READING GUIDE TO: Hall S, Critcher C, Jefferson  T, Clarke J, Roberts B  (1978) Policing The Crisis: mugging, the State and law and order  London: Macmillan

Quick summary

This is a huge book, and it is quite difficult for beginners to read for two major reasons: 

  1. It is very dated by its detailed examples of British politics in the 1970s, much of which must be almost unintelligible to the modern reader.Large chunks of chapters 8 and 9 especially go into great detail about the policies and politicians of the 1970s. It is designed to be a concrete and descriptive history of the drift towards a 'law and order' society -- but I doubt if we learn that much from the details. Much of it was to be developed in later gramscian expositions of 'Thatcherism' too, of course.
  2. It is very 'theoretical', not so much in the strange words which are sometimes used ( which aren't too bad), but in the agendas the chapters follow. There are long diversions into theories of the State, for example, designed to employ the newly-fashionable Althusserian terminology about 'social formations' and their 'levels', and applying this especially to the ideological role of the law and to definitions of crime (in chapters 6, 7 and 10). There is some attempt, though not a very great one here, to defend Gramsci as better. Chapter 10 in particular is a remarkable attempt to fight off a recent and powerful critique of an Althusserian writer, Paul Hirst, who was trying to defend the idea that marxism is a science about economics which should not be generalised into areas like crime or culture. He and those who thought like him, including the representatives of 'Screen Theory' like Coward were pretty critical of the CCCS project in general. Hall et al have to fight him off AND defend themselves on two other opposed fronts -- respectable marxist colleagues who might have problems seeing mugging as a form of political protest, and black militants, including some CCCS students, who wanted them to argue just that, loud and proud. I think chapter 10 looks like a very defensive and elusive compromise over this issue.

Now let us turn to what is usually taken as the substance of the book, especially when it is cited in Sociology syllabi. It is an attempt to develop marxist accounts of  concepts like 'moral panics' and 'labelling theory', taking the interesting issue of 'mugging' as a case study. Incidentally, the original 'mugging project' also had the aim of helping black parents in Handsworth, Birmingham, lobby for justice for their criminal sons, who had been sentenced to very long terms. I doubt if those activists would find much for them in this tome, though, except a pretty abstract comfort.

What does it say about marxist accounts as opposed to interactionist ones

  1. What you would expect really -- that the concept of 'moral panic', originally developed by S Cohen, is very useful as way to describe the over-reaction to some offences of street theft (some involving minor violence) that had hit the headlines in the 1970s as stories about a wave of 'mugging'. 
  2. The whole thing is analysed in some detail, as developing  from a number of strands, including police attempts to gain a higher profile in combatting crime, press interest in crime stories, and politicans' interests in seeming to stand up for law and order. Stories were woven together, and included stories about the decline of cities, social change, and the arrival of black people on our streets ( some early muggers were black),.
  3. What Hall et al add is a much more political dimension to this story -- showing how 'race' takes on important meanings, in a 'traditionalist' English ideology, how the issue taps into racism,and in particular, how the issue puts a gloss on and partly legitimates the drift towards State coercion that is taking place in Britain in the 1970s. This drift to coercion really results from a failure to manage the growing economic crisis by consent -- the Government increasingly decides to take unpopular steps to modernise the British economy and squeeze wages and employment, and is prepared to use force to manage the dissent (protests, demonstrations and strikes) that it knows will ensue. Talking up street crime and mugging as major panics helps prepare the ground for this wider project, by allowing the State to introduce new laws and to trample on civil liberties. The present Government is doing the same - justifying the new laws to permit them to read our emails as a part of the ongoing 'war against crime and terrorism', but I bet they will also use them against any political opponents too if necessary. Visit me in prison, won't you?
  4. The same arguments are made much more briefly against traditional interactionist labelling theory. This was right to notice that the reaction to a crime is as important as the crime itself - that, indeed, unless there is a reaction, there is no crime, and, moreover, that labelling an act or a person as 'criminal' can actually lead to a criminal career. Fine -- but it does not pay enough attention to the political and ideological resources for the reaction, nor does it try to trace such a reaction to the needs of capital 'in the last instance'. Hall et al try to do just this, in chapter 7, with a pretty abstract account of how the law and the other 'control agencies' work to regulate the economic system and to criminalise political alternatives. Whether this fits all crime is pretty debatable, in my view, but the main focus is mugging again (or 'black crime' more generally).

Well OK, these are interesting points, but not really strong arguments, in my view. Hall et al insist they are forced to the view [sic] that we 'must' explore these wider and deeper contextual issues, but what sort of 'must' is this? We must do this to get a fuller and better explanation? We must do this because we want to join in the politics? We must do this because we need to defend our perspective against academic rivals? You must [sic] decide, o reader!

What of the media and their role (discussed especially in chapters 1, 3, 4 and 5). 

  1. Hall et al had written a good deal about this before, as some of my other reading guides will show [ eg try this one], and there is little to add really. The media ( in this case the press -- why not TV as well?) report and describe street crime according to their own professional values of what counts as 'news'. Famous studies, like those of Galtung and Ruge, have listed these 'news values' -- a good news story must be contemporary, immediate, of universal significance, it must be linkable with other news items -- and so on. 
  2. Hall et al want to suggest that these news values have a deeper origin though, that they nest within dominant ideology, so to speak, that dominant ideology provides the vocabulary and significance of the terms used, and so on. Try some of the other studies for this. It is no different here -- stories about mugging are dripping with ideological signifiers about tradition, England, respectability, racial superiority, social decline, the irrationality of criminals and so on.
  3. The only novel thing is that the study uses not only detailed case-studies of the press, but a sample of readers' letters, including some sent to the families of the Handsworth muggers. These case-studies and materials are not used very well, though. They simply 'illustrate' the main points ( which had probably arisen from theoretical coinsiderations anyway). There are some exceptions in the actual materials:
    1. an editorial in the Daily Express did try to explain mugging in terms of the social conditions of the muggers, instead of in the usual terms of  'irrationality' and 'mindless violence' etc. Hall et al dismiss this oddity rather brusquely, as 'throwaway humanism' -- but even throwaway humanism needs to be explained in a sea of otherwise solidly ideological and coercive discourse. Why doesn't it qualify for terms like 'proto-resistance'?
    2. the readers' letters sent to the families might have offered a chance to investigate working class racism, which is also largely unexplained, except as an effect of traditionalist ideology or a cunning plan to divide the working class. Hall et al come close to admitting that such racism might have a 'rational kernel', for example, and be based in real experiences -- but they do not pursue this, certainly not as far as they pursue, explain and justify the 'work-refusal' or the 'hustling' of the black city-dweller. Why were the letter-writers so hostile? Why can their views be dismissed as 'irrational' (about the only group whose views are). Incidentally, I am not supporting working-class racism myself, of course, but I do think it not helpful to dismiss it as irrational, any more than it is to dismiss black crime as irrational, or traditionalism as irrational, and for the same reasons. Blimey, now the progressives and liberals will be after me too!
    3. Further, Hall et al note that the letter-writers' views are often more hostile than those of the press -- which suggest that the press can sometimes moderate the views of the public, instead of always 'amplifying' or 'escalating' them. Braham made this point against an article by Hall on racism in the media, arguing that 'the media' were usually less racist than 'the public' -- clearly, much needs to be explained here. As usual, the analysis of the news did not involve talking to any newspeople,or observing them as they worked: had it done so, Hall et al might have discovered people in (some of) the media wanting to resist dominant ideologies, trying to subvert them, trying to present material to challenge them -- just as radical academics do, no doubt, even in the most unpromisingly mangerial and coercive university regimes.
Now on to the fuller summary