Wednesday, 7 September 2011

No such thing as the 'criminal classes'

Ken Clark - the supposedly acceptable 'wet' face of the lounge-bar Conservatives - has been talking recently about the 'criminal classes.' Traditional Tory nonsense is nothing if not resilient.

At home I have a treasured early edition of Henry Mayhew's 'London Labour & The London Poor'. It isn't a revolutionary work in the sense of Engel's 'Conditon Of The Working Class In England' but it was in it's own way radical. 

Granted it reflects the Victorian obsession for recording and categorising everything in pedantic detail and you do sometimes feel that Mayhew, like a butterfly collector  would like to stick his subjects on a pin under a glass case. But it is ground-breaking in that it records the stories of London's working class in their own words - without too much middle class moral commentary. Most of all it paints a picture of the poorest elements of society - including those who make their living from crime - as victims of circumstance. Specifically of social injustice.

At the time this kind of thinking certainly wasn't the norm. Received wisdom would have it that there was some psychological or  genetic flaw that defined  the 'criminal classes'. Just have a look at Conan Doyle  - all very entertaining -  but  Holmes is constantly explaining to Watson how the 'degenerate' jawline or the low fore-head of a suspect confirms their innate villainy. This kind of thinking went hand in hand with  racial theories that mis-appropriated Darwinism in order to characterise some races as more primitive than other . Pseudo-science gave moral legitimacy to capitalism at home and imperialism abroad.

It's incredible that the idea of a criminal class is now being revived. But then again maybe it's the natural corollary of the old school toffs taking charge of government again.  Because by implication if one class is born to riot then another must be born to rule.

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