In February 2014, as part of its Big Benefits Row debate, Channel 5 broadcast the results of an opinion poll that asked ‘Do you think the benefits system is fit or unfit for purpose?’ Two-thirds thought it ‘unfit’. This television moment seemed to promise an unmediated window onto ‘how the public really feels’, but in fact it formed just one step in a much broader, organised, formal process reshaping public opinion around welfare. The process of welfare reform ‘becoming common sense’ involves pulling ordinary, normally invisible, people into a staged public conversation, something that looks like public debate but is in fact a highly structured exchange.
Policing the Crisis, first published in 1978, remains one of the most thorough, powerful and persuasive accounts of how ‘public consent’ for new forms of statecraft and state reform is manufactured. It is a remarkably ambitious and rich study of policing and race relations in the 1970s, collaboratively written by members of the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies, including one of its founders, the late Stuart Hall.
Policing the Crisis, like all the work created in the School, opened up critical dialogues between the machinery of politics and the culture of the everyday, connecting up the places where state power is exercised and where we take these workings of power into our daily lives, conversations and exchanges. This influential body of work triggered a reflective ‘cultural turn’ across many disciplines of study, supplanting the often-fatalistic inertia that characterised theories of cultural power through the notion of ‘cultural politics’ and establishing popular culture as an object for serious study.
What made Policing the Crisis so special was that it recognised that the shift to more authoritarian policing of black communities in the 1970s could not have happened without public consent; and that the mainstream media took a central role in structuring ‘social knowledge’ of street crime, creating and nurturing a moral panic around the figure of the ‘mugger’. The mugger emerged as a new cultural figure upon whom street crime was racialised and against whom social anxieties around youth, urban space and control become projected.
The conjunctural analysis developed in Policing the Crisis – mapping out public and official disquiet, ‘trying to catch public opinion, unawares, in the very moment of its formation’, as it says in the preface to the 2013 edition – was breathtakingly novel. Looking conjuncturally enabled the authors to painstakingly map the trajectory of ‘the mugger’, his socio-cultural imprint becoming more firmly stamped on public consciousness with each repetition of mugger discourse, across news media, courtrooms, public commentary, everyday conversation, gossip and other formal and official sites of disquiet.
The mugger, as the authors showed, came to have a figurative life, which solidified a new ‘common sense’ consensus around authoritarian policing and race relations. It was through mugger discourse that young black urban men became the ‘bearers’ of crisis in the 1970s – and that consensus around social protection became dismantled and supplanted by an advancing new consensus of aggressive policing in localised (black) neighbourhoods.
The second edition of Policing the Crisis was published last year and it feels as fresh and mighty as ever. Including a new preface and a short afterword, the book remains one of the most important publications written about the apparatus of power. The analysis of ‘public opinion’ machinery is particularly timely in the context of welfare reform debates and the saturation of prime-time television with so-called ‘poverty porn’, which performs a parallel function around punitive and restrictive welfare reform to what ‘mugging’ performed around authoritarian policing. Policing the Crisis compellingly demonstrates how public opinion is orchestrated via cultural sites, and how, far from being ‘spontaneous’ or ‘organic’, it is powerfully structured and editorialised.
Replace ‘crime’ with ‘welfare’ in the following quote and we could be talking about the ‘welfare crisis’ now:
‘“Public opinion” about crime does not simply form up at random. It exhibits a shape and a structure. It follows a sequence. It is a social process, not a mystery. Even at the lowest threshold of visibility – in talk, in rumour, in the exchange of quick views and common-sense judgements – crime talk is not socially innocent . . . The more an issue passes into the public domain, the more it is structured by the dominant ideologies about crime.’
Policing the Crisis took a fine comb to the social-symbolic landscapes of the 1970s, the anti-immigrant, anti-welfare and racist ideologies that would shortly prove to be fertile ground for neoliberalism under Thatcher. The book still provides one of the boldest and most insightful maps of how neoliberalism became palatable, and re-reading it today highlights how and where it might be fractured.