Another look at law and order

During the next few months we shall all have to exercise considerable patience and understanding. All our politicians are going to be under a great strain. Everything they say will have to be assessed with due regard for the fact that a general election is not far off. They are all looking for a vote-catching Election Issue.

The Conservatives are probably rather happy about the votes they hope to win over the issue of Law and Order. This is a fine, upstanding, majestic phrase which has the added advantage of meaning almost anything the user likes. The Fascists use it to mean cracking down on coloured immigrants, with the implied conclusion that this would at once clean up all the brothels and drug-pushing. For the Tories, Law and Order is a convenient political weapon to use against the government. Quintin Hogg recently displayed their policy, like a salesman showing his samples, when he said, and at the same time did not say, that the Labour government is responsible for a higher crime rate.

It is so widely accepted that crime is increasing that to question it seems almost as crankish as questioning whether the earth is a sphere. As the criminal statistics come out they show an average annual increase in indictable offences known to the police of something like 7 per cent. The overall picture shows that, after a period of relative stability at the beginning of the century, the crime figures rose steadily; between 1915 and 1930 by an average of 5 per cent a year, between 1931 and 1948 by 7 per cent. For the years 1949 to 1954 there was an overall decrease, then the figure starts going up again. Between 1955 and 1965 it was 10 per cent; after a levelling off in 1967 it fell to 7 per cent in 1968 but for last year it is likely to have reached 10 per cent again. About 37.000 people are at present in prison, borstal or detention centre — and again this figure is rising, despite the attempts, for example the introduction of suspended sentences in the 1967 Criminal Justice Act, to cut the population behind bars.

So we have the popular hysteria that England, which was once tranquil and law-abiding, is now become a paradise for layabouts, junkies, sexual deviants, violent gangsters, all supported by massive handouts from the Welfare State presided over by sloppy penal reformers. Wc might expect that the judiciary should be in the vanguard of this reaction. Like Mr. Justice Eveleigh. wondering at York Assizes earlier this year whether “our attitude to crime and the criminal” was partly responsible for the increase in crime and violence. The judges are usually closely followed by the police in such sentiments. Robert Mark, deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, recently complained (The Guardian 26/3/70) that the criminal law acts now as a frustration to the police instead of their ally.

However, a cold eye cast upon the crime wave may see it rather differently. Something like 3 per cent of recorded crime can be called serious. Sex and violence offences are never more than 5 per cent of the total. There are three or four homicides for each million of the population each year. As a whole, this country is reasonably peaceful. Old ladies — even judges — can sleep safe in their beds.

This leads to a more fundamental questioning of the crime statistics. First, let us be clear that the figures record only crimes which are known to the police, which means that almost certainly they are an underestimation. They are also susceptible to many other subjective influences, like a change in the method of recording or a temporary campaign by the police, energised by a chief constable with a zeal for hunting down a particular crime, or by a decline in public tolerance of it.

Legislation can itself also have an effect on the crime figures. On one side of the balance, an Act can reduce a crime rate by simply legalising something which was previously illegal. On the other side, a new law can create a new crime, as rationing spawned the black market and as the Theft Act widened the definition of indictable crime. Somewhere in this field is the example of the Children and Young Persons Act of 1933. This Act provided a gentler method of dealing with juveniles before the courts and this is widely held to be the encouragement which led to the rise in recorded juvenile crime after 1933.

What do the statistics, so widely quoted, so freely used, really register? Crime is not a static thing, to be related to a sort of moral index which eternally condemns some actions as criminal. It is an activity which can only be socially defined. So how do we define it, how do we measure it? Here we meet the first problem, because any definition or measurement might be dealing with some other social breakdown or development which is expressed in crime. It might be dealing with a slump, a war, the growth of towns — even something like an increase in hire-purchase trading.

One example of this is in the rise of the self-service store and the supermarket. These have vastly expanded the opportunities of the shoplifter and one well-informed source has it that a fall-off in shop-lifting causes some supermarkets to question the attractiveness of their displays. So what does an increase in shoplifting really register? An increase in criminality among foreign students and depressed, middle-aged women? Or more skilful marketing snares by the shop management?

Supermarkets are another step in the process of town development, which goes back a very long time. There were periods of intense growth; for example during the years 1821 to 1831 the population of Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds grew at least four times as fast as England as a whole.

There are plenty of accounts of what happened then, as the people poured into the towns, looking for somewhere to live and something to live on. In a word, they placed a strain on the social structure which it was not equipped to resist. Crime which was suited to an urban setting — prostitution, pocket-picking, shoplifting — flourished, and was checked only by urban organisation against it. One account of London in 1829 says:

“Street robberies have multiplied in the metropolis to a dangerous extent, and are perpetrated in the most daring manner. Gentlemen have frequently their watches plucked out of the fob, or their pocket-book or purse snatched or cut away, in the most crowded thoroughfares . . .”

At the same time, to complete the picture, the towns supplied the resources to support their crime — a network of receivers and the notorious rookeries, where criminals could take refuge among the dense maze of festering alleyways and courtyards.

This is one example of the growth of crime in fact measuring some other social pressures. Another, more up to date, is in the increased possession and use of those drugs which the law defines as dangerous (there are plenty of dangerous ones which are legal; and although some of the illegal drugs are extremely dangerous it is another story, why the law legalises some dangerous activities and forbids others.) The use of drugs, in most cases, is a symptom of a dissatisfaction with society. Perhaps it is a matter of a massive frustration — a common enough thing in the suppressive, insecure world of capitalism. Or perhaps a sharpened sense of alienation from human priorities — of the boredom and futility of a lifetime of employment and the prostitution of our abilities to the one aim of getting and holding down a job.

The magistrate who cracks down on the cannabis smoker is not required — and rarely shows any sign of wanting — to consider such aspects of the “offence”. In this, he is expressing some of the popular hysteria over Law and Order. We might expect, as in most cases where moral stands are taken up, to find some double standards. Few people can claim not to have offended sometime against capitalism’s laws — not to have bilked on fares, or kept money they have found, or not told the shop assistant who has given them too much change. Then there is the vast amount of “white collar” crime — fiddling expense accounts, “adjusting” the petty cash book — which goes undetected or, if discovered, is hushed up.

Capitalism, like other social systems, erects its own morals on its economic basis. The morals of capitalism are those of private property and as property is essentially a matter of minority privilege it follows that the unprivileged majority are all potential offenders against those morals. One thing which can be said with certainty is that about 90 per cent of crime consists of offences against property. This is not to say that criminals, whether hardened or petty, are a threat to the property system. They are as much in favour of capitalism as any dogged Tory; they are only interested in adjusting the balance of possession in their favour and are ready to break the rules to do so.

The phrase Law and Order illustrates that one is considered inseparable from the other. (In fact some actions — for example smoking pot — can be orderly but illegal and others — for example a war effort — can be legal but disorderly.) By order capitalism means an acceptance of its own social structure, morals and priorities. It means that the vast majority must accept their inferior status as wage slaves, keeping any efforts to defend or improve their conditions within defined limits. It also means that industry and transport can pollute, even destroy, the environment in the name of profit, with virtually no legal method of preventing them doing so. It means that politicians can break their promises, or adopt policies for which they have never asked for a mandate, and all this must be accepted. It means that everyone must conform to the pattern of a docile, respectable zombie who may have boiling frustrations but who never allows them to spill over.

If we accept that there is now more crime than ever before, this is another way of saying that capitalist society exerts a fiercer pressure than ever before and that the lives of its people are more unsatisfactory than ever before. Only a small part (about 3 per cent) of crime is the organised work of professional criminals. Most of it consists of actions, or gestures, which are the result of acute deprivations or alienation. In capitalist society, with its family structure and its wage labour system, with its privilege and suppressions, it is all too easy to fall into the sorry ranks of the deprived or to become a cast-out, unemployable and therefore unwanted.

This is a social problem, as virulent as any of those the reformers claim to have eradicated. It is usual for such problems, at some time in their lives, to become material for vote-catching politicians. So it is with Law and Order. Craftily, the government have pushed through measures like the abolition of hanging and the Misuse of Drugs Bill some time before the election, in the hope that such provocations to punitive workers will be forgotten when the votes come to be cast. Equally craftily, the Tories harp on the theme, encouraging the idea that crime can be reduced by the imposition of harsher penalties. (If it were that easy there would be a lot fewer ulcers in the Home Office.)

This may be all very well for the politicians but the rest of us are left with the unpleasant fact that Law and Order, like racialism, is a bandwagon which once rolling will be difficult to stop. At all events it will do damage along the way — and not only capitalism’s criminals will suffer under it.


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