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The business of government

 

Government responsibility

A few weeks ago, the gas company started digging up the road outside my house as part of major works to replace gas pipes in the village. Days after starting the work, holes filled with water and a muddy stream gushed out across the pavement and down the street. Belatedly, the water company turned up and promptly blamed the gas company for the problem. They were unable to do any repairs owing to a submerged electrical cable fizzing away. The electricity company wouldn’t do any work until they knew who would pay for it.  Several days later following intervention of the local highways department the matter was resolved. But the mud left on mine and my neighbour’s drive, the pavement, and the street had to be cleared by me and my neighbours. Not cost effective to clean up I guess.

What rapidly became apparent is that the driving force behind the work and the argument over who pays is profit, not public service, purely finance. Friedman (1962) advocated that the only duty of a business was to maximise profits for the benefits of the company and its shareholders, it had no responsibility to the public or society. I don’t have problem with this ideology, business is about making money not providing public services. So, who has responsibility for looking after the public’s interests, well that’s government surely. After all, as Locke advocated in the 17th century, it is government that has a duty to ensure ‘the peace, safety and public good of the people’ (Locke 1689:299).

Much of what the public need, in the way of welfare, health services, social services, criminal justice, education and a myriad of other service provisions are not profitable, in fact they are in a true business sense not financially viable. It is government that needs to take the lead on these and it is government that needs to ensure that the services are run for the public good. So why then do we hear every service state that they are in financial difficulties, that they need to cut back services, that they cannot cope?  Because government has not done its job. It doesn’t really matter what flavour government you prefer, left or right, conservative or labour, socialist or capitalist, over the last half a century, government has quite simply failed to deliver. Instead it has abrogated responsibility to business, social enterprise, voluntary organisations, and the public. It blames society, the poor, the underclass, the immigrants and youth. It blames those running its own apparatus, the police the prisons, the schools, and the health service amongst others. Government has become self-serving and introspective, it has taken on a business ethos.  It sets its own agendas based on not what is good for the people but what is good for government and those that serve in it. Government congratulates itself on its own defined successes and glosses over disasters. Government has forgotten its true purpose.

The small hiccup in my road is inconsequential compared to the recent tragic events in our country but it served as a reminder, if ever I needed one, that business and the business of government are a toxic mix. Government would do well to remember ‘Salus populi suprema lex esto’, ‘Let the welfare of the people be the supreme law’, (Locke 1689: title page).

 

Friedman, M. (1962) Capitalism and Freedom: Fortieth anniversary edition, reprint, London: University of Chicago 2002.

Locke, T. (1689) Two Treatises of Government, reprint, London: Whitmore and Fenn 1821 [online] available at https://archive.org/details/twotreatisesofg00lockuoft [accessed 26/6/2017].

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Institutional Violence: unfortunate disaster or crime?

Banksy_-_Sweep_at_Hoxton

Despite my love of criminology, there are also aspects which I find deeply troubling. One of the earliest things that an undergraduate student learns to parrot is that “crime is a social construct”. Unfortunately, for much criminological research whilst this may be acknowledged it is largely ignored, with the focus firmly on those actions which are defined by law to be criminal. The first of my concerns, is criminology’s potential to do harm all in the name of making contributions to solving the “crime problem”. All this measuring, trying to find out what works, always seems to involve finding innovative ways in which humans can be forced coerced to do another’s bidding.  It seems to me that this project is inherently designed to hurt individuals, supposedly in the name of justice.

Another concern is criminology’s seeming inability to address bigger issues, which are often dismissed as some other unspecified form of harm, rather than crime.Those of you who have studied with me are likely to know that my academic interests revolve around institutions and violence. I’m not interested in what they do and how we measure their supposed efficacy and “improve” them – administrative criminology leaves me cold – but the impact of these institutions on individual lives.

Much criminological research focuses on individual motivations for criminality (as reflected in some of our earlier blog entries on cyber crime, murder and manslaughter) and these explanations can offer extraordinary insight. Such individualised explanations often follow the classical tenets of freewill and choice, leading to discussions around punishment, and particularly deterrence. Whilst these offer the promise of understanding crime and criminality they run the risk of decontexualising crime; removing the criminal(s), the victim(s) and the criminal justice system from the environments in which both operate. If we consider events such as the Aberfan (21.10.1966) and Hillsborough (15.04.1989) disasters and more recently the catastrophe of Grenfell Tower; (14.06.2017) individualised criminological explanations make little sense, instead we are faced with complex arguments as to whether or not these are actually crimes. However, the sheer number of deaths and injuries involved in these tragic events cannot simply be dismissed as if they are somehow natural disasters. Furthermore, the violence inherent in all of these events is far bigger than any one individual, making traditional criminological theories appear inadequate.

It would seem that perhaps the concept of institutional violence, although contested, can offer a gateway to a more nuanced understanding of crime and harm. One of my starting points for understanding institutional violence is Steven Lee’s question ‘Is poverty violence?’ (1999: 5). He makes his standpoint explicit and argues that ‘[p]overty results in a whole range of serious physical and psychological harms: higher risks of disease, shortened life spans, stunted mental and emotional development, and inadequate opportunity to lead a meaningful life’ (Lee, 1999: 9).

Such a perspective widens our view of what might be understood as violence, taking it away from the overt (two chaps squaring up after a night out) to something less obvious and arguably more damaging. It also recognises that events such as the fire at Grenfell Tower do not happen in a vacuum but are predicated on historical, social and political factors. Justice for the victims of Grenfell Tower cannot be achieved through blaming individuals and rationalising their actions (important as that may be). What is required is a great deal of soul-searching and an exploration of the wider institutional harms, including poverty. Only then can we really begin to understand the impact of institutional violence on the everyday lives of the residents of Grenfell Tower which ultimately led to such devastation on the night of 14 June 2017.  

Lee,  Steven, (1999), ‘Is Poverty Violence’ in Deane Curtin and Robert Litke, Institutional Violence, (Amsterdam: Rodopi): 5-12

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