Getting to the roots of crime

Is it possible, as Frederick Engels said, to "put an ax to the root of crime"?

THE CAPITALIST class has a love-hate relationship with crime, as can be seen from a glance at the mainstream media.

Columnist: Paul D'Amato

Paul D'Amato Paul D'Amato is managing editor of the International Socialist Review and author of The Meaning of Marxism, a lively and accessible introduction to the ideas of Karl Marx and the tradition he founded. Paul can be contacted at [email protected].

Newspapers dutifully condemn crime, but they also delight in crime stories. TV and movies are the same. There must be a thousand cop shows for every film or play that deals with a strike--nor is this just a matter of boosting sales or ratings.

The inconsistency reflects deep-rooted class interests. On the one hand, the ruling class is officially--and in a sense, genuinely--opposed to crime. It needs the "rule of law" to prevent the poor from helping themselves to the property of the rich.

Moreover, the smooth running of capitalism requires a degree of order in business transactions--though this doesn't prevent numerous capitalists from committing all sorts of financial crimes.

On the other hand, the ruling class knows that crime doesn't really threaten it--a class can't be dispossessed of its wealth by any number of individual robberies. And it knows that it gets benefits from the existence of crime.

Every time the state is seen to deal with crime, it reinforces its claims to represent the general good of society against anti-social elements--to be the defender of the weak against the strong. There's nothing like a crime wave--real or imaginary--for giving the state an excuse to strengthen its repressive powers.

For the capitalists, crime plays the same role as external "enemies." If it didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent it.

Yet the capitalist system produces crime like running produces sweat. An economy based on competition, greed, exploitation and alienation can't do otherwise.

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"PRESENT-DAY society," Frederick Engels said in an 1845 speech, "which breeds hostility between the individual man and everyone else, thus produces a social war of all against all, which inevitably in individual cases assumes a brutal, barbarously violent form--that of crime."

But what about socialism?

In the same speech, Engels maintained that a socialist society would "put an ax to the root of crime."

This might seem far-fetched, but actually, it isn't hard to see how crime could be abolished. A fully socialist society would be one in which there was an abundance of the necessities of life--something that is quite within the reach of modern technology.

It would be a society where goods were distributed according to need--that is, truly equally.

In such a society, economic crime would become progressively pointless and impossible. Assume, for example, that everyone who wanted a car could have one supplied for free and that all cars were designed to be used, not for prestige or status.

There would be no reason to steal cars. They couldn't be sold, and if some strange person wanted to accumulate cars for personal use, it would be both glaringly obvious and not matter much.

Alternatively, assume that cars are discontinued, and instead, there's a free and comprehensive public transportation system that takes everyone wherever they want to go. Again, the opportunity and motive for crime would disappear.

Socialism would mean eventually putting all goods and services on this kind of footing. That leaves crimes against people, committed not for an economic motive but from anger, passion, jealousy, bitterness--crimes such as murder, rape and assault.

Even today, these are a tiny proportion of the crimes committed, but they too have social roots that socialism would put an ax to. At present, one of the main causes and arenas of such crime is the restrictive structure of the family under capitalism--which binds people, through social pressure and economic dependency, in relationships some find intolerable.

Socialism would abolish this family structure by spreading the responsibility for child care and housework and cutting all ties of dependency. People would be free to live--or not live--with whoever they want.

In fact, socialism will humanize and liberate all personal relationships, At the very least, this would greatly reduce, if not eliminate entirely, crimes against people.

The conclusion is simple. The only real fight against crime is the fight against capitalism--which is itself the biggest crime of all.

First published in the March 30, 2001, issue of Socialist Worker.