Underclass bashing impedes fight against culture of dependency

If you are a member of the tracksuited classes – unlikely I know – and live on a council estate or in a tower block, you are somewhere on a slippery slope between deprivation and depravity. To put it bluntly, you are a Baby P or a Shannon Matthews waiting to happen. Or, at least, that is the prejudice indulged by commentators (not naming names) and policy makers alike.

And yet, for all the vile underclass bashing that has become so fashionable in liberal circles of late, we have in this country what can only be described as a “dependency culture”.

What should concern us is not so much the moral failings that some would have the welfare state implicit in, or even the drain on the public purse that it necessarily exacts – but rather the tragic waste of human potential that a culture of dependency creates. But the welfare state is only a small part of what is a wider problem of dependency.

Such is the esteem in which communities – “broken” or otherwise – are held these days, that more and more of us are seen as rather troublesome and inadequate.

So apparently prone are we to addictive and abusive behaviour, that many of us – so we are told – are heading for emotional as well as financial meltdown as the credit crunch bites. So while the recent welfare reforms suggest a hardline approach to the workshy, there is a rhetorical ambivalence elsewhere as to whether it is altogether a good idea for people to be independent.

There is, for instance, the ban happy approach to bad habits – be it smoking, binge drinking, or saying “bad” things in public.

And there is the slightly more subtle way in which choice and control are taken out of people’s hands, by “nudging” us in the right direction. Whether it is attitudes to junk food, recycling or energy use, we are clearly not to be trusted to make all sorts of decisions for ourselves. The message seems to be that we are actually rather pathetic creatures who don’t know what’s good for us and who willfully disregard the welfare of others.

But surely the government never tires of saying how it wants to involve people in decision making and hand over more power to people in their communities? Even the Conservative leader, David Cameron, describes himself as a “confirmed localist” who would like to see greater devolution to local neighbourhoods. Surely this represents a vote of confidence by the political class in our capacities not only to hold our local representatives to account, but to take control over our lives and act in a publicly spirited manner?

According to a press release announcing the publication of the New Opportunities white paper, no more will it be a matter of “residents having initiatives done to them”. From now on, the government wants to “empower communities to respond locally to the problems they face” and to “help themselves”.

In this same spirit, some of the initiatives announced as part of the local government reforms do seem to suggest that we will have more say over how things are run – and that can only be a good thing. Plans range from public hearings to participatory budgeting, from question time-style debates in town halls to requiring councillors to respond to petitions.

But it is the content of those public deliberations, rather than the form that they take, that is all important, that tells us what the authorities really think of us plebs. It is what we’re to be trusted with and what we are being asked to make decisions about that really matters.

If the kinds of things politicians want to engage us in at the moment are anything to go by, then the terms of engagement will be narrow indeed. Despite the rhetoric of “strong and prosperous communities” and “communities in control”, it is a parochial vision of community life that the government apparently has in mind.

Instead of an opportunity to transform neighbourhoods for the better, there is a top-down opportunism, a desperate attempt to make politics out of anxious communities, out of people’s already heightened insecurities about neighbourhoods falling apart.

As the white paper says, for all the New Opportunities that are just waiting for pepole out there, there are some who are just too used to disadvantage and too lacking in the confidence to do something about the dire straits they find themselves in.

Because “lower expectations and low self-esteem can hold people back”, you might reasonably conclude that they can’t help themselves and will, after all, need to have more “initiatives done to them”. In which case, this is not so much New Opportunities, as a confirmation of what I would describe as the New Dependency. By new, I mean there is more to the problem of dependency than that familiar 1980s folk devil, the welfare scrounger.

Indeed, we need to challenge a prevailing official prejudice of our own times that is far more damaging and pervasive – the self-fulfilling prophecy that deems us all as increasingly inadequate and potentially beholden to the state and its appointed experts for “support”.

While there are some very real problems in our society and in our political culture – problems that need fixing – we would be foolish to invite more intervention into our lives, on account of this diminished view of ourselves as broken, fragile, needy individuals who just can’t cope with life anymore. That really would put us on the slippery slope to dependency.


Broken Communities: is state intervention part of the cause or the solution?

Facing criticism from all sides for proposing draconian welfare reforms during a recession, the Prime Minister said – as if responding to another question – that ‘doing nothing is not an option’ (1). In a way, of course, he’s right the benefits system is in a mess and needs sorting out. But sometimes it is better to just leave things alone until you’ve got something useful to contribute. Job Seekers Allowance which currently stands at less than 10 pounds a day is an insult to anybody thrown out of work as a result of the economic crisis. Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC describes it as a ‘poverty income’ and insists that the government needs to put ‘more money into ordinary people’s pockets’ so that they can weather the recession. That the TUC have only asked for slightly more than 10 pounds a day mind you is a moot point. But at least that would improve the situation for those losing their jobs through no fault of their own, however marginally (2).

But the kind of ‘doing something’ that the government is intent on will only make things worse for those on the receiving end. Single parents with a child aged 12 or older will have their already meagre benefits cut unless they find someone to look after the kids and get a job. This is a desparate attempt to make a dent in the child poverty figures by making the lives of hard-up parents that much harder. Similarly, when work is drying up for even the most able and active, those currently claiming incapacity benefit will be subject to rigorous testing of their eligibility for state support with the introduction of a new regime focused on getting them into employment (3). The government will also be piloting a scheme that will force the long-term unemployed to take up work for up to 6-months at a fraction of the minimum wage (4). Not only that but the responsibility for getting them into work will be handed over to private contractors as of next year (5).

Taking some apparent comfort from the collapse of the market economy and the dependency of the banking sector on the State, Peter Beresford – professor of social policy at Brunel University – complains that for too long ‘we have been told how hopeless public welfare is and how damaging state intervention has been’. For too long ‘[w]elfare claimants have been held up as figures to despise and suspect…their dependency presented as a burden on the rest of us’. But perhaps, as Jenni Russell puts it in The Guardian, he is afflicted by what she describes as a ‘blindness on the left’. Is he just trying not to think too hard about what I would argue is the very real problem of dependency in this country? (6) The ‘welfare culture’ is only a part of it, but it is there nonetheless. While Frank Field’s one-man crusade for a far tougher workfare approach to the jobless problem than that proposed by the government is as wrongheaded and austere as the man himself – he at least recognises the gravity of the problem (7).

A contributor to The Guardian’s Jo Public blog argues, quite rightly, that we can’t ignore the fact that the ‘multi-billion-pound welfare cheque keeps people stuck just above the gutter’ (8). Whatever the merits of the reforms themselves, the Work and Pensions Secretary, James Purnell, is surely right to ‘not repeat the mistakes of the 80s and 90s when hundreds of thousands were shuffled on to inactive benefits to keep the unemployment count down and were trapped there without support, abandoning them and scarring their communities’ (9). It is this waste of human potential that must be addressed not just the drain on the public purse. This means finding ways to make people’s lives easier not harder and better not worse. However many ‘scrounger tales’ we hear, most of the poor do in fact work – indeed most single parents, for all the problems they face, also work – but they are still poor (10). In fact they possess what their supposed political advocates lack: an appreciation of the importance of resilience and self-reliance particularly when times are hard.

To associate yourself with the ‘enduring values of collectivity and mutuality’, as Beresford does, while presenting notions of ‘independence and individual responsibility’ as something foisted upon people by the market, is to sell welfare claimants short as the work-shy scroungers some would have them be. Whatever you and I might think of the market or the capitalist system, we can surely agree that it would be a good thing if people moved from being what Beresford sarcastically describes as ‘clients and claimants patronised by the state to public consumers with choice and control’. Granted, I might not put it quite like that myself but the sentiment is a welcome one as far as I am concerned (11). The trouble is that there is more than a little inconsistency in the government’s rhetoric when it comes to helping people become more independent.

David Freud – Purnell’s one time adviser who is now advising the Tories – at the time at least described the reforms as ‘a significant change in the approach to the welfare state, aimed at calling a halt to the build-up of a dependency culture and in tackling our pockets of obstinate poverty’ (12). But this distaste for dependency (unless this means relieving us from our base urges) rather goes against both the ban happy approach to bad habits – be it smoking, ‘binge drinking’, or just saying ‘bad’ things in public – and the more subtle ways in which ‘choice and control’ is being taken out of people’s hands. According to Anna Bawden, writing in The Guardian’s Public magazine, ‘[d]espite large increases in public spending, social problems persist and they are connected to detrimental ways of living and thinking’. That certainly sums up the view of officialdom when it comes to weening people off the things they most like to do.

Whether it is ‘sexual health, recycling, energy use’, road bumps or benefits policy, we are all increasingly being ‘nudged’ – no doubt by a kindly and caring state – in the right direction (13). Cameron – a very public fan of nudging – promised, at his party conference, to be ‘as radical in social reform as Margaret Thatcher was in economic reform. That is how we plan to repair our broken society’, he said. He complained that ‘the returns from endless state intervention are not just diminishing, they are disappearing…because too often state intervention deals with the symptoms of the problem’ rather than ‘the long-term causes’ (14). Which begs the question what is the problem and what are the causes? Or rather who? In the age of Little Britain and Shameless depictions of working class life (or should that be the workless class?) leave much to be desired.

A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – The media, poverty and public opinion in the UK – was particularly scathing about the Jeremy Kyle show for its ‘rather brutal form of entertainment that is based on derision of the lower-working-class population’. In response, the producers presented themselves as members of the caring profession, intent on helping guests (or should that be clients) with their problems: ‘both within the programmes and with the support of an aftercare team comprised of qualified mental health nurses and a psychotherapist’ (15). This is the kind of psychobabble, however cynically employed, that plays well these days. Which is perhaps why the DWP – as well as proposing introducing lie detector tests to weed out fraudulent benefit claimants (16), a device employed for helping people with their relationship problems on shows like Kyle’s – are reportedly in talks about a TV series provisionally titled Jeremy Kyle Gets Britain Working (17).

But those who raise the alarm on the excreble Kyle as often as not unwittingly reveal their own prejudices – wanting to defend the good name of the government’s so-called anti-poverty strategy, or expressing their disgust with this populist ‘car-crash’ TV. For instance Peter Wilby, writing in The Guardian, thinks more should be done to feature the plight of the ‘uncoping poor’. By which he means the ‘rowdy children, chaotic finances, unstable families, unhealthy eating habits and propensity to crime’ that supposedly characterise the worst of our communities. They are, he says, ‘models of how not to behave, and sometimes objects of fear or ridicule’ (18). This disapproving tone – both with regards the poorest sections of society and those that supposedly exploit them – was also apparent in the now infamous remarks of a Judge during a court case involving guests from the show. He described it is akin to ‘bear baiting’. ‘It seems to me that the whole purpose of the Jeremy Kyle Show is to effect a morbid and depressing display of dysfunctional people who are in some kind of turmoil,’ he said.

This low view of the lower orders is shared by the government’s Social Exclusion Unit. Apparently as many as 2% of the country’s families are ‘on the edge’. They are ‘borderline coping, plagued with drink and drug addiction, mental illness and deep inadequacy.’ (19) My only query would be whether they are sure it is just 2%. According to a recent Audit Commission survey of local authority chief finance officers, we can expect ‘more family breakdowns, with more children being taken into care, an increase in demand for residential places for the elderly, increased drug and alcohol abuse, and an increase in demand for financial advice’, as the credit crunch bites (20). Such is the esteem in which communities are held by officials these days, that more and more of us are regarded as rather troublesome and inadequate, so prone to addictive and abusive behaviour that we are heading for emotional as well as financial meltdown when things get tough.

Not only are we somewhere between potentially unruly and just not coping, but we are also severely lacking in something we didn’t even know we needed until recently – social capital. And yet, as Polly Toynbee has argued, even in the most testing of circumstances people seem to pull together. For all that Karen Matthews lived up to her alloted image as a neighbour from hell (and more besides); it was a ‘remarkable community strength’ that brought the rest of the street out in the search for Shannon (21). That this case became the focus of a renewed attack on the tracksuited classes speaks volumes. It served to confirm officials and liberal commentators alike in their prejudices. Namely that there exists a slippery slope between deprivation and depravity – and that the latter is bred and spread in our ‘broken communities’. The implication being – like in one of those revolting NSPCC adverts – that we are all in danger of sinking to unimaginable lows if the State doesn’t step in, not only to protect the children, but to protect us from ourselves.

No wonder the Prime Minister believes that what the country needs now more than ever is a government that intervenes, that is both a ‘rock of stability’ in difficult times and has the ‘power to change lives’ (22). He went around the country at the start of the year on what was described as a ‘recession recce’. The intention was to show, as one minister put it, that nobody ‘will be left on their own to deal with the effects of the credit crunch’ (23). Whether or not you find this a comforting thought, given the low regard in which at least some of us are held, on the face of it this is worrying for those who want to see the government devolve power to communities (24). Surely all of that is on hold for now. Well no, not really. There is a new Bill promised that will require local authorities, amongst other things, to hold public hearings, and build on the piloting of participatory budgets – just the kinds of initiatives that at least have the merit of sounding positive and trusting in our age of doom and gloom (25). We hear a lot these days about how people should be more ‘involved’ in their communities. Even David Cameron, apparently drawing inspiration from Tony Benn, describes himself as a ‘confirmed localist’ committed to a ‘fundamental shift [of power] – to local people and local institutions’ (26).

Some of the initiatives announced as part of the government’s reforms of local government are to be welcomed. From holding ‘question time’ style debates in town halls to grill local councillors, to requiring that councils respond to petitions. These sorts of things are likely to put political representatives on the spot. And that is always a good thing. However, in the absence of anything else, can the process of consultation and participation – of itself – create a thriving civil society and a new ‘deliberative democracy’ that will involve and re-engage people both in their communities and in politics? For me, the answer has to be no. It is the content of those public deliberations, rather than the form they take, that is most important.

You only have to listen to the kinds of things politicians want to ‘engage’ us in to get an idea of how narrow the terms of engagement with communities really are. The presumption that ‘small is beautiful’ means that large infrastructure, road building and housing projects – the kinds of things that would, in my view, benefit communities – are off the agenda, and the petty concerns of a small-minded elite (e.g. anti-social behaviour, road safety, dog-fouling, fly-tipping) are very much on the agenda. Despite the rhetoric of ‘strong and prosperous communities’ and ‘communities in control’ in the white papers that set out the proposed reforms, it is this diminished and parochial vision of community life that advocates of the new localism have in mind.

In the parallel world occupied by the political class and the commentariat, communities are very different things. They are not the taken-for-granted, imperfect but living breathing things that we are all a part of to a greater or lesser extent – they barely exist at all except as vehicles for offloading political problems. By exploiting, for their own ends, people’s already heightened insecurities about neighbourhoods falling apart, not only are they making a politics out of anxious communities, they are also obscuring what is in reality the desperate thrashing around of a disoriented and isolated elite that senses its own illegitimacy all too keenly.

This collapsing of the question of our relationship with our political leaders and our relationships with each other, tells us a lot about the preoccupations of the political class. The community agenda, far from reflecting the experiences of real communities as its advocates claim, is rather an expression of these elite anxieties and their inability to resolve them. Faced with the problem of how to engage people and secure a sense of legitimacy for themselves, they seem intent on making a virtue of not having any ideas, and not being able to lead us out of what is as much a political as it is an economic crisis. Instead of owning up and declaring themselves bankrupt – we are told we are being empowered, listened to, and involved.

If this is just me being cynical then we can look forward (as we find ourselves increasingly empowered) to the State gradually withdrawing from the scene and leaving us to get on with our everyday lives. A press release announcing the publication of the New Opportunities White Paper certainly gave the impression that things are moving in the right direction. Instead of ‘residents having initiatives done to them’ it said, the government wants to ’empower communities to respond locally to the problems they face’ and to ‘help themselves’. Except. Some disadvantaged communities, we are told, are filled with inadequate, vulnerable people who are not in a position to ‘help themselves’ and may very well need to have ‘initiatives done to them’. Apparently, ‘as well as economic disadvantage, lower expectations and low self-esteem can hold people back’ too.

So the government wants to do something to provide people with ‘the tools they need to change their own lives’. This doesn’t mean creating new jobs, or building social housing, or ensuring that the kids get a decent education, or that the unemployed receive benefits they can live on – the kind of something many of us would welcome. The ‘tools’ they have in mind are about finding new ways to involve the ‘wider community’ or the ‘wider neighbourhood’ and drawing up community pledges, encouraging people to become volunteers and set up social enterprises. None of which I necessarily have a problem with – indeed, as with initiatives aimed at improving local accountability, these may have much going for them. But if our communities really are ‘broken’ is this really what is going to fix them? Instead of enhancing the ‘supporting role’ of communities, they (or at least their appointed representatives) are as likely to be sucked into a relationship with officialdom that will diminish their ability to act in their own interests.

While there are some very real problems in our society and in our political culture, we would be foolish to invite more state intervention into our communities. We need to argue for really giving people the tools they need to get on with their lives; but otherwise, we need to reclaim the space for communities to pursue their own goals, in their own right and according to their own agenda. This presupposes that we start challenging the official view of people – notwithstanding the rhetoric of involvement, participation and empowerment – as essentially feeble, unable to make decisions for themselves or look after their own affairs. It is only by making the case both for social solidarity and personal autonomy that we can really gain some control over our lives, find the inspiration we need to aspire to much more than is currently on offer …and ‘do something’ about it.


Young People and Social Exclusion

Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Arts, on his way to Radio 4’s Moral Maze, found time to leave us with his thoughts on what he clearly felt was one of the hottest of topics, even in the eye of the economic storm. What once seemed impossible now seems possible, he said. Certainly, the world financial crisis had just sent commentators, like the economy, into a spin beyond spin and the ‘credit crunch’, as it is rather euthemistically known, was upon us. But rather than representing an opportunity for new thinking as Taylor seemed to suggest, the reality is that no-one quite knew what to make of it then…or now.

Writing this just weeks later, it is clear that this debate about the problem with young people was also more of the same. Simon Lewis, chairing the session, and director of corporate affairs at Vodafone, its sponsors, drew our attention to those young people who have ‘dropped off the radar of mainstream Britain’. Or ‘Breakdown Britain’ as Iain Duncan Smith, former Tory leader, self-declared ‘quiet man’ of British politics, chair of the Centre for Social Justice and panellist at this discussion, would have it. But is the collapse of the social fabric any more real than the collapse in values on the world’s financial markets? One can only hope that the rhetoric of breakdown and crisis, does not have the impact on young people and our relationship with them, that the political panic over the paper economy is having on the ‘real’ economy.

Duncan Smith didn’t fill me with confidence in this regard. He complained that the decline of what his political predecessors might have called ‘family values’ (he referred to community values) is at the source of today’s problems. But this was not so much a return to Thatcherite conservatism as a mirroring of the old Leftist complaint that it was the greedy Thatcher years what did it. The ‘culture of the street’ he said had infected our ‘banking culture’. In other words, the global financial crisis was brought about not by market failures and political bumbling at the top, but by irresponsible young men in pin stripes as much as the Burbery-clad masses.

But just in case any vulgar Leftists take heart from this new elite consensus on the origins of today’s crisis, his formulation of the wider problem as stemming from our society’s ‘dysfunctional base’ is not only therapeutic (and therefore individualistic) in its orientation, but is also disturbingly reminiscent of the racial science of the 19th century. Only that instead of explaining intelligence or criminality as a function of one’s skull size, Duncan Smith claimed (citing ‘research’) that it is the dysfunctional impact of the experience of abuse, and exposure to video games and domestic violence, that predisposes children in their early years to a ‘level of conversation which is stilted and low’. ‘Look who’s talking!’ I felt like saying but there was no time for questions.

In a transparent attempt to hide his class prejudices behind contemporary pseudo science, he told us in no uncertain terms that between the ages of 0-3 children’s lives are thus irreversibly damaged and mapped out in advance. In a deft sleight of hand he used the language of neuroscience (all synapses and ‘pathways’) to argue that there are a class of people whose life pathways are irreversibly foreclosed shortly after learning to walk. Most studies show that you can predict a child’s future in this way up to the age of 18, he said. This is bunkum, but it is popular bunkum informing (for want of a better word) everything from social work practice and early years policy, to parenting advice and crime prevention.

So Philip Udeh, the dynamic looking head of Community Builders, a charity that seeks to ‘inspire young people to become the next generation of social action leaders’, was not outraged by this old Tory and his chav-baiting nonsense. Not a bit of it, he only gave him much needed street cred. I hoped that he might have questioned the sweeping claims made about young people, or rubbished the proposed interventions to solve the problems associated with them. He might have pointed to the persistence of poverty and how it predisposes young people to crime or social ‘exclusion’. Instead, he confirmed Duncan Smith and the rest of the political elite in their tired prejudices. There is a ‘culture of self-abuse’ in our communities, he said. Improving outcomes for children ‘means targeting parents too’, he concurred.

I expected more of the same from Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust. But she was refreshingly optimistic, avoiding the policy cliches of so-called ‘community champions’ like Udeh, and contradicting Duncan Smith’s determinist and downbeat analysis too. There is ‘lots that can be done at every single stage’ she said. Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, a Paralympian with 11 gold medals and 6 London marathons to her name, also gave cause for optimism. While her accusation that ‘technology has contributed to…social breakdown’ misidentified the culprits, her suggestion that companies like Vodafone should ‘put back some of the trust’ at least recognised the nature of the problem.

Similarly, while the notion of shaping young ‘active citizens’ minds and bodies has rather been hijacked by the government, I found her argument that sport and physical activity in schools can ‘re-engage people with society’ somehow convincing. There is a relentless problematising of childhood and youth in the contemporary discourse. What Grey-Thompson referred to as a ‘perpetuating cycle of inactivity’, is perhaps indicative of an intellectual malaise reinforcing the process of disengagement in and outside of the nation’s schools.

Put another way, in the absence of a meaningful public life that can act as a draw on inquiring young minds (and inactive young bodies), we can hardly expect young people to discover the ‘get up and go’, and engage in the kind of ‘pro-social’ acts envisaged, funnily enough, by Matthew Taylor in his inuagural address to the RSA.

Listen to ‘Young People and Social Exclusion’ debate here http://www.thersa.org/events/audio-and-past-events/young-people-and-social-exclusion


The New Dependency


I suspect the New Right was on to something in the 80s when they complained that Britain was creating a ‘dependency culture’. They only got it half right, and for all the wrong reasons. The welfare state is and never was to blame for our contemporary culture of anxious, enfeebled individualism. That is the consequence of historical changes reflected in, among other things, the therapeutic bent in the welfare philosophy that has come to the fore with the collapse of the politics of left and right, and the end of the welfare consensus.

Though the electoral success of the Thatcherites was built primarily on the failure of the pre-Blairite Labour Party to propose a viable alternative, it was the celebration of individual aspiration that resonated with voters. The robust go-getting individualism of the 1980s may have been a caricature then, but it is a complete anachronism now. The kinds of values that encourage people to strive for more and better are relentlessly undermined by a post-political celebration of the psychologised, diminished and entirely dependent individual forever seeking the ‘support’ of officialdom.

While the Left continue to blame today’s social problems on the supposedly selfish 80s, rather than blaming the welfare culture as such; there is agreement that one way or another, we are living with the consequences – moral decay. Nightmare visions of council estates and tower blocks populated by knife-wielding teenagers stalking unlit stairwells and teenage mothers in tracksuits hanging around off-licences, haunt the imagination of a disoriented and out-of-touch Left-Liberal elite even more than their New Right predecessors.

However outraged the Left might have claimed to be at the time, Tory talk of a ‘culture of poverty’ lives on in the dubious notion that the poorest are trapped in ‘cycles’ of multiple-deprivation from which they cannot escape. The difference this time around is not that such people are ‘welfare scroungers’ dependent on state ‘handouts’. Rather, we are told that unless the presumably feckless dependents accept the help of the ‘caring’ state, they will never break free of the degrading circumstances they find themselves in. This outlook expresses more than just a contempt for the masses, or a disappointment with the failure of the welfare state on the part of its one-time architects. It is also indicative of a profound pessimism about where society in general is going.

In place of ambition, affluence and aspiration are an army of counsellors and dubious ‘experts’ dispatched to save us from ourselves. Parents are deemed inadequate or else irresponsible, children increasingly vulnerable, and all of us described as a risk to ourselves and each other as we indulge in behaviours (e.g. eating, drinking and smoking) once thought unremarkable and certainly not the business of the state. The Left-Liberal elite, from the commentariat to the Cabinet, are not only ill at ease with the positive aspects of capitalism, but are the most strident apologists for the persistence of poverty as well.

Such is the topsy-turvy world of our post-political culture that it is they, rather than the cut-out-political villains that came to power over a quarter of a century ago, who are to blame for a pervasive culture of dependency that is more entrenched, widespread and debilitating than even the pre-Cameron Tories could imagine.


The new face of law’n’order

‘Anti-social behaviour’ has become a central idea for the current UK government. Yet, while many commentators have criticised this authoritarian strand in government policy, how did this concept become so central to politics and the way we understand how we live? In The Politics of Antisocial Behaviour: Amoral Panics, academic and former youth worker Stuart Waiton outlines the ways in which ‘anti-social behaviour’ is shaped by wider cultural forces.

The term ‘anti-social’ was first used during the French Revolution to describe those who wanted to undermine the existing order. Two hundred years later, it remains a ‘political term’, but rather than being attached to radical elements, ‘anti-social behaviour’ is now a sweeping term that can be applied to just about everyone. According to the legal definition in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, anti-social behaviour is conduct ‘likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress’. As Waiton explains, it encompasses everything from littering and graffiti, to minor incivilities and nuisances; from drunken escapades on a Saturday night, to vandalism and fly tipping. It can apply to everybody from school pupils to local government officials, hospital patients or social workers.

However, anti-social behaviour is most commonly associated with the apparently threatening misbehaviour of some teenagers and with ‘neighbours from hell’ – the ‘problem families’ described by former Labour minister Frank Field. It was Field who coined the term ‘politics of behaviour’ for just such situations. But as Waiton rightly notes, it is not just so-called sink estates that are problematised by the politics of behaviour; it is human relations and society itself. Waiton’s most important insight is that the contemporary notion of anti-social behaviour is a consequence of a particular political orientation that focuses on ‘minimising harm’ and promoting safety and ‘community cohesion’.

Waiton argues that in the past decade, anti-social behaviour has shifted from being a predictor of more serious crime to being a crime in and of itself. In much the same way, he says, it is the fear of crime rather than actual crime that concerns the authorities the most. The politics of behaviour, he says, is an inadequate response that ultimately makes things worse, not just by exaggerating the prevalence and moral abjection of ‘anti-social behaviour’, but also by failing to deal with the fundamental problem – our ‘asocial society’.

In exaggerating the problem of anti-social behaviour, the government legitimises its own intrusive heavy-handedness. As Waiton puts it: ‘The issue of anti-social behaviour may have a reality on the ground – but it was the changing nature of institutions and of politics itself that led to an engagement with this behaviour as a new basis upon which legitimacy could be established.’

A focus on vulnerability

In 1997, the newly elected New Labour government introduced the Child Safety Initiative, targeted at under-16s on a handful of housing estates in Scotland. It was one of the trailblazer initiatives for the incoming government’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy and was followed by new legislation in England and Wales. This empowered local authorities to declare night curfews on children under the age of 10.

Yet such initiatives have not simply been justified through a ‘law and order’ discourse. Instead, the focus was on ‘child safety’ and ‘community safety’. Whether ‘at risk’ from association with their anti-social peers, or already anti-social themselves, young people were being portrayed less as delinquent than as vulnerable. They were not just trouble, but troubled. So the curfews were both about protecting children, and protecting society from children. The authorities, writes Waiton, acted ‘as advocates for the vulnerable public’.

And yet, the extent to which curfews in places like Hamilton, Scotland were a response to ‘real’ problems in the area was questionable. An evaluation by the Scottish Office found no discernible improvements in child safety largely because they were unable to establish that such areas were particularly unsafe, or that the community was under siege from young people, in the first place.

The authorities (and the police in particular) nevertheless took on an increasingly therapeutic role as they sought to ‘manage the anxieties’ of the community rather than attending to specific instances of anti-social behaviour (let alone crime). But, as Waiton argues, in doing so, they ended up trying to resolve problems that previously would have been worked out within the community itself. Under a regime like that imposed in Hamilton, the community is encouraged to remain passive, apart from keeping a tight rein on their own kids lest they traumatise other members of the community.

A permanent state of anxiety

Waiton looks at the creation of ‘moral panic’ – a term usually attributed to Stanley Cohen and his seminal Folk Devils and Moral Panics from 1972, but actually originating with his contemporary, Jock Young in 1971. A moral panic is described in my dictionary of sociology as, ‘an exaggerated, media-amplified, social reaction to initially relatively minor acts of social deviance’, and Waiton elaborates on this with a brief discussion of the nuances in the way the concept is used.

For instance, Cohen was researching a panic about ‘mods and rockers’, which now seems rather quaint. But it was how these ‘folk devils’ became the focus for existing elite anxieties about national decline, and the influence of American youth culture, that interested him. These panics and the increasing resort to law and order solutions in this same period was marked by what Waiton calls the beginnings of the ‘politicisation of moral issues’.

As American sociologist Joel Best notes in the foreword to The Politics of Antisocial Behaviour, in the past it was always ‘moral conservatives’ who seemed to fuel these panics. But Waiton argues that there is something very different going on today. Today’s panics are a reaction to the demise of politics and the absence of an agreed moral framework in society rather than being the product of forces bent on social control. As a result, rather than being subject to episodic moral panics, we live in a permanent state of anxiety.

Given the rise of the victim in contemporary discussions of many different aspects of modern society, not just crime, and the adoption of the language of risk in place of old-fashioned morality, Waiton’s term ‘amoral panic’ is far more appropriate, says Best. Waiton argues, nevertheless, that safety and harm reduction represent a new ‘moral’ absolute of sorts.

Fear of belief

Society is currently at a point of political impasse. The political right, having lost the Culture Wars (in the UK as well as the USA), are no longer in the business of mounting truly ‘moral’ panics (or defending Victorian values, as the Thatcher government could in the 1980s). The political left is increasingly conservative in its negative view of humanity and the desirability of social change. Consequently, there is no discourse in politics able to draw on the resources of the past or to steer a course for the future. All that is left is to ‘manage’ what is.

Instead of being a defence of cherished values or social norms, contemporary panics have at their core an anxiety about the ‘loss of norms’. Indeed those groups that do hold to a set of shared beliefs are regarded with anxiety and suspicion. The raft of policy initiatives seeking to re-engage young Muslims allegedly being ‘groomed’ by radical preachers, for instance, speaks more to the inability of the political elite to cohere anybody around a set of values or beliefs of its own.

In the absence of a clear moral framework, the elite is as confused (if not more so) as the rest of us, argues Waiton. But rather than inhibiting the government’s engagement with moral panics, this gives it a propensity to panic more and to further fuel people’s anxieties, where in the past the authorities would have done their best to ‘dampen down’ heightened feeling. Today, paradoxically, with the increasing official interest in people’s behaviour, the tendency to moralise and, in particular, promote ‘restraint’ is greater than ever, despite the elite’s confusion about what moral purpose it is aiming to promote.

The fall of the Wall and the rise of the victim

It is the conditions that gave rise to our obsession with noisy neighbours and unruly youth, rather than the empowering of the police and local authorities to issue Antisocial Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) as such, that interest Waiton.

In the USA, during the 1960s-70s, the conservative prejudice that ‘victim’s rights’ were neglected by a criminal justice system intent on defending ‘criminal’s rights’ was gaining influence. As the welfare consensus came to an end, this argument also had an increasing impact on the discussion of crime in the UK. The 1970s and 80s had been politically explosive, with trade union militancy, inner-city riots and an overwhelming sense of national crisis.

But by the 1980s and 1990s, former radicals on the left in academia and in local government, were also reorienting themselves around the protection of, and concern for victims, says Waiton. The fall of ‘communism’ in the East, and the discrediting of the ‘socialist’ tradition in the West, played no small part in the pre-history to our contemporary malaise, he concludes.

The influence of feminist ideas also began to take hold, with their identification of ‘vulnerable groups’ and their problematising of informal relationships, and with campaigns and initiatives around child abuse, sexual harassment and domestic abuse particularly prominent. There was a UN Declaration on the Rights of Victims in the 1980s.

By 1990, the Conservative government had announced its own Victim’s Charter. And so it was with the rudderless Conservative government of John Major in the 1990s that the new managerial, regulatory (and apolitical) ‘politics’ was born – with the behaviour of an ‘underclass’ of ‘joy riders’ and single parents as the rather unconvincing new ‘enemy within’. The focus of government concern shifted from ‘miners’ to ‘minors’, as Waiton puts it, with young people displacing the bulwarks of the defeated labour movement as the new ‘folk devil’ – most starkly illustrated by the reaction to the murder of toddler James Bulger by two 10-year olds in 1993.

The politics of anti-social behaviour started to take shape in the 1980s, but it was New Labour that was able to give these trends their fullest expression, explains Waiton. In 1993, future prime minister Tony Blair had famously said New Labour would fight ‘crime and the causes of crime’ (with the emphasis very much on the former, it has to be said). The ‘aggressive beggars’ derided in 1995 by Jack Straw, who went on to be the first New Labour home secretary were not the same as the ‘welfare scroungers’ against which the Conservatives had tried to define themselves in previous years.

For Waiton, the scapegoating of benefit cheats at least sought to engage with people as having an obligation to society (if not vice versa, I might add). Straw’s focus on the aggressive behaviour of beggars, expressed a sentiment that was fundamentally ‘asocial’. It engaged, not with society, but with members of the public as potential victims.

That New Labour could transform begging from a welfare issue into a policing issue was remarkable for a party that still claimed to be motivated by a concern for ‘social justice’. Whereas the ‘uncaring’ Tories went in for a bit of old-fashioned victimisation themselves – their Criminal Justice Act of 1994 railed against ‘squatters, new age travellers and ravers’ – the ‘amoral’ morality increasingly embraced by the political left was organised around what Waiton describes as the new ‘universal’ of vulnerability. But this emphasis on vulnerability proved to be a winner for New Labour.

An ‘active subject’?

The valorisation of victimhood promoted by Blair’s government, and the broader cultivation of a victimised identity through a variety of ‘awareness’ campaigns and advocacy groups in the 1990s, is the nearest we come nowadays to the making of moral ‘claims’. It is not that individuals are themselves weak and vulnerable, but that their lives are informed by such a sensibility, through contemporary political culture and the institutions that increasingly mediate people’s existence. But it also the elite’s own estrangement that drives this agenda. The elite is estranged from itself, as it struggles for a sense of purpose, and it is estranged from society when it seeks to engage with a ‘social’ with which it is no longer intimately connected.

The idea of ‘community’, the ideological setting for the campaign against anti-social behaviour, is, says Waiton, a ‘subjectless space’ in which we are acted upon rather than ourselves ‘active’. While fundamentally true, there have been a number of government initiatives in recent years exhorting us all to get involved, to participate, to volunteer in our communities, and to be ‘active citizens’ in our ‘active communities’. But Waiton doesn’t address these initiatives. Waiton explains how there is an attempt to manage society, by reshaping and redirecting institutions so that they are better able to engage with vulnerable individuals and to ‘manage’ (anti-social) behaviour. But for me this begs the question: what could it mean to be an active subject when our subjectivity is so ‘diminished’?

Similarly, towards the end of Waiton’s book, there is a rallying call for the creation of a ‘pro-social’ society. Unfortunately, Matthew Taylor got their first, with his call for a new ‘pro-social behaviour’ and a ‘citizen-centric’ approach to politics and society, in his inaugural speech as chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts (see Taylor’s speech here). This rather suggests that the political elite (Taylor is a former adviser to Tony Blair) is trying to grapple with the problem of providing a ‘positive’ (or pro-social) vision for society. It seems to me that while the diminished status afforded to the political subject goes unchallenged, we will remain locked inside the ‘politics of behaviour’ (be it ‘anti-social’ or ‘pro-social’) that New Labour has created.

A rudderless society

The book ends with a look at the ‘real problem’. Not the scourge of ‘anti-social behaviour’ or the lack of ‘respect’, but our ‘asocial’ society (a phenomenon picked up in the interest in declining ‘manners’ in popular commentaries – particularly Talk to the Hand by Lynne Truss). We live ‘bubbled existences’ in which society is an alien entity (or something from which we ourselves feel alienated), says Waiton.

The Oprah-esque phrase ‘talk to the hand’ is not an expression of selfishness, he continues, but of a ‘defensive retreat’ into the self. It expresses the degraded way in which we have come to understand ourselves and each other. The ‘bubble’ in which ‘therapeutic man’ exists has a ‘thin skin’, Waiton argues. Which is why, as we ‘drift’ past each other in our everyday disconnected lives, these everyday incivilities are endowed with an ‘exaggerated significance’. We feel the personal sleight all the more.

We are encouraged by the prevailing therapeutic culture (and state) to be ‘introspective’ and inner-directed, rather than engaging with society. The very notion of being ‘anti-social’, says Waiton, is regarded not as an offence against the common good, but against our individualised and psychic selves. Our relationships are being reworked around anti-social behaviour, or rather its emotional (and subjectively experienced) impact on helpless objectified others in need of protection from ‘harassment, harm and abuse’.

So while the ‘real’ problem is neglected, the problem of anti-social behaviour is exaggerated. We lack a wider ‘purpose’ or ‘vision’ that might cohere us, or spur us to kick against something – and perhaps make us relatively invulnerable to the challenges we face as individuals, and as a society. But Waiton ultimately places the blame for our rudderless society on the ‘pilot’ (to mix my metaphors) that should be steering society through our turbulent times.

Managing risk

By 2006, says Waiton, New Labour had created 3,000 new criminal offences. This compared with the 500 offences that the last Conservative administration had passed into law over the same period. The expansion of the criminal justice system to deal with problems that hitherto were not regarded as warranting intervention are superficially similar to ‘law and order’ crusades of the past. But, says Waiton, it is the management of risk and behaviour, rather than the politicisation of crime as such, that characterises this new approach.

This is not to deny the illiberal and authoritarian bent of New Labour policy, nor the spiralling prison numbers and the drive for more and more surveillance (from closed-circuit television to ID cards). For Waiton, it is the demise of politics with a capital ‘P’ and a governing elite that has lost its sense of purpose that matters most. Lacking the authority to engage with society and direct social change, there is instead an ‘anxious authoritarianism’, that can only grant us the ‘right’ to be protected, and a ‘freedom’ from fear.

The Antisocial Behaviour Bill – with its measures to clampdown on everything from crack houses to fireworks – passed through parliament in 2003 virtually unopposed. Matters that might once have been referred to the police or the local councillor were now the business of politicians sitting in Westminster. Despite the protestations of Frank Field, the politics of (antisocial) behaviour is not an honest and simple response to the complaints of constituents; it represents the elevation of the parochial politics of the parish to the centre of a vacuous political culture.

The politics of antisocial behaviour solved the problem of how to govern an atomised and directionless society – but only temporarily.

Dave Clements was a researcher for the Future Cities Project report Bingeing on Anti-social Behaviour: The questionable logic of city clean-up campaigns

The Politics of Antisocial Behaviour: Amoral Panics, by Stuart Waiton is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)