Saturday, May 23, 2020

What can we do about crime? (1983)

From the May 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

First things first: the law exists to defend the capitalists not the workers. Laws are social rules to ensure the dictatorship of King Capital. By voting, in a majority, for the continuation of the profit system, workers hand social control on a plate to the class which exploits us. Law equals coercion for the defence of capital — but such coercion could not exist for one minute if the victims refused to go along with it:
There is not today any force in Britain capable of maintaining indefinitely a government not enjoying the support or tolerance of the overwhelming majority of the people. (The Police We Deserve, Sir Robert Mark, 1972.)
They talk about law and order as if it was such a desirable state of affairs. But what does law and order mean? It means hungry people starving without daring to take food from the supermarket shelf; it means homeless families — tens of thousands of which exist in this “property-owning democracy" — being refused access to empty houses and flats, many of which are the second or third homes of affluent parasites; it means locking people up for being too poor to pay rents, rates or other debts; it means "Keep Out" signs surrounding the vast private lands owned by the parasite class; it means keeping frustrated kids with toy guns away from the Queen, while making sure that she is surrounded by medalled thugs who carry real guns which they fire at anyone to order. Law and order means deferential wage slaves. Law and order means the morality of working class inferiority. Law and Order means that those who work are usually poor and those who exploit are rich. It is capitalism's law and order: law to defend the social disorder which puts their profits before our needs. The Tory. Alliance and Labour parties are all concerned to preserve law and order because they are all in the dirty business of keeping the profit system intact.

In a capitalist Utopia everyone would obey the law. Indeed, everyone would be so stupidly submissive that law enforcement would not be necessary. Tory politicians appear on TV and bemoan the fact that their Utopia has not arrived: why can’t the proles behave themselves and do as they’re told? Let us try to consider why the perfect law-abiding society does not exist.

The most common form of criminality is petty theft. The worker who has never stolen a pencil from school or some note pads from the office or some goods from the factory is a statistical exception. Without having the slightest conception of Marx’s theory of legalised robbery (the appropriation of surplus value), most workers know that the employer is getting as much as he can squeeze out of us and, if it is safe, we are going to get back some of that stolen wealth from the bosses. The transport services lose millions of pounds each year as a result of "fare frauds": why pay their price to travel if you can get away with less? Some workers — although far less than is implied by the gutter press — defraud the DHSS. As a fraction of the money fiddled by the capitalists in "tax evasion", social security frauds are negligible. But who needs the money most, the millionaire who saves hundreds of thousands of pounds by not paying a share to the state, which exists to protect private property, or the claimant whose schemes provide a few quid to which there is no legal entitlement? Most working class theft is petty — negligible inroads into the massive property-holdings of the capitalist class. More often than not petty theft involves more risk than gain. Socialists certainly do not recommend workers to obtain a ticket to the local prison by engaging in such piecemeal expropriation. But in a society in which workers have no real stake in the wealth surrounding them, and in which deprivation breeds the temptation to take whatever you can get “by fair means or foul", petty transgressions against the law of property are inevitable.

More serious than petty theft is "mugging” — assault and robbery. There are arguments about whether muggings are on the increase (as the sensationalist media claims) or whether "mugging" is simply a new statistical category to cover a crime which has existed for years. Regardless of the rate of muggings, nobody living in the streets and council estates built for wage slaves will deny that the fear of being mugged affects millions of people, restricting the times when they can walk the streets and the areas they can visit. Many old people in the poorer areas of London speak of the inadvisability of walking out alone at night. There is clearly something very wrong with a society that is too unsafe to walk in. Needless to say, in the capitalist Utopia muggers would be as rare as contraceptives in a nunnery. So, why mugging? The hard fact is that in the law of the jungle the most ferocious brute wins. In international war the superpowers boot the smaller nations in the metaphorical groin; in business, the multi-nationals wipe the floor with the struggling “small business man". Mugging simply reflects the vicious competitiveness of a society which condones violence and robbery when it is carried out on behalf of the ruling class. Many of the old-established titled landowners obtained their wealth and power by a process of “mass muggings” which over the centuries have become glorified in the name of heroic military conquest.

In the jungle of capitalism worker will attack worker in order to survive. Mugging is a rejection of the principle of class solidarity and, in the end, it is a game for mugs. After all, to transfer poverty from one worker’s pocket to another’s, by means of callous violence, is pathetic and undignified. Nevertheless, dignity does not fill an empty belly and it is not for socialists to moralise against those politically ignorant workers whose only way of responding to their poverty is to steal the crumbs from members of their own class.

The existence of mugging does not prove that "man is naturally aggressive, predatory and anti-social”. The despicable moralists of the profit system blame mugging on to the myth of “human nature". No: mugging is a product of property society. For approximately 40,000 years, prior to the emergence of private property or the state, there were no muggers. If “human nature” managed without muggings for four hundred centuries, we may expect that society would be able to exist without them in the future. Mindless racists say that muggings are caused by blacks. In fact, both black and white workers exist and the factor which unites them is not the colour of their skin, but their particular poverty. (Ever seen an Arab prince convicted of mugging?) Muggers tend to come from the most deprived sections of the working class. That is why the street crime figures for the poorest urban areas are always noticeably higher than those for the more affluent suburbs. Sociologists and criminologists tend to see mugging in terms of justice: either it is unjustified because it is morally anti-social or else it is justified because muggers are impoverished. Morality has nothing to do with it: mugging is an effect of poverty which is an effect of property and there is no point complaining about the effects while the cause is ignored.

What about the more “serious" crimes — in capitalist terms — like house burglaries, bank robberies and raids on Securicor vans? Capitalism only regards these crimes as being more serious because the value of wealth involved is greater than the petty theft of workers’ property. In general, the police treat the latter cases as being insignificant and unworthy of much of their time:
  In Bromley a uniformed policeman will turn up, but unless the crime is out of the ordinary the householder will merely be handed a form to complete for claiming against the insurance company. As in Kent, the reason is a lack of policemen and the need to concentrate on more serious crime — although a special unit will try to pick up habitual thieves. At present fewer than one in ten burglaries is solved. (Sunday Times, 6 July 1975.)
Sometimes there are guns used in “serious crimes" and the defenders of property are killed. But how can a class which uses trained armies and nuclear weapons in order to expand their property ownership object to “criminals" who are merely seeking the same end, but by relatively less violent means? The only difference between the Mafia and the American government is that the latter passes laws to justify its activities, whereas the former survives despite the law. Big crime, which is often controlled by men who are themselves capitalists, is a way into the property-owning class. Those who succeed in the underworld of illegal robbery can then graduate into legalised exploitation; for those who fail, capitalism has its “penal dustbins” (the term used by the ex-Governor of Wormwood Scrubs prison) to lock away those who offend against its “order”.

Penal dustbins
The smooth rule of capitalism depends on the constant threat of punishment. Britain has more people in prisons, being punished by the state, than most other European countries. The vast majority of prisoners are incarcerated for crimes relating to property. Even prison officers now admit that the “penal dustbins” are dangerously overcrowded. Criminologists generally agree that prison sentences do not tend to prevent people from committing further criminal offences — on the contrary, as most prisoners will testify, prisons are “schools of crime” wherein the naive first-time offender can pick up the more sophisticated skills of the trade. Any society which makes even the pretence of being civilised could not tolerate the continuation of institutions like Wandsworth, not to mention even more horrific establishments like Broadmoor and Long Kesh. Prisons can only survive in a society which cannot face up to the consequences of its own structure.

The capitalists’ crimeless Utopia is unrealisable because crime arises inevitably from capitalism. Those who disrupt the orderly robbery of the working class by the exploiters, which is legalised as the very basis of the wages system, are labelled as criminals. In many countries criminality extends to the realm of ideas, and those whose thinking conflicts with the state are imprisoned, tortured, murdered or, as in Russia, labelled insane. Thought policing is not confined to the state capitalist countries or to the “free enterprise" dictatorships, such as Chile, Argentina or South Africa. In Britain there are hundreds of laws which exist solely to enforce moral conformity and to punish behaviour considered deviant by the old feudal relics of the judiciary whose job is to defend the system for the master class. The fact that the law of Britain cannot tolerate freedom of thought is proved by the imprisonment of socialists who refused to be conscripted to kill their fellow workers during the last world war. In the event of a nuclear war civil servants would be given legal powers, including shooting on sight, which demonstrate the ultimate force that would be used by the capitalists in a civil emergency.

The hard task of enforcing the law is not carried out by the class for whom the law exists; it is the workers who guard the property, chase the (illegal) thieves and smash up the picket lines when ordered to do so. Quite a few of these “law-enforcers” are attracted to the job because they are vicious thugs who enjoy throwing their weight around. It is not only in South Africa that innocent people are killed by over-zealous police and prison officers — and it is not only in South Africa that the murderers walk free and well rewarded for their brutal work. There was a time when police recruits had to learn by heart the following principles of duty:
  . . . the constable will be civil and obliging to people of every rank and class. He must be particularly cautious not to interfere idly or unnecessarily in order to make a display of his authority: when required to act he will do so with decision and boldness . . . There is no qualification so indispensable to a police officer as perfect command of temper, never suffering himself to be moved in the slightest degree by any language or threat; if he do his duty in a quiet and determined manner, such conduct will probably excite the well-disposed bystanders to assist him if he requires them. (Quoted in A Force For The Future, Roy Lewis. 1976.)
One only has to recall the notorious television interview of a rape victim by detectives from the Thames Valley Police in a BBC documentary series to understand how outdated the above quoted passage is. Wage slaves in the police force do a hard, dirty and dangerous job and it must be recognised that, in general, the offensiveness of their activities is not because the individuals in it are nasty people, but because the law is an instrument of class oppression. Many police think that they are doing a good job; some join in the belief that they are going to be uniformed social workers, making society orderly so that decent folks can live in peace. In a different social context such aspirations could be put to good use. Hatred against the police as individuals is like hating the workers in the DHSS because the system of public charity stinks.

Reformists confine their criticisms of the law to the effects of the capitalist state machine. Their targets are bent coppers, sadistic screws, the Special Patrol Group, plastic bullets, SUS laws: if only we could organise laws, police, courts and prisons without these unappealing extras the reformers would be satisfied. The latest reformist outcry is against the Police Bill which gives police powers resembling those enjoyed by the law enforcers in fascist regimes. The power of the state to coerce the majority is growing with frightening rapidity, but that trend will not be reversed by Labour MPs calling on the police to act like gentlemen or Trotskyist fantasists demanding the creation of a People’s Militia. Like the reformists, socialists oppose the brutality of capitalism’s law and order. But our aim surpasses the reformist Wonderland in which the police lock workers up “without distinction of race or sex", the judges wear denim jackets and the prisons have one man to a cell rather than three.

Socialists stand for the abolition of a social system which requires laws and coercion in order to survive. The alternative to all that — a revolutionary one, to be sure — is the establishment of a system based on conscious social co-operation. This will only be achieved when the earth and its resources belong to its inhabitants and not to a privileged minority. Abolish property, in all its forms, and you end the need to protect wealth, which is owned by those who do not produce it, from those who do. In a society of common ownership and democratic control, where everything belongs to everyone, who could — or would want to — steal from whom?

But surely, it will be claimed, even a propertyless system will need some laws and some police and some prisons. People will still need to be kept in order. No: in a socialist society the people will democratically keep themselves in order or there will be no genuine socialism. Anti-social individuals will still need to be punished, will they not? Let us consider these “anti-social individuals". Let us assume that there are going to be people in a socialist society who insist on defying the will of the community. It will be the community itself, within whatever area is affected, that will have to deal with such anti-social behaviour. How it responds will be entirely up to the people at the time to decide. There will certainly be no need for a special, permanent force of men and women to ensure that the common will is respected. It is often said that there are certain crimes which will always exist. Are there? We can agree that some murders are committed by sick people, as are many acts of rape, child molestation and gratuitous violence. Psychiatric knowledge regarding the origin of mental disorders which cause such behaviour is presently under-researched and confused. It is doubtful whether such characteristics would exist in a society freed from the repressive psychological conditioning of capitalism. However, it is possible that there will be homicidal lunatics in a socialist society. If there are, they will require compassionate help, not punishment. You do not need prisons to deal with major personality disorders. Of course, those who believe that “human nature" is inherently anti-social will say that conscious social control is a dream. If they are correct, then the uncontrollable violence of the profit system will be with us forever. But all of the available evidence — psychological, biological, anthropological, historical — points to the fact that human behaviour is not natural, but adaptable and, given a different social environment, the thugs of today could be the consciously co-operating social beings of tomorrow.

Conservative minds will be filled with trepidation at the thought of a lawless, policeless, prisonless social order. How could they sleep safely in their beds at night without the prisons being full of frustrated men and women and the streets patrolled by human guard dogs? How, we might ask them, can they sleep safely with potentially devastating nuclear missiles aimed at all parts of the globe? We have law, but it does not protect the millions of people across the world who are mugged, burgled and beaten up each day. The conservative answer is to have more laws. The reformist answer is to have softer laws. The only practical alternative is to have no laws.

Conservative minds may rest contented that Law and Order will be preserved for ever more. But there are others who are becoming aware that the existence of crime has something to do with the kind of society we have. In his Annual Report for 1974, Laurence Byford, the Chief Constable of Lincoln, stated that
  All the signs are that there will be an even greater increase in violence, terrorism, industrial unrest, and crime in the future . . . this may sound pessimistic and even alarmist, but I prefer to think of it as a realistic forecast . . . and in my view anyone who seriously considers the position is bound to have at least some apprehension of where society is going.
The authorities are getting worried. They know, perhaps more than most workers do, that a movement to oppose the status quo could never be crushed by the force of minority-class law. It is up to us, the wealth producers of this society, to decide “where society is going". Conflict or co-operation; police or peace; the world run by us for them or by us for us?
Steve Coleman

1 comment:

Imposs1904 said...

I'm not always the biggest fan of Coleman's articles in the Standard but, when he was on form, he could really knock it out of the fucking park.