January 1964 issue of the Socialist Standard
Crime is one of the many scars upon the face of the so-called Affluent Age. And it is a scar which year by year grows ever more angry and disfiguring. Amid the increasing number of cars, washing machines, television sets, and so on, the crime graph also keeps on rising.
In 1961, the number of people in England and Wales found guilty of indictable offences was 11.5 per cent above that for 1960; and in 1962 the number was 11.8 per cent, up on 1961. There were 896,484 indictable offences known to the police during 1962, which is about double the figure for 1953. The largest proportionate increases were in those offences broadly known as “dishonest”—breaking and entering, receiving, fraud, and so on. The Metropolitan Police estimate the value of property which was the subject of petty thefts in their area alone as over £11 million for 1962.
It is the same sort of story for crimes of violence, although these showed only a slight increase over the past year. Even so, the two years since 1960 saw an increase in indictable crimes of violence of about twenty-five per cent., from 2,536 to 3,160. Eleven more murders were known to have been committed than in 1961, when the total was 132. Sexual offences were a little down last year.
These figures are gloomy enough, but gloomier yet is the fact that the steepest increase in crime is among young people. During 1962, the number of boys between the ages of fourteen and seventeen convicted of indictable offences rose by 8.2 per cent, and that for girls of the same age by 13.9 per cent. Proportionately twice as many male juveniles, and three times as many female juveniles, are found guilty of such charges as before the war. This rise has been pretty consistent over the past ten years, after a decline in juvenile crime from 1952 to 1954.
Naturally, every government regards crime as a serious problem. The inherent exploitation of capitalism has been well described as legal robbery, robbery committed within capitalism’s rules. But those who try illegal robbery—the sort which is outside the rules—are an obvious threat to whatever social and economic stability capitalism has. That is why—and not for any reasons of morality— capitalism fights crime.
Apart from this, crime is an expensive business. Courts, police forces, prisons and the rest cost a lot of money. One estimate of the yearly cost of keeping a boy at an approved school in Derbyshire put it higher than that of sending him to Eton—£639 against £554. Lord Stonham, who is President of the Prison Reform Council, recently complained that £60 million a year is spent upon keeping men in prison ". . . and only £250,000 a year trying to keep them out.”
Why does crime flourish? The government complain that there are not enough policemen to keep it in check. The police force in England and Wales is nearly 6,000 men below its authorised establishment, although this establishment itself is well below the actual requirement, bearing in mind the growth of population and increasing jobs which have been given to the police. By this standard, the Metropolitan Police alone is probably about 6,000 men short. This shortage may have contributed to the growing proportion of unsolved crimes—56 per cent. of the total in 1962.
Some so-called experts have blamed mounting crime onto the after effects of the war, or upon the restlessness of youngsters who, in the days of conscription, knew that they were shortly to waste a couple of years in the Forces. Time itself, with the relentlessly rising crime wave, has destroyed these theories although, of course, they have been replaced by others. It is now fashionable to put the blame onto the frustrations of full employment, telemania and the other features of life in the Sixties. In his recent book Crime and the Social Structure, Mr. J. B. Mays, who has had a lot of experience as a Liverpool youth club leader, says:
It is not so much that the social structure, as such, forces people to become delinquents as that it makes it much more likely in cases where individuals fail, for a whole variety of reasons, to make a success of their lives as success is defined by normally accepted values. Crime is to such people an alternative road to achievement.Now there may, or may not, be some sort merit in these explanations, at any rate as far as the immediate cause of a particular crime may go. But they are at best only temporarily valid; we are looking for something more permanent.
“The law in its majesty,” said Anatole France, “permits rich and poor alike to sleep under the railway bridges.” Put another way, one could ask how often does one find a millionaire up before the Magistrates accused of stealing. The property basis of society and the property basis of crime really do not brook of much argument. One need but recite a list of the crimes that spring most readily to mind—murder, theft, robbery, fraud, larceny—and, apart/from the first one, it is abundantly clear that they are all merely ringing the changes on one theme, namely, the taking away of the private property of an owner. (Even in the case of murder, a large proportion of such crimes are linked with taking of property in one way or another.)
Capitalism is a comparatively recent phase of human society whereas we know from such things as the “thou shalt not steal” commandment of the bible that crime was a problem in ancient society as well. But always in a property society. In those primitive societies in which property was owned in common and where there were not even words for the concepts of “mine” and “thine” (and it is remarkable how few people realise that the kind of property society which we have today did not exist from time immemorial) what basis for crime within the community could possibly exist?
The fact is that capitalism is stiff with crime and criminals because it is, if you look deeply enough into the matter, a criminal system. It is a system in which the mass of the people are forced to submit to daylight robbery every time they receipt of wages signifies that the recipient has done a surplus amount of work which the employer appropriates for nothing (else why should he employ anyone at all?). And it is to protect the ownership by the few of the means of production, and of the harvest of surplus value which they yield, that the majesty of the law exists.
But, it might be argued, it is only fair that those who own should reap the benefit of their owning. Whence then does the owning class derive its title to the possession of the earth? Obviously not by any law of nature. As the men of the Peasants’ Revolt in the Middle Ages put it: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” They had a clearer idea than workers have today of the dictum of Proudhon, the contemporary of Marx: “All property is theft” Human society did not start with an owning class and a propertyless class. A process of robbery had to take place so that the latter class should be stripped of their share of the earth. And it did not all take place in the mists of ancient history either. As a book recently published points out, in quite recent times the clansmen of vast areas of Scotland were driven—even burned—out of the glens they and their forbears had inherited for centuries by the very chieftains whose kinsmen they believed themselves to be. And this is a story that has been repeated over the centuries all over the world.
The whole capitalist system being based on a crime, it can hardly be surprising that there is such a proliferation of what are legally known as crimes. We live in a society where the ones who are looked up to are those who can live in luxury out of the proceeds of the work of others without themselves being called on to do any useful work at all. In a society whose motto is acquisitiveness and whose slogan is “I’m all right Jack ” nothing could be more natural than that a proportion of the wage slaves should try and emulate their betters by finding a means of enjoying the good things of life without working. And in a world where periodically it becomes not only permitted but a duty to steal and burn and kill in the wars of the master class it is clearly not so easy to keep “morals” in the convenient pigeon-holes that would suit our rulers.
Perhaps a suitably cynical conclusion to this article could be provided by mentioning that yet another committee has been recently set up to enquire into the causes of crime with the Home Secretary himself as chairman. But it is safe to assume that they will not reach the one conclusion which will make their deliberations worthwhile. We will eliminate crime only when we eliminate capitalism.
L. E. Weidberg