From the May 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard
Crime, according to the Collins Dictionary, is “an act or omission punishable by law”. This definition is more or less what you would expect to find but nevertheless it's somewhat chilling. Nowhere is there any requirement for this “act or omission” to be either benevolent or malevolent; pro-human or anti-human. It simply has to be “prohibited by law”.
So what actually is “law”? When it comes down to basics, law is what any dominant authority actually deems to be law. Putting it crudely, if a yob wielding a screwdriver accosts you in an alleyway demanding possession of your wallet, he is effectively defining the law, albeit an extremely localised and fleeting version of it, and failure to comply, a “crime” punishable in the obvious manner.
Naturally the law undergoes a process of considerable tarting up as it rises through the scale until at national level, recorded in masses of leather-bound volumes, endorsed by an array of pompous blokes in wigs, ermine, mitres and crowns, and further supported by a compliant media, the whole idea of law and crime, or rather, statutory crime, can be readily presented to the population at large as somehow legitimate, permanent and operating in everyone's best interests.
Since the dawn of civilisation humans have lived in a variety of types of society – slave, feudal and, of course, currently capitalist. These societies have however had one thing in common; they have all featured minority ownership of the prevailing wealth of that society. Naturally, they have also featured minority control, via the law and the machinery of government. Needless to say, our metaphorical yob, suitably tooled-up, is lurking constantly in the background to concentrate the mind of the non-owning majority on compliance.
In modern capitalist society, ownership of the land, factories, transport, etc. is concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority, the capitalist class, comprising around 5 percent of the population. In essence this minority employs the other 95 percent, the working class, to produce wealth and otherwise run society in its entirety. By paying them a monetary wage which represents only part of the wealth they produce, and creaming off the surplus for themselves, the capitalists maintain a privileged lifestyle whilst the working class endures varying degrees of poverty, both relative and absolute.
You may think that this situation is a bit unfair. But scrutinise the statute books until you're blue in the face and you'll find that it's all perfectly legal. But try, if you dare, to redress the balance a little; pinch a few paperclips or whatever from your workplace or life a couple of designer garments from a boutique, and you'll have those selfsame statute books flung in your face. Shock, horror, you will have committed a crime.
So there we have it. On the one hand, the everyday ongoing, but legal theft perpetrated by the capitalist class on the working class, and statutory crime, which likewise is the everyday ongoing reaction from the working class to try to claw back some of its losses; to make up its wages, so to speak. Unfortunately at present there is no class consciousness informing this, and the victims will all too frequently be fellow members of the working class.
Numerically speaking, big heists such as the Great Train Robbery and the Millennium Dome Diamond Raid are rare. In reality, petty larceny is very much the norm.
According to crime figures, around 95 percent of all statutory crime is property-related. This breaks down very roughly as follows: 25 percent theft from or of motor vehicles, 25 percent burglary, 30 percent other forms of theft – fraud, forgery, shoplifting etc., and 15 percent criminal damage to property. The remaining five percent comprises four percent violence against the person and one percent sexual offences.
The capitalist class in Britain numbers around 3 million people, only a small proportion of whom are in the public eye. Via the media, we peasants are entreated to revere and adulate our titled aristocracy and royalty for the fine example they set us, and to respect and emulate the new-wealth, self-made brigade – the “entrepreneurs”, the “innovators”, the “wealth-creators”, the “providers of jobs”.
What incredible effrontery. What appalling self-congratulatory arrogance. These philanthropists are after one thing and one thing only – a fast buck. Bear this in mind at all times.
Aside from all this, the overwhelming bulk of the capitalist class are unsung and anonymous. They are the inheritors of old wealth; the descendants of medieval merchants, New World traders, eighteenth and nineteenth century industrial capitalists, etc. – the swindlers, slave-dealers and tyrants of a bygone age. They may well, for the most part, be perfectly decent people; they can hardly, after all, be condemned for the particular environment into whey they happen to have been born. One thing however, is certain. If they, along with the other members of their class, collectively disappeared tomorrow from the fact of the Earth, the buses would still run, the factories and farms still produce, the hospitals still function. All as normal. These people are non-productive, surplus to requirement, useless. They are economic parasites.
The capitalist system is legalised theft; real crime, through and through. The working class is employed solely to facilitate the profit process. Where profits cannot be realised because of the prevailing phase of the economic cycle, workers are thrown on the scrap heap, goods stockpiled, food destroyed, houses left unbuilt and land uncultivated. As a result, we have massive and ongoing worldwide deprivation, starvation, disease, premature death.
Again, when rival groupings of capitalists find themselves in conflict over colonies or raw materials, the working class is mustered to resolve the situation. Murdering or being murdered in your country's cause is perfectly lawful. Unleash a missile or bomb on some defenceless city slaughtering countless thousands of innocents and you'll have a nice shiny medal pinned on your chest. Kill one person, back on Civvy Street, in a momentary act of anger or desperation and they'll lock you up for life.
Ninety-five percent of statutory crime, as already indicated, is property-related. The great bulk of the residual five percent (violence against the person and sexual, offences), can be attributed to the everyday stresses and alienations that are part and parcel of our existence in capitalist society. We are conditioned into seeing our fellow workers, with whom, economically, we have everything in common, as rivals; as competitors for jobs and houses.
Where those fellow workers also happen to possess characteristics that proclaim the greater diversity of our species, be it skin pigmentation, accent, age, gender, sexual proclivity, disability; whatever then they are all the more readily identifiable as potential targets for abuse or violence. The real enemy, capitalism itself, sits unchallenged, safely clear of the firing line.
The system is almost entirely responsible for statutory crime. In socialist society, common ownership and production solely for use would prevail. There would be no legalised theft; there could not be legalised theft. Likewise, almost all statutory crime would fade away. Theft would not exist. What would there be to steal? Your own property?
People will, naturally, retain their capacity to discuss, disagree and quarrel. Likewise, romantic creatures that we are, situations will periodically arise where two persons desire the same person or partner; the Eternal Triangle as it's rather prosaically known. Consequently, tempers may flare; fists (and handbags) may be brandished. Inevitably therefore, there will be occasional, recourse to acts of violence and accordingly there will, be a need for procedures to restrain the protagonists and address the causes.
Others, too, will suffer from mental illness, brain damage, simply draw an unlucky ticket in the genetic lottery and behave, not criminally, but non-socially.
So within socialist society there will, we suggest, be regulation of sorts and maybe even places of detention. But will the inmates find themselves banged up and slopping out? Surely not. We would think that their very inability to participate appropriately in society would be sufficient reason to extend to them the finest care, compassion and support that we can muster.
Henri Charrière's book Papillon is a very moving true-life account of life in the penal colonies of French Guyana. During one of his several escapes Charrière lived with a Venezuelan Indian tribe, the Goajira, and he recounted with great warmth, their uncomplicated communistic lifestyle, describing how they lived with a commonality of purpose, without money, without judges, without laws. The barbaric punishments meted out by “civilised” Europeans to their miscreant fellows would have been totally beyond their comprehension.
We suggest that it will be pretty much like this in socialist society. Although it will be global as opposed to tribal, people will still live in small localised communities and, freed from capitalism's physical and mental shackles, will spontaneously look out for one another. It is after all our nature to do so. What need will there be for a mass of laws to oversee this process?
Capitalism's politicians are a contemptible and shameless bunch; none more so than our current messenger-boy-in-chief, Tony Blair. Nevertheless, we are indebted to the dear chap for providing the grand finale for this article. During the last general election, he chuntered endlessly on about being “Tough on crime; tough on the causes of crime”.
Socialists would readily endorse these sentiments but would take things just a little bit further than his own wishy-washy, and by no means original, list of measures. If you really want to be “Tough on crime; tough on the causes of crime”, the solution is very simple – abolish capitalism and establish socialism.