Crime: Capital's Punishment

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Politicians and the media have whipped themselves up into a frenzy over the question of crime, and the solutions they put forward involve ever more draconian measures. Donny Gluckstein discusses why inequality, desperation and alienation are key to understanding why capitalism is the primary cause of criminal behaviour.

Britain is now one of the most unequal countries in the world. A recent report on boardroom pay reveals that the average salary of a top executive is 115 times greater than the average wage and a staggering 249 times the national minimum wage. There is now a mass of statistical data that shows that the bigger the gap between the richest and the poorest in a country, the higher the levels of crime, ill health and societal breakdown.

Yet rather than deal with the question of unequal Britain as a means of addressing the problem of crime, the media and the majority of politicians are obsessed by an increasingly draconian attempt to clamp down on offending behaviour.

Every year Britain spends more than £25 billion (2.5 percent of its national income) on public order and safety - a figure that outstrips every other industrialised nation. Next to Portugal, Britain is Western Europe's prison capital, jailing a far greater percentage of its citizens than countries like France, Germany and Italy. Elsewhere Britain leads the way with its tagging of offenders and plans to control "troublemakers" from before they are born with a new "foetal Asbo".

In the general clamour for action on crime, few commentators seem interested in what people are actually being prosecuted for. Every year 200,000 people are put through the courts for TV licence non-payment. In 2002, 2,740 women were sentenced to jail for shoplifting. In addition, the types of activity that constitute crime are being ever widened, so that thousands of young people are being defined as criminals for the same deeds that might have been passed off as youthful mischief just a few years ago. This raises a critical question of who determines what crime actually is.

If we look at the history of crime, we find that even the everyday phrases associated with it are not always what they seem. The origins of term "law and order" have nothing to do with litter free streets. It was coined in 1796, the year revolutionary France attempted to invade Britain by linking up with the Irish rebels who were fighting against British rule. At the time the politician and philosopher Edmund Burke warned that revolution threatened "the destruction of property, and not of property only, but of every rule and maxim which can give it stability". Last year an updated version of this statement came from former home secretary Jack Straw, when he said that the Home Office exists to deal with "people who do not wish to be subject to social control."

Therefore what is labelled as crime and what forms part of a capitalist social order are intimately linked. In November last year a leaked Home Office policy review baldly admitted "80 percent of the recent decrease in crime is due to economic factors" and predicted "crime will begin to rise because the rate of economic growth is slowing".

Just as crime often masquerades as a problem that is above the question of class, "justice" pretends to a similar neutrality. In his book Their Morals and Ours, the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky explained how the ruling class took great care to cultivate this neutrality: "Moralists of the Anglo-Saxon type... deduced moral judgments from a special... supra-class morality." To this end, justice had to be seen to be applying to both rich and poor alike. Thus former Conservative politicians like Jeffrey Archer and Jonathan Aitken have been jailed for their crimes, and even Tony Blair has been questioned by police over the allegation that honours were sold for cash.

Under capitalism, the justice system has a purpose beyond restraining the "have nots" and legitimising the rule over society by a privileged minority. Among other things it regulates the machinery of state and systems of trade. The wealthy want to ensure that none among them has an unfair advantage over the others. They also want their claims to goods and property to be normalised by law, and thereby have their ownership put beyond dispute. In the period of British colonialism, the plunderers went to great lengths to ensure that imperial possessions were carefully and legally assigned to the king or queen.

This same system guarantees that the judicial wing of the state is the only body entitled to pass judgement and sentence upon citizens, as it would not benefit the capitalist class to have a return to the Middle Ages when kings and queens could order executions on their own account. Nor would it be suited by a legal system that allowed working class people to judge themselves by their own standards and morality.

It is true that the overwhelming majority of criminal offences are crimes against property - theft or wilful damage, for example - but a genuine understanding of crime cannot be reduced to showing that poverty drives people towards offending behaviour. Nor can crime prevention policy simply be dismissed as a means by which the state can control the population.

Victims of crime are more often "have nots" than "haves". Households with an income of less than £5,000 a year suffer more burglaries than the rest of the population - the rate triples for lone parent families. While it ignores the genuine concerns of millions who experience crime. Violent crime may be a small minority of total crime, but it shatters lives.

The very destructive way in which crime impacts upon people can lead them to believe that all people, rich and poor, have a vested interest in a crime free society and, therefore, the police force and the criminal justice system are natural components of the system. Nevertheless many acknowledge that the system is weighted towards the powerful. Who would deny that rich people, who can afford to hire the best lawyers and commit so-called "white collar crimes" of fraud or illegal share trading, are rarely convicted of crime? And what about people who steal to survive, like those driven out of their houses by the flooding of New Orleans - are they really criminals? When it is posed in this way, most working class people agree that the question of crime is tightly bound up with the question of social class.

Crime: a means of survival

Capitalist society offers everyone the same goal of a nice house packed with new consumer durables, a sports car on the driveway and designer clothes on their backs. Yet it can offer only a tiny minority the prospect of enjoying this kind of existence. Millions of people are condemned to a life of low paying jobs, in which they are constantly demeaned and robbed of any chance to shape the world around them. Most will never have the chance to secure the standard of living that is constantly sold to them on television and in advert. It is therefore unsurprising that, for some, offending behaviour is rationally driven. As a career criminal once wrote, "The robber is a tradesman who, from economics or other motivation, chooses a trade with greater rewards and dangers than navvying [labouring]."

The vast inequalities produced by capitalism mean that, for many people at the bottom of the society, a life that involves crime is a means of survival. Yet capitalism condemns the underdogs it creates. Half the adults in Britain's jails have a reading age below 11 years. Almost 70 percent were unemployed at the time of conviction and over 70 percent have two or more psychological disorders. Among women prisoners, half report having been victims of childhood abuse or domestic violence, and 40 percent have attempted suicide. And black defendants are six times more likely to be jailed than whites.

Yet for Tony Blair, crime has nothing to do with inequality, discrimination or the extremely limited opportunities that exist for many working class people. Instead crime and anti-social behaviour are the fault of "young people... without any sense of responsibility to or for others". In this view, anti-social behaviour is neither a reflection of a societal failing, nor of the deep-seated alienation that exists in many working class communities, but a reflection of individual failure.

African American author Ralph Ellison wrote about the alienation experienced by black Americans in his novel Invisible Man - in many ways it is applicable to the alienation of many working class young people today: "I am one of the most irresponsible beings that ever lived [and] any way you face it, it is a denial. But to whom can I be responsible, and why should I be, when you refuse to see me?"

The middle classes and the rich go to great lengths to remove themselves from the poor. They aspire to live in "nice" neighbourhoods and they hide behind high walls and strong security, and they know that the police will be quick to respond to their complaints. So it is no surprise that the poor mostly take it out on other poor people.

Radical geographer Danny Dorling's study of homicide illustrates this well. He found that poverty is the strongest factor influencing an individual's chance of being murdered. The possibility of this kind of death rises if "life in general [is] made more difficult to live, people have to be made to feel more worthless. Then there are more fights, more brawls, more scuffles, more bottles and more knives and more young men die." Socialists, who are by definition on the side of the poor and oppressed, must therefore take crime seriously, without falling for the reactionary notion that "bad" individuals are to blame.

Reforming criminal justice

The commitment of mainstream politicians to protect "the law-abiding majority" through the use of the prison system is hypocritical. The fact that 67 percent of prisoners re-offend within two years is hardly surprising when during custody more than 30 percent of petty offenders lose their homes and almost 70 percent lose their jobs. Former prison governor David Wilson argues that "prison is a trick - all those who have disappeared [from mainstream society] will return. And when they do, none of their underlying problems will have got better; many will have got worse. Prison does not make a community safer. The opposite: prison ultimately contributes to making it more dangerous."

Even the Home Office admits that "the focus of policy in recent years has been on enforcement and punishment, even though effectiveness is likely to be greatest for preventative interventions". The growing use of non-custodial community sentences, in which offenders can be tagged or given unpaid community work, is implicit recognition that prison does not work. Yet community sentences do little to address the reasons why people commit crime and therefore it is unsurprising to find that 53 percent of people re-offend when punished in this way.

Another method championed by many who want to reduce crime is "community policing". It is hoped that by hugely increasing the numbers of uniformed police on the streets, criminals and others who would be tempted to commit anti-social behaviour are frightened into compliance with the law. In 2001 the New Earswick area of York was flooded with "bobbies on the beat" in an experiment to see if crime could be reduced. In the second year of the project the level of recorded crime doubled and dissatisfaction with the police increased. Professor Adam Crawford concluded, "One of the key lessons to be learned... is that trying to tackle local order problems through policing and security alone can have the opposite effect." The planned third year of the scheme was scrapped.

The British preoccupation with prisons and extra police stands in stark contrast to a number of Scandinavian countries. Many people who want an end to the disastrous policy of the Blair government look to Norway for examples.

Compared to Britain, Norway has a low level of crime, the prison population is static and it has less than half the police per head of population of the European average. Like Britain, Norway is among the richest countries in the world, but the level of inequality among its citizens is far smaller than Britain and its spending on welfare far greater by percentage of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This confirms a Crime and Society Foundation finding that "countries that spend a greater proportion of GDP on welfare have lower imprisonment rates". Conversely, the US, which spends the smallest proportion of its wealth on welfare, has the world's highest imprisonment rate - a staggering 2 percent of its male labour force.

Clearly Norway's approach is far better than Britain's. But Norway's ability to limit inequality can only go so far. The pressure of international capitalism to privatise and increase the exploitation of workers persists - recently workers there voted for a general strike over inequality after being offered a 3.5 percent pay rise when directors gained 15 percent. Meanwhile the pension of the top boss of Kvaerner, Norway's largest construction firm, is 780 times the average wage. Politicians of both the right and the centre follow the neoliberal diktat that there must be substantial reform in order to reduce the proportion of the country's wealth spent on welfare.

It is clear that the fight for more resources and legal reform being conducted by progressive lawyers, probation officers, social workers, teachers and youth workers is vitally important. However, as Richard Garside, acting director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, explains, "criminal justice processes reproduce rather than ameliorate deeply rooted inequalities...[They are a] regulatory response to a set of problems, the causes of which [they are] not constituted to resolve. [Therefore] reforming the criminal justice system and civilising its practices will always fall short of what is really required."

In other words, inequality is built into the very nature of capitalism itself, and therefore law and order, like racism and sexism, are invaluable ideological tools in the hands of the rich elite who run our society. The capitalist concepts of law and order serve to mask the real causes of social problems, and by seeking to blame individuals, they help divide and rule ordinary people.

Can we aim higher?

With the exploitation of the majority being central to its development, it is clear that capitalism can no more abolish inequality than jump over its own shadow. This raises the question of whether we can look beyond capitalism towards a better way of organising society and a better way of defining and dealing with questions of crime.

Socialism is a form of genuine workers' control of society that is founded on social and economic equality. Therefore it holds out the possibility of ending crime - firstly by redefining it in a democratic and just way, and eventually abolishing it entirely by eliminating the conditions that have created it. While bosses inevitably compete, modern production encourages workers to cooperate. Ruling collectively means that workers must live and work in conditions of mutual solidarity. This truth is demonstrated during revolutions. The process of revolution involves people transforming the system that governs them, and in the process transforming themselves. In so doing so they discover a collective interest that can override selfish impulses.

In a revolution we get a glimpse of a new morality where workers' power promotes the interests of the majority, and alienation and inequality lessen. The police forces defending property disappear, and there is popular involvement in the justice system. Crime is redefined as an act against humanity, rather than an act against property. Three examples of revolutions which have attempted to replace capitalism include the Paris Commune of 1871, the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the Spanish Revolution of 1936.

When workers took control of Paris the old state machine decamped, and was replaced by the Commune, a body to be used for genuine democratic control of society. In place of alienation and division, Parisians united in the Commune's defence, and not a single murder occurred during its existence.

Karl Marx noted the virtual disappearance of crime: "There were no more corpses in the morgue, no nocturnal burglaries, scarcely any robberies... the streets of Paris were safe, and without police of any kind." The elected magistrates were ordinary people on average pay. Justice was free, and very different to what had preceded it. For example, where the police would have evicted people for being too poor to pay their rent, the popular militia defended the people from eviction. Civil war and brutal repression put an end to this all too brief experiment after 72 days.

In December 1917 Russia's Soviet state opened judicial posts to "all citizens, without distinction of sex, who are of good character". Judges were elected and subject to instant dismissal by popular vote. Lasting longer than the Commune, Russia's revolutionaries confronted the issue of those who were yet to embrace the new solidarity and continued socially harmful activities.

Nikolai Bukharin and Yevgeni Preobrazhensky's book The ABC of Communism, published in 1920, explained prison was a last resort for those "whose liberation will entail danger to the lives of other citizens". The offender was to be given "full opportunities for moral regeneration." Often courts imposed conditional sentences, social censure or social labour. Some offences disappeared altogether and jail terms were shortened.

Historian Neil Weissman explains that "the Bolsheviks aimed to eliminate the formal enforcement agencies altogether, relying instead upon the entire population essentially to police itself". In conditions of civil war, this arrangement broke down and a militia, or irregular army, was formed. But this too "was to differ from the hated Tsarist police... Rather [than] serve as an instrument of oppression over the people, the Soviet force would be a vehicle for winning popular support."

Eventually Russia's inherited economic backwardness, international isolation and civil war led to a Stalinist counter-revolution that reversed these gains. But the flavour of the early days emerges from a November 1917 Izvestia newspaper court report. "The judges were workers and soldiers, and the first case concerned Belyaev, a militiaman who discharged his rifle while drunk. The courtroom was full and the judges asked the audience to speak for the prosecution. Then defence speeches were invited. A worker argued that the ill luck of the poor soldier could have befallen anyone and proposed he be found not guilty but dismissed from the militia. 'That's right, that's fair!' shouted the throng and the judges concurred."

During the Spanish Revolution, and following civil war, new institutions of justice were often created in the areas controlled by the left - the president and procurator of the city of Lerida's justice committee were chimneysweeps. However, Barcelona took the lead. George Orwell noted that there the "beggars had disappeared, taken care of by the union's welfare system... Human beings were trying to behave as human beings." Ronald Fraser's oral history of the revolution quotes an unnamed women on the transformation effected: "It was so dark that I often bumped into people in the streets. But never once was I molested or in any way made aware that I was a woman. Before the war there would have been remarks - now that was entirely gone. Women were no longer objects."

Barcelona's new justice office under Eduardo Barriobero aimed to: "1: repair the injustices committed by the monarchy and dictators; 2: remove the social causes [of crime]; 3: abolish laws not corresponding to popular views of justice; 4: incorporate the people's spirit in administration of justice." In three months more than a million pesetas were distributed to victims of unfair dismissal and loan sharks.

Alas, in all three cases socialism was eventually extinguished. However, each hinted at the possibility of a society without material deprivation, in which harmful behaviour is not addressed as evidence of individual failure. Rather offending behaviour was understood as stemming from mental illness, personal misfortune, or social maladjustment - and treated as such.

To live in a society that has a moral vision, one in which every individual is treated as a valued human being, we will have to break that system that treats everything and everyone as though they were a commodity to be bought, sold and discarded. Only then will we see the kind of justice that puts the needs of the majority above the privileges of the few.


Donny Gluckstein is the author of The Paris Commune: A Revolutionary Democracy, published by and available from Bookmarks, 020 7637 1848