Law and Order

Crime is a funny thing.  I don’t mean that it is a laughing matter; on the contrary, it can be very serious, so serious, in fact, that it warrants its own academic body of scientists, known as criminologists, who devote their attention to the study of crime.

Crime, by popular definition, is regarded as doing something ‘bad’.  Killing someone is regarded as the crime of murder.  Taking things that belong to someone else without their permission is theft, and, depending on the means employed, may be robbery, burglary, misappropriation, embezzlement, fraud or any of a host of other names legally applied to the act of theft.

As is so often the case with popular ideas, the notion that crime is simply the perpetration of a bad or evil act and should therefore be punished is an oversimplification.   Killing, stealing and all the other acts generally perceived as ‘bad’ are not always crimes.  An otherwise quiet man of sober habits who kills another in a sense of outrage or anger at some perceived injustice, will be arrested, charged, and if found guilty of murder, may be sentenced to life imprisonment or even, in some countries, put to death.  If, on the other hand, the same decent man is conscripted into a war by those who rule the country in which he lives, the more of those regarded as ‘the enemy’ he kills, the more he is likely to be regaled as a hero and, certainly, he is not likely to become a case study for criminologists.

Legal arbiters
In fact, crime is quintessentially linked to government. Whether those who gain power in a country are a democratic government – within the restricted meaning of that term in capitalist society – or a violent dictatorship, they become the legal arbiters of what is and what is not a crime.  They are responsible for accepting existing laws and for making new laws and it is the transgression of these laws, not the nature of the deed, which makes a particular act a crime.

As time goes on, new situations require new laws.  Some of these are quite sensible, for example the advent of automotive power made it necessary to create many new laws regarding the use and control of vehicles on the roads. On the other hand, legislation concerning other new developments, like broadcasting or the internet, is largely concerned with protecting private interests.  Overwhelmingly the law is concerned with making rules relating to property and the safeguarding of the interests of those who own property.

How often have we heard it said that something is a ‘threat to law and order’?  Politicians, clerics, judges and leader writers are quick to tell us about the danger we face if law and order breaks down and, indeed, there are currently many examples in the world, places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sudan, that illustrate the frightening absence of  social order.

First title deeds
Laws are simply rules made by an authority with the power to enforce such rules.  In tribal society, before the rise of private property, the compelling force was custom, custom that emerged from experience of what was perceived to be good for the tribe.  
The concept of ownership did not exist; nobody owned, so there could be no means of exchange and no need to establish rules or laws for the conduct of sale and possession.  It is not our purpose here to outline the change in material conditions that motivated the inducement to land ownership but it is obvious that, since land was in common ownership and no accepted means of exchange existed, it came into the possession of individual owners by the use of force, trickery or deceit.

Thus was private property born, its first title deeds probably written by club or spear.  Whatever the means of procurement, with the concept of ownership came the need to establish an accepted endorsement of the rights of ownership.  So there emerged a need for laws, rules that would enshrine the right of the new owners of private property to the legitimate possession of their ill-gotten gains.  

Chattel slaves
Not only was there the need for laws governing possession and conveyance, there was, also, the necessity for an authority to emerge that had the coercive power to make and enforce such laws,  That authority was the precursor of the state as we know it.

While the ownership of land gave an element of security to its owner, it did not relieve him of the need to work that land in the procurement of his means of life.  Whereas, in the period before the advent of private property, prisoners taken in inter-tribal conflict over tribal rights of possession were a liability, now they became another item of useful private property.  They became chattel slaves to work their master’s land and not only increase his productivity but initiate what would become an important element in all future forms of society: the institution of social classes.

It is not hard to see the numerous regulations that became necessary in this first form of slave society.  It became a crime for the slave to refuse the instructions of his master or to escape or attempt to escape from the authority of his master.  The slave was a possession of the slave-owner and it was necessary to have rules to ensure and protect that possession and its conveyance by exchange.

When material developments within the system of chattel slavery made that system socially redundant, a new system of class slavery emerged.  This phase in human development we call feudalism.  The new system that emerged in specific areas throughout medieval Europe was a unifying or bonding process that strengthened the institution of property under the aegis of a single ruler or king.  In England, for example, the king was the nominal owner of all land, which was apportioned out in large estates to vassals, local strong men who had pledged homage to the king.  These vassals, bearing title from the king, in turn apportioned parts of their estates to landless serfs in smallholdings.  The serfs or feudal slaves were permitted a smallholding for the production of food for themselves and their family and for the payment of tax in kind to their feudal overlords.  Additionally, in combination, they worked their master’s land and did military service when their masters were called upon to support the king.

Remains a truism
Just as progressive economic developments made chattel slavery redundant in favour of feudalism so, too, developments within feudalism created political pressures for change.  New productive forces had created an incipient class of rich merchants and manufacturers opposed to the political and economic constraints of feudalism.  These latter were anxious to end ‘the divine right of kings’ and the power of an appointed aristocracy, both of which were decreed by law and held sacred by the canons of the, then, established church.

Feudalism and its plethora of protective laws, both moral and secular, were destroyed to free the serf from feudal slavery and make him a wage slave.  For him there was the pretext of ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’; for his new masters, the capitalist class, there was that vital element in the creation of wealth and profit: human labour power.

New godspeak
A new world outlook was required; a revolution that would banish the old ideas sufficiently to facilitate a new social order.  Old crimes were banished, masses of new laws and new crimes were created and the vast religious reformation ushered in by the new forces of property established even a new godspeak in which the condemned usurer of feudalism became the esteemed financier or banker of modern times.

Now capitalist governments are law factories, amending laws and changing laws, abolishing the odd redundant crime and creating hosts of new crimes especially to regulate and protect large capitalists and small investors from the predatory aggression of one another.

If one looks at the hundreds of lower courts, processing on a conveyor belt basis the masses of petty crimes, and throwing the more serious errantry to its upper levels, it is obvious that what is called ‘ordinary crime’ is committed mainly by the working class.  Corporate crime is much more elusive; the squad car is more likely to catch a runaway shoplifter than to detect a respectable swindler engaged in ‘insider’ trading or some other form of stock racketeering.  Some alleged authorities claim that ‘ordinary’ crime, the petty thieving etc which the lower courts deal with, accounts for less than twenty percent of the monetary value of all crime while corporate roguery accounts for the lion’s share.  It is a questionable statistic given the more covert nature and professionalism of the latter.

As for equality before the law, the French writer, Anatole France, showed remarkable insight into crime in capitalist society when he said that 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.

Seeds of disorder
Is there a need for law and order?  Of course it is essential that regulations exist to ensure the maximum degree of safety on public roads; that the surgeon carrying out an operation is suitably qualified; that a person piloting an aircraft is efficient in their duties.  Similarly, there are masses of situations in which human society must find means for its efficient functioning and protection.

What those who shout loudest about law and order seem never to take account of is the fact that the seeds of disorder and the conditions that promote most crime are endemic to capitalism itself.

Capitalism is founded on the appropriation of humanity’s means of life, and functions on the basis of the exploitation of those who create all real wealth.  It is a system that gives rise to ongoing wars and inter-communal violence.  It murders millions of people every year by means of starvation and malnutrition in order to maintain its market priorities.  But these are not crimes; capitalism and its political manipulators do not make laws against the abominable evils of their system.

At another level, the priorities of capitalism cause the alienation that stands as a barrier between human beings and creates the material conditions for those other crimes which gives easy fodder for capitalism’s myopic media to attack. Abolishing crime is another good reason for abolishing capitalism.

RICHARD MONTAGUE                          

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