Gang Culture: a cry for a rite of passage? aka work
Yesterday my second blog post was published on Huffington Post UK. I have pasted it here, as it is buried out of sight in the huffPost blogs section, though I am hopeful that if my blogs there get loads of comments, they will gradually unbury them.
David Cameron has just declared all-out War on Gangs, which follows hard on the heels War on Terror and the War on Drugs, neither of which are famous for ending in glorious victory. We must hope that Dave is just breathing out sturm und drang to appease his tabloids, and that the policy that follows will be more intelligent.
A wise African proverb is doing the rounds at the moment: "If the young are not initiated into the village, they will burn it down just to feel its warmth". That pretty much sums up the riots of last week.
Initiation ceremonies are ubiquitous in tribal societies. As the child makes the transition into adulthood, the passage is marked by ceremonies, often painful, leaving permanent and visible scars. Following initiation, the child is rewarded with a place in the community. It is salutary to remember that teenagers in hunter-gatherer societies are the main hunters. Contrast the difference between the state of mind of a sixteen year old hunter returning to the village carrying a deer that he has killed, and that of a sixteen year old standing on the corner of a sink estate with no home, no hope, no opportunity.
Modified rites of passage persist in sub-sets of modern societies in a wide variety of forms that range from meek and mild confirmation services in Christian churches to ritual humiliations and bullying that happens in many places of work - and in gangs. Initiation into a gang often involves demonstrating toughness by being beaten ("beat in") by the gang or by performing a crime.
We have a situation where a young person, in the absence of any clear initiation into adult community, is offered, and accepts, a painful, degrading and even a criminal act in order to be included in his or her micro-society, the local gang. The gang provides comradeship, respect, and purpose. It may also profits from drug dealing. In the absence of vertical lines of inclusion into society, the gang member finds horizontal lines of inclusion into a gang.
It is not unreasonable to propose that society should offer young people in transition to adulthood some kind of rite of passage as an alternative to gang membership. But what would that be, given that ritual scarification is a non-starter?
National military service is often put forward as a solution, but the Forces are less than enthusiastic about the prospect of being handed a cohort of alienated youth every year, knowing as they do that one volunteer is worth 100 conscripts. There is also a question mark about the soundness of training potential gang members in the arts of war and destruction. The Army has expertise in training people for killing, but its record in preparing them for civilian life at the end of their service is not so good.
There is one excellent candidate for initiation of young people into membership of society. It is commonplace, happens every day, generates wealth, gives participants time structure, satisfaction, and self esteem. It has been shown to increase health and happiness. It has the potential to make even the most run down inner city estate clean, beautiful and secure.
It is called "work".
The problem is that in the economy as it is currently structured, work is in short supply. Youth unemployment has doubled over the last decade, with one million of our young people now jobless out of a total of 2.54 million unemployed.
The sheer magnitude of the riots demands a radical re-think of youth unemployment and the relationship between work and benefits. There is plenty of good work to be done. There is an abundance of people available for work. We simply cannot afford to condemn our young to a life sentence of unemployment, poverty and alienation.
There is a solution to unemployment: the Work Stimulus Scheme. It involves accrediting employers as providers of services that are of benefit to society or the environment. These employers can then go to the Job Centres and take on new labour. New hands bring their benefits into work with them, and the employer tops up their wage to the going rate for the job. The firm's productivity goes up, the unemployment register goes down. The local community benefits in having better local services and local environment, and less idle gangsters hanging out. The Social Security budget is unchanged since the benefit would be paid in any case. The measure transforms a dead dole, paid grudgingly to a humiliated sub-class, into a stimulating subsidy for good work that enhances the community and its environment.
Maybe, instead of being the opening shots of a new war, the riots represent a rite of passage for a modern economy that will enable our welfare system to grow into a useful servant of society.