1980s >> 1980 >> no-905-january-1980

Grandest larceny

In nineteenth century Italy lived one Cesare Lombroso, a Jewish doctor who served for a time with the Italian army. Lombroso spent a lifetime trying to prove that such considerations as the shape of one’s head, the nature and extent of tattooed designs, even an analysis of one’s urine and faeces, were critical factors in the determination of actual or potential criminality. (One of his more enterprising followers — Salsotto — saw significance in his own observation that a surprising number of criminal women were particularly well endowed with hair between the pubes and the umbilicus, and that down on the face was common among women found guilty of infanticide.)


Lombroso was seeking what Christopher Hibbert in his scholarly review of crime and punishment, The Roots of Evil (Penguin Books) described as the “atavistic type — the born or instinctive criminal”. (He — Lombroso — concluded his life’s work with a study of spiritualism.)


As Hibbert has noted, however, Lombroso’s contemporary, the French magistrate Gabriel Tarde, was not impressed. He wrote:


If one examined hundreds of thousands of judges, lawyers, labourers, musicians, taken at random and in various countries, noticing their different characteristics, craniometric, algometric, sphygmographic, graphologic, photographic, etc. as Lombroso has examined hundreds and thousands of criminals, it is extremely probable that we should ascertain facts not less surprising; thus, for instance, we might succeed in finding instinctive lawyers.

(Tarde, Criminalité comparée)


Tarde, who was clearly ahead of his time, believed that the origins of crime were mainly social. But even today, when the more thoughtful might be expected to opt for the reason of a Tarde rather than the shaky premises of a Lombroso, a great many remain reluctant to accept that crime (other than that of a purely pathological nature) is a consequence of our social and economic condition — a result of physical and mental deprivation manifesting itself as poverty, oppression, hunger and insecurity.


This being so, it is unsurprising that the responsibility for crime is so rarely placed where it properly belongs: with the system which spawns its causes — capitalism. So it is also unremarkable that the penal systems of the world, even where they are most ‘enlightened’, should place more emphasis upon punishment and retribution, if not downright indifference and neglect, than upon any recognition that the criminal or young offender is a victim of circumstance.


Institutionalised Theft
It is in the interests of the capitalists that their benefactors, the working class, should remain disabused of any such heresy as the suggestion that capitalism is to blame for criminality. Or, indeed, any other of the social evils for which it is responsible. It follows that they — the capitalists — must do everything in their power to cover up their own culpability. They must disguise as best they can an expropriation of socially produced wealth on a scale so vast as to constitute the grandest of all grand larceny. For the capitalists — sole owners of the means of production and distribution — rob us daily of the fruits of our labour.


Socialists, having as their authority not only the Labour Theory of Value as developed by Karl Marx but their own experience as workers to draw on, know that this is true. Enormous wealth in the form of surplus value is taken from the workers as a class. Acting more or less in concert, and to the virtual exclusion of the seven to ten per cent who constitute the capitalist class, we are responsible for digging the mines, cultivating the land, crewing the merchant fleets, operating the machines of industry, staffing the hospitals, prisons, schools, offices, and all the various agencies of government, local and national. Workers do everything from performing the most dangerous and soul-destroying manual tasks to engineering some capitalist’s tax evasion; from the production of capitalism’s military hardware to the design and construction of its yachts. They are its news gatherers, editors, censors, and its street corner newspaper vendors. They manipulate the businessman’s stocks and shares and they sweep the Stock Exchange floor. They provide capitalism with its armies; they die like flies in its wars. You name it, they do it. And how? By selling their physical and brain power to the highest bidder — if they’re lucky! And for what? Enough to live and reproduce on commensurate with what it costs to ‘educate’ and train them. (So, under the capitalist system we can expect to see the farm labourer working long hours in filthy conditions and in all weathers, receiving perhaps half the wages of, say, the skilled mechanic — who in turn is ruthlessly exploited at the point of production.)

Spirited but Misguided
Many spirited but misguided workers, seeing ahead of them only a miserable life of toil, boredom and relative, if not absolute poverty, take to the more attractive and, as they hope, rewarding path of crime.


What they do not always appreciate is that capitalism has some trumps to play against them from the start; cards with the words ‘police’, ‘judges’, ‘prison’, ‘army’ and so on indelibly stamped upon them. For under the rales of capitalism, theft, coercion and retribution are the exclusive prerogatives of the capitalist ruling class. (Mass killing, for example, is OK provided it is authorised by the State — the executive arm of the ruling class — and sanctified with a drum-head service.)


Workers, then, must be kept in their place. Should they, by their actions, threaten the ‘right’ of the capitalists to own everything, then that place is prison or some other ‘corrective training’ establishment. Once inside (and this can be true even of your friendly neighbourhood police cell these days), almost anything goes, from the warder’s boot to the administration of Largactil. (This extremely powerful sedative, otherwise known as chlorpromazine, if taken in large doses can cause “liver and kidney failure, mental and physical infirmity” [New Statesman, 2.11.79], Prisoners commonly refer to it as the ‘liquid cosh’.) Such retributive indignities as three to a cell and slopping- out are the small change of a system which, as the recent May Committee’s report has indicated, is close to breakdown.


Cant and Hypocrisy
As if this state of affairs was not already vicious enough, we have recently been regaled with the sight on television of the Tory faithful, in a condition approaching orgasm, adoring a smirking William Whitelaw as he outlines his plans for his spanking new Special Detention Centres, in which certain categories of young offender will receive ‘short, sharp shock treatment’. There can be few things in British politics quite as repulsive as your Tory redneck and his mate when they scent blood. (In this respect they have nothing to teach the dogs with which they torment defenceless wild animals.) All in all, then, just one more demonstration — if any were needed — of the indifference of capitalism’s lackeys to the true plight of the disadvantaged.


Hypocrisy is another unlovely characteristic of our masters’ customary behaviour, especially as it relates to ‘law and order’ — the rallying cry of the politician the world over. Those who welcome the bludgeons of the police Special Patrol Group when deployed against demonstrators or picketing workers can be relied upon to bare their fangs and snarl for revenge when confronted with the ‘bower boots’ of the football ‘hooligan’. As the poet A.E. Houseman put it: “Some can gaze and not be sick,/But I could never learn the trick.”
It is plain, then, that workers are confronted with an exacting but essential task – one which calls for an all-out effort; first, to understand what Marx and his contemporaries meant by the ‘class nature of society’, and then, in the light of this understanding, correctly to interpret the behaviour of those who stand to profit most from capitalism, as set against the response of those for whom it can offer nothing but suffering. Then, and then only, will workers find themselves asking the right questions.
And the most penetrating, if by this time the most rhetorical, must be: ‘Who under capitalism are the real crooks; and who the true victims?’


Richard Cooper