Chris Harman


Can the police be on our side?

(13 July 2002)

Socialism from below, Socialist Worker, No.1808, 13 July 2002.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

CHRIS HARMAN on crime, the police and capitalism

ONE VIEW held by socialists often bewilders many people. That is the contention that the state machine in capitalist society serves the interests of the ruling class and cannot be used for a move to socialism. “But”, some people insist, “you will always need the police. However much you dislike them, they do a necessary job. Without them there would be complete chaos.”

This attitude is widespread among working class people who are not yet socialists. It comes to the fore every time a police officer is killed on duty. Many more firefighters die in the course of their jobs, yet there is never a public outcry. At first view, it does seem that the police safeguard everyone in society equally.

They seem to protect the old age pensioner’s house from being broken into as well as the vaults of the giant banks. They catch drunken and dangerous drivers. They catch child murderers. They even sometimes bring prosecutions against corrupt politicians and businessmen. But if you look more closely at how the police behave, you will notice a certain bias.

The burglary of an old age pensioner’s home will hit them much more than a £500,000 raid will hurt the profits of the banks. The police will spend a thousand times more effort on investigating the bank raid. The main job of the police is not protecting all people equally, but protecting all property equally.

In Britain today the top 5 percent of the population own £1,130 billion in disposable wealth – that is almost half of all disposable wealth. The main job of the police is protecting that wealth against anyone else. Police shot and killed Carlo Giuliani last year. They also shot anti-capitalist protesters in Gothenburg. Argentinian police shot two unemployed workers dead recently.

The police murdered Carlo Giuliani, Dario Santillan and Maximiliano Kosteki because they dared to protest against the way a few people control all the wealth.

But what about the other activities of the police? Surely we can’t do without them when it comes to, say, preventing murder? Certainly, in society as it exists today, it is very difficult to think of things going well for long without the police. In Britain over the last few months there has been a constant barrage of stories in the media about crime going up.

Crimes of the sort that worry most people – crimes against the person – are not inevitable features of human life.

Their number varies enormously from area to area. Murder, rape, arson and mugging are all the results of social conditions – and the social conditions which breed them today are those of capitalism. That might sound a bit far-fetched. But consider what has produced the high murder rate across the US.

Firstly, the existence of terrible poverty and unemployment, particularly among black people, in the midst of the richest society in human history. Secondly, the traditions of a ruling class that has never had scruples about using the crudest forms of violence to build up its own riches. This brutal history covers the near extermination of the American Indians in the 19th century to the killing of thousands of Afghani civilians today. It has glorified this violence in books, films and newspapers.

It is hardly surprising that so many of the poor in the US have copied some of those methods in an attempt to catch up a little with the already wealthy. The only difference between the methods of the Mafia and those of General Motors and Exxon is that the scale of the Mafia’s operations is minute compared with those of the US corporations.

Much of the petty crime anywhere is a result of desperate efforts by drug addicts to get enough money to score some drugs.

Drug addiction itself is a result of the development of capitalist society. In the 19th century the wealth of the top British families was based on opium dealing by companies they owned in India. The British government went to war with China to compel it to buy the drug. During the Vietnam War the CIA, the US secret service, exported heroin to fund its secret operations in Cambodia.

While claiming to be fighting a “war on drugs” in Columbia against left wing “narco-terrorists” today the US has strong links with the right wing death squads who are the main cocaine traffickers. Hard drugs are the ideal capitalist product-commodities with a truly captive market.

Most crime, like poverty and war, is a result of the capitalist organisation of society. It will not be eradicated until that society is transformed. Meanwhile all the police do is devote a little of their time stopping crime that causes problems for the majority of people. The rest of their energies are used to protect the property relations that create such crime.

Last updated on 11 December 2009