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International Socialism, Autumn 1968


Laurie Taylor & Ian Taylor

We Are All Deviants Now

Some Comments on Crime


From International Socialism (1st series), No.34, Autumn 1968, pp.29-32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.



It sometimes appears that IS (and revolutionary socialist movements in general) are so concerned with the minutiae of industrial activity that they have little time for social phenomena which might be just as indicative of the contradictions in modern western capitalist society.

Our concern here is with crime. Crime is not only a more popular activity with the working class than strike action, it may also be more costly and less predictable for capitalist society.

Socialists have often excluded this widespread human activity from their political concern either on the grounds that criminals are members of the lumpenproletariat, incapable even of a class consciousness, much less of a revolutionary potential or because they regard the law as being a reflection of the dominant interests of the ruling class. In other words, criminologists may be viewed by Marxists as concerned with one small area of behaviour, infractions against the bourgeois law – whilst the fundamental crime of capitalist society, the expropriation of property, is not in their syllabus.

We hope to do two things in this article. First, we want to provide a critical account of contemporary sociological theorising on the subject. This is not merely an academic game, insofar as the provision of alternative explanations for all forms of social disturbance is a proper task for Marxists and one which should not be confined to the traditional areas of industrial strife and class conflict.

The only major Marxist contribution, the perceptiveness of which highlights the significance of Marxist neglect of the area, is W.A. Bonger’s Criminality and Economic Conditions, which appeared in 1916.

Second, our concern is to consider the possible political significance of contemporary crime and to evaluate the prospects for politicising that section of working-class youth which is characterised by periodic unemployment, low-paid and menial work [1] – a section of the population whose ‘welfare’ has been left in the hands of Youth Club leaders, probation officers and perhaps the Socialist Labour League, and which constitutes a disproportionately high percentage of recorded delinquency in this and most capitalist countries.

Gorilla Warfare: Primitive Man and Primitive Theorist

In the epoch of imperialism, ‘primitive man’ was located not only in the colonised countries but also in the ‘colonised’ classes. The criminal represented as much of a throwback to an earlier evolutionary period as did the ‘native.’ His recourse to violence, his attacks on property, his threats to the stability of society, were explicable in terms of his genetic endowment – the very shape of his brain.

‘At the sight of that skull, I seemed to see all of a sudden, lighted up as a vast plain under a flaming sky, the problem of the nature of the criminal – an atavistic being who reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals. Thus were explained anatomically the enormous jaws, high cheek bones, prominent superciliary arches, solitary lines in the palms, extreme size of the orbits, handle-shaped or sensile ears found in criminals, savages and apes, insensibility to pain, extremely acute sight, tattooing, excessive idleness, love of orgies, and the irresistible craving for evil for its own sake, the desire not only to extinguish life in the victim, but to mutilate the corpse, tear its flesh and drink its blood.’ [2]

Bonger, in the following passage and elsewhere, nails the absurdity of this sort of anthropological position.

‘No anthropologist would maintain that a policeman clubbing a mob of strikers was performing a biologically abnormal act, or that the strikers themselves were abnormal because they did not choose to let themselves be maltreated without defending themselves. It is only the social circumstances which class this defence as a crime, and cause the action of the policemen to be considered otherwise.’ [3]

It might have been that the eugenic exclusion of large sections of the population implicit in much biological theory did not coincide with the labour needs of expanding capitalist societies. Certainly, this biological stress was challenged at the beginning of this century by a social welfare conception of the criminal as an individual whose productive capacity was temporarily impeded not by his genes but by his unfortunate environment.

Welfare Workers

This social welfare approach to the criminal was certainly an antidote to the racist conceptions of the Lombrosian school. The criminal was viewed according to this account as an accident of the system (not, as in Bonger’s Marxist formulation, an inevitable by-product). The remedy for such casualties was to be found not in compulsory sterilisation but in welfare milk and better housing conditions. The criminal was not to be bred out from society but sent to be ‘cooled out’ and re-trained. The Borstal Association in 1919 explained the function of such institutions more explicitly than most official ‘therapeutic’ handouts:

‘Borstal does not pretend to teach a trade ... It could though make an undeveloped but teachable lad into a strong and handy workman and give to him that protective pride in himself which comes with a sense of mastery of some part of a craft.’ [4]

Radical sociologists are inclined to cite the famous Chicago School of the 1930s as providing a dynamic analysis [5] of the causes of crime, one in which such factors as immigration, unemployment and place of residence are seen to determine the degree of people’s involvement in delinquent and criminal activity. Certainly, this is more sophisticated than the type of simplistic approach which talks vaguely of poverty and ‘bad’ environment as primary causes, but the accent is still upon refitting the criminal for a new and better life in industrial society, and the behaviour itself is regarded as lacking interest in its own right. It is merely a symptom of social disorganisation and has no political significance. It is no longer the sterilisers or the philanthropists who are mobilised by the ecologists but the professional social workers and the community organisers. [6]

Bonger, despite his sophisticated analysis, appears to view the criminal classes as a group who, by virtue of the system, are rendered susceptible to ‘vice.’ That is to say, he also views the activities which are engaged in by criminals as in no way constituting a positive or political response to their deprivation, but rather as understandable but deplorable aberrations. They are to be seen as symptoms of society’s sickness but not as signs of resistance.

‘It goes without saying that the environment in which the latter (the lower proletariat) live makes them the class most destitute of the moral sense in the whole population.’ [7]

Conservative Theory of Values

The perspective has, in some influential contemporary sociological theory shifted from community to society. Social work tinkering is out. It is not a call for a fundamental change in the nature of society which replaces the community emphasis but a call either for a change in the values of capitalist society or an opening-up of the individual’s possibilities for living up to existing values. This approach does recognise that criminal behaviour is a functional response to a deprived or disadvant-aged structural situation. So delinquents who smash up their own schools (and sometimes their own desks [8]) or defecate on their teacher’s table [9] are not simply lacking a moral sense: they are making a protest against the injustices of an educational system which denies them their chance to conform to the middle-class values of academic and occupational achievement. [10]

The ‘magic’ words in this type of theorisation are values, goals, norms, and status. Individuals in society are seen as playing a gigantic fruit-machine, but the machine is rigged and only some players are consistently rewarded. The deprived ones then resort to kicking the machine or to leaving the fun-palace altogether (e.g. attacks on property or involvement in drug-taking subcultures).

Nobody appears to ask who put the machine there in the first place, and who it is who takes the profits. Criticism of the game is confined to changing the pay-out sequence so that the deprived can get a better deal. What at first sight looks like a major critique of society (that is, ‘anomie’ theory) ends by taking the existing society for granted.

Much the same may be said about labelling (or transactional) theory [11] which also attracts its share of radical adherents. This concentrates on the way in which those who accidentally or unintentionally break the rules governing the playing of the machine are dealt with by society, by describing the way in which people are defined by others (by societal reaction) as delinquents, drug addicts, or mental patients. In other words, it is concerned with those who by their actions turn others into social problems. Again, what starts out as an attack upon the official and unofficial power-holders in society (eg probation officers, teachers and policemen) emerges as a complex theoretical edifice with arguable psychological assumptions and considerable political ambiguity. Of course there are definers and defined but what do the definers represent? What interests are they defending? How do their actions reinforce the existing nature of capitalist society? No answers to such questions are provided: the definers are a group of free-floating ‘baddies.’

The Political Significance of Crime

In the same way that relatively minor industrial conflicts may provide an opportunity for generalising to a full-scale critique of capitalist society, so it might be argued that some examples of criminal behaviour are similarly capable of generalisation. Not that every act of petty larceny represents an embryonic level of revolutionary consciousness any more than does every act of industrial militancy (eg inter-union squabbles). We are in no sense claiming to include all delinquency and all criminality in a ‘potentially or symbolically’ political category. The vast bulk of delinquency – that is, the vast bulk of the deviant activity of the proletariat – is empirically of an extremely pathetic nature. As David Matza has so clearly described, most delinquent activity is in the nature of a drift into a situation of casual and unpremeditated infractions. The act itself often expresses little more than the attempt of the individual to take a share of society’s wealth; it is not so much a rebuttal of society’s values as a rather lame assertion and caricature of them, by a ‘defeated’ individual. [12] The development of an analysis of this kind of delinquency – what may be called the ‘flotsam and jetsam’ of criminal activity – is a complex task, and one we cannot attempt here. We say this not to leave the field to the Lombrosians and social welfare .theorists but to emphasise the task facing a full-scale Marxist theory.

A Spanner in the Works

Aside from such petty crime, we may find other behaviour which does have political significance. If, for instance, we consider a form of violence not generally considered criminal (if only because it rarely leads to outright prosecution) that is, industrial sabotage, we may be on safer ground. There are unfortunately no figures on the extent of industrial sabotage within British capitalism, although one writer has speculated that there are millions of incidents every year. [13] Many such incidents may be the work of disgruntled individuals, but very often they involve the active or passive connivance of other workers. Nor is such activity always of a petty nature. One recent authoritative report concerns a Midlands colliery at which a group of men (estimated at 25) removed a 250-yard long rubber conveyor belt weighing three tons, an exercise which involved considerable danger to themselves. Three weeks later a new belt had been installed. It was removed the same evening and never seen again. The motives involved might have been utilitarian; our informant doubted it. There were easier ways of making money. The miners were just ‘fed up to the back teeth.’

There is some suggestion that the amount of industrial sabotage which characterises a particular industry is inversely related to the strength of shop-floor organisation. In tactical terms, then, outbreaks of sabotage might indicate the need for organisational assistance – that is, the sort of assistance which IS typically provides to better organised and apparently more ‘political’ workers. [14]

Outside the industrial orbit, one might also consider the political significance of local outbreaks of group violence. Jackson has described one such recent riot in Huddersfield in which over a thousand people fought with the police. The leaders of this riot were almost entirely apprentices, and Jackson comments:

‘The energy behind the riot was the under-surface hatred of the police ... the riot begun in that frustration which is part of the common texture of working-class life ends – meanly yet symbolically – with the last group of apprentices kicking a reporter and beating a policeman with his stick of office.’ [15]

New Labels

Gatherings of middle-class students tend to be classified as demonstrations, whereas a disturbance such as that described above was universally referred to as a ‘riot.’ [16] In relation, however, to recent demonstrations, involving students and workers, the Press and the authorities have brought into play the terminology they previously reserved for working-class disturbances. The terminological translation of political protests into criminal riots, after all, serves the important function of reassuring the rest of society that there is no fundamental threat to the status quo; that is, it suggests that the disturbances may be confined within the jurisdiction of the established criminal law.

Negro uprisings in American cities are increasingly described as ‘riots’ and the leaders of such uprisings described as social deviants (hoodlums etc.) rather than as political deviants. The definition placed on the Watts Riots as ‘criminal’ involves more than the findings of the police investigations to the effect that the participation of Black Power militants was minimal. Definitions of this kind, although arrived at through alleged empirical investigation, do not arise from the value-free allocation of particular incidents to categories of behaviour distinguished as either political or criminal.

Whilst we readily reject simplistic accounts of industrial conflicts which talk in terms of ‘who-does-what’ disputes, ‘petticoat’ strikes and the like, we are not perhaps always ready to recognise the political significance which lies in the redefinition of other forms of social disturbance. That is, to understand that a recategorising tendency exists in some situations with which we are traditionally familiar, should make us sceptical of many accounts of property destruction and industrial vandalism which are described typically as the motiveless behaviour of groups of disturbed individuals.

This brings us back to an earlier point, namely the tendency of early criminologists to deny the political significance of the criminal activity of the proletariat, and, more particuliarly, the lumpenproletariat. We cannot be certain how much of an injustice this does to the nature of the criminal activity of that time. There is no question, however, that it ignores those groups of ‘criminals’ who worked towards unambiguously political goals. [17] In the same way, we cannot be sure how far contemporary theorisation misrepresents a considerable proportion of the vandalism of working-class youth.

Given this perspective, how ridiculous is the traditionally anarchist concern to invest the total amount of vandalism and crime with a political significance?

We are not claiming suddenly to have found widespread expressions of revolutionary consciousness. The experience of the Socialist Labour League in the early 1960s in attempting to organise unemployed youth, Mods and Rockers and young apprentices, with marked lack of success, argues for caution and strategic clarity in any approach to this section of the working class (aside from any comments we might want to make about the methods of the SLL).

What appears to be true, though, is that in America particularly, and, more sensitively in Europe, redefinitions of social activity by .the ideologists of the system are tending to bring about a convergence of political and criminal activities which might serve as an explanation of the absolute increase in criminal and deviant activity in the capitalist world. [18]

Threat to Capitalism?

The possibility exists that far from undermining the stability of the capitalist system crime helps to perpetuate that system. This suggestion was raised originally by Marx. We have also to examine how far the redefinition of political events as criminal which we have described does in fact reduce the threat to capitalist society.

There is a great temptation for revolutionaries who are concerned to emphasise the ability of the capitalist system to integrate its deviant populations and to solve its inbuilt economic contradictions, to accord a social function to any social phenomenon which appears to give energy and dynamism to the controlling bourgeoisie. We prefer this perspective to the economic or the social slump theories: we have seen the burial of capitalism scheduled by all kinds of people and postponed so very often.

Marx himself was concerned to avoid the latter kind of milen-arianism. One of his major theses about crime was that ‘by its ceaseless development of new means of attacking property, (crime) calls into existence new measures of defence, and its productive effects are as great as those of strikes in stimulating the invention of machines.’ [19] As IS has made quite clear over the years, it was impossible for Marx to have foreseen all the major economic developments of capitalism. Few intelligent observers of modern capitalism would claim that its energy and survival have much to do with its response to crime. If any such function could be described, it would pale into insignificance beside the immeasurably greater technological fall-out of the permanent arms economy and the adjustments of post-imperialist capitalism. The public outcry about crime, the press hysteria, and even the publication of official documents on ‘The War Against Crime’ should not blind us to the reluctance of modern capitalism effectively to finance these particular ‘military’ operations.

While there may be some little truth in gibes like ‘Crime has become an industry,’ it is also true that its nationalised competitors (the Police, the courts, and the correctional agencies) are so ill-prepared and ill-equipped that they can do little more than ‘contain’ the competition. Television cameras for observing car-parks and computerised finger-printing are the most sophisticated ‘machines’ capitalism has financed in this unfinished war. They are scarcely capitalism’s most notable technological achievements.

Far from being an important stabilising or energising function of capitalism, crime appears as an impediment to capitalist development. It is more a ‘social nuisance,’ in the magisterial terminology, than it is a stimulus to activity. It diverts finance to borstals rather than to apprentice training schools.

Nevertheless, as long as there is conflict in society, there will be agencies which exist not only to control that conflict but also to define away the conflict – to deny legitimacy to some forms of activity, to label them ‘mad’ or ‘criminal.’ What seems clear from the account we have provided above, is that the conflicts which bedevil capitalism at this stage in its development are increasingly going to be seen as the acts of criminals. In the sense that the options left open for radical action are increasingly limited – that is, that direct action of a violent and ‘disobedient’ kind will increasingly characterise political protest – this ‘criminal’ definition will be accurate – from the point of view of the definers. We should presumably be concerned however to emphasise the political point of our vandalism; we shall want to define our deviance in a way that will avoid our being defined by others purely as social deviants. The courts and the other agents of social control will want to ignore this resistance and will not hesitate to treat us as ‘common criminals.’

There is a great temptation here. We can fall into the trap of accepting a criminal definition. We can look at the way the courts can be slowed down to a halt; we can understand that a strategy like the Committee of 100’s ‘Fill the Jails’ campaign could put a great strain on the system and impel the ‘authorities’ to transfer large sums of money to the Prison Service (and slow down other projects); we can generalise to a theory of stopping capitalism in its tracks. This is precisely the implication of Situationalist slogans like ‘Crime is the highest form of sensuality’ or ‘Abolish your alienation in crime.’

This kind of response guarantees that the system will be able to neutralise the political content of the response and divide that particular criminality from the criminality of the proletariat. It tips the scales in the calculated gamble the system has to take when it defines political activity as criminal. It ensures that this redefinition is successful in reducing the threat to the fabric of capitalist society.

There is no straightforward answer to the second question we have set ourselves. It may be that capitalism will be successful in redefining the kind of political opposition it faces (politics in the streets, as in Paris; Negro politics in Ghetto riots; Vietnam Solidarity demonstrations in the wooded squares of London) as criminal, but only if we allow that definition to stick. One purpose of this article is to plead the case that unless we are to understand how the common criminal himself has come to be defined (and how he has been explained), we may not be ready for our own deviant status.

Unless we understand the nature and meaning of working-class criminality we may misunderstand some of the ways in which consciousness is expressed in the working class. The same mistake has been made before. As Thompson notes in relation to Luddism:

‘Luddism was a quasi-insurrectionary movement. This is not to say that it was a wholly conscious revolutionary movement; on the other hand, it had a tendency towards becoming such a movement and it is this tendency which is most often understated.’ [20]

We are concerned to recognise signs of political expression, however fragmented and pathetic amongst workers, and to organise and further politicise them; we should also consider the strategies we can adopt in asserting the political content of social deviance and deciding how it may be protected from easy defeat at the hands of capitalism’s official and unofficial cops.

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1. One British study provides the following breakdown of 366 boys committed to Borstal: 292 were employed in labouring and other unskilled jobs, and only 37 in skilled grades; the other 37 were in the forces or had not worked since leaving school. (Mannheim and Wilkins, Prediction Methods in Relation to Borstal Training, 1955.)

Another investigator concludes from his study of Borstal boys that ‘the usual picture is the boy with a long string of jobs of short duration and of an unskilled character. (A.G. Rose, Five Hundred Borstal Boys, Oxford, 1954.)

2. Introduction to Gina Lombroso Ferraro, Criminal Man According to the Classification of Cesare Lombroso, 1911, quoted in A.K. Cohen, Deviance and Control, 1966, p.50.

3. W.A. Bonger, Criminality and Economic Conditions, 1916, p.378.

4. Quoted in Roger Hood, Borstal Re-assessed, Heinemann, 1965, pp.97-98.

5. Or, in the terms of academic discourse, a ‘conflict’ as opposed to a ‘static’ model of social relationships.

6. So the Chicago School has often provided an ideological and occupational alternative for drop-out revolutionaries with mouths and consciences to feed.

7. W.A. Bonger, Op. cit., p.448.

8. David Hargreaves, Social Relations in the Secondary School, 1967.

9. Kobrin, in the American Sociological Review, 1951.

10. A.K. Cohen, Delinquent Boys, 1955.

11. E.M. Lemert, Social Pathology, 1951. The notion of ‘labelling’ man implied by this theory is of an extremely integrated and over-socialised animal, but the man being labelled appears to be a fragmented and highly alienated being. In as much as one can specify the assumptions of this sympathetic theory they seem to involve a resurrection of the notion of alienation in the early Marx. Full consideration of these implications is impossible here.

12. D. Matza, Delinquency and Drift, Wiley, 1964.

13. See Ken Coates, Wage Slaves, The Incompatibles, Penguin, 1967, pp.56-94.

14. E.J. Hobsbawm, in Labouring Men, gives an interesting historical parallel to what we are saying when he categorises some kinds of Luddism in the early nineteenth century as ‘collective bargaining by riot.’

15. Brian Jackson, Working-CIass Community, 1968.

16. E.P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class (London 1963) quotes Rudé’s suggestion that the term ‘revolutionary crowd’ might well take the place of ‘mob’ in many historical accounts.

17. See Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (Oxford, 1963) for an account of ‘illegalism’ in France. See also E.P. Thompson’s account (Op. cit., p.550) of the political significance of Luddism.

18. So, for instance, on the fringes of deviant activity in Britain, one can observe the acting out of these ambiguous roles by people around the Black Power movement, International Times and the underground movements in general. An interesting development is within the so-called Black Hand Gang (based in London and Newcastle) who draw inspiration from the attempted assassination of Andy Warhol and have publicly pledged themselves to the assassination of other underground figures.

19. Theorien über den Mehrwert, Vol.1, quoted in Bottomore and Rubel (eds.), Marx’s Sociological Writings, p.168.

20. E.P. Thompson, Op. cit.

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