Violence Breeds Violence
No single incident could capture the absurd tragedy of Capitalist society more than the recent killing of three London policemen in Braybrook Street, Shepherds Bush. In one moment was expressed all its frustration, waste, violence and inequalities. To an onlooker whose mind was not steeped in the attitudes of propertied society, the whole event would have been quite incomprehensible if not completely lunatic. First of all there was sudden death in the streets of the city, cruel and vindictive murder, the instant production of a litter of corpses. This was followed swiftly by the most intense police enquiries that produced the oddest of spectacles, for example, 75 tall uniformed men in a long line, on hands and knees fingering through the grass for little metal objects. Later there came the ugly aftermath of hundreds of grim-faced detectives, revolver in hand, staggering through the foliage of Epping Forest, hunting for a man. What was their mission? If need be to kill him, but at least to lock him for the rest of his life. Here undoubtedly was waste, frustration and violence; and the background of it all was formed by the inequalities of capitalist society.
It was a tragedy; killings always are, and so are the reprisals of the state taken in the name of so-called law and order. But the added tragedy of the whole affair will be the little that society will learn from it. The hang ’em and flog ’em brigade will have an outing, but in the meantime, important questions will probably remain unanswered.
Unless we are educated otherwise, it is an almost automatic response to entirely blame some individual for crimes. It is a response which follows from the prejudices of a fragmented individualistic society. It follows also from the religious idea that during their lives men make a conscious decision to become either good or evil. It also serves as a convenient scapegoat, which divests ourselves of personal involvement, to find some individual upon whom we can heap all guilt.
If our explanation of the incident stops at finding three men guilty and we satisfy ourselves that our duty has been done by applying a suitable punishment, then we shall be back where we were before the killings occurred, except, of course, that three policemen will be dead and other men will probably spend the rest of their lives in prison. We shall not only have done nothing to prevent this kind of violence occurring, but by failing to face up to all the factors involved, we ensure that it will happen again. When it comes to those acts of violence that meet with disapproval, where does the responsibility begin and where does it end? It is not just that capitalism has no consistent basis from which it can condemn violence; it is a society that constantly generates violence. Furthermore there can be no escaping the fact the code of honesty and the sanctity of private property expresses the material interests of men who have got everything—wealth, power and privilege. Thus the attempt to uphold morality under capitalism breaks up into cynicism.
It is not uncommon for an environment that is completely sterile of human warmth and love to produce psychopathic individuals with an acute tendency to violence. Some individuals whose abandonment dates from birth, never have the opportunity to learn by experience that all human relationships should exist at some level of mutual regard and affection. Hence their responses to other human beings are completely numbed. Such persons usually have suffered the worst ravages of an inhospitable background of ignorance, poverty and emotional insecurity.
It is not yet known if it is this kind of individual involved in the Braybrook Street killings. Whether it is or not, society does little to help such people. Apart from maintaining at its almost degenerate extreme the kind of conditions that produce such psychopaths, Capitalism presents them with a bewildering set of hypocritical and contradictory values. They are set a very fine dividing line between violence which is socially approved and violence which is penalised. It must be remembered that one of the suspects was trained in the jungle warfare and skilled as a sniper in the Malayan campaign against guerrillas, a campaign where the torture of prisoners was common procedure.
A glance at the photograph in The Guardian of the Gorbals tenement where another of the suspects was arrested revealed instantly the vile and ugly surroundings which is presumably supposed to bring out the best in people. This in a society which glamorises wealth and comfort and gives people little opportunity to fight their way out of the prison of such poverty, short of crime.
We are not confronted then by a conflict of good men and bad men. We are not concerned with men who at one point in time, faced with the choice of either leading useful lives or becoming violent criminals, made a conscious decision to become anti-social. No individual exists in a social vacuum. His attitudes and actions must always be related to the whole social background, and the history of an individual’s personal circumstances.
Socialists do not excuse all anti-social human actions on grounds of “the system”, but we hope that we add to our condemnation a knowledge of all the existing social forces at work to produce given results. This is necessary because without it, condemnation is negative and without purpose. In a sense, there is a curious anti-ethical unity between the violent killer and those who condemn him out of hand. It is all very well to go round with the collection box for the widows’ fund, but sympathy and a burning sense of outrage is made redundant when it is accompanied by a shallow hatred for the killer or demands for the return of hanging and flogging. All we are left with is continued violence at one moment disapproved and then inverted to become upheld. In the long run it feeds off itself.
The useful lesson is that capitalism basically through its inherent privilege and underprivilege and its inability to generate a sincere human relationships produces on the one hand crime and violence and on the other its repressive counterpart—Borstals, prisons, etc. The sufferings and misery of men in prisons year in and year out in defence of property interests is no less repugnant to Socialists than the actions of violent criminals.
The plain fact is that capitalism cannot work without prisons, and that some men will remain sufficiently undeterred by their horror to engage in crime, violent or otherwise.