Arguments for socialism: Crime and punishment I

[Green Left Weekly, #273, May 7, 1997]

Crime, especially violent crime, is a favourite staple of the capitalist media. Murders, assaults, sex crimes, paedophilia, robberies, home invasions, gang violence — they can never get enough of it. Then they whip it up over supposedly lenient jail terms or the release of murderers, rapists and child molesters who have served their sentences.

What does it all mean? Crime is a certainly a fact of life in our society, and many people are hurt and traumatised by it. But the media never shed any light on the real causes of crime or what might rationally be done about it.

The capitalist media, along with their purely commercial imperatives, have another task, one no less important: to poison the minds of working people, to stop them seeing their situation clearly and taking the path of radical political struggle to change it. The press and TV fill people's heads with trash and cultivate a servile fascination with the lives of royalty and other "celebrities" and "personalities".

A big emphasis on crime fits in perfectly. It plays to people's fears: in fact, it helps create them. It focuses on individuals, who can then be demonised, rather than on the society which produces them. And crime is a convenient platform from which to call for more cops, stiffer sentences, harsher treatment of prisoners and so on — all of which are needed as capitalist austerity bites deeper and deeper, producing escalating social tensions.

The current push to give crime victims a formal role in the sentencing procedure has the same logic. Trauma resulting from violent crime is very real, and the victims should get generous compensation and counselling from the state. But beyond this, an emphasis on the individual victims just strengthens the right-wing law and order push.

Crime is a social phenomenon. It is an inescapable result of class-divided society. Furthermore, if we measure the severity of a crime by the amount of pain it causes and the number of people it affects, the individual crimes of violence beloved by the media are minor, even trivial, in comparison to the ruthless mass crimes committed by those who rule our society.

Who is the bigger criminal? — a "psychopath" who kills an individual or even a whole family, or the capitalist politicians and their big business masters who calmly blight the lives of millions by letting money and greed rule the aged care system?

Is an unemployed person who has a cash-in-hand job and doesn't tell Social Security a bigger criminal than a state premier who cuts the ambulance service and privatises key parts of it, threatening the lives of thousands?

A sick individual commits a horrible sex crime. Is he a greater criminal than a large corporation like BHP whose coldly calculated, profit-driven operations have spread deadly cancer-causing pollution over whole communities, killing scores, even hundreds, from children to the elderly?

These are the crimes of the capitalist social system, which sacrifices the hopes and happiness of millions to the greed of a handful of millionaires. The small-scale crime the media and the law-and-order brigade focus on are simply a derivative phenomenon of this social system.

What is the answer to crime? Giving more power to the state will do nothing to eliminate crime. Crime is a function of a sick society: change society, and crime will rapidly disappear.

The Cuban Revolution provides a good example. Before 1959, Havana was run on behalf of US mafia gangs. None of this survived in the new Cuba: the mafia needed the soil of capitalism to thrive, and without this it could not live.

That's the answer here, too. In a socialist society where the satisfaction of people's basic needs — for decent jobs, housing, heath care, education, public transport — was the prime concern of government, whole categories of crime would rapidly disappear.

The sickness which produces murders and sex crimes would also become increasingly rare and eventually non-existent. "Psychopaths" are really "sociopaths" — a sick society produces sick people.

In a transitional period, certain categories of offenders might need to be confined for the protection of society, but the whole emphasis would be on rehabilitating them, on healing the wounds which had caused their anti-social behaviour, so that eventually they might be reintegrated into society.

Eventually, prisons would cease to exist. Like crime and criminals, they are a feature of class society and will not long survive it.