How do the Marxists explain crime?

Marxists believe that society is best understood by examining the process whereby the majority of the population are exploited by the owners and controllers of commerce and industry. Marxists argue that this simple, fundamental fact of exploitation provides the key to unlock the explanations for the workings of society.
The key elements of the Marxist or critical criminological approach include:
  1. The basis of criminal law
  2. The dominant hegemony of the ruling class
  3. Law enforcement
  4. Individual motivation
  5. Crime and control

1      The basis of the criminal law

All laws are essentially for the benefit of the ruling class, and reflect their interests. Criminal law therefore operates to protect the rich and powerful.

2      Law creation and the dominant hegemony

In capitalist societies, the ruling class impose their values (values which are beneficial to themselves) upon the mass of the population. They do this through a number of agencies such as the education system, religion and the mass media. (This concept of ruling class values being imposed upon the population is commonly known as hegemony.)
It is the dominant set of values that are the basis from which laws arise in a democracy. However, according to Marxists, the set of values is actually ‘forced’ on the people. Thus what they believe they are agreeing to as a result of their own beliefs are, in reality in the interests of the ruling class.

 3      Law enforcement

Despite the fact that the law making process reflects the interests of the ruling class, many of these laws could provide benefits for the majority of the population if they were applied fairly. However, even the interpretation and enforcement of the law is biased in favour of the ruling class, so that the police and the criminal justice system will arrest and punish the working class, but tend not to enforce the law against the ruling class.

4      Individual motivation

Marxist theory provides an explanation for the individual motivation underlying crime. Bonger argued that capitalism is based upon competition, selfishness and greed and this formed peoples’ attitudes to life. Therefore crime was a perfectly normal outcome of values which stressed looking after oneself at the expense of others. But Bonger also said that in many cases, poor people were driven to crime by their desperate conditions.

5      Crime and control

Marxists believe that the ruling class in a capitalist system constantly seek to divert the attention of the population away from the ‘real’ problem the true causes of their situation the capitalist society. Institutions such as the media, religion and the education system reinforce and acts as justifications that the capitalist system is the ‘natural’ and ‘best’ economic system.
Crime plays a significant part in supporting the ideology of capitalism, as it diverts attention away from the exploitative nature of capitalism and focuses attention instead on the evil and frightening nature of certain criminal groups in society, from whom we are only protected by the police. This justifies heavy policing of working class areas, stops and searches by the police of young people and the arrests of any sections of the population who oppose capitalism.

An example of the traditional Marxist approach

William Chambliss’ study of British vagrancy laws provides an illustration of the ways in which laws may be directly related to the interests of the ruling class. Just after the Black Death Plague in 1349 that killed more than one third of the country’s population, a law was introduced that required every able-bodied man to accept work at a low, fixed wage.  This stopped those who had survived from moving from village to village, demanding higher pay. The new law was strictly enforced and produced a supply of low-paid labour to help the workforce shortage.
In 1530, a law was introduced that punished anyone with out a job ‘on the road’, assuming they were highway robbers preying on the traffic of goods along major highways.
In both cases, the law was introduced and imposed in such a way as to benefit the ruling class – whilst apparently being about stopping ‘vagrants’ from travelling around England.

Criticisms of the traditional Marxist approach

1. The victims of crime are simply ignored and the harm done by offenders is not taken into account. )
2. The explanation for law creation and enforcement tends to be one dimensional, in that all laws are seen as the outcome of the interests of the ruling class – no allowance is made for the complexity of influences on law making behaviour.

Crime and control: a Marxist perspective

Box (1983) agrees with the more right-wing Marxist writers in that it is release from social control, which propels people into committing crime.  He states that the capitalist society controls and exploits workers for its own ends / to benefit the ruling class and when people are released in some way from this control, then they are much more likely to commit crime as they see the unfairness of the system.
Box argues that the there are five elements, which can weaken the bonds of capitalist society and propel individuals into committing crime.

1.  Secrecy
If people are able to get away with a crime then they are more likely to attempt to commit crime.  According to Box, this is one key factor which helps explain why white-collar crime such as fraud, takes place.  The majority of white-collar crime simply goes undiscovered.
2.  Skills
Most people are simply unable to commit serious crime.  Minor offending and anti-social behaviour is generally on the spur of the moment. Serious crime however requires planning and knowledge, plus the skill to carry it out.
  1. Supply
Even knowledge and skill are not enough by themselves.  The potential offender must also be able to obtain the equipment and support to be able to carry out most serious crimes.  For example, a burglar needs a ‘fence’ to sell his stolen goods to.
4.  Symbolic support
All offenders must have some justification for their activities.
5.  Social support
Directly coupled with the idea of symbolic support is the need for others who share similar values to support and confirm the values which justify crime.  (Social support is another way of describing a subculture)
For Marxists, social control operates for the benefit of the ruling class and once this is weakened, it is possible that people will turn to crime to express their disillusionment with capitalism.
Critical criminologists still take this position and argue that criminals are engaging in a form of political act in their crimes and that if they were made more aware of the circumstances which propelled them into crime, they may well act in a more politically conventional way.

Marxist subcultural theory

A second strand of thought which developed from Marxism, was a specific explanation for the existence of subcultures amongst the working class. According to The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, (a group of writers at Birmingham University), capitalism maintains control over the majority of the population in two ways:
  • ideological dominance through the media
  • economic pressures – people want to keep their jobs and pay their mortgages.

Only those groups on the margins of society are not ‘locked in’ by ideology and finance, and thus are able to provide some form of resistance to capitalism. The single largest group offering this resistance is working class youth.
According to Brake (1980) this resistance is expressed through working class youth subcultures. The clothes they wear and the language they use show their dislike of capitalism and their awareness of their position in it.
Brake argues that this resistance however is best seen as ‘magical’.  By magical, he means that it is a form of illusion which appears to solve their problems, but in reality does no such thing. According to him, each generation of working-class youth face similar problems (dead-end jobs, unemployment and so on), but in different circumstances. That is, society changes constantly so that every generation experiences a very different world, with the one constant that the majority will be exploited by the ruling class.
Each generation expresses their resistance through different choice of clothes, slang and patterns of speech, music and so on. However, each will eventually be trapped like their parents before them. An example of this approach is Paul Willis’ Learning to Labour (1977), a study of working class boys in a secondary school found that, they realise early on the sorts of jobs they were going to get and rejected school and its concerns.  However, their very rejection of school ensures that they were going to fail – thus making their belief true – but of course they have been instrumental in their own failure.

Criticism of the Marxist subcultural approach

S. Cohen pointed out that these writers were simply biased in their analysis.  They wanted to find that working class youth cultures were an attack on capitalism, and therefore made sure that they fixed the evidence to prove this. He pointed out, for example, that there were many different ways to interpret the subcultural style of the groups, and that the interpretation which the Marxist writers had imposed was just one of many possibilities.
Some key Criticisms of the Marxist theories of crime

  • Accused of  being over reliant on class division to explain offending behaviour
  • Doesn’t explain why most people in most classes do not offend.
  • Accused of over- focussing on offenders and justifying offending behaviour
  • Suggests little can be done to protect people from offending short of revolution
FROM:- Sociology with Miss Robinson blog

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