Category Archives: Revanchism

Who loses in the war on the frail, the poor and the criminal?

After several years of on-off thinking on the topic of revanchism the resulting paper has finally been published. After the dog whistle politics of the UK on questions of immigration, demolitions of public housing, the fall-out from the 2011 riots, the war in urban Gaza, and the more general polarisation of thought and opinion the article is intended as a timely poke in the ribs to make us think about the wider reasons for attacks on the poor, the marginal and the dispossessed. For thinkers and folk keen to mark out the space of rights, access, justice and less unequal societies the ways in which policies and policing are being used to displace, dislocate, expel and destroy, by the emissaries of the wealthy and the respectable, is indeed a perplexing thing. How is it that in societies that enjoy unprecedented wealth we have also seen the erosion of welfare, the criminalisation of homelessness, the encouragement of voyeurism toward the needy (Benefits Street and the like) and the on-going use of policing and court measures to pursue those who are anti-social? While we need to be careful of liberal responses to real social problems and damaging behaviour that does destroy community life and common feelings of safety and well-being we must also be alert to the ways in which politics and policing increasingly secure our cities in ways that erode rights and safety by attacking or abandoning those who are seen as being beyond the pale.

The basic argument of my article is that those with political power have tended to create programmes and instruments by which not only are the poor and marginal further dislocated, but that such measures are drawn-up because they serve the (largely illusory) function of exorcising the fears and anxieties we have about the criminal, dangerous places and deviant social groups who are described in the media and by those with political voices as being dangerous and a challenge to the kind of society we would like to be. In this sense policy can act as a kind of social catharsis, a form of release from our fear and worry by focusing on those who we may feel are the root of our problems but may have very little to do with this. Among the many examples we can identify are the control of anti-social behaviour, demolition and removal of public housing areas, the policing of migrants and their harassment by non-state institutions (Golden Dawn in Greece, for example), anti-homeless laws (predominantly found in the US), extreme and discretionary policing and so on.

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Many policies and actions can be seen as a form of focused hate that is directed at the apparent sources of our fear and our anger at groups who are in reality intensely marginal and vulnerable groups. In the name of crime control, order and economic security we run headlong to pursue programmes that defund, delimit, coerce and even destroy individuals and communities who are the very casualties of the unequal and damaging societies we inhabit. All of this gives the lie to the promise of cathartic and many aggressive policies since it is clearly a false hope that we can really eliminate the frailty, anger, dispossession and precariousness that are features of social life. Yet these groups also create the convenient bogeymen and scapegoats of conventional politics and crude media punterism and which often act as distractions from the more necessary political actions required to make societies better and safer. The danger of such policies is that they will likely represent more of an assault on the lifestyles and conditions of the affluent and which are therefore seen as untenable.

If we might hope for one thing in the year ahead it will be that a more informed, kinder, more empathic and compassionate politics emerges; one that denies comment-boards and focus group sanction and which adopts a reasoned, defensible and reasonable position on the kind of social problems our societies face. The kind of anxiety and precariousness of our lives today, marked by gross inequality and flexibility of work, only adds fuel to this kind of politics, with the vulnerable and society at large the real losers.

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Public policy and public anger in a 24/7 world

For those that try to keep with international and current affairs the emerging picture of the world around us is surely a bleak one. Yet there is little that is new about this, if the advent of a new century has seen little done to address the wars on want, inequality and political instability, the century before it was little better. As Eric Hobsbawm’s masterful summary of the 20th century showed (Age of Extremes, Viking Press, 1995) the era before this was marked by genocide, political and national extremism, total war and devastating human loss. Yet, for all the advances in science and commerce, we continue to live in a world of overwhelming human suffering and unsettling changes, as the release of information about the use of torture by the US secret services surely shows.

The kind of political world we live in, by intent or its systemic forces, continues not only to tolerate the kinds of inequality and suffering around us, indeed, in many cases, social problems are ignored or condemned in their own right with fervour by mainstream politicians and lapped-up by an anxious and angry class of precarious workers and welfare recipients. It is surely curious that public conversations can be carefully shaped in such a way that the interests of the poor are made to appear as though they are united. The focus of my recent work has been the way that politicians, the media and social life tend to focus on the excluded, the marginal and the deprived and actively seek out their removal – to far away places, prisons and to segregated areas of our cities.

Anger and politics

The world of politics has long been laden with emotions. The charisma and force of political argument is often associated with motivating and convincing speeches and actions connected to big ideas about how the world worked and should be remade. Many commentators have argued for some time that the world we live in today is less driven by these big political ideas, that ideology and blind subservience to lofty goals has given way to a more practical kind of political life and policymaking.

On one level we might welcome such a change and yet the rapidity of transformations in modern social life and global economic circumstances has delivered incredible insecurity and fear. Many people now seek to throw up boundaries (national, gated communities or secured homes) and look to sanctuary within imagined local and ethnic communities. As examples we might look as much to the EU, the US or to Australia as to Rwanda, the Balkan states or to the middle East to see examples of the growing significance of these social forces.

This unpredictable and more connected world has helped to make us angrier and more emotional about the problems of the world – anger at injustice, at environmental change, at taxes, at crime and so on. Regardless of our own political affiliations there are issues that frustrate us and which often lead us to look for leadership on these issues. This bubbling social rage can generate gains for those political parties and media outlets that capitalise on these fears by providing leadership and coverage of these problems. These broad feelings of personal and communal insecurity have, in fact, generated support for those politicians who are able to project this anger onto the groups and issues that trouble us and the list of such groups is now quite long.

In this environment the media have become a key player, and if we look at the kinds of crime dramas and soaps on TV, the news headlines in our newspapers and on websites we can see how editorial decisions often tend to focus on the worst, random and most violent events. For the people who inhabit this media-saturated world, and that is a great deal of us, the world not only seems to be full of problems, but we also begin to have a rather distorted view of how often these problems take place. The kind of frustration provoked by witnessing real-life and fictional victimisation and various injustices is a deep source of the kind of pent-up frustration and fury that we see around us.

A war on the poor and helpless

We regularly hear from politicians about how they will challenge problems and particular groups (immigration, welfare ‘scroungers’ and so on) but in some cities around the world these proposals are really quite extreme. Let me give a few examples. In New York the police were directed by the then mayor, Giuliani, to clear homeless people from the parks and streets to help improve the image of downtown Manhattan. In the UK Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (the infamous ASBO) were used against traveller communities, prostitutes and the mentally ill. In many of the cities where the Olympics have been held the games have been prefaced by the removal of the street homeless. In Beijing thousands of families have seen their homes destroyed to make way for various stadia and athletes villages.

How can we make sense of the viciousness of these examples and the ways in which the most helpless are attacked, even destroyed? For some the explanation for these attacks is a sign of a backlash by high-income groups who have come to feel anxious and embittered about their loss of privileges and their growing fears about ‘unwanted’ social groups in public spaces as welfare systems neglect these groups ever further. I want to suggest that another reason for the aggressive turns in political life, in media reportage, policing, welfare, attacks on the homeless and so on are a sign of a deeper need within society to find a release from the frustration of being unable to solve or tackle these social problems through traditional routes.

In many places around the world long gone (indeed, if they were ever there) is the ambition to promote redistribution, opportunity or some reasonable level of equality (look at the UK, US, or Russia). In its place comes a kind of catharsis, or release, by attacking those groups, who are not only the most vulnerable, who are also generated by the workings of these societies – by regimes of low pay, flexible labour markets, housing tenure insecurity and so on. The tendency increasingly appears to be for us to show disgust towards those who are inevitably produced by our economies, housing systems and inequalities in wealth distribution. It is almost as if we are in denial of the fact that we would prefer to shift these problems, and problem people, out of sight and out of mind (a point that Sampson makes in his book Great American City on the destruction of public housing in the city core and subsequent gentrification).

A new dawn, for hate or hope?

Another concern raises itself at this point. If ideology no longer matters as much, then is there something about the way that our societies, political and media systems operate that will tend to produce more vicious reactions against the poor and vulnerable as they come together? In other words, is it about something more than just politics and anger? There seems to be something worth considering in such an explanation – that a 24/7 news culture produces quicker reactions (with disasterous results in the vengeful attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq) and that politicians seeking majority support will, by necessity, focus on the lowest common denominators of public opinion. Principled debate has given way to a more emotional and unstable way of delivering policies, with the risk that those we should be helping are those we turn away or deny support.

This is an abbreviated version of a journal article I have recently submitted.