Due to much stricter controls on the sales of firearms in the UK, we haven’t had the same problem with shootings and mass killings as witnessed in the USA. But while all the energy of government has been sucked into the impasses of Brexit, we suddenly find ourselves confronted with another kind of national emergency – a dramatic increase in cases of knife crime involving children or teenagers.
What is happening here? There seems to be enough evidence to suggest that the rise in the figures for deaths by stabbing and prosecution for possession of deadly weapons in the course of recent years can be set against the drastic cuts to social and public services implemented during the decade of austerity following the financial crisis.
Perhaps predictably, our Prime Minister, Theresa May, has been quick to deny that there is any direct correlation between cuts to police funding and the rise in any particular forms of crime. But then she would say that, given that she was herself the person who, in her previous role as Home Secretary, made time to introduce swinging cuts to police funding while drawing up her plans for the Hostile Environment Policy on illegal immigration.
One commentator has been quick to point out that if there is no correlation between crime levels and policing then why bother having a police force at all? And yet, at another level, Theresa May is absolutely correct. There is no direct correlation between the rise of knife crime and cuts to policing, precisely because the correlations are far more complex and far more disturbing, cutting as they do right across the fabric of our society.
Even more difficult for this government to acknowledge are the multiple inter-correlations now manifesting themselves as the consequences of a decade of austerity, whose effects have fallen disproportionally on the most vulnerable sectors of our society. The banking bailout to rescue the financial system has been paid for by drastic cuts across all levels of public services, health, education, social services, justice, and yes, policing.
But only now are some of the consequences of those cuts manifesting themselves at the level of the fraying of the fabric of the social bond. It turns out that cuts to the funding of public services produce fatal wounds in the bodies of our children, even if the exact nature of this causal link is difficult to establish.
Government cuts to the funding of youth services and education thus turn out to be even more strongly correlated with the rise of youth knife crime than does the reduction in the numbers of police on the street. Persistent cuts to the funding of the education system have had effects not just on the quality of educational outcomes but also on the more hidden problem of truancy and school exclusion.
Apparently up to 40 children a day in our country are being excluded from school, on either a temporary or permanent basis, as being too disruptive for the education system to manage. These excluded children are then dropped into the void created by the decimation of children’s services and youth centres, leaving them abandoned to the alternative social structure provided by gang life, the attractions of drug use and the nihilistic outlook of a zero hours contract with society.
The government has responded to the recent outcry surrounding the deaths of school children by promising more policing and more rigorous prosecution of offenders. There have even been suggestions that a national emergency should be declared, which would allow emergency funding to be made available and the military to be deployed to support the police force.
Some more enlightened commentators have pointed out that when a 14 year old stabs a 16 year old to death then the judicial distinction between victim and offender is perhaps no longer the most useful framework for getting to grips with what is going on. Rather than resorting to the dead-end category of ‘youth offenders’, we might consider both perpetrators and victims of this kind of crime as caught up in a cycle of violence that appears to be reaching epidemic proportions.
It has thus been suggested that the recent eruption of knife crime amongst minors, should rather be considered as a public health emergency, allowing it more usefully to be considered and treated as a symptom of a broader malaise in the social fabric of our country.
But of course it is going to be difficult to persuade this government to adopt a public health approach to juvenile knife crime when these are the very people whose policy of austerity was part of a more general commitment to the reduction of the public sector. Expect more hand wringing, focus groups and statements of intent, while we try to work out whether having children dying in the street is a price worth paying.
To conclude, or rather perhaps to indicate a starting point where we might try to take up some of these questions from a more strictly psychoanalytic point of view, let us not forget the comments of Jacques-Alain Miller in his 2017 introduction of the theme of the 5th Study Day of the Institute of the Child:
“Concerning the violent child, one should not be hypnotised by the cause. There is a violence without a why, which is its own reason, which is in itself jouissance. It is only in a second moment that we will look for the determinism, the cause, the plus-de-jouir which is the cause of the desire to destroy, of the activation of this desire. […] As a rule we will find it in a fault of the process of repression, or in Oedipal terms, in a failure of the paternal metaphor.”
 Miller, Jacques-Alain, Violent Children, Intervention at the 4th Study of the Institute of the Child, March 18th 2017, in The Lacanian Review, Issue 4, 2018.
Image @Casey Fleser / Some Geek in TN