‘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.
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).)