Issue 202 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1996 Copyright Socialist Review

Is society becoming more violent?

Maxine Bowler, Phil Turner and Judith Orr

"Violent Britain. A nation which once ruled the world but is now ruled by yobs Guns and knives are commonplace. Gangs roam the streets.' This is the apocalyptic picture of Britain painted by a Daily Mirror editorial earlier this year. The image has more in common with a Mad Max movie than the local high street. Yet the idea that there has been an unprecedented rise in the level of violence in Britain is one which fills many people with fear. It has also been used to justify increased police powers as well as a massive expansion of prisons and even calls for curfews on children as young as ten.

Are these fears misplaced or are we really seeing the development of a society where tragedies like Dunblane or apparently off the cuff acts of violence in traffic jams newly coined `road rage' will become commonplace? Are kids in school more violent than ever and are the streets now too dangerous to venture out on at night?

Violent crime is not a modern phenomenon. In the 19th century walking through a town did not put you in danger of merely being mugged or having your pocket picked, but of being garrotted! Gilroy, a writer of the period, put moral panics about crime in their historical context in this way:

`They have the capacity to symbolise other relations and conflicts, images of crime and law breaking have a special ideological importance since the dawn of capitalism.'

There are echoes of such panics in Engels' The Condition of the Working Class in England, written in 1844, where he writes, `Present day society, which breeds hostility between the individual and everyone else, produces a social war of all against all, which inevitably in individual cases assumes a brutal form crime.' One commentator in 1863 wrote, `Once more the streets of London are unsafe by day and night. The public dread has almost become a panic.' Each time the result is tougher, repressive measures. In 1863 more people were hanged than in any other year.

Industrialisation in the 19th century had brought thousands into newly growing towns and cities with no safety net in the form of welfare, so for those who could not work the situation was desperate. For many, the only means of survival was crime, violence and prostitution. Moral panics about such violence have been the staple diet of the media from the Victorians' penny dreadfuls to today's tabloids.

This is particularly true when the victim is a woman, a young child or a pensioner. The proportion of coverage today disguises the fact that young men are actually the most common victims of violent crime. Men are five times as likely to be seriously wounded by an attacker as women, though women are twice as likely to fear a violent attack from a stranger than men. Young Asian men are twice as likely to be attacked than their white counterparts. However, racist attacks are not regarded as good copy. Instead crime programmes are dominated by thriller like reconstructions of gruesome attacks by strangers which represent the minority of violent crimes. Crimewatch and programmes like it are on the increase and despite Nick Ross's patronising homily at the end of each episode for people `not to worry', they must have precisely the opposite effect.

But the image of Britain as an increasingly violent society is not simply created by the media. Any society which needs a police force armed to the hilt with guns, lethal batons, helmets and visors is a society with the use and threat of violence at its very core. When these representatives of the state murder, whether it is in someone's home, a police van or in a police cell, it is usually deemed legal. Only once have police officers been convicted for one of the 50 deaths in police custody which have happened in the last 25 years. This backdrop of increasing state violence plays an important part in people's perception of the threat of violence (`if the police need to ride around in cars in twos and carry guns then things must be bad'). But it also has a very real brutalising effect on whole communities, particularly working class black communities, who can feel threatened and intimidated by being treated as permanent suspects by a uniformed force from which they are virtually excluded and which has in the past literally got away with murder.

Individual acts of violence cannot therefore be judged against some ideal of a perfect world. Instead they must be seen in the context of a society that displays startling double standards on the use of violence, which in times of war, civil unrest or, as at the moment, because of a perceived threat of crime, is seen as a legitimate form of control.

Yet despite this background, murder and violent crime are still only a very small proportion of all reported crime. The most up to date figures available show that violent crime represents only around 6 percent of the total figure.

Armed robbery and rape perhaps two of the most horrible crimes account for only one third of 1 percent of all crimes reported. It is true that the number of murders rose from 670 in 1993 to 724 in 1994, but the 1994 figure included all the victims of Fred and Rosemary West who had actually been killed over a number of years. The figure also included the 11 men who died in the arson attack on a gay cinema in London, which can give the impression that there are many more individual murderers out there than is actually the case.

Though the murder rate has risen in the last two years, there has not been a steady rise in the number of murders. There were less murders in 1994 than in 1991, for instance. As for the much publicised increase in deaths as a result of knife attacks, this is also not borne out by the figures. There were only nine more deaths from a `sharp instrument' in 1994 than in 1987 hardly an explosion.

The common perception about guns is also challenged by the Home Office figures. The number of those shot dead was actually less in 1994 (63) than it was in 1993 (71). The most recent figures do show that violent crime has risen. The rise (2 percent) was the smallest in 12 years and was largely due to `muggings' and robbery. But crimes involving violence against the person have actually fallen by 1 percent. So the picture is nothing like as simplistic as the media would have us believe.

In fact public concern, publicity and police activity are out of all proportion to the likelihood of violence occurring from strangers on the street. A handful of attacks that have happened around cars have now got their own category, although there is no evidence to suggest anything other than the fact that with increasing car use and the consequent stress of heavy traffic, the chances of violence taking place around a dispute over driving may also increase.

The basic pattern of violence in our society remains the same: most violence takes place between family members or people who already know each other. When people say in despair that they're `not even safe in their own home' they are implying that it was in the past immune and secure against the dangers of the outside world yet statistics show this has never been the case. In 1994 out of the total of 724 murders, 427 of the victims were related or previously acquainted with their murderers. So 36 people were murdered by a lover or former lover in 1994, while 99 were killed by their spouse, cohabitant or former spouse or cohabitant.

Yet the roots of this sort of violence are never examined in as much depth as that carried out by serial or multiple murderers which receive pages of often voyeuristic detail about the murderer's background, family, school life and personality. For if domestic violence underwent the same scrutiny the institution of the family would be exposed as a place where relationships become twisted, distorted and in some cases dangerous. Women whose partners are or have been in the police or army are also more likely to suffer violence in the home.

Since both the police force and army are organised on the basis of the use of violence and brutality, and deeply rooted sexism and racism, it is no wonder that this culture infects home life as well. But these are unpalatable facts about the very people who are supposed to protect us from violence and so they are rarely explored.

That some people's lives are in such crisis that they can attack or even murder their partner or their child is beyond the crude explanations of the tabloids, other than the epithet `evil' which has so often accompanied the blurred photos of culprits. But an understanding of what leads individuals to violence, particularly against those closest to them, is essential if we want to reject such simplistic and hysterical labelling.

The first step is to see the actions of individuals as part of the total picture of society and not divorced from it. Even the most private feelings that people have about themselves their self esteem, confidence and ability to make choices and control their lives are not solely the product of a person's individual psyche, but have to be seen as part of the wider material world in which the person lives.

Karl Marx used the term `alienation' to describe how the whole structure of class society has an effect on individuals in ways which are rarely recognised. The term is often misunderstood or used as if it were a psychological state so when someone is fed up or acting in an anti-social way they are said to be `alienated'. However, Marx saw alienation as a specific term describing workers' loss of control over every aspect of their lives under capitalism. He pointed to humans' unique ability to consciously work on nature to labour but explained that under capitalism far from this ability being used to improve the quality of people's lives it is actually turned against the worker. So the worker's ability to consciously transform the world is turned into its opposite the world that workers have created transforms them and dominates their lives. So the worker takes part in production as a little cog in the massive wheel that is multinational capitalist production. He or she has to clock on, start and stop at prescribed times, often at the predetermined speed of a (man made) machine and has no say in whether ambulances or luxury cars are produced as a result of this labour.

This loss of control that is at the heart of the system not only alienates people from what they produce but also leads to alienation from other humans. For instance competition for jobs, education and housing leads to fragmentation, encouraging sexist and racist ideas and a belief that individuals have to cope on their own and have no need to cooperate with others. Thus the class structure of society shapes more than the economics of production it has an impact on every aspect of human society. Because alienation is part of the total system it affects even those who are not directly involved in exploitation, for example pensioners or the unemployed. Ironically it is precisely because such people are unable to sell their ability to labour that they are deemed worthless. So that quality which is an inherent part of what makes us human is only recognised when it can be sold and in the process becomes an alien activity.

It is only when human relationships are seen in this way, as being in a sense polluted by the very nature of society, that we begin to understand how humans can act in ways which appear utterly inhuman. Within families, perceived sex roles can be undermined by unemployment or low pay, the joy of having children can turn sour with the isolation, drudgery and poverty that often accompany them. Threads that bind communities can become fragile when society insists that each nuclear family is responsible for its own problems, be they a child with behavioural problems, an elderly parent or just no income. Where this isolation can be challenged most effectively is in the collective organisation of workers at their place of work, which is where notions of individual responsibility for rotten pay or housing are more easily exposed as false. But for a minority of society such opportunities are denied them or appear to offer so little hope that they attempt to solve their problems where they often appear, in the relationships of those most close to them. For it is easier to lash out at your partner or even your child than it is to take on the local council or the foreman, let alone the very system itself.

The greater the inequality of society, both in terms of wealth and power, the greater are the feelings of both anger and despair. How these feelings are acted on depends very much on a complex interaction of individuals' previous life experience, hopes for an improved situation, success or otherwise of personal relationships and the existence of support networks whether neighbours or formal organisations. These are only a few of the elements which play a part in leading one person to violent behaviour and not another.

However, there can be little question that the capitalist state itself and our rulers have deliberately exacerbated many of the conditions which can lead to violence.

One study of 200 violent teenagers (including those who had actually murdered) found that 90 percent of all 10 to 17 year old offenders had suffered `severe childhood trauma and deprivation'. Almost all the sample had suffered early abuse or loss and 35 percent of cases had suffered both. One psychiatrist who works with young violent offenders said, `If you can build a child's sense of its own self worth, then you are laying a solid foundation. A feeling of failure is the thing we notice over and over in the children coming here.' Despite such evidence, special needs provision for children has been continually cut back and only 5 percent of the national budget for mental health is spent on children even though they make up 25 percent of the population.

There is also evidence that in the past even kids who might have dabbled in petty theft and playground bullying would then leave school and move on, growing out of such behaviour and gaining an identity from a job, independence and new relationships. However, government legislation which has stopped unemployment benefit for 16 to 18 year olds and high unemployment has led to a situation where teenagers now find it difficult to move on to adult life. They cannot leave home if they have no income, they may have no motivation to stay on at school but still hang around it as there is no other place to be pubs, clubs and sports all cost money and so they are caught in a cycle which becomes increasingly difficult to break from. For a minority violence can seem a way out either to gain prestige, to make money or even just as a risk which brings a rare experience of excitement regardless of the consequences.

None of this is inevitable, and despite the impoverishment and hopelessness experienced by increasing numbers of people after 17 years of Tory rule the vast majority still manage to hold their lives together with humanity and dignity.

But both the government and Blair's New Labour treat those struggling against the odds without recourse to nannies, foreign holidays or dinners in expensive restaurants with undisguised contempt. The shift to the right in official politics is trying to set an agenda where those who do not or cannot cope are locked up, vilified in the press and regarded as convenient scapegoats for all of society's problems.

Socialists need to resist the argument that the rise in some violent crime that has occurred is in some way either unprecedented or an aberration in an otherwise peaceful world. Instead we should point out that since its very birth capitalism has been steeped in violence and that despite this the level of individual violence remains remarkably low. An end to both the violence of the system and of the individual will not come through any number of reforms, however well meaning, but will need instead the complete transformation of society.


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