The following interview was originally intended and recorded as a podcast for The British Society of Criminology. The aim was to celebrate the British Society of Criminology Blog of the Year Award 2020 that the interviewees (Anthony Ellis and Luke Billingham) and their colleagues (Elizabeth Cook and Keir Irwin-Rogers) won, for Violence in Our Cities; a blog article that is based on the authors’ chapters in a recently-published book: Urban Crisis, Urban Hope. Due to technical glitches and errors, however, our original interview failed to materialise— much to our dismay. What follows therefore, is a discussion in written form between Anthony Ellis and Luke Billingham, with Lambros Fatsis who won the first-ever British Society of Criminology Blog of the Year Award in 2018. While such interviews are usually conducted and hosted by Helen Jones from the British Society of Criminology, this brazen hijacking or take-over was envisaged as an opportunity for the BSC’s Blog of the Year Award winners to talk and listen to each other.
LF:I would like to start by teasing out your reflections on violence in the light of the recent anti-police protests- following the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill as well as the most recent wave of #BLM protests, by asking you to tell us more about how or if you make sense of such events as what you describe in the blog as a crisis of ‘mattering’
A&L: I think ‘mattering’ is an important concept and we speak in the blog of a ‘crisis of mattering’. I think this is potentially applicable to not just the young men from poor inner-city areas who are the ones largely caught up in the violence in our cities that we discussed, but groups across the globe united by their precarious circumstances and their disposability. The BLM movement is partly a reflection of this – of knowing that the system does not value or care for you. We cited French Philosopher, Alain Badiou, in the blog, who speaks of vast swathes of people across the globe who are ‘counted for nothing by capital’. Capital effectively no longer requires their labour nor even their recognition necessarily; it does not care about them, and automation, particularly the rapid and dramatic shift towards this during the Covid-19 pandemic, signals perhaps a further drift into this situation of a ‘crisis of mattering’. Because, let’s face it, capitalism knew before Covid-19 that it could effectively operate without certain forms of labour. So now this has started to take place, can we seriously expect that it will reinstate them in a post-Covid future? Will the experience and trauma of the pandemic usher in a new era of social conscience, empathy and care? I really hope it can because the evidence is mounting now that the extreme inequality that has grown in the past several decades cannot continue without increasing the risks of social disorder and breakdown. For me though, it further confirms what Winlow and Hall described several years ago in their book ‘Rethinking Social Exclusion’ where capitalism in its advanced technologically-driven state, now seems to be utterly incapable of absorbing some groups into the productive process. Yet, the truth is that many members of excluded populations, including the young men fighting and dying on the streets of our cities, largely remain absorbed in – through attachment to consumer culture – the very system that has basically stuck two fingers up at them. So, for me, we see a strange dyad between exclusion and inclusion behind this crisis of mattering. The pandemic is like a spark to a pile of wood doused in flammable liquid. The arrival of Covid-19 into the corrupt unjust world created by zombie neoliberalism is, for now, pushing us further into an interregnum where we wait for something else to appear or to emerge, but all the while we must face the unrest that this generates.
L.F:What I found really interesting in your blog was the way you centred and focused on gendered and sexual violence in the home as a form and type of violence that hardly made noisy headlines, compared to the so-called ‘knife crime’ epidemic that you discuss at length in the piece. Can you tell us a bit more about that, especially following recent and belated awakenings to the reality of violence against women- following the murder of Sarah Everard and the policing of the vigils that were organised in her memory?
A&L: Our co-author, Lizzie Cook, has recently co-written an interesting and important piece addressing this which we referred to in the blog, in particular the idea that the knife is out of place in public and therefore becomes subject to much more attention and concerted attempts to exert control over it. In contrast to its functional place within the home for preparing food for example. The home is of course the very place where, evidence tells us, women are more at risk of violence. And while domestic violence receives greater attention from the state and criminology than it did historically, the knife crime epidemic is another example of the tendency to direct attention towards more visible violence particularly taking place amongst the ‘usual suspects’ – young, poor, working class males. But, simultaneously, the paradoxical element to that was how attention has been drawn to what austerity and inequality have done to parts of English cities, like London, which is important and needs to be given attention. What I personally find depressing and unfortunate about that though is that the evident damage of austerity, or what Vicki Cooper and David Whyte called ‘the violence of austerity’, has not led to any significant political resistance against it. Even now, as we assess the economic wreckage of Covid-19, talk of future austerity measures, the need for fiscal discipline and ‘how will we pay for this?’ dominates the agenda of mainstream politics. Even many supposedly on the political Left, who equate the harms of austerity as partly causative of the recent rise in serious violence and a driving factor in the recruitment of vulnerable young people into illicit markets, still talk the economic language of neoliberalism.
But coming back to the issue of violence in the home, I think we can see elements of the paradoxical tendency that we allude to in the blog. For instance, the knife crime epidemic becomes a problem of certain ‘estates’, communities or groups, often young ethnic minority males, and therefore becomes geographically and socially limited in scope. Those city spaces and groups come to exist beyond the periphery of civility, they become regarded as barbarous zones and people. Yet, we know from the evidence that domestic dwellings can be incredibly violent and sites of multiple forms of harm. However, the home is rarely regarded in the same way as particular parts of our large cities. Similarly, the domestic homes’ role in contributing towards the violence on our streets is often not fully acknowledged either. For some of the men I have interviewed, for example, violence begins at home, in the shape of intimates, often fathers, that attempt to toughen them up, that tell them to steel themselves against a merciless, unforgiving world.
LF: I was also wondering about your thoughts on where we look for violence and the harms and dangers of such selectivity; given that we seem to be bothered only by certain kinds of violence rather than others. State and police violence for example is seldom seen or read as violence but as a response to violence so I was wondering if your current and future work addresses that question at all?
A&L: I think this speaks to the core paradox at the heart of human violence and the question of social order. Philosopher Vittorio Buffachi wrote several years ago that ‘if violence is the problem, it is also the solution’. Similarly, Rene Girard and Jean Pierre Dupuy draw attention to the often neglected and taken for granted issue of what becomes known as ‘good’ violence and ‘bad’ violence. This is incredibly difficult to comprehend because we become accustomed to focusing upon the ‘bad’ violence committed by the groups we focused upon in the blog and often do not fully acknowledge what becomes regarded as the ‘necessary’ or ‘good’ violence. In reality, states are capable of inflicting much greater harm upon society than the young men we were concerned with in our blog. The irony here is that despite claims from scholars like Steven Pinker that our ‘better angels’ now hold sway over us, humans have come to possess in recent decades and in this recent era of ‘peace’, the means to inflict violence on an unprecedented scale. In this irony lies the potential for complacency and this is a real danger to us and our collective future.
LF: You also briefly allude to progressive and fairer futures in your blog article and –having a soft spot for the realisation of utopias; as a shameless abolitionist– I was wondering if you could bring some light and hope to this session by giving us some examples of what such a fairer and more progressive vision looks like to you?
A&L: In our contribution to the book we spoke about what you might call more smaller scale changes that could be introduced in the immediate term. We suggested England and Wales could learn much from Scotland’s, and other states’, public health approach to addressing violence, which seems to have had some success. But this relies on real political will and also perseverance. The demand for immediate results in politics often undermines initiatives that in the long-term could provide much better results and outcomes. Beyond these kinds of interventions, there is of course the opportunity for utopian thinking and the Covid-19 pandemic should act as a catalyst for thinking deeply about the kind of society we want to live in. We need to look at political economic solutions for not just violence, but the range of challenges we face: future pandemics, climate change, for example. For me the cat is now out of the bag in regards to the capabilities of the state to respond to social and health problems: in particular, the absurdity of the oft-used analogy of household finances to explain government spending. An analogy used frequently to justify the cruelty of austerity. Economist Pavlena Tcherneva wrote recently in her book ‘The Case for a Job Guarantee’ that when people ask how can we pay for a programme like this, or how can we fund a green low-carbon future, or how can we end poverty, we must always answer: ‘the same way we paid for the pandemic’. Neoliberalism is on the ropes again, its legitimacy really is in tatters as it has proven once again unable to effectively respond to social problems and there are murmurings of discontent and acceptance of the need for change at the macro level, even amongst previously staunch advocates of it, such as the chair of the World Economic Forum Klaus Schwab. Strangely, the issue remains, can we actually land the decisive blow and move forward with a more progressive and fairer agenda?
LF: Thank you both for such richly stimulating responses to my questions and I hope you enjoyed this discussion as much as I did. As a concluding coda, I wanted to end with a reflection plucked from the work of the always brilliant June Jordan whose reflections on violence chime well, I think, with your own thoughts on the matter: ‘Extremity demands, and justifies, extreme response’, Jordan writes, adding that ‘[v]iolation teaches violence. Less than that, less than a scream or a fist, less than the absolute cessation of normal events in the lock of abnormal duress is a lie and, worse than that, it is blasphemous ridicule of the self’.
Dr. Anthony Ellis is Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at the University of Salford and the author of Men, Masculinities and Violence, which was awarded Critical Criminology Book of the Year in 2016 by the British Society of Criminology.
Luke Billingham is a youth and community worker at Hackney Quest and a violence reduction researcher at the Open University. Luke is currently co-authoring a monograph with Keir-Irwin Rogers addressing social harm and violence between young people
(Dr.) Lambros Fatsis is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Brighton and the co-author of Policing the Pandemic (with Melayna Lamb) and Public and their Platforms (with Mark Carrigan).