The alienated character of delinquent life is starkly revealed by the code of respect many live by. This code may serve to deflect the contempt directed at those at the bottom of society; nonetheless, it is an external and arbitrary system that ties an individual to a reputation miserably dependent on the approval or deference of others. One of its most destructive facets is the expectation that any display of disrespect is remedied by violence. Another is the encouragement it gives to newcomers to establish status amongst their peers and competitors by engaging in eye-catching acts of especially ruthless violence. All this has led to a reified contempt for life, disdain for open criticism, staggeringly high rates of injury and death (in Harlem during the mid-1990s, for example, young men were as likely to die violently as soldiers were during the second world war), more and more defensive weapons, and a ubiquitous ambience of threat and fear in the areas where delinquents live. None of this is in the best interests of the delinquents themselves, the worst of which have been reduced to veritable zombies by their relentless treatment of others as objects and the need to suppress all real thought and feeling about their patently loathsome actions. What is supposed to be the delinquents' own code has clearly escaped them. Like an angry god, it consumes those who worship it. More generally, delinquents' activities create blighted lives for themselves as much as for anyone else, but they doggedly persist with this self-immolation. "I dunno, they've got a brand new Merc outside but they're cracked out in some poxy flat with their mum. They can't use the front room in case someone shoots the house up, and they're looking at untold 'bird' if they get nicked. What's that about?" (London gang member). Even when things seem to be going well for criminals who engage in business, all they spread around them are alienated relations with suppliers and customers. Their relations with others are mediated and defined by the goods for which they have become the bearers and the mouthpieces. All they find around them, all they have created around then, are people who wish to buy from them, sell to them, or supplant them — people for whom they are merely buyers, sellers or commercial competitors. They strove to break free of the constraints around them; they ended up as hooded greengrocers of oblivion.
As well as failing to confront their own reliance on alienated images of delinquency, delinquents have done little to disrupt the wider use of images of delinquency by the rulers of society. For decades, the threat supposedly posed by delinquents has been an important element of the state’s justification of its rule over society. In effect, the state has presented itself as a necessary defence for the respectable citizen against what are said to be their common enemies, the delinquents. For their part, the delinquents have rarely even attempted to disabuse respectable citizens of this illusion. Often confined in estates on the outskirts of cities and the poorer parts of town, they have not explored ways of breaking down their isolation and communicating directly with ordinary people who are better off than they are. They have not sought out common ground with ordinary people whose lives are as blighted by affluence as theirs are by deprivation. (Artistic specialists may have offered up depictions and discussions of the life in the margins through rap and music, plays, poetry, etc, but such portrayals and protests, having been framed as cultural products, merely end up being taken within the narrow private lives of the affluent and passively consumed as aesthetic experiences or news.) Worse, some delinquents seem perfectly content to play the part that the state’s spectacle of terror assigns to them, delightedly acting out their gangster role on the streets, the media and youtube videos, or simply dolling out rote discourtesy to passers-by. They are happy to feed the fist that strikes them.
There is no doubt that the actions of delinquents disrupt the everyday lives of respectable citizens. Over the past thirty or so years, the majority of the population has chosen to pursue the rewards of conformity instead of the fruits of revolt. What they have been left with are ugly and stupid lives, ugly and stupid places, and a planet pushed to the very edge of destruction by capitalism's efforts to keep feeding them new promises of consumable happiness. But the thought that one is wasting one's life is not a cheerful one, and respectable citizens everywhere have gone to considerable lengths to avoid it. They have erected elaborate architectures of lies and self-deceptions in an attempt to persuade themselves and others that their work is not petty nonsense directed by contemptible bosses to idiotic ends, that their families are not desolate bunkers of mutual contempt and shared incarceration, that their leisure and friendships are not collections of inconsequential games and insubstantial interests, that their holidays are not banal tramps through despoliation, that the ways in which they think they avoid the common vulgarity are not entirely spurious, that their pleasures are not dreadfully small. They cling to these illusions with ferocious desperation; but the whole house of lying ghosts and grim parodies is a fragile one, and it is threatened by the depredations of delinquency. To the extent that delinquency prevents respectable citizens from misperceiving themselves as happy and free people who are blessed with rich experiences and continue to grow as individuals, it provokes their fury. It threatens to take away the very little they have, and replace it with nothing. It threatens to bring them face to face with a poverty of everyday life that has been there in one form or another all along.
The rage of respectable citizens is compounded by their impotence. They have no control over their social environment, no ability to do anything other than stand or cower as isolated individuals in the face of the delinquents who harass them. They have given up the power to manage everything outside their front doors to others and accepted random collections of juxtaposed individuals in lieu of communities. Having refused to contest the separation and impotence that the dominance of the state and the commodity economy imposes on everyone, they can only clamour for more police patrols and harsher punitive regimes.
At bottom, delinquency is a product of the absence of revolt, the abeyance of revolution. It is a pathological result of the unwillingness of men and women to act against the conditions of their own alienation. If respectable citizens wish not to be the victims of delinquents, they must precisely become less respectable. If they wish to open a dialogue with delinquents that is capable of superseding their mutual hostility, they must end that sheepish plodding through a lifetime of work and consumption which understandably makes them so contemptible in the eyes of delinquents. They must develop, by and for themselves, an autonomous, self-managed project of practical negation that is directed at the reigning alienation and reproaches the delinquents with doing too little against the dominant society rather than too much. They must invite the delinquents to join them in a richer and more subversive game. If that does not happen, if a process of revolutionary contestation is not created in which both the respectable and the delinquent can participate as equals, the same old nonsense will proliferate, and the same old failed pacifications will be regurgitated by the state. We shall all end up dying before we have even begun living.
Of course, it is necessary to act against recalcitrant delinquents who insist on bringing misery and terror to others. This cannot involve cooperation with the police, local authorities and courts, or demands for more from them. These separate powers are part of the apparatus that dispossess ordinary people of control over their lives and they must always be treated as the enemies that they are. Ordinary people have to find their own solutions. We know that individual confrontations with groups of delinquents can be dangerous, so seek out and act with others who are prepared to stand with you. Propose shared, self-directed confrontation by word and deed to those who share your frustrations. Bring thoughtful strategy and tactics to the matter. Carefully study the activities and operations of the delinquents. Gain as complete a picture as possible of what they do, how they do it, and where they do it. Be clear about what you wish to achieve. Identify the weak points, the times and places where confrontation with individuals (including customers of delinquents engaged in criminal commerce), or destruction of things (for example, stolen goods, drug stashes), will have large effects but carry acceptably small risks. Be imaginative in your tools and methods. Do not feel obliged to confine yourself to what is lawful. Make sensible use of publicity. Paste up criticisms of individuals and groups on the physical walls of the area and on the internet. Through texts, pictures, sound recordings, and videos, make public that which they wish to conceal from the wider world. Be as anonymous and as cautious as you need to be. But in the end, such an approach can only be a complement to a revolutionary strategy that contests the social conditions that breed delinquency as one form of alienation amongst many others. In South Africa, an Islamic group, the People Against Gangsterism and Drugs, went so far as to execute some 30 gang leaders in 1996 alone. The gangs still exist.
There is no-one to save you. It is up to you. And me. Courage. So that the night triumphs no more.
14 July 2010
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