Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Knife crime, moral panics and social solidarity by JJ Caspell


If there is one place where knife crime and the systemic, material causes behind it needs to be discussed, it’s in schools. News that a poem is to be removed from the GCSE English syllabus because it provides a vignette of somebody who carries a bread knife is the latest overreaction stemming from the moral panic that is clouding a discussion of the real causes of knife crime.

I am not sure what comrades in the NUT think about this decision, but this “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” approach is surely the wrong one in attempting to deal with an issue which is causing the needless deaths of an increasing number of young people.

Knife related crime is without doubt a serious problem. The shock value of working class teenagers stabbing each other for apparently "no reason" is without doubt a difficult issue for the collective consciousness of British society to digest.

However, the mass media is fuelling collective hysteria by amplifying the extent of the problem and, as a result, demonising all young people in the eyes of society as potential “killers”. The reality is that a young person is still more likely to die crossing the road, driving a car, or indeed committing suicide, than to be stabbed to death by a "gang of youths". Yet we do not see daily hysteria demonising reckless drivers in the way that we do “hooded” youths.

When interviewed, young people who do carry knives nearly always concede to carrying a blade through “fear” rather than as an “aggressive” act, and yet there is no forum or indeed discussion as to where this fear originates from. Given the fact that violence generally is rife in the mass media without discussion, and that material insecurity and inequality is fuelling an emergent generation of alienated teenagers, it is essential that the political and social causes and consequences of all forms of violence are discussed at every opportunity, rather than brushed under the carpet.

We live in a society where the only people (including young people) attributed with “value” are those with wealth and power, or those that can at least represent such traits. Under capitalism, our self-worth is commodified and measured against the manufactured social identities of MTV Cribs, Big Brother and celebrity culture. At the same time, the nature of racial and class cleavages in our society denies many from being able to realise such socially constructed goals, and as children become teenagers, such tensions begin to emerge socially with young people denied of a collective political voice and agency.

As a result, opportunities should not be understood as something that individuals benefit from in a “fairer” or “more progressive society”, but rather as a result of collective resistance to the economic system we live in; a measure of the strength of working class solidarity. In short, opportunities must be taken, not given.

In a capitalist society, it is simply short-termist, pie-eyed reformism to suggest schemes aimed at a certain demographic to improve their "life chances" (which ludicrously implies society is organised by “luck”) are the silver-bullet solution to social problems, and the same applies to young people. The argument that we just need more youth clubs or apprenticeships when in the age of 24-hour mass media the very measure of our self-worth is placed out of the material rich of the vast majority is an example of piecemeal reforms which only scratch the surface of youth alienation. As long as “opportunities” only apply to some, or even only a majority of individuals (though this is far from the case currently) then exploitation, material insecurity and alienation will continue to fuel violence and social insecurity.

It was particularly telling to note that certain parts of the mass media only really took the knife crime issue seriously (and perpetuated the hysteria) once a white teenager had been slain. There is unnerving sociological evidence to suggest that the oppression and suffering inflicted on many black brothers and sisters across the world has led to a desensitisation to issues afflicting black people even within our own city. But such an explanation is superficial. The real underlying issue is one of class.

For example, some argue that violence in South Africa has got worse since Apartheid was overthrown. Whether or not this is true, what is true is that violence existed under Apartheid, not only by the white population in oppressing blacks, but also within the townships where hopelessness and despair saw oppressed groups turn on each other. When such violence amongst an underprivileged working class begins to erupt and puncture bourgeois conceptions of hierarchical material security, the ideological state apparatus begins to sit up and take notice – and fights back.

There is always a tension between moralism, used as a fig leaf to justify class oppression, and materialism, where one can identify the inherent, underlying economic factors which fuel social problems. As a result, media amplification results in moral panics where anything but the underlying issues will be blamed for such violence. We see this in Palestine, Georgia and indeed all over the world.

The reality for the majority of the British population, as with the world as a whole, is to have virtually no control over one's material security. Capitalist globalisation weakens this position further, particularly in a time of economic crisis. The resultant alienation and deprivation will continue to fuel the tragic and needless consequences of knife crime and violence generally as young people feel increasingly alienated.

The alternative can only be solidarity, organisation and activism to eventually overthrow the system which underpins violence, material insecurity and the gross inequality that blights our planet, and is indeed killing it. An alternative, and I believe the only one that guarantees security and respect for all, is eco-socialism.

Whatever the means of ridding the world of capitalism and hierarchy and replacing it with equality, solidarity and sustainability and peace, schools remain a vital forum for teenagers to potentially discuss the issues which affect them on a daily basis. Long may that continue.

Posted by James Caspell

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