Marxist Theories of Crime – A Summary

Covering crimogenic capitalism, selective law enforcement and the ideological functions of crime control

Marxists argue that capitalism is crimogenic, and that all classes commit crime but the crimes of the elite do more harm. They also argue that law enforcement is selective, working in favour of elites and that crime control and punishment perform ideological functions.

NB this post has been written primarily for students of A-level sociology studying for the second year exam in crime and deviance with theory and methods.

Introduction/ The basics

  • Traditional Marxist theories explain crime in relation to power inequalities created by the capitalist system
  • The inequalities and injustices within Capitalism generate crime.
  • Class based analysis – both classes commit crime, the crimes of the elite are more harmful
  • The Bourgeoisie h- have economic power and because of this control the criminal justice system – they defined their own harmful acts as legal and are less likely to be prosecuted for the crimes they commit.
  • Historical Period (for Marxist Criminology) The 1970s

Crimogenic Capitalism

  • Crime is a consequence of the economic structure of capitalism
  • Capitalism is harsh, exploitative and breeds inequality, materialism and selfishness, which combined make crime in Capitalist societies inevitable. See David Gordon’s work on the ‘Dog eat Dog’ society
  • The Elite Make the Law in Their Own Interests
  • William Chambliss: At the heart of the capitalist system lies the protection of private property
  • Laureen Snider – Many nation states are reluctant to pass laws which restrict the freedom of Transnational Corporations to make profit
  • There is unequal access to the law – the more money you have, the better lawyer you can get
  • Harmful and exploitative acts in capitalist systems are not formally labelled criminal if these harmful activities make a profit – e.g. Colonialism/ Numerous Wars/ Pollution.

All Classes Commit Crime and the Crimes of the Powerful are of particular interest to Marxist Criminologists

  • White Collar Crime = Individual middle class/ elite crime within a company , Corporate = Institutional crime
  • Typical e.g’s include various types of fraud and negligence regarded health and safety at work.
  • The economic costs of Corporate Crime are greater than street crime (Laureen Snider/ Corporate Watch.
  • High profile Corporate Crimes = Bernie Madhoff, the Enron $100bn fraud and the 20 000 dead people as a result of Union Carbide’s corporate negligence in Bhopal, India.
  • Despite being more costly to society, the crimes of the elite tend to go unpunished – As research by Tombs and Whyte suggests

The ideological functions of selective law enforcement

According to Gordon ‘selective law enforcement’ benefits the Capitalist system in three major ways:

  • we ignore the failings of the system that lead to the conditions of inequality which generate crime.
  • The imprisonment of selected members of the lower classes neutralises opposition to the system.
  • sweeps out of sight the ‘worst jetsam of Capitalist society’ such that we cannot see it.

Positive Evaluations of Marxist Theories of Crime

  • Dog eat Dog explains both WC and Elite crime
  • TTIP is good supporting evidence for point 2not lone individuals
  • Lots of case studies and stats support the view that Corporate Crimes are harmful – Bhopal!
  • Tombs and Whyte’s research – strongly supports point 3

Criticisms of Marxist Theories of Crime

  • X – Crime has been decreasing in the UK in the last 20 years, yet we’re increasingly ‘neoliberal’
  • X – Crime existed before Capitalism and in Communist societies
  • X – Consensus theories argue most people today have private property, so most people are protected by the law
  • X – It’s unfair to compare corporate crime such as Fraud to street crime, the later has a more emotional toll.
  • X – Some Corporate Crminals are punished (e.g. Madhoff)

Signposting and Related Posts

These are brief revision notes for A-level sociology, written with the AQA sociology A level paper 2: crime and deviance with theory and methods (7192/3) in mind.

If you need to read over this topic in more depth then check out this long form version of the Marxist Theory of Crime here

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