Reaction to the Riots: Interview with Geoffrey Pearson

Reaction to the Riots: Interview with Geoffrey Pearson
by Ian Sinclair
New Left Project
15 September 2011

First published in 1983, Geoffrey Pearson’s Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears is widely acclaimed as a seminal text in British criminology. The Economist praised it as “a calm and witty history of moral panics that have gripped England over the ages… a brilliant survey”. Pearson is Emeritus Professor of Criminology at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He spoke to Ian Sinclair about the recent riots in Britain.

IS: Can you summarise the main arguments and themes of ‘Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears’?

GP: The argument of Hooligan can be easily summarised. First, youth crime is invariably seen as something new, a radical departure from the stable traditions of the past. In fact there is a long connected history of youth crime stretching back over more than a century and a half, with people responding to each episode by looking back to a ‘golden age’ of peace and tranquillity.

I trace this back first by looking at the ‘Teddy Boys’ of the 1950s, who were regarded by many as evidence of a ‘new’ streak of insubordination that had overcome young people ‘since the war’. Then, I look at the pre-war alarm about youthful irresponsibility evidenced by ‘juvenile delinquents’, where there was a tendency, again, to look back to the stability in British society before the war before that.

However, before the Great War we find massive social concern about the newly-named ‘Hooligan’ gangs who rampaged around Victorian London in the late 1890s, engaging in pitched-battles between rival neighbourhood gangs and attacks on police and innocent passers-by. Similar street-fighting gangs were known and feared elsewhere in this period by different names – ‘Scuttlers’ in Manchester and Salford, and ‘Peaky Blinders’ in Birmingham. The Hooligans had adopted a uniform dress-style: bell-bottom trousers cut tight at the knee, neck-scarves, heavy leather belts, peaked caps, and a ‘donkey fringe’ hair-style with their hair heavily cropped and a tuft on the crown of the head. They were sometimes known as the ‘belt and pistol’ gangs because of allegations about their use of firearms, but more common implements were knives, iron bars, catapults, leather belts with heavy buckles, and boots said in some parts of London to be toe-plated with iron ‘to kill more easily’.

This history can then be traced back beyond the moral panic about ‘garotters’ in the 1860s to the huge social concern about ‘juvenile depravity’ in early Victorian society in the 1840s and 1850s, and beyond that to the long-standing preoccupation with unruly apprentices in pre-industrial society.

What is remarkable is that each time that this social anxiety crystallises around the youth question, it is accompanied by the same vocabulary of complaints. For example, the lack of respect shown to all forms of authority, whether parents, teachers, the police or the courts that is said to be a radical departure from the subordination shown in the past. Young criminals are also said to be becoming younger. Then there is the repeated accusation of family decline and the break-up of parental discipline, often linked to the demon drink (nowadays substance misuse). Finally, the corrupting influence of popular amusements – whether the penny-hop theatres and dancing saloons of early Victorian Britain, the Music Hall entertainments later in the century, the gangster ‘movies’ of the inter-war years, television and rock-and-roll in the 1950s, then video-nasties, hip-hop music and gangsta rap – held to be encouragements to imitative ‘copy-cat’ crime.

It is not that nothing changes. Of course things change. But this long, connected vocabulary of respectable fears seems itself immune to change. It is like some moral dodo, but one that keeps escaping from the museum, and is currently rampaging around the streets in the responses to the recent riots.

IS: Why has the idea of a ‘golden age’ of law and order been so popular throughout modern history? What are the drivers of this common sentiment?

GP: This is an interesting question. At one basic level, the durability of the idea of a ‘golden age’ has something to do with what we call nostalgia. It is also driven by the experience of living with modernity – a relentless process by which all conventions and moral sign-posts are up-rooted, leading to an experience of existential anxiety, especially among an older generation.

What is not clear to me, however, is whether this appeal to a ‘golden age’ is found in other national cultures. It is possible that societies such as France or the USA look at the past as a positive experience of republican upheaval, rather than in a mode of cultural pessimism. What is certain is that this way of thinking is deeply embedded in the British (or do I mean English?) national culture.

IS: How does the public debate surrounding the recent riots across the UK fit with the thesis outlined above?

GP: In so far as the events themselves are concerned, there are both continuities and differences. One apparent difference is that riots flared in so many otherwise disconnected localities. However, this is hardly unprecedented – we only need to recollect the Brixton disorders of 1981 that were followed by so-called ‘copy-cat’ riots in the Toxteth area of Liverpool and elsewhere. Indeed, fifty years before that in October 1931, following cuts in unemployment benefits, violent clashes flared between the unemployed and police in more than 30 towns and cities, involving baton charges, the use of high-pressure water-hoses, attacks on the police, looting and disorder, continuing for several days and causing the police to place a guard on shops, banks, court-houses and public buildings. These disturbances were more clearly politically organised, of course, whereas the recent riots were apparently spontaneous and nihilistic. It should be said that the significance of implicating Facebook in the riots is less a question of whether this is true, than that Facebook joins the history of the contaminating and corrosive influences such as Music Halls, movies, video nasties etc. that are accused of encouraging ‘copy-cat’ crime.

IS: What is the role of the mainstream media in this public debate?

GP: The mass media have traditionally played a major role in expressing and mobilising extreme feelings around moral panics. The term ‘moral panic’ should not be understood, as it so often is, as meaning that nothing is actually happening and that the media ‘make it all up’. Something quite significant obviously did happen in August 2011, but the idea of a ‘moral panic’ is that the media emphasise and exaggerate some aspects of what happened while minimising others. This is what news values – ‘writing news’ or ‘making news’ – is all about, and one should not place any blame on journalists, it is what their job is about. This however does not make the more sensationalist wing of journalism morally right.

IS: If the riots and looting were not about worsening discipline among the young, poorer parenting skills, the influence of hip-hop or a more permissive society, what caused them?

GP: It should be clear from what I have already said that the accusations against parental irresponsibility and popular amusements are part of a long-standing stock response to these kinds of disturbances. Because, if parental discipline is worsening whereas in the past it was intact, why does the historical record show that at various times parents were already being criticised and that the family was already said to be in a state of disrepair?

Nevertheless, many young people are growing up in families and communities that do not encourage them to aspire to a ‘normal’ working life, nor are there many opportunities available to them. Of course, unemployment does not lead automatically to violence and rioting. It leads more commonly to apathy and depression, at any rate among people who have lost jobs they previous had (whereas today many young people. and their parents, have never been employed).

A distinguished tradition within sociology has argued that where young people have no way of demonstrating status and self-worth, they create alternative systems of values for this purpose – whether thieving, fighting, defiance of authority, being ‘in the know’ about drugs – which are described by social scientists as ‘subcultures’ and known more generally as ‘gangs’. As John Pitts has persuasively argued, for many young people in modern Britain these ‘subcultures’ are no longer a form of transition from boyhood to manhood, but a ‘final destination’. These young people have nothing to aspire to, nothing to achieve, nothing to gain, and nothing to lose. The result: the acquisitive nihilism recently seen on our streets. Vandalism is the purest expression of this impulse: it does not even afford to property the dignity of something to be acquired, merely to be destroyed.

IS: As an A-Level Sociology student in the mid-90s I seem to remember being exposed to a lot of radical and class-based research and analysis conducted in the ‘70s and ‘80s (Open University, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Glasgow Media Group etc). Am I living under the illusion of a ‘golden age’ of radicalism in British sociology or has there been a shift in emphasis over the past 30 years? If so, what ramifications does this have for explaining events such as the recent riots?

GP: You are right. There was an up-surge in class-based radicalism in sociology during the 1970s and 1980s. This was something inspired by the radicalism of sociology in the USA, the counter-culture, Paris 1968 etc. Not all of this was ‘radical’ in a traditionally class-based Left sense, something I discussed in my book The Deviant Imagination. It had more of a Robin Hood, anarchist, hippie feel, and sometimes embraced far-Right libertarians such as Thomas Szasz in the ‘anti-psychiatry’ tendency.

If this was a ‘golden age’ of academic radicalism, then its rise and decline can be described in two ways. At the biographical level, many of the young academics drawn to radical sociology in the 1970s were people from ordinary backgrounds who were the first member of their family to have gone to university. (I know this because I was part of the same generation, and knew most of the people involved.) This was a time of university expansion following the Robbins Report and also of immense forward-looking optimism. Continuing this biographical line of thinking, these people’s careers (and mine) subsequently became routinised and professionalized, we were drawn into university politics and administration, the changing economic constraints of higher education required us to search for competitive research grants, staff-student ratios increased, etc. To continue this biographical displacement, many of these people were bewitched by Michel Foucault and fell into the traps and snares of ‘post-modernism’ and ‘cultural studies’.

Second, on the more general front, of course, this was associated with a decline in class-based politics in Britain (see Eric Hobsbawm’s essay ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’ – written before Thatcherism, long before the disastrous miner’s strike.) Class-based radicalism was replaced, both in academia and in local government, by so-called ‘identity politics’ concerned primarily with ethnicity, gender, and cultural issues. This ‘identity politics’ had already been implicit in the ‘radicalism’ of the 1960s and 1970s. This is the agenda we now inherit.

Even the Conservative Party has now occupied this ‘cultural’ territory given Kenneth Clarke’s accusations against a ‘feral underclass’. But this, too, is nothing new. In the 1930s this ‘underclass’ was described as the ‘submerged tenth’ with proposals for compulsory sterilisation. In the late 19th century it was known as the ‘residuum’: ‘this vast residuum’, as Matthew Arnold described it, ‘marching where it likes, meeting where it likes, bawling what it likes, breaking what it likes’. In the mid-century they were known as the ‘dangerous classes’, a drunken, demoralised and criminal rump, living below the labouring classes and the poor. Before that, they were known as the ‘mob’ and that says it all.

What this all means is that youth crime and violence, and their associated social problems, are not newly arrived but long-standing areas of social difficulty that are deeply ingrained in the social landscape. Correspondingly, they will not be solved by short, sharp shocks. What will be required are long-haul measures to encourage social inclusion. In one sense, Kenneth Clarke is right that imprisonment alone is not enough and must be accompanied by re-education and reform. But his claim that we have a ‘broken’ penal system is knee-jerk nonsense: we’ve heard of David Cameron’s ‘broken’ society for some time, so now we have a ‘broken’ prison system as well. But the prison system isn’t ‘broken’ – this once again appeals to a ‘golden age’ when everything was in working order – because prison itself has never worked. From its very beginnings in the 1840s the penitentiary system was criticised for its functional incapacity to control crime. What is needed instead is a bottom-up process of re-integration, built around families, schools and communities. But the problem remains: how do you ‘re-integrate’ people who were not integrated in the first place?


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