can only be used against tenants. Homeowners, presumably, can behave how they like without fear of losing their home (unless they lose their income and commit the crime of falling behind on their mortgage payments: hardly "anti-social"). And evictions turf out a whole household, some members of which may not only be innocent of the offending behaviour, but may be its main victims.

However, there are some cases where eviction may be the only way to relieve the immediate suffering of other members of the community. If your next-door neighbour persistently tried to recruit your 12-year-old daughter into prostitution, or someone on your corridor was terrorising all the black families in your block, if other attempts to stop them had failed, your community might legitimately ask the Council to evict the offenders. I am not trying to manipulate this debate with emotive examples: these things are happening in working-class communities.

Another nightmare non-solution is tooled-up police swarming over every "trouble-spot". A heavy police presence brings with it a fearful atmosphere, and bad news for some residents when bored coppers hassle people - particularly young people, particularly black people.

But earlier this year, there was a double shooting on my estate. The police came and arrested both gunmen and, hey, I am pleased.

The police usually fail to protect working-class victims of crime, as they are pre-occupied with defending private property, the rich, scabs, and the political status quo. This should be part of the socialist critique of the police, and yet some on the left baulk at the complaint that the police do not deal with crime effectively, in case it suggests endorsing the police. It is a semi-anarchist attitude, and it does not help.

I think that we should indict the police for their failings. For a start, everyone knows that unless a burglar leaves a clear signature on your living room wall, the police will usually look uninterested, give you a crime number and leave. Where I work, if a member of staff is assaulted, the police may turn up half an hour later. On strike days, management make up stories of "aggressive picketing" and they are there in minutes.

Social and anti-social

"Anti-social behaviour" is not a perfect term. Before "anti-social" became part of the political vocabulary, it just meant keeping yourself to yourself. There is a danger that behaviour which is a bit odd, a little different, could become a target. Instead of allowing innocents to be caught in a net cast too widely, we should be clear that our concern is with harmful behaviour. Crimes - to be crimes - must have victims. This has long been a principle advocated by campaigners against police crusades targeting victimless crimes such as gay cruising.

However, "anti-social behaviour" - particularly with "harmful" inserted before - is a better term than "crime" or "disorder", defined as breaking the ruling class's laws, or upsetting the status quo. At least "anti-social" suggests that we are concerned with harmful effects on people and communities.

Marxists believe in "society". Not the cut-throat, dog-eat-dog structure of capitalist society, but the fact that people exist in societies and interact with each other. We believe in it so much that we want to reorganise the world into a democratic commonwealth, where social co-operation is at the heart of the system where competition and profiteering stand now. Furthermore, we believe that it is working-class solidarity that can bring this about.

So I see nothing wrong in advocating decent standards of behaviour amongst human beings - and in condemning (with all due understanding, analysis and sense of perspective) behaviour that harms people and communities, that is anti-social. Maybe this sounds moralistic, but it is the moralism of human solidarity, not the reactionary moralism of Daily Mail editorials.

Renewing the labour movement will reduce anti-social behaviour. Why? Because if the labour movement were stronger, if it looked capable of radically changing the conditions we live in, people would look to social change rather than victimising individuals. The culture of solidarity would be stronger, and working-class people less alienated from and antagonistic to each other. If there were a big, left-wing youth movement with a real base amongst working-class youth, then many youngsters now involved in gangs would be involved in that movement instead.

Our aim is not for working-class people to suffer in dignified silence, nor to create neighbourhoods where people can walk to work safely, only to be exploited when they get there. We should recognise that although we can win some valuable improvements, the left can not totally "clean up" our towns and cities and make socialist estates in a capitalist society.

Working-class communities have the right to look to socialists for answers and for leadership, for results now as well as visions of the future. Socialists have no right to expect working-class people to take up our political ideas if we can not - or will not - address important issues in their lives.

Sadly, it may be that the left's refusal to take up this issue is a symptom that it has given up on the working class itself. A range of "radical" concerns can stand in for specifically working-class socialism, since the former means selecting the issues that you feel comfortable with; the latter dirties your hands in less pleasant, more difficult matters.

But a left that continues to ignore this issue is ignoring the class that has the potential power to change the world. And how stupid is that?


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 20/11/2005 - 22:50

I've often thought that the term 'anti-social behaviour' was odd. I've thought it odd too that I've not seen its definition challenged much by people on the left. What gets me is that so-called 'anti-social behaviour' IS social: it is part of a society with broken communities, which excludes working class people from the decisions that govern their lives. I'm not condoning it, or any kind of 'harmful' behaviour. I just think the really telling thing about the term is that it indicates the bourgeois ideology behind it. It is plain that a perfect conception of 'social behaviour' would not be collective, inclusive, with any kind of socialist under-pinning. Each individual would live in splendid isolation, oblivious to genuine social problems rooted in capitalism. An enirely negative idea of freedom, where we're just free from other people encroaching on our lives and where the primary right is private property. The problems don't go away or get tackled; they just get shifted onto the heads of young, disenfranchised individuals.

I really like the vision of working class communities organising to change the conditions that we live in, with gangs of young socialists marching through the streets, etc. I went to a TUC conference last weekend, 'Organising unions, organising communities', thinking this would be about injecting this kind of vision into the union movement. I was a bit concerned that speakers repeatedly invoked faith groups as their means of reaching out into communities. A few people seemed uncomfortable at the idea, but, as far as I saw, noone really voiced a challenge to this strong message of the day.

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