What causes Crime?

Trying to reduce, or even contain, crime is rather like playing blind man’s buff in a room mined with booby traps. (Rudolf Klein, The Observer, 9.1.66.)


It must be conceded to the world’s do-gooders, champions of the underdog, helpers of lame dogs over stiles. Hope, or whatever it is, springs eternal in their aching breasts. Yet even the most sanguine of reformers has sometimes to admit defeat. One problem which nobody pretends to be able to solve, which everyone agrees resists every attempt to deal with it, is crime.


Of course there are all sorts of theories on the problem and every so often some new legislation, or a new Home Secretary, is welcomed as a step on the road to a solution. Rudolf Klein, in the article from which the sombre sentence above is taken, was enthusiastic about what he hoped for from the present Home Secretary:


It is a dismal prospect for any politician. But if anyone can do it, Mr. Jenkins—with his intellectual honesty and political courage . . .  is the man to carry it off.


So far, the one result of Jenkins’ alleged brilliance and courage has been the new Criminal Justice Bill. Nobody seriously thinks that the Bill’s tinkering with court procedure, sentences and police powers will have the slightest effect on the level of crime. But this does not damage Jenkins’ reputation.


The great hope for Roy Jenkins was that he is known as a reformer—the sort of Home Secretary to outrage old men in West End clubs by vetoing birching sentences. In a speech to the Press Gallery last June, he said: ,


. . . do not let us for one moment confuse . . .  toughness with a policy of preserving cruel and archaic laws designed, not to protect society, but to enforce . . .  the prejudices or tastes (or lack of taste) of one group of people upon another.


Jenkins was not attacking here the opinions of only those who, on the proceeds of legal robbery, can afford to be members of expensive clubs. The feeling is widely popular, that the way to deal with criminals is to be tough with them—to answer violence with greater violence, to suppress and degrade the robber and the outlaw by long, harsh periods in prison.


Neither side in this dispute can easily defend its arguments. The reason for this was touched on by—if we can be allowed one more quotation from him—Rudolf Klein:

Research . . . suggests that the problem has its roots deep in our society.


Before we discuss how deep the roots, and what sort of society, let us ask—what sort of problem? At the moment, a pretty big one; the number of indictable offences known to the police is now well over a million a year—more than twice as many as in 1948, which was a year deep in the post war crime wave.


The theory of a “wave” of crime, ebbing and flowing, may once have been valid but it cannot apply to the present. From time to time the crime figures may alter slightly; some may be affected by increased police efficiency or by a change in the definition of a crime. But nowadays there is no such thing as a crime “wave”; it is in full flood, and around us all the time.


How do the reformers explain this? Before the war a popular theory was that poverty was to blame, that a man who was out of work would readily steal food for his children. This inadequate explanation kept going until 1939 produced another excuse—unsettled conditions, the feeling that any day might be our last, the fact that millions of fathers were away in the Forces and not instilling in their children a proper respect for the laws of capitalism.


Then the war ended and the men came home and the crime figures soared. The reformers were ready; what, they asked, could we expect in the aftermath of a mighty war? Everything would be alright when we settled down again.


Twenty years after 1945, we may be assumed to have settled down but the criminal still runs riot, more wildly, more scientifically than ever and often with an attention to organisation which would be welcome in many a board room. The latest theory is that the “affluent” society we are supposed to be living in is to blame—that we are all so idle and bored, surrounded by washing machines and television sets and travelling everywhere in plush cars that we build up a massive frustration which must somehow be relieved, even if it means coshing an old lady on the way to collect her pension. Learned sociologists lecture on the essential inner rottenness of “affluence”, while the rest of us look at the crime graph going up and up and wonder what the next theory will be.


What are the roots of crime? People who have known the relaxed living in the countryside where nobody thinks of latching a door, let alone locking it, might be excused for blaming it ail onto urban life. Certainly crime flourishes in the big cities and anyone who knows London’s East End, or Glasgow, or Liverpool, has probably had some direct, personal evidence of this. The cities grew up because of the industrial and communication needs of developing capitalism, which threw masses of people into concentrated living and, inevitably, into festering slums where life was hard and which bred hard, ruthless attitudes to it.


Many of these slums still stand, with little prospect of being destroyed in the near future, it is not difficult to appreciate that the people who are tough enough to survive in them are tough enough to live by crime. But this again is only part of the story; crime flourishes also on the new estates, in the post war towns and the overspill areas which have not yet had the time to become slums.


We are digging, now, a little deeper and perhaps it is time to ask what we mean by crime. In 1964, of 1,066,467 indictable offenders known to the police, 940,848—over 88 per cent —went under the heading of Breaking and Entering, Robbery and Larceny. In 1965 the number of indictable offences had gone up to 1,133,882 and the percentage was about the same. In other words, the vast majority of crimes are committed against property, a conclusion expressed in a lecture in June 1964 by Professor Leon Radzinowicz, Director of the Cambridge Institute of Criminology:


Ninety six per cent of all our crime consists of offences against property and nearly three quarters is straightforward larceny.

When we talk about crime, then, we are really talking about a particular type of offence, although it is usually the other sort—horrifying murders or sexual offences—which make the headlines and capture the public’s attention. And since property is a social relationship it follows that any change in the form of property will be reflected in changes in the form of crimes against it


On a small scale, an example of this is the fact that since before the war the number of thefts from unattended motor cars has increased sixfold, while the number of bicycles stolen has only doubled. On a large scale, an example is that coups like the Great Train Robbery, and most types of blackmail and false pretences, are designed to get ready money—something which only becomes desirable in a developed capitalist economy where money is a dominant means of exchange.


Killing, and what are known as offences against the person, are sometimes connected with crimes against property. In other cases they are quite unconnected—the blind and motiveless acts of sick minds. Here, probably, we are down to the irreducible level of offences, which any human society must suffer and deal with.


Let us be clear that Socialism, a humane social system, will approach this problem uncluttered by the property obsessions and the vengeful philosophies of capitalism. It will, also, be free of capitalism’s anomaly, that some killers are treated as heroes—provided they do it in a military uniform.


If, then, crime is mainly a matter of offences against property it must follow that to remove property is to end crime. This argument may not appeal to some of the religious, nor to the legal sadists who dabble in theories of original sin and who are hot for vengeance against anyone who fails to stand firm against temptation. Revenge is a sterile business, best left to the seekers after eternal morality. We are concerned with human society, and with its welfare.


The abolishing of private property society, and with it the end of crime, will bring massive benefits. It will remove the inequalities which are the very incentive to crime and violence. It will give society the chance to treat sick minds for what they are instead of regarding them as candidates for damnation.


Those people who, not having been born into the capitalist class, try to make a fortune by robbing a bank are social outcasts. There is no cure for them in property society. Whatever the reformers try, they cannot solve the problem. In The Courage Of His Convictions, the hardened and perceptive criminal Robert Allerton is quite clear on this point; cruelty, he says, is not the answer to the criminal and, although there may be more hope in it, neither is kindness.


We are back, now, at the roots. The criminal scene is a confusion of violence, desperation and muddled, futile reformers. The remedy for it all is at the roots of society and the only hope is in a basic social change. But there is much ignorance standing between us and that. And among it is the criminal, upon whom so much thought is lavished, so many statistics compiled, so much ink expended—the criminal who is observed, analysed and experimented upon—and who in his own way is as hearty a supporter of capitalism as the most respectable and law-abiding house agent’s clerk.


The clerk dreams of sudden promotion, or of winning the pools. The crook waits and watches for the big tickle. They are both caught in the same net of ignorance, and they both need each other to get themselves free.