A continuing conversation.
Policing the Crisis - Mugging, the State, Law and Order celebrated its thirty-fifth anniversary in 2013. This is a book that has been tremendously influential in sociology, criminology and beyond. Written during the time its authors were based at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, it is a key text of the then newly emerging field of Cultural Studies. (1) To mark the anniversary, a second edition has been published that includes a new preface and a series of afterwords by the respective authors, situating the book and its relevance within the contemporary context of neoliberalism and the links between the state, capitalist crisis, policing and forms of social control.
First published in 1978, Policing the Crisis took the moral panic about 'mugging' as its starting point for what eventually became a wide ranging analysis of the breakdown of the post-war consensus in Britain. It identified a general crisis of capitalism and showed how the social contradictions of that crisis were being articulated in ways that attempted to justify ever-more coercive and disciplinary forms of social control. The book provided analytical tools to help understand the social processes that were taking place, and to make sense of the ways in which disparate social elements were being associated together and re-interpreted through a public discourse of moral panic that served to obscure the actual material causes of the crisis. It is widely acknowledged as being the first British book to attempt what became known as conjunctural analysis.
The book examines how the themes of race, crime and youth condensed into a kind of 'ideological conductor' for the crisis of hegemony in Britain in the 1970s (p6). It describes how the new crime of 'mugging' was invented, and then portrayed as part of an apparent rise of street crimes committed by young black men, and how it eventually came to stand in for the general social crisis and rising crime levels. The authors argue that 'mugging' was not a fact, but a spectacular and emotive representation of a social phenomenon that was linked in to economic, political and racial conflict in British society. They analyse the ways in which social anxieties were fomented through news and media constructions, and pointed to the converging connections between the deployment of ever-more coercive forms of social control and the criminalisation of social dissent and political protest. This convergence produced a proliferation of anxiety-fuelled figures: the 'mugger', the 'extremist', the 'industrial militant', 'counter-cultural layabout', 'dosser' and so forth. Policing the Crisis developed a conceptual and methodological framework for understanding the construction of an authoritarian 'law and order' society; and for establishing what social forces stood to benefit and what social forces were contained and constrained by it.
With its emphasis on combining critical political economy with cultural and historical research, this work remains an exemplary contribution to the development of rigorous explanatory frameworks with which to make sense of the present. The authors called on researchers to focus their analysis on the structures and conditions that produce the effects that they are seeking to understand, and showed how such structures and conditions are embedded in the social, political and economic conditions that constitute the elements of contemporary capitalism. Moreover, this book was conceived of as an 'intervention in the battleground of ideas' (p4): it was concerned with unpacking the social construction of the crisis and its representations.
Moreover, Policing the Crisis was and remains an intervention into discussions about what academic research can and ought to do. A rally against 'innocence', it is a clarion call for researchers to recognise their responsibility in the reproduction and transformation of society. Such responsibility does not lie in providing simple problem-solving solutions that are technical - or even technocratic - in their orientation, but in contributing to criticism and change through better understanding of the current conjuncture. As the authors note in the 'Afterwords', 'structural inequalities and worklessness, social exclusion and racism, criminalisation and brutalisation remain toxic symptoms of the present conjuncture' (p392).
This book should be read far and wide, not least because there are important conversations to be revisited, as well as new ones to be had, about how to understand the current crisis. Today's crisis 'may be different, but [it ...] is still being vigorously policed'; and there remains in our own time an urgent need for engaged research that is committed to social justice, that seeks transformation as well as explanation.
(1.) The CCCS was affiliated to the University of Birmingham between 1964 and 2002 until it was closed down by the university (which was consequently subjected to vociferous international criticism for having done so).