Marxists essentially see crime and deviance as defined by the ruling class and used as a means of social control – if you don’t conform then you will be punished. Institutions such as the police, the justice system, prisons and schools, the family and religion are there to encourage you to conform. They argue that white collar crimes (which tend to be committed by the more powerful in society) are ignored, while crimes committed by the less powerful in society such as burglary and street crime are focussed on and seen as more serious. Marxists would also argue that different social classes are policed differently, with the working class heavily policed in the expectation that they will be more criminal and therefore raising the chances of their crimes being detected.
Marxist sociologists such as Milton Mankoff, Frank Pearce and Laureen Snider see power as largely being held by those who own and control the means of production. The superstructure reflects the relationship between the powerful and the relatively powerless: the ruling and subject classes. As part of the superstructure, the state, the agencies of social control, the law, and definitions of deviance in general, reflect and serve ruling-class interests. Laws reflect the interests of the bourgeoisie. They are passed by bourgeois parliament masked in a fake democratic process. These laws are then enforced by the Police and supported by right-wing sections of an increasingly powerful media.
Many Marxist sociologists have noted the large number of laws dealing with property in capitalist society. Hermann Mannheim wrote: ‘the history of criminal legislation in England and many other countries, shows that excessive prominence was given by the law to the protection of property.’
Capitalism saw the increasing importance of trade and commerce (which involved movable property). This resulted in a vast number of laws protecting the property and interests of the emerging capitalist class.
Marxists and neo-Marxists argue that crime is widespread in all social strata. Self- report studies support this. Snider (1993) argues ‘many of the most serious anti-social and predatory acts committed in modern industrial countries are corporate crimes.’ Snider also claims corporate crime does more harm than the ‘street crimes’, such as burglary, robbery and murder, which are usually seen as the most serious types of crime.
The corporate crime Snider referred to included examples such as the poisoning of thousands of Indians at Bhopal, the Zeebruge ferry disaster and the Hatfield train crash. Subsequent enquiries stated that all the companies involved had put profit before safety. In the UK the crime of ‘corporate manslaughter’ was introduced to cover such events with boards of directors being put in the firing line if similar tragedies occur again.
Marxists point out that in a typical year in the U.S.A about 20,000 people are murdered, and in Britain about 600. This compares in the U.S.A with an annual death toll of 14,000 from industrial accidents (many resulting from the breaking of safety regulations), 30,000 from ‘unsafe and usually illegal’ consumer products, 100,000 from occupationally-induced diseases, and ‘hundreds of thousands of cancer deaths are caused by legal and illegal environmental pollution.’ In Britain, workplace accidents account for 600 deaths and 12,000 injuries annually.
Snider states that street crime involves losses of around $4 billion each year in the U.S.A. Losses from corporate crime are an estimated $80+billion. Why is it, she asks, that we focus so much on street crime committed by the working class and instead seemingly ignore corporate crimes?
Marxists see crime as a natural ‘outgrowth’ of capitalist society. They argue that a capitalist economic system generates crime for the following reasons: the economic infrastructure is the major influence upon social relationships, beliefs and values. The capitalist mode of production emphasizes the maximization of profits and the accumulation of wealth; economic self-interest rather than public duty motivates behaviour and there are times when this appears more apparent than others.
Capitalism is based on the private ownership of property. Personal gain rather than collective well-being is encouraged. It is viewed as normal, natural, even genetic. (Darwin) Capitalism is a competitive system. Mutual aid and cooperation for the betterment of all are discouraged in favour of individual achievement at the expense of others. William Chambliss believes that greed, self-interest and hostility generated by the capitalist system motivate many crimes at all levels within society.
Marxists believe that certain people and groups are targeted by the Police: ethnic minorities; those in poverty; those in certain postcode areas; the young and the conspicuous.
David Gordon argues that the practice of law enforcement in the U.S.A supports the capitalist system in 3 ways:
By selecting members of the subject class and punishing them as individuals, it protects the system which is primarily responsible for their criminal deviance. Individuals are defined as ‘social failures’ and as such they are responsible for their criminal activities. The blame is on individuals instead of the capitalist institutions.
The imprisonment of selected members of the subject class ‘legitimately’ neutralises opposition to the system. American blacks are heavily over-represented among those arrested for ‘street crimes’ such as robbery and aggravated assault.
Gordon argues that defining criminals as ‘animals and misfits, as enemies of the state’, provides a justification for incarcerating them in prisons. This keeps them hidden from view. Prisons also make money for certain sections of the bourgeoisie.
Marxists also believe that when it comes to crime, governments fabricate statistics to suit their purposes and to get public support for any action taken by that government that might be construed as trespassing on freedoms. Marxists believe that on average 42% of the statistics presented by the government are false and misleading.
Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex