Get used to Cumbria-style killings in neoliberal UK
Neil Clark: The egotistic culture of free market capitalism is to blame
It's tempting to see Derrick Bird’s killing spree in Cumbria as 'just one of those things' - a freak, isolated event that has no real sociological cause. It's certainly a line taken by right-wing media commentators. "Terrible deeds like this happen every so often. Nothing could have been done to prevent it, little can be done to explain it," opines political blogger Iain Dale.
In fact, much can be done to explain it.
US-style killing sprees are a relatively recent phenomenon in Britain, occurring for the first time in Hungerford, Berkshire in 1987. We didn't have such occurrences in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, or 70s - and many countries in the world still don't experience such events. So where have we gone wrong?
The answer is that we've Americanised our economy, and consequently are paying a very high social cost.
In his 2005 book Going Postal: Rage, Murder and Rebellion, Mark Ames describes how workplace and school/college shootings became everyday phenomena after Ronald Reagan's 'free market' economic 'reforms' in the early 1980s. Ames notes that while there was only one recorded incident in the States before the advent of 'Reaganomics,' there were 43 recorded incidents in one summer alone in 2003.
Tragically, Britain followed America’s lead.
In their book Criminal Identities and Consumer Culture, Steve Hall, Simon Winlow, and Craig Ancram talk of "the crime explosion that characterised Britain and the USA from the late 1960s to the late 1990s as a reality inextricably linked to the increasing dominance of neoliberal political economy". They quote Robert Reiner, Professor of Criminology at the London School of Economics, who describes how "the egotistic culture of a 'market society' has ushered in a new barbarism".
In continental Europe - which never fully embraced neoliberalism - things have been different. In Steve Hall and Craig McLean's recent paper, A Tale of Two Capitalisms, they compare violent crime rates under US-style neoliberalism, the most aggressive form of capitalism, and European social democracy, the gentlest form.
They warn that by moving to a more neoliberal economic system, continental Europe will become more violent, as Britain did after it embraced 'free market' reforms. There are signs that this is already happening.
In 2009 in Germany Tim Kretschmer, a 17-year-old former student, killed 15 people before shooting himself. Last November, Hungary suffered its first US-style university shooting, when a student opened fire on his classmates in Pecs. Only yesterday we saw two people shot dead in a courtroom in Brussels by a lone gunman.
The dangers to our society of adopting a more aggressive form of capitalism were spotted long ago by both Marxists and traditional One Nation Tories. Sir Ian Gilmour, a staunch critic of Thatcherism, warned against economic liberalism's "starkness" and its "failure to create a sense of community".
It's not hard to see how that happens. By encouraging us to be selfish and ultra-competitive, neo-liberalism destroys social cohesion. Other people are seen as threats and rivals, and not as potential comrades. In a neoliberal society it's much harder to make deep and lasting friendships and for families to stay together. Trust - that most essential element for building meaningful relationships - is eroded.
It's no coincidence that in the two most aggressively capitalist western economies - the US and Britain - people are more addicted to Facebook and other social networking sites which promote a highly superficial and acquisitive notion of 'friendship'. Under neoliberalism, atomisation increases and loneliness abounds.
Of course, all societies can produce alienated, unhappy, obsessive loners like Derrick Bird, the Dunblane killer Thomas Hamilton, or the Hungerford gunman Michael Ryan. But aggressively capitalist societies like the US and Britain produce an awful lot more of them.
Under neoliberalism, money has come to dominate every aspect of our lives. It's no great surprise therefore to read that the events in Cumbria may have been sparked by a row over a will.
Prime Minister David Cameron may talk for as he long as he likes about building a 'Big Society', but so long as he clings to 1980s-style neoliberal economic solutions, we haven't a hope of creating a society where killing sprees simply do not occur. On the contrary, unless we adopt a more humane economic system, one which encourages co-operation and not competition, such bloodbaths are only likely to become more common. ·
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