From the August 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard
Recently there has been a series of wrathful protests by various black-community pressure groups and capitalism’s left-wingers about the police abuse of the so-called “Sus” charge. “Sus” is the offence under s.4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 which provides for the arrest and punishment of “suspected persons” who “frequent or loiter in” a public place “with intent to commit an arrestable offence”, usually an alleged intention to steal.
Several features of this charge make it particularly susceptible to police abuse: “loiter” can refer to any presence except a direct expeditious passage through the place in question; it only requires two policemen to testify (on a book of archaic anecdotes from the Middle East) that they saw the accused “acting suspiciously” on two occasions which need only be minutes apart—first establishes the alleged offender as a “suspected person” the second constitutes his offence; conveniently for the police the accused has no right to trial by jury. Most of capitalism’s exasperated reformers and apologists were even more indignant to learn from Home Office statistics that 42 per cent of those arrested under this charge were “coloured” although this pigmentation-group only accounts for about 3 per cent of the population.
Somewhere in England a man is arrested and incarcerated by a blue-hatted member of his own species for being suspected of intending to take some food from a market stall and . . . eat it. The hand-cuffs snap shut in the shadows cast by Europe’s huge food mountains. This fleeting moment typifies a social system fraught with contradictions: poverty alongside prosperity, prisons alongside palaces. Modern capitalism has produced tension between human development and political restraint: a man with a twenty-function, battery-operated, liquid-crystal display watch on one wrist and a handcuff on the other, linking him to a policeman leading him to a cell. The digital wrist watch evidences a level of technological advancement and, because it is produced in a factory, our capacity to provide for social needs. Our technology and productive capacity is, however, manifestly NOT being used to maximise the health and welfare of humanity. This global system with its motto of “no ’profit, no production” draws reins on the existing manufactural potential. This tension was explained by Karl Marx:
At a certain stage of their development, the material forces of production in society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or—what is but a legal expression for the same thing—with the property relations, within which they had been at work before. From forms of development of the forces of production these relations turn into fetters. (A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Preface)
For capitalism to continue the notion of property must stand unassailed, but as the system works on minority ownership of the means of life (the land, factories, mills, mines and offices) a factory owner or state will need more than scrolled title deeds to defend a use of the factory which serves the interest of the owner at the expense of the non-owning working class. As the interests of the owner and the non-owner are necessarily at loggerheads — the non-owner is given a wage or salary which has to be worth less than what he has produced in order for the owner to make a profit — capitalism requires constant enforcement of its property ideology. With the advent of industrial production in the early nineteenth century an increasingly comprehensive force was required to maintain the private ownership of society’s means of production.
Since the days of the Bow Street Runners, organised by Henry Fielding after his appointment as a magistrate in 1749, the principal function of the police has been the protection of property. From the cradle we are fed the idea, often in unwritten, unspoken axioms, that the protection of property is in the best interests of everyone. Yet, while for a member of the working class “property” relates to such things as an inquest at school when a pair of plimsolls goes missing; savings he must declare as a supplicant at the Social Security Office, or the semi-detached house for which his mortgage demands a lifetime of payment, “property” for a member of the capitalist class means the enforceable right to use his land, factory or office for optimum profit irrespective of human need.
Every time an arrest is made on “sus”, a number of points should be apparent. First, that the daily enforcement of the laws of ownership in the arena of personal chattels in cases of pickpocketing, shoplifting or mugging is remote from the real focal point of property: the fact that the property of some is society’s means of life. Second, that “crimes" which at first sight have no connection with property—like crimes of violence—are an upshoot of this society which aches with splendour amidst squalor, glorified butchery in war, the shackle of institutionalised monogamy and where, perhaps anaesthetised with alcohol or drugs, sporadic violence is wrought by many of those ditched by capitalism’s competitive chaos.
If the Vagrancy Act which affords the “sus” charge were to be repealed tomorrow, what would be the result? It would be of scant relief to the hundreds of people, mostly black youths, who were likely to be seized by the police every week while the Act was in force. Capitalism would continue as normal. The need for the Accounts Book to always aim for profit would keep nigh on two million people unemployed, and racism would continue to simmer as scapegoats are sought. Blame would still be cast on the “coloured immigrant” despite the fact that areas most blighted with unemployment like Glasgow and Belfast house virtually no such “immigrants”. Coloured people would still find employment harder to obtain than “whites”, would still be left to do about the most anyone can, with no work and the dole-pittance—loiter; would still be bullied by the police who would then resort to a whole range of Statutes and common law precedents to authorise street searches and arrests. Wage-slave policemen eager for promotion or simply to taste the “action” glamourised in recruitment commercials would still abuse their powers.
Policemen with softer truncheons, or reduced powers, will solve no working class problem. While the idea of property reigns the police will remain to protect the minority ownership of the means of life and to maintain the morality and discipline in the working class which is necessary if the majority is to abide the system which offers them employment, unemployment and sometimes conscription while dividends, rents and profits are pushed through the letter-boxes of the capitalist class.