A criminology that arms us for the times ahead

2016-07-07 21.40.26Last week saw the inaugural meeting of the British Society of Criminology’s new Critical Criminology group. This is an important event for all kinds of reasons, not least the need to develop a criminological sensibility informed by and responding to the problems we see around us in this complex social moment. These problems need little rehearsal – traditional concerns with crime and victimisation, the apparent reversal or changes in the long-run decline in crime observed in official data, profiles of the most economically depressed regions and neighbourhoods that offer insights into internalised social pain, depression and violence and national economic and political settings that both exacerbate and deny the depths of many our problems. This is only the local context however and it was good to see concerns with ecological limits, international political economic and humanitarian problems foregrounded alongside a new confidence to assessments of the roots and complexities of crimes of the powerful. Where to next?


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All of these issues show that a critical criminology is required that identifies with and locates forms of human damage and violence within the systemic roots and social structures that give momentum to these problems. A sociology, in the widest sense of that term, of how these complex problems arise and what we might do to offer a blueprint for social relations and structures that would either diminish or do-away with such problems forms the basis of such a critical position. The danger at this stage seems to be long-standing in my view – how to avoid some internecine battle over definitions or scope of such a project. For my own part it seems to me that an inter-disciplinary project focusing on crime and harm that brings light to the deeper sources of alienation, violence and exclusion offers one of the most important and exciting pathways forward for criminology as an intersecting point for those desperate to counter the excesses, depths and inequalities associated with our growth/market/capitalist societies. Criminology wins to the extent that it offers an accessible, grounded and intelligent response to these challenges. It must offer vocabularies and conceptual tools that can be relayed to society to help it and its members interpret and access the roots of their problems and worries.

2016-07-11 20.52.24-1This is essentially an ongoing and positive project that connects with a much longer tradition of free-thinking, social justice-oriented and ‘radical’ positions within academic enquiry that go beyond conventions and conservative (with a small ‘c’) interpretations – what does a field of inquiry that says things are either ok or the best we can achieve do for us today? The next step is to carry on doing what we are doing and to ensure that systems-level thinking is combined with close empirical and theoretical analyses of the leading problems of our time. As one keynote, Anne Pettifor, offered, we will have to attend to this bigger picture if we are to understand the kinds of crime and harm that will be generated by the economic and social structures changing in front of us. The rise of the popular political right, a hyper mediatised and voyeuristic society, the dependency of desires for baubles and gadgets on exhaustible and exhausted materials and the backdrop of climate change and approaching planetary finality will be important grounds on which critical criminology and social science should be located.
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Rotting Hill

This past weekend saw the annual passing of the Notting Hill Carnival in London’s West end. The carnival has taken place each year since 1966 but this is a special year. The carnival followed the disasterous fire at Grenfell Tower in the same London borough with the procession starting with a commemoration for those who died in that fire. Picking-up the FT at the weekend I always flick to the House and Homes section, this week the feature (Get the Party Started, FT, 26-27 August 2017) was on real estate in the area. Here a graphic informs us that £1m will buy us a 2-bed flat, that £10m will secure a 5-bed penthouse or that a more unfeasible £35m will deliver a grand 8-bed detached home with a car lift. It is worth remembering that the constituency in which these excesses are played-out in the housing market was the site of one of the major upsets of the 2017 general election. Called in a fit of hubris the election produced a reduced majority for the government, but also the first Labour member of parliament ever in the Kensington and Chelsea constituency. Change is afoot and not least because housing issues are at the bleeding-edge of experiences among those damaged by austerity policies and a city economy which delivers homes for investors or those who have already made money in the housing market while neglecting those facing overcrowding, stagnating incomes or the city’s poor.


The terrible events at Grenfell Tower revealed an arrogant and largely dysfunctional local government that was incapable of looking after the safety of its tenants or dealing with the subsequent emergency, which was then placed in the hands of NGOs like the Red Cross. Long an area of wealth and poverty (this is the same area that Wyndham Lewis could describe as Rotting Hill in his novel of 1951, but also the romantic stamping ground of Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant in the film of 1999) Notting Hill and its wider London borough of Kensington and Chelsea still has around a quarter of its residents in public housing (2011 census data), often living adjacent to wealthy streets and terraces that feature in global property supplements. The deeper point not to miss here is that property speculation and investment rides on the cultural heritage and diversity of the area, the community carnival seen as a timely reminder to consider what and where to buy that is exciting and with the prospect of capital gains. Yet such advice surely sits uneasily with the kind of social anger being widely expressed about the inadequacy of the central and local state’s response to the immediate tragedy of Grenfell, and the longer-run crisis in affordable housing provision in the capital. The job of property journalists reveals these faultlines amidst continued screening and scraping for new opportunities and places in which to invest. This logic has been catastrophic to the low-income communities of London and other cities in which capital and its intermediaries has forced the exit of thousands. The spectacle of the carnival, the crisis of Brexit and ongoing commitments to defund public facilities and services remain key events that are entwined with the working of property markets and speculators with the result that anger and division seem set only to widen further in the city.



Tax avoidance: Not illegal, just harmful and deviant?

The furore over tax avoidance, both by our national and international elites, reveals new social fault lines while highlighting a crisis of legitimacy to calls for togetherness and common purpose.


Mayfair, hedge funds and capital’s heartland

The word plutocracy combines two elements to its meaning – that of wealth and power. To live in a plutocracy, many argue, is to see the warping of the political process by those with the resources to do so – representation for all is eroded by a seizure of control by the few.

The impact of such control is evident in financial support for political campaigns, as well as the massive infrastructure of lobbyists, the subtle closing-down of political debate and the voting patterns of ‘bought’ politicians. Yet in many ways simply understanding control by the wealthy as the capture of political institutions and actors by the rich is a rather limited reading of what we might mean by plutocracy. A broader understanding of a plutocratic society is one where our social and economic world is run to, and for, those with increasing levels of personal wealth. While these processes are often difficult to substantiate they amount to a corruption on a grand scale which pervades much of daily social and economic life, particularly given the scale exposed by the recent leak of the Panama Papers.

A society organised in this way is one in which material wealth and privilege is identified as the mark of aspiration and success, but also has the right to be passed-on to those who are members of this class. For those in such a position it is deemed natural, right and socially useful to retain and expand such privileges.

Following the revelations of huge and systematic tax avoidance by the global affluent have arisen defences by those who argue that offshore investment is nothing to concern ourselves with – this response has been rapid and aggressive, a grand denial of wrongdoing and an assertion of the freedoms of individuals to take rational decisions in the search to bolster their private wealth. The indignation of those charged with avoiding their tax dues has been impressive to watch, a form of denial of harm or wrongdoing that criminologists will recognise as strategies of avoiding the charge of illegality. In the world of the elite in this, more extensive, notion of a plutocracy, in which making money is the primary function of individuals, moving money offshore is seen as legal and rational. Indeed, it is seen as the logical choice of those with the resources to pursue tax efficient vehicles which are supplied by a cadre of operators who help those with money to maintain anonymous offshore accounts.


There are at least two problems with this position and reasons to believe that real and effective pressure will come to bear on the Amazons, Googles and Camerons of this world. First, those institutions and individuals using apparently legal forms of investment are increasingly being challenged as normative readings of what is morally problematic and consequential on their choices changes – increasing numbers of people think it is reprehensible to avoid tax and more are now aware of the scale of these issues through leaks like the Panama Papers. Second, a key problem for those seeking to defend offshore investment is the impression we now have of the stellar wealth of our elites (such as stories of £200,000 ‘gifts’). The scale of such wealth is problematic because we also know material inequality, particularly that measured by wealth, is increasing. In addition many people have been deeply touched by forms of social and economic pain following cuts to the public realm that this and the former coalition government espoused were necessary for us as a community. Clearly this was rather a partial reading of the term community, or at least one predicated on an idea of noblesse oblige and patrician responsibility that operated in tandem with a hotline to a Panama broker.

Another key problem for our elites following the Panama Papers revelations relates to the increasingly clear impression we have of a class of people who are defined by their finances and whose allegiances are built around these interests. This is a class or group for whom identity is increasingly structured by however, and wherever, fast money can be made and enlarged, rather than through any sense of being part of a national or local community. What is revealed is a newfound robber-baron logic of plunder and secede that sees the wealthy secreting their money where it can grow and avoiding their national tax regime. In a political context in which an entire political project has been built upon the idea that there are limited resources to run essential public services (and new resources need to be found) the entwined sense of wealth and avoidance feels like nothing less than grand betrayal.

Because of these problems, of inequality and a rather profound breakdown in social cohesion, there is now a deep legitimacy crisis at work. This will not be explained away by an appeal to a legal/criminal distinction or the idea that the wealthy are like the majority of us. Instead it is much more likely that judgment will be formed on the basis of a belief by many that the structures of our economy work to privilege those who seek to avoid, work around and undermine forms of collective purpose and provision. Linked to this is the growing recognition that what we have seen thus far is only a glimpse of the trillion dollar economy of offshore finance placed by individuals looking to make more money for themselves than they can within their own tax jurisdictions.

So the key question ultimately generated by this mess is – if we are not in fact in this together, whose side are we on?


Buy to ruin: Abandoned or neglected mansion on gated road, north London

Where politicians and corporations apply the ‘not illegal’ defence then counter-arguments are only likely to be bolstered amidst the sense of social outrage. Criminologists have long observed how socially harmful practices (in this case tax avoidance) can move to become recognised as a form of social deviance that generates shame among those engaging in such behaviour (slavery, smoking, domestic violence can be given as examples of such transitions). Another possibility seems even more likely – that we are seeing the prelude of more concerted attempts at legal prohibition that are founded on this moral outrage as well as plausible economic evidence regarding the damage of avoidance. Here the difference between evasion and avoidance may yet be the winning or losing of the next election, rather than the well-worn anecdote about it being the thickness of a prison wall.

It seems a distinct possibility that much tax avoidance will become defined as tax evasion because the majority population feels that it is morally right to frame such behaviour in this way. Moves to prohibit anonymous ownership of offshore investments seem to be a precursor to this. A synoptic world, in which the many closely watch the few, is fuelled by social media and instant leaks of millions of documents that also drive moves in this direction. Strange as it may seem, the weakness of a plutocracy today is that it emerges into conditions of counter-surveillance that may challenge its ascendency. In a world run to the rhythms of money and little else the legitimacy of plans to raze public housing, reform public health systems, cut essential social care while protecting those with profound wealth seem at worst extraordinarily callous, at best plain wrong.

The case for alternatives to austerity and a deeper form of collective endeavour is made all the stronger by the Panama Papers and, no doubt, other revelations to come about the secret life of our elites.



Urban crime cinema – Some alternatives

Life is full of clichés, no less perhaps than in the area of crime cinema. Yet the influence of crime and mystery cinema on daily cultural life is hard to underestimate, from the daily darkness of Scandinavian noir imbibed by millions, to the banal reality of crime presented in The Wire or the Scarface-quoting real gangsters that underpin the film of Saviano’s Gomorrah (see his interview in the DVD extras). So far, so obvious. Crime and violence is pervasive and its more subtle effects remain under-examined. Where then to start with films that offer authentic insights, useable frames of reference for understanding harm or an attempot to grapple with some of the mainstays of contemporary cultural reference points that, somehow, we should have watched? Here is a list of some of the more obvious examples, with a less obvious and perhaps more exciting alternative. This list will (hopefully) grow over time…

 The Wire

Watch it because you must, all five series and all all 60 hours or so. I am no fan of episodic boxed sets and The Wire wins-out because it achieves strong narrative development alongside naturalistic writing and some of the most insightful analysis of urban problems, inequality, racial divides and the fuzziness of moral boundaries. Plus you get one of the finest urban folk heroes in the form of Omar.

Alternative – Red Riding

This is tough and hard to stand-up to the resources and combined team-writing power of American television. Red Riding runs across three film-length treatments of police corruption, serial killing and the backdrop of the soon to be post-industrial wastelands of northern England. By turns a realist cop drama and realist fantasy it at least tries to achieve a sense of monumentality that is lost in the confusion of trying to work between real events and an overblown script.

Or try:

Spiral – sprawling (super) tough and often harrowing Parisian cop drama, an attempt to suggest and interrogate the machineries of law, policing and drug gangs.


Robocop (the first version)

Cop becomes cyborg cop to what was then thrilling effect, the effect feels clunky now and yet this is surely a prescient vision as public policing becomes a playground of corporate invaders hawking their dreams of total dominance over criminal scum using armed robots that cant tell the difference between good guys and bad, sounds familiar?

The alternative – Chappie

The follow-up piece to District 9 (essential) and Elysium, the themes are back again, a fracturing metropolis, criminal gangs operating in a society of haves and have-nots. What might happen if a law enforcement robot were re-coded as an attempt at human intelligence and development that is then captured by a violent gang? Can the vulnerable child-drone be taught to be bad? By turns funny and incredibly moving this is a must-see for the issues it raises about morality, drift and personal development in a world of mad programmers with good and ill intentions. Jaw-dropping special effects in daylight urban environments yet again prove Blomkamp can produce a winning formula.

Oceans 11

Plan a heist, have fun, we are on the side of the not so good guys, who cares?

The alternative – Pickpocket

Bresson’s beautiful and closely observed study of an anomic male deserves attention. His pickpocket is a man adrift in the masses of Parisian society, a pretence at conformity and respectability while cultivating his skills as a pickpocket addicted to the easy wins of pilfering from the punters and street inhabitants around him. Watch it because it is both beautiful and has much to make us think about where we can and cannot find excitement in a complex world that casts some of us adrift.

Training day

Not such a mainstream film perhaps, Denzil Washington acts as the morally corroded inductor of rookie cop Ethan Hawke. Washington’s presence is magnetic, with Hawke struggling to maintain the respect he craves from his mentor while trying to avoid being dragged into a world of easy wins, brutality and plain bad methods at winning.

The alternative – Beast cops

This Hong Kong variant is a charming study of life in the city, humorous plays at the old hand/rookie conventions while trying at a serious attempt at a realist crime drama. Best Film at the HK film awards this is a great introduction to the world of Hong Kong cop drama.

Die hard

Watch it because you must, because it is fun and still has some of the best one-liners from Willis and Rickman, a period piece that still works in its own terms.

The alternative – The Raid

A cult hit, The Raid features Iko Uwais, awesome martial artist from Indonesia. It is hard not to be impressed by the energy while wincing at the brutality of what is on show here. The plot revolves around an attempt to retake a tower block occupied by gangsters and the poorer residents of the city (perhaps the alternative to this film is the newer Judge Dredd but it is so one-dimensional and dreadful it cannot be recommended). It might be pushing it to suggest this is a dystopian vision of urban life and violent policing tactics but those elements are certainly here. What we only glean is any sense of how the poverty and violence of the city produces heroes and anti-heroes of this kind.

Additional – Grand Theft Auto 5

An alternative to the glut of wargames and organised crime games that are the ubiquitous mainstay of gaming culture today, this is hardly a sleeper hit or subcultural phenomenon – this IS our popular culture today. The is also likely to be the game that your young son or daughter is likely to be playing because their older brother or sister has a copy, or because their friends have an older brother or sister with a copy. It rates certificate 18 for its immersive world of freaks, villains and charismatic sociopathy. Treat it as a play-space for your latent desire to maim and slaughter without consequence, while worrying about its corrosive effect on vulnerable others that really shouldn’t be exposed to this. Undoubtedly impressive, but what are we ultimately to do with cultural products like this and their permeation into popular culture?


Ushering capital in, and people out

Last Sunday the Observer newspaper ran with a story covering our research on London’s alpha territories – the places in which the wealthiest live. The story was pitched around a series of working papers that we have been writing, increasingly focusing on how urban arenas like London work for those with most resources. We have been trying to say, both subtly and forecefully, that the UK is not a plutocracy in the sense that money is used simply to buy the voices of politicians or voters (though some would certainly make that argument!). Rather what we see is the way that the city, its economy and and politics, works for those with money. It produces fine and gauche homes (in quantity and vertically), it offers spaces to play and to buy and networks of contacts that provide seamless service to wrap the wealthy-up and make them feel at home. As I have written elsewhere, this cosseted lifestyle is important politically because it allows (and is desired by) the rich to feel distant from much of the distress around them.


I have little doubt that many, indeed all, of those with eye eatering somes of money to burn have no ill intent towards their fellow citizens, indeed many of them feel that the world around them is richly dverse and full of good folk from all walks of life (and our interviews often bear this view out). The point of course is that this money is mediated and channeled through various systems of accumlation, hidden when possible from the demands of the state to find necessary services for all (tax evasion and avoidance) and, critically, produces a city that is alien to many who have lived there for generations. It is also a city that is alienating and dispossessing as we see public housing demolished, plans for the eradication of ‘sink’ estates (old chestnuts, lies and myths have come around again about the links between design and crime without looking at their social context), more welfare cuts, the layering of stress onto communities by cash-strapped or co-opted local governments and the rise of a sense that within this dogfight of contemporary urban existence – why should the poor think they should be reserved or offered some kind of free place?


The evacuation of the public realm is an ongoing mission of the current government, in the name of economic prudence. Yet the real limits to this logic are increasingly visible. As the middle-classes are priced-out and even the upper classes (if we should call them that) feel displaced by the changes in their neighbourhoods and the political class act in the name of money rather than loyalty to their cities and constituents. In this sense the government do indeed appear to be ‘at it’ – on the one hand saying that all of this pain is necessary (or denying that any injury has even taken place) while appearing to gleefully attack forms of municipal and public provision because somehow such systems are outdated, outmoded or do not help inflate the balance sheets of those paying for their suppers. Such views don’t seem too cynical, nor are they hard to develop or access as the media increasingly focus on social and political elites and the lives of the wealthy. The rich are more and more visible and when institutions like Oxfam get angry (yes, they don’t just care about the poor elsewhere in the world, in fact they see the plight of the poor as being generated by many of ‘us’) we should take note because the nature of this debate is changing and the real contradictions of a political system that sells the majority down the river in their own name while selling assets and opportunities to the monied cannot last without being challenged or faced down electorally – we can surely expect these debates to become ever more heated.



Charting the Alpha Territory

This is simply a list of links to cumulative blog outputs from the ESRC funded Alpha Territory that I have written to date and others with colleagues (Roger Burrows, Hang Kei Ho, Simon Parker, David Rhodes) project by myself and in conjunction with colleagues. I will add to this as future outputs emerge.


The spatial consequences of Piketty’s understanding of Capital: A response to Piketty & Savage, Theory, Culture and Society blog



The super-rich in London: they live amongst us, but you won’t run into them (if they can help it), British Politics and Policy, LSE



The Power of Raw Money, Le Monde Diplomatique


London: where only the wealth of a global elite can find a home, Guardian


Cities for the Rich, Le Monde Diplomatique


Wealth, Housing Need and Austerity, Autotomically blog


The random neighbourhood, Autotomically blog


A city in thrall to capital? London, money-power and elites, Discover Society


On the Frontline: Domestic Sovereigns, Wealth and Public Space, Discover Society


A City Both Full and Empty: London and the Super-Rich, Critical Urbanists blog