Marxism, alien abduction and some criminal perceptions

'Do you stick with policies that reduced crime, or ditch them for others that deal with the perceived rise?'

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One problem that Marxists always had to deal with, I seem to remember, was why it was that the working class couldn't see what was so blindingly obvious to the rest of us. That capitalism was crap and the revolutionary programme of (insert name of party or tendency) was what they really wanted.

One problem that Marxists always had to deal with, I seem to remember, was why it was that the working class couldn't see what was so blindingly obvious to the rest of us. That capitalism was crap and the revolutionary programme of (insert name of party or tendency) was what they really wanted.

Fortunately Karl had bequeathed us an explanation of sorts, which we then developed. It was that the workers often suffered from a condition called "false consciousness". To Marx, it was holding an attitude that did not reflect your "objective" class position.

If Karl had problems persuading miners working 12-hour shifts, two miles down, for threepence a week, that the market system was nasty, then by the time my generation of young leftists came along the difficulties were even more intense. How exactly was it false consciousness to regard buying your own house, holidaying in Spain or Florida and driving an Escort as being somehow preferable to spending every Thursday at the mandatory meeting of the Tariq Ali Memorial Cement Factory Worker's Soviet? No. Perhaps a diehard member of the Socialist Worker's Party could keep up that kind of stance forever, but the rest of us just let it go. There was no such thing as false consciousness.

But, of course, there is. There's the 30 per cent of the American population that believes in alien abduction, and – within that – the 5 per cent that is certain that it, personally, has been kidnapped, taken aboard a flying saucer and interfered with. Or, at a very different level of weirdness, the majority of Americans who – given the chance to say whether the foreign aid budget should be cut and if so, what to – recommended that it should be slashed by half, to about a hundred times what it actually is.

No, that last case is really about ignorance, not false consciousness. Better examples were to be found in Britain this week, concerning crime. There was the affable Newsnight poll panel, reconvened to give their views on the Government's record. One woman, asked to put a figure to her perception of crime levels, decided that they'd gone up between 30 and 40 per cent. Most of her colleagues thought they were up by a bit less. The next morning an ICM poll showed a fall in Labour support, a rise in potential Conservative voters and a 55 per cent backing for the contention that crime had got worse since Labour came to power.

You know what I'm going to say now. The British Crime Survey, based on 40,000 interviews per year with people aged 16 or over, has shown quite a sharp fall in crime since a peak in 1995. And the BCS, because it asks people about their own experience of crime, is not subject to all those weird fluctuations that police statistics suffer. The 2002 survey will be published this summer, but last year's showed that, between 1999 and 2000, burglaries were down 17 per cent, vehicle theft by 11 per cent and violent crime by 19 per cent. In 2000, the total number of crimes reported by victims was over 30 per cent down on 1995, almost exactly the opposite of what the pessimistic Newsnight lady believed.

So why the disparity? Could the BCS possibly be lagging behind reality? Has there been a dramatic explosion of crime in the last 16 months? This isn't really plausible. Had we emptied the jails of criminals sometime in early 2001 then it might be true, but – as we have seen this week – we've actually been locking 'em up like there's no tomorrow. So could the BCS just be plain wrong, and the whole statistical exercise have less validity than the feeling Aunt Edna gets in her bowels? I don't think so.

So far almost nobody has tried to explain the discrepancy. And, actually, quite a few people say that it doesn't matter. This school of thought has it that perception is as important as reality. Indeed, some postmodernists (and this could include many politicians and most journalists) would argue that perception is reality.

Or, at least, one of the equally valid realities. If people feel genuinely discomfited and anxious about crime, then whether it has gone up or down is something of a side issue. For them, the problem needs to be tackled. Get on with it.

And this is where the trouble starts. Should you, when framing action against crime, deal with the "real" problem, or with the "perceived" problem? If crime, in general, is going down, do you stick with the policies that might have helped in that real reduction, or ditch them for others that appear to deal with the perceived increase?

Lets go back to alien abduction, for a moment. If the abduction myth is as "true" as anything else, and if people are worried about being beamed up and subjected to long and strangely unfruitful anal probes (I say unfruitful because the aliens seem to have to conduct the same experiment again and again), then a good government should try to address this perception/problem.

It would need to convince the abductees and their fellow-believers that measures were being taken to protect them from intergalactic assault. It would make sense to set up a counter-abduction agency (or appear to), like in Men In Black, to apprehend anyone looking like an alien and to develop special probe-proof underwear, in a variety of colours and materials. If that didn't work, then the Government could publicly declare war on a far-distant galaxy, even if it was composed almost entirely of methane.

Russians have traditionally been talented at this stuff. From Prince Potemkin, who hid wayside slums from the eyes of his empress by erecting billboard villages, right down to the grandiosity of the Soviet space programme, Muscovite governments have been adept at making the bad look good. There could be something to be learned here.

Let's apply all this to our own situation. What – independent of the "facts" – would make me or you feel safer, whether or not we actually were? No young men. That'd do it for me. Young men do all the bad stuff, and despite the statistical evidence that they overwhelmingly do it to each other, curfews on the lot of them would make me more secure. I might also (shades here of Russia again) be impressed by an annual march-past of the whole of the Metropolitan Police, complete with stun guns, water cannon and Heckler and Koch automatics.

More prison won't do it, by the looks of things. In crown courts the percentage of those who are being sentenced to the slammer has gone up from 49 per cent to 63 per cent, and in the magistrate's courts from 6 per cent to 14 per cent. We have a prison crisis and yet still feel insecure.

Best of all, everyone agrees (or, at least, all perceptionists do), would be more bobbies on the beat. Thousands and thousands and thousands of them. I would certainly feel safe if I saw several on the high street every day, and a couple in my own road once a week. At night. I'd want them walking about, telling people the time and – above all – blowing their whistles and running like the clappers. How long it would take me to notice that, in the meantime, burglaries had gone up again, I don't know. Maybe it wouldn't matter.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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