Saturday, February 09, 2008

Comments on Criminology

LWC over at Leftwing Criminologist has done us all a service by publishing his revised Draft Principles of Marxist Criminology. I thought it might be fun to take a critical survey of his points. I should premise this by saying that I am not a criminologist. I am a law student, with a particular interest in Marxist legal theory. This being said, I think criminology and legal theory (particularly in the Marxist tradition) go hand in hand, and I’ve read a fair bit of criminology stuff; so I’ll give it my best shot.

1) There should be no seperate marxist theory of crime, rather marxist theory is applied to it. For example we would explain the aetiology (cause) of crime through ideas such as alienation, relative deprivation or as the normal workings of the capitalist system rather than any special causal mechanism.

I would definitely agree with this because I am generally of the opinion that there is no separate Marxist theory of anything. Precisely because Marxist attempts to engage with the totality of social relations, any ‘division’ between the subjects is simply one of convenience. But – and I think this important – this convenience factor does need to be taken into account. Occasionally, because of our totalising theoretical position, Marxists can be a little bit arrogant. Although we shouldn’t defer to expert opinion, the very fact that this is a Marxist approach to criminology shows that we understand the important of relative specialisation.

2) Crime and criminal justice system should be understood in a criminal historical materialist context, we should look at their development to their present conditions. Allied to this would be an understanding that the economic context of a situation would have an impact on what types of crime are prevalent and how these will be responded to.


3) A marxist approach is moreover a class approach and sees crime to an extent as an expression of the conflict between classes in society. This is important in several important ways. Firstly, the ruling class in any each will have more power to define what is crime and to manage responses to crime in their interest. Secondly, crime disprortionately affects the working class, and they are disproportionately punished for this.

I would agree with the ‘opener’ that class (and class struggle) remain central to a Marxist criminology. I would also agree that the ruling class in every epoch have ‘more power’ to define a crime (although I would want to analyse more complex relations than this), although this is parasitic on other – more contentious – Marxist analysis. However, I take issue with the last part of this analysis. Although it probably is the case that crime disproportionately affects the working class it strikes me that this should be a subject of investigation not a principle (which would structure such investigation).

4) A marxist approach is also an internationalist approach. We should understand crime ot just in one country, but across the increasingly globalised world.

Yes. Although criminology in one country, is entirely legitimate too, as the nation-state and national law remain central to much of criminal law. It strikes me that this is not just a theoretical approach, but very much a practical one. Really, what needs to be done is the construction of a series of international networks, where Marxist criminologists are able to come together and exchange ideas, data etc. I think this is the way that we can come to a meaningful international criminology. I also wonder whether there has been much sociological work done on international criminal law.

5) We should attempt to understand the effect of crime and the operation of the criminal justice system, not just on the working class, but on the rest of the oppressed layers in society.

Yep. Although I also think – for completeness – that any analysis of the oppressed layers of society, will also necessitate us examining the impact of crime and the criminal justice system on the oppressors too. Basically, I’m all for expanding our analysis to encompass society as a whole, as this is what gives us the complete picture. Also, in examining the impact of crime etc. on the ruling class, I think we’re able to explore more fully the ideological role of the criminal justice system. Intuitively I also think that criminal law is used to discipline members of the ruling class, and to give their actions legitimacy.

6) As well as studying crime in ‘normal’ capitalist society, we should also seek to study what happened to crime and criminal justice during revolutionary periods and also in states that have claimed to be socialist.

Absolutely. It seems to me (from my admittedly rather meagre knowledge of criminology) that this is an area in which the research is rather scant.

7) The role of the state, which the criminal justice system is part of needs to be examined thoroughly. It’s contradictory aims of upholding the rule of capitalism but also in having to legitimate itself through doing something about crime needs to be explored.

Hmmm. On the one hand this gets at issues I was talking about earlier. On the other hand, I tend to think that Marxists (and especially Marxists concerned with the law) are a little bit obsessed with the state. On the basis of my engagement with Pashukanis I tend to argue that the state is important but not essential to the law, both in terms of form and in terms of content. I tend to think that excessive focus on the state can lead to an overly agent-driven conception of law, crime etc., in that we start to see the content as the ‘willed’ law of the state. Whilst this has its place, I think we constantly need to return to the economic factors LWC alludes to above. My opinions on this issue can be found here.

8) We should seek to review how the workers movement has addressed the question in the past, as well as various intellectuals who have tried to put across arguments from a similar perspective (ie. Foucault, Jock Young etc.)

I definitely agree with this point. I’d also point out that the 1960s an 1970s produced a wealth of Marxist legal theory and Marxist criminology (Robert Sparks, Piers Beirne, Steven Spitzer, Colin Sumner, Richard Kinsey, Robert Fine, and there was of course the most excellent theoretical collective of the National Deviancy Conference, whilst culminated in their brilliant collaboration with the Conference of Socialist Economists). Sometimes I think Marxists working in the field of the law tend to forget our past, but I think some absolutely crucial theoretical gains have been made, and we would do well not to forget them.

Also, I think that Marxists should also engage with ‘bourgeois’ criminologists. Although I am not a criminologist my own theory work has been greatly enriched through a study of classical liberal political theory and contemporary ‘bourgeois’ jurisprudence. I tend to think that Marxists should enthusiastically embrace any tradition that takes our fancy, critically evaluate it and incorporate what is good into our own theoretical framework.

9) As Marx says in his theses on Feuerbach, "Philosophers have hitherto interpreted the world, point is to change it". We should analyse crime and the criminal justice system from the point of the working class. We should put forward ideas of how a socialist/communist society would aim to solve these problems, and fight for these to be adopted.

Again, I am largely in agreement with this. I am somewhat guilty of not properly addressing this point. I have always intended to do something substantial on the ‘withering away of the law’ and some (basic) analysis of law in ‘actually existing socialism’, but after my blog went on hiatus I never got round to it. This being said, I don’t like people who argue that Marxism is a purely ‘instrumental’ philosophy – meaning that the only ‘correct’ theory is that which is useful. Such slavish devotion to praxis has historically led to somewhat nasty results (Lysenkoism anyone).

All in all, then, I think LWC is onto a winner, however, I will just make a few more, non-specific comments on my approach to criminology. Firstly, then our starting point, for me, is something that Marx said:

There is no doubt something specious in this formula, inasmuch as Hegel, instead of looking upon the criminal as the mere object, the slave of justice, elevates him to the position of a free and self-determined being. Looking, however, more closely into the matter, we discover that German idealism here, as in most other instances, has but given a transcendental sanction to the rules of existing society. Is it not a delusion to substitute for the individual with his real motives, with multifarious social circumstances pressing upon him, the abstraction of “free-will” — one among the many qualities of man for man himself! This theory, considering punishment as the result of the criminal’s own will, is only a metaphysical expression for the old “jus talionis” eye against eye, tooth against tooth, blood against blood. Plainly speaking, and dispensing with all paraphrases, punishment is nothing but a means of society to defend itself against the infraction of its vital conditions, whatever may be their character. Now, what a state of society is that, which knows of no better Instrument for its own defense than the hangman, and which proclaims through the “leading journal of the world” its own brutality as eternal law?

This is one of my favourite passages in Marx, and I think it is really quite fruitful for a Marxist criminology. Although Marx is addressing ‘Hegel’ and German idealism, he attributes this more broadly to ‘the point of view of abstract right’, which I am going to take more broadly as implication the criminal law (because it mirrors these general philosophical premises):

  • Criminal law makes the abstract ‘free and self-determined being’ its central subject
  • This ‘subject’ is ‘delusional’, as it fails to address the ‘real’ motives of a criminal
  • These real motives are a complex combination of social and economic ones
  • Punishment is a means of a society ‘to defend itself against the infraction of its vital conditions

In some respects then, Marx is in complete agreement with LWC (although it misses some of the direct class references, this can of course be inferred from the more general materialist position). He stresses the social character of punishment, the way in which economic forces shape crime, the connection between a social formation and its criminal law etc. etc. But I also think that Marx poses us a novel – and in my opinion vital – programme of research.

Marx notes that the criminal law treats its subjects as ‘self-determined beings’. He also notes that this is a ‘delusion’, in that the conception of responsibility here espoused cannot account for the individual’s insertion into a complex totality. But it is obvious to everyone, that this is the case. So the question then becomes why it is that the criminal law operates on self-determining subjects. This is where I think Marx is brilliant, here he utterly rejects the academic division between criminology/sociology on the one hand and legal theory/jurisprudence on the other. Criminal law is a course a type of law, so when we examine the function of criminal law, we need to have some idea of its material determinants. But equally, when we make a theoretical examination it has to be one rooted in a historical sociology.

In the academy this connection is typically underplayed. Criminology is often seen as ‘only’ an empirical project, which is subordinate to jurisprudence. On the other hand jurisprudence is often seen as ‘too abstract’, or theoretical, or unconnected to sociological investigation. Further to this of course, is the division between legal history, legal philosophy, the sociology of law etc. I think that Marxism explodes these distinctions and it is right to. This is the one element I would like LWC to emphasise even more than he did. This is where I think blogging actually proves quite useful, a productive exchange between legal theorists and criminologists. Which incidentally is why LWC’s idea of a ‘left and crime’ blog is a good one, but I think it should be expanded even further, into a left and law blog.

All in all though, a good start.

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