Monday, June 29, 2020

Criminal convictions (1986)

From the June 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

Very little mention is made in the recent ample publicity given to rising crime figures, that this is happening when for the last seven years we have had a government committed to "law and order". The Tories, like any other party in power, have no realistic policies for eradicating crime or its causes but are merely intent on dealing with its perpetrators more punitively.

If we are to look for a cause of crime, we first need to ask what crime actually is. In the most stark terms, the word crime simply means an act punishable by law. So how do laws originate? They are Acts of Parliament — rules instituted by the Members of Parliament to facilitate the smooth running of society, ostensibly for the protection of all the nation's citizens. The reality is different.

Most laws relate to the protection of property and wealth. Since the working class possess very little of either, these laws affect them in positive terms only fleetingly — even though they need some form of protection for home and hard-earned cash. Look a little closer at the interminable legislation committed to the Statute Books and it becomes apparent that laws are actually there to protect the interests of governments themselves and of those they represent that is the owners of substantial property and the means of production and distribution. Any effects on the workers are in fact purely coincidental.

Laws can be described more accurately as the rules of capitalism. As we live in a capital accumulating, property owning society, it is essential that there exists a comprehensive framework of protection for the rights to money and possessions. These rules exist primarily to prevent workers from getting their hands on the goods and services they produce, apart from what they are permitted to obtain through the system of rationing known as wages and salaries. This rationing does not apply to the capitalists' access to commodities and services because they have sufficient capital invested and accumulated to fulfil their desires without having to do a stroke of work.

Is it any wonder then that members of the working class, knowing that the fruits of their toil are yielding profits of which they receive none, now and again decide to help themselves to a little extra? After all, there is a myriad of attractive and desirable goods displayed in every High Street, all designed to persuade us to part with our meagre allowance and our attentions are solicited by television and the press in the hope of awakening the idea that we need ever larger quantities of "consumer goods'" to render our oppressed lives marginally more bearable.

The problem is that wages don’t stretch very far and as the law hammers home the doctrine that under no circumstances can goods be claimed without paying for them, many workers feel hard done by when the media displays the wealthy and privileged shamelessly enjoying their affluence. Restraint can easily be weakened by the influence of temptation.

The media love to chew on the real meaty bone of violent crime in preference to the tit-bits of petty larceny and trespass. "Mindless violence isn't confined to soccer matches" declared one local rag gravely. There is indeed an abundance of mindless violence outside football grounds, much of it executed quite legally and acceptably by the police and armed forces; it wasn’t so long ago that a deal of mindless violence broke out in the Falkland Islands. But far from condemning it our rulers positively encouraged it.

What emerges from this is the paradox of a society that condones the mindlessness of war and yet throws its arms up in horror when workers commit acts of violence independently and without the prior consent of their rulers. These workers may be unemployed, or working six days a week to live in conditions of abject poverty, overcrowding and deprivation. We are expected to accept such conditions as inevitable; though it may seem slightly unfair that we have virtually nothing in this world of plenty, we are taught from the blooming of memory to keep our noses clean and to the grindstone, to take our exploitation and domination lying down. If we're good boys and girls we won't be thrown in gaol and may even get to go to heaven.

No account is taken of the possibility that the present economic system breeds dissatisfaction. envy, contempt, unrest and aggression. And it isn't merely coincidence that those on the lowest incomes and from the most deprived communities are most likely to be convicted of crime. In America a labourer is fourteen times more likely to go to prison than a "professional" and a black male is twenty-eight times more likely to be gaoled than a white female (What Is To Be Done About Law And Order?, Lea & Young. 1984)

As aggression and violence are inherent in the competitive, ruthless, uncaring capitalist system and romanticised on television and at the cinema, it is hardly surprising that violence will also manifest itself in the form of crime. But people don't suddenly become home-made Rambos over night. We learn to be violent; right from childhood, as well as being fed a staple diet of cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians and war stories, we're taught to be competitive, to stick up for ourselves. along with patriotism and the justification of war. Violence is in fact just another aspect of everyday capitalist life; it's ingrained into us and can't be removed and replaced at society's convenience.

In a socialist society, money and private property would no longer exist and all the means of production and distribution would be democratically controlled by the entire community in the interests of need instead of profit. There would be no such crimes as theft or trespass because everything would belong to everyone. There would be nothing to gain by "stealing", from someone else because all needs would be provided for without consideration of cost, value or ability to pay. So it follows that if there was no such thing as theft, there could be no violent theft; if there was no such thing as trespass, there could be no forced entry or aggravated burglary; and as for assault, it follows that if there was no property, no competition, no oppression, exploitation or deprivation but instead freedom for all to pursue peaceful, uncorrupted and useful existences, then there would be no violence.

As it is. while condemning violence on the part of the criminal, capitalist society virtually ignores the sometimes more subtle violence of poverty and oppression which plagues this mindless system. In the words of the playwright George Farquhar: "Tis still my maxim that there is no scandal like rags, nor any crime so shameful as poverty".
Nick Brunskill

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