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It’s a bloody crime – or is it?

The law does not pretend to punish everything that is dishonest. That would seriously interfere with business” (Clarence Darrow).

The man in front of me in the bus said to his companion “You know, it’s a bloody crime!” He was obviously referring to the front page story in the evening newspaper which he was holding and which I had read earlier.

The story referred to a sick child who needed intensive care. The hospitals locally and elsewhere had been canvassed by medical staff for an intensive care cot but none were available. Last year, given the same level of demand, a cot would have been available but pressure on NHS funding had necessitated cuts in services. The child died, a newshound got a story and the grieving parents were left to wonder why.

But the man in front of me on the bus was wrong; it was not a crime. In fact he was using the term ‘crime’, as many do, as a designation for something that is obviously wrong or bad or evil and these qualities are not necessarily the considerations that determine what is and what is not a crime.

Crime is a transgression of the laws governing particular societies; specifically rules usually endorsed by a ruling executive that, in a political democracy, has been elected by the people or, in a dictatorship, has amassed sufficient coercive power to impose its authority upon the people.

Laws or rules of behaviour

It need hardly be said that whatever the form of society some form of behavioural rules or mores are necessary; equally, of course, the form of society we live in creates the conditions that determine the need for specific rules. Society is continually evolving and it is this evolution that continually creates the need for ruling executives amending existing laws and passing new laws to meet the exigencies created by new situations like, for example, the social implications of technological advances in automotive transport.

Much of this form of legislation should be straightforward, at least in motive; if people driving cars did not abide by defined regulations road accidents would increase incalculably. If anyone was allowed to pilot an aircraft there would be frequent air disasters. Unfortunately, in our present society, interests outside the province of safety can impact on the lawmakers. The vast wealth of vehicle manufacturers, petroleum refiners, civil engineering contractors, et al, can be used, and is used, to ensure that as far as possible their specific interests are not adversely affected and such interests are rarely in the general interest. It would be difficult to think of any new regulation, even one patently beneficial to the general good, like restrictions on passive smoking, that will not find opposition from some commercial interest.

Arising from property

The overwhelming body of laws in all countries today are not primarily concerned with public health, public safety or public wellbeing. They are concerned with property in all its forms; with the endorsement, protection and conveyance of possessions. In fact, the greatest volume of law, the millions of pages of legislation, the myriad volumes of case law, is based on relationships arising from the existence of property.

The whole legal circuses, clown-attired judges, wigged councillors, solicitors, the solemn decorum of the courts, the years of legal study and practice behind the imposing façade of erudition, these are not necessarily concerned with acts that are in themselves bad or injurious to people nor are they faithful to some abstract principles of good and evil. The entire fabric of what is absurdly known in the United Kingdom as ‘the Queen’s justice’ or elsewhere as State Justice is solidly founded on the appalling injustice of property society; specifically today, the Laws of capitalism and the Order necessary to allow for the smooth functioning of those Laws.

The French anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, affirmed that ’Property is theft!’ He was, like the man on the bus, wrong. The act of theft is a crime but the possession of property rather than being a crime is lauded by the major religions and is the very foundation of capitalist civilisation.

The cornerstone of freedom

Inevitably, in a property society people will aspire to ownership and those who claim that the right to property is the cornerstone of freedom often cite this aspiration as proof that capitalism conforms with the natural order of things. But the capitalists and their political defenders are not promoting some unworkable concept of equality within a property society nor are they referring to the right of every citizen to a home and such personal appurtenances as reflect the material needs of everyone in the pursuit of a full and happy life.

What the capitalists and the political advocates of capitalism effectively promote is the legal right of a minority class of people to own and/or control the machinery of production and distribution; the land, the factories, mills, mines, warehouses; in fact the resources of nature and the machinery and tools used by the working class to produce all the vital goods and services needed to sustain the whole of society.

It is the Law that enforces the right of a minority to use its ownership to take possession of all the goods and services produced by those who labour by hand or brain in exchange for a wage or salary that restricts the overwhelming majority of workers to conditions of relative poverty or dire want. It is in fact capitalism’s law that confers on the working class the apt designation of wage slaves.

But the effects of this much-vaunted ‘cornerstone of freedom’ do not end there. Ownership of the means of production and distribution also gives the capitalist class the right to embargo any productive activity that does not hold out for the owning class the promise of profit. Additionally, in today’s world, technology has facilitated the mobility of capital thus gifting to the capitalists the ability to locate wherever the rate of profit is most beneficial to them irrespective of the hardships they impose by unemployment on the workers whose labour is already enshrined in the fortunes of the capitalists.

Additionally, this mobility has given capital an effective weapon in enfeebling trade unions and resisting wage claims with the threat of re-locating plant where the slaves are paid less.

Majestic equality

Behind capitalism’s legal system is its vast array of coercion; ultimately the armed forces of the state but more usually police forces, judges, magistrates, lawyers and jailers. We hear about their work through the media; overladen, they toil diligently as a vast conveyor belt of capitalist justice, keeping vandals and villains and thieves and robbers off the streets; stuffing the jails to overcapacity. Essentially virtuous in their majestic equality.

The French writer, Anatole France, perhaps better than most exposes the vacuity of capitalism’s legal charade when he said:

“The Law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to beg in the streets, sleep in the parks or to steal bread”.

Reality means that we live in conditions determined by capitalism and it is those conditions that almost without exception create the circumstances in which all forms of crime occur. In the past the power of the cop and the judge, unquestioning instruments of class justice, were reinforced by the fictions of religion and the Ten Commandments.

In today’s world the sins of the gods, like the legal misdeeds of the rich are increasingly evident. None would challenge the observation of the eminent American civil rights lawyer, Clarence Darrow – he of the famous ’Monkey’ trial – that “the law does not pretend to punish everything that is dishonest. That would seriously interfere with business”.

The Order that capitalism needs to underpin its Law is showing evident signs of breakdown. The hired hands that the system needs in the political system and the pensioned media to maintain its rotten values scream for ever more laws, ever greater penalties, against the evidence that crime is a reflection of capitalism and will remain as long as that system does.

RICHARD MONTAGUE