Blaming affluence for crime? That’s a bit rich
David Lammy’s ‘explanation’ for the teenage stabbings in London is a pointed attack on aspiration and prosperity.
The stabbing of Nilanthan Murddi in Croydon last weekend brought the number of teenagers who have met a violent death in London this year to 23. This spate of attacks seems to bring out the pop sociologist in MPs and newspaper columnists. Rather than interpreting such grim incidents as rare, isolated crimes, there’s a tendency to imagine an all-encompassing social influence on which to hang a catch-all explanation.
David Lammy, described by some as the nearest British equivalent to Barack Obama, and by everyone else as a New Labour hack, has put forward his own theory – and it’s a pretty trite one. Writing in the current issue of British political weekly the New Statesman, Lammy, the parliamentary under-secretary for innovation, universities and skills, believes he has identified the root ‘causes’ of teen-on-teen male violence: the influence of consumerism and affluence, and the lack of identifiable ‘role models’ for young men.
Now, whenever I hear the phrase ‘lack of role models’, I’m tempted to reach for an illegal firearm myself. It’s one of those banal, daytime TV platitudes that suggests young people are simply passive automatons waiting for the correct ‘on-message’ individual to point them in the right direction. In education circles, this sort of thinking is everywhere. There’s a genuine belief that, say, if black boys were taught by black, male teachers (the much-fabled ‘role models’), they would make better progress at school. Lammy expands on this simplistic and wrong-headed notion to suggest that if only there were more male teachers in primary schools, then boys would grow up to ‘identify’ with more ‘acceptable’ ideas of masculinity. And apparently, this would lead to less anti-social behaviour on the streets of London. Fantastic!
But teenage boys aren’t likely to behave or perform better if their teacher wears trousers or has the same skin colour. Teenagers of all stripes will seek to be oppositional to any teacher in order to undermine them and attempt to exert control in the classroom. This is partly because teenagers crave autonomy and independence and will thus instinctively see how far they can push against ‘the line’. What a teacher looks like isn’t remotely a determining factor on pupil behaviour or academic performance.
Of course, it’s essential that adults do play a role in socialising teenagers into adulthood. But that process isn’t based on ticking gender or ethnic group boxes, but on the ideas and knowledge of adults and how they articulate them. If there’s an identifiable problem today, it is that society lacks a confident set of ideas and a recognisable adult framework through which teenagers can be socialised. Lammy is on to something when he says some teens are prone to outbursts of emotionalism and infantilism today, but he is less forthcoming in identifying his own political party’s role in contributing to the current culture of blubbering emotionalism as well as infantilising teenagers.
Incredibly, even though she was UK prime minister before many of today’s teenagers were born, Lammy insists that Margaret Thatcher is somehow to blame for anti-social behaviour. What he implies is that Thatcher’s supposed blueprint for a ’consumer society’ has turned today’s generation into selfish, amoral monsters. Traditionally, the left always cited grinding poverty as a contributing influence on anti-social behaviour; now the likes of Lammy are insisting that affluence and materialism are leading youngsters astray.
Lammy quotes an allegedly popular saying amongst today’s youth – ‘get rich or die trying’ (itself the title of the debut album of American rapper 50 Cent) as proof that they are morally bankrupt. But since when was it advisable to take youthful bravado at face value? And is simply saying such a thing really the same as being an underworld crime lord? It is conveniently forgotten how most young rap fans see through the absurdity of hip-hop’s pantomime excesses. At a further education college in Hackney where I once taught, the ‘rapper’ most of the kids were obsessed with wasn’t Tupac Shakur, but Fur Q – Chris Morris’ spoof gangsta rapper in satirical TV comedy The Day Today.
Rather disgracefully, it seems Lammy is using the bogus cover of bling-bling rap to demonise consumption and the everyday, normal desire for prosperity. In this way, Lammy is following psychologist Oliver James’ cranky idea that material aspiration is a pathological problem in need of therapeutic correction. And to this end, Lammy is proposing tighter regulation on the types of advertisements, films and videos that young people might watch and be influenced by. He also implies that the state should be barging its way even further into the family home and supervising how parents raise their children.
To pathologise healthy consumption is one thing, but Lammy wants to go one step further and criminalise it as well. His crass implication is that affluent societies such as Britain, and our attendant ‘culture of consumerism’, lead inexorably to violent attacks and even murder by our young. Thus, endless consumption somehow creates selfish and feckless individuals who don’t appreciate the value of human life. This is tantamount to blackmailing poorer sections in society to keep their heads down and ‘make do’ with hardship, lest material aspiration sends their errant offspring on a random killing spree.
Sociologists such as Stanley Cohen also made the connections between the cultural influence of ‘the American dream’ and how some people in US society achieved that goal through organised crime. But for Cohen and others, that was not a justification for slamming material aspiration, but rather showed how ‘conventional’ routes to success are closed off to certain sections in society.
Lammy’s argument also doesn’t add up on closer inspection of the murders involving teenagers in London. On the whole, the incidents reported did not feature street robberies that have gone horrifically wrong. More often than not, they involved petty arguments amongst groups of youths that spilled over into fights and fatal stabbings. As dreadful and shocking as these incidents are, street fights and casual violence amongst young people are hardly a new phenomenon. As Mick Hume has argued, the amplification of street crime into a generalised threat means that more teenagers are more likely to carry knives than before – and with sometimes tragic consequences (see Knife crime panic reaches crisis point).
The logic of Lammy’s anti-consumption, anti-prosperity argument doesn’t add up in another way, too: if rich societies automatically raise feckless and amoral thugs, then how come the number of murdered teenagers is far higher in poorer countries like Brazil or Mexico? Surely the lack of affluence and consumption in those country’s shanty towns should mean they are harmonious and trouble-free places, at least in Lammy’s worldview? The fact that the teen murder rate in those areas runs into the thousands, rather than double figures, suggests that it is still miserable poverty that has a destructive impact on young people’s lives. This doesn’t simply translate as poverty forcing people to rob others; but it shows how poverty fuels listless boredom as well as generating a fatalistic and even nihilistic outlook on life in general.
Far from materialism leading to a breakdown in morals, as Lammy disingenuously argues, material prosperity enables people to develop morally as well as intellectually. It provides the very basis through which individuals can begin to live like humans and not act like animals. Instead, Lammy attempts to turn reality on its head and blackmails the poor into accepting their miserable lot in the process. To put this forward as a proposal for combating random and rare violent crime, well, Lammy’s a bit rich for even trying.
Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.
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