In London every day on average five children are shot or knifed. Official figures for overall murder and knife crimes in London are actually down, and 58 homicides involving firearms in the UK last year hardly compares with the 14,000 firearms-related killings in the US in 2005. However, the murders of those under 20 appear as a particularly senseless loss of life. On TV you see the faces of those who've died and think ‘what a waste'. You see a headline like "Girl, 13, knifed to punish drug dealing lover" and see the age of innocence dropping like a stone.
All sorts of explanations and solutions have been offered. Ken Livingstone said that the majority of youth crime was caused by boredom. Others have blamed poverty, drugs, urban decay, racism, an absence of positive role models for young people, gangs, gang-life and gangsta rap. Last year leaked police documents showed how 257 gangs had been mapped across London.
A spokeswoman for the charity Kids Company said that "children are resorting to savage ways of surviving because from their perspective the adult world and civil society cannot protect them. When you are alone and the rule of law does not protect you, you have to adhere to an alternative system of power to ensure your own protection and that is where the weapon, violence and the gang comes in."
Gavin Hales, a criminologist who has worked for the police and the Home Office, thought "the average age of those involved in gun crime was falling and there was significant evidence this was because youths, some in their early to mid-teens, were becoming attracted to the criminal economy, especially the drugs market" (BBC News 14/11/7). Meanwhile, a professor at Strathclyde University believed it was "important to dispel the notion that young people are drawn into gang culture because of low self-esteem and lack of employment opportunities, and recognise instead that gun culture - of whatever ethnic background - brings its own thrills and material rewards" (ibid).
As solutions Livingstone proposed "new opportunities to learn skills through training, sports and cultural activities, with the aim of engaging young people and helping them to live a life away from violence and crime." Others want a police and prison ‘zero tolerance' crackdown. Some Christians just propose forgiveness. Headmasters say ‘don't retaliate'. A visiting New York gang leader said that education and empowering youth communities by "promoting healthy and viable alternatives to gangs and gang life" - as opposed to tougher prison sentences - were the only ways of breaking the ‘cycle of violence'.
How much of this rings true? If there are material and social explanations for ‘crime and the causes of crime' then changes in material and social conditions would improve the situation. But, as it happens, the economic situation in which most of us find ourselves is not only deteriorating, but shows every sign of taking further steps in decline. It's not only the poor that are getting poorer, but the possibilities of getting decent housing are getting scarcer, and health and education facilities are getting worse. There is nothing in the current social situation that could lead you to believe that violence on the streets might diminish.
But what about the thrills and rewards of gun culture and the attraction of the drugs market: have our academics hit on something? In a world in which the education system writes off the futures of so many children, in which the prospects for rewarding employment are minimal, where only the most basic rental accommodation is affordable, where so many estates are literally falling apart, the possibilities of excitement and even material rewards are bound to be appealing. Where there is little sense of community, where people feel isolated or separate from their fellow creatures (except possibly those in your gang) drawing a knife or a gun doesn't necessarily seem of much consequence, killing someone the work of a moment. If you're carrying a weapon you've only got to worry about the police; if you don't you have to worry about everyone who does. If you're not in a gang it seems like you're bound to be a victim.
Although capitalism needs a disciplined work force - both for working and for its armies - increasingly its individualist ethos is turning to ‘each against all'. This is the world that young people are growing up in, with the violence of nation against nation, gang against gang, individuals against each other. Seemingly random pointless violence is a pure product of decomposing capitalism.
The only force that can act against this is the solidarity of the working class in its struggle against capitalism. At the moment this potential is only acknowledged by a tiny minority. The majority live lives with no perspective for the transformation of society, and individual survival as the only prospect. But when the class struggle comes out into the open, new possibilities can be glimpsed very quickly. In the struggles against the CPE in France in 2006, striking students made a conscious effort to draw the most deprived sectors of the working class - the residents of the ‘banlieux' who are so vulnerable to crime and aimless violence - into a common fight against the capitalist state. That was only a beginning, but it indicates the path to follow in future struggles. Car 27/1/8