Marxist criminologists see power being held by the Bourgeoisie and laws are a reflection of Bourgeois ideology. The legal system (lawyers, judges and the courts) and the police all serve the interests of the Bourgeoisie. These institutions are used to control the masses, prevent revolution and keep people in a state of false consciousness.
For the purposes of Second Year Sociology, the Marxist perspective on crime may be summarised into four key points:
- Capitalism is Crimogenic –This means that the Capitalist system encourages criminal behaviour.
- The Law is made by the Capitalist elite and tends to work in their interests.
- All classes, not just the working classes commit crime, and the crimes of the Capitalist class are more costly than street crime.
- The state practices Selective Law Enforcement – The Criminal Justice system mainly concerns itself with policing and punishing the marginalised, not the wealthy, and this performs ideological functions for the elite classes.
Key Sociologists associated with this perspective are William Chambliss (1978) and Laureen Snider (1993). Examples of more contemporary theorists include Professors Tombs and Whyte (See later).
Capitalism is Crimogenic
Many Marxists see crime as a natural ‘outgrowth’ of the capitalist system. The Capitalist system can be said to be crimogenic in three major ways –
- Capitalism encourages individuals to pursue self-interest rather than public duty
- Capitalism encourages individuals to be materialistic consumers, making us aspire to an unrealistic and often unattainable lifestyle.
- Capitalism in its wake generates massive inequality and poverty, conditions which are correlated with higher crime rates.
Capitalism, self-interest and crime
Capitalism is Crimogenic because it encourages individuals to pursue self-interest before everything else.
Marxist Sociologist David Gordon says that Capitalist societies are ‘dog eat dog societies’ in which each individual company and each individual is encouraged to look out for their own interests before the interests of others, before the interests of the community, and before the protection of the environment. If we look at the Capitalist system, what we find is that not only does it recommend that we engage in the self-interested pursuit of profit is good, we learn that it is acceptable to harm others and the environment in the process. Please see KT’s blog post – ‘On The incredible immorality of corporate greed’ for referenced examples of Corporations acting immorally in the pursuit of profit.
Marxists point out that in a Capitalist society, there is immense competitive pressure to make more money, to be more successful, and to make more profit, because in a competitive system, this is the only way to ensure survival. In such a context, breaking the law can seem insignificant compared to the pressure to succeed and pressures to break the law affect all people: from the investment banker to the unemployed gang member.
Marxists theorise that the values of the Capitalist system filter down to the rest of our culture. Think again about the motives of economic criminals: The burglars, the robbers, and the thieves. What they are doing is seeking personal gain without caring for the individual victims.
Capitalism, materialism and crime
Capitalism is Crimogenic because it encourages us to want things we don’t need and can’t afford
Companies such as Coca Cola and McDonald’s spend billions of dollars every year on advertising, morphing their products into fantastical images that in no way resemble the grim reality of the products or the even grimmer reality of the productive processes that lie behind making their products. Advertising is a long way beyond merely providing us with information about a product; it has arguably become the art of disinformation.
It is doubtless that corporations benefit through advertising, and modern Capitalism could not exist without the culture of consumerism that the advertising industry perpetuates, and activities have pointed to many downsides. One of the most obvious is that the world of advertising presents as normal a lifestyle that may be unattainable for many people in British Society.
For those millions who lack the legitimate means to achieve the materialist norm through working, this can breed feelings of failure, inadequacy, frustration and anger at the fact that they are working-but-not–succeeding. In short, Advertising creates the conditions that can lead to status frustration, which in turn can lead to crime.
Merton and Nightingale have pointed out that for some the desire to achieve the success goals of society outweigh the pressure to obey the law, advertising only adds to this strain between the legitimate means and the goal of material success.
Capitalism, Inequality and Crime
Thirdly, Capitalism is Crimogenic because it creates inequality and poverty
The Capitalist system is one of radical inequality. At the very top we have what David Rothkopf calls the ‘Superclass’ , mainly the people who run global corporations, and at the very bottom we have the underclass (in the developed world) and the slum dwellers, the street children and the refugees in the developing world.
The Sociologists Zygmunt Bauman points out that the super wealthy effectively segregate themselves from the wealthy, through living in exclusive gated communities and travelling in private jets and armoured vehicles with security entourages. If people can afford it, they move to a better area, and send their children to private schools. However, this doesn’t prevent the poor and the rich from living side by side.
Marxists argue that this visible evidence of massive inequalities give people at the bottom a sense of injustice, a sense of anger and a sense of frustration that they are not sharing in the wealth being flaunted in front of them (the flaunting is the point is it not?) As a result, Capitalism leads to a flourishing of economic crime as well as violent street crime.
William Chambliss even goes so far as to say that economic crime ‘’represents rational responses to the competitiveness and inequality of life in capitalist societies”. As we have seen from previous studies. Drug dealers see themselves as innovative entrepreneurs. So internalised is the desire to be successful that breaking the law is seen as a minor risk.
Marxists hold that more egalitarian societies based on the values of the co-operation and mutual assistance, have lower crime rates, as can be evidence from Bruce Parry’s visit to the extremely egalitarian Island of Anuta
- Does Capitalism encourage competition over co-operation?
- Does exploitation lie at the heart of the Capitalist system?
- Does Capitalism encourage us to be selfish consumers?
- Does Capitalism cause crime?
The Law benefits the elite and works in their Interests
Basic Marxist theory holds that the superstructure serves the ruling classes, thus the state passes laws which support ruling class interests.
Evidence for this can be found in the following:
- Property rights are much more securely established in law than the collective rights of, for instance, trade unions. Property law clearly benefits the wealthy more than those with no property. William Chambliss has argued that ‘at the heart of the Capitalist system lies the protection of Private Property. Consider the fact that there are roughly 100, 000 people recognised as homeless in the United Kingdom1, and 300, 000 houses lying empty2. The rights of the property owners to keep their properties empty are put before the rights of the needy to shelter.
- Laureen Snider (1993)argues that Capitalist states are reluctant to pass laws which regulate large capitalist concerns and which might threaten profitability. Having tried so hard to attract investment the last thing the state wants to do is alienate the large corporations. The state is thus reluctant to pass – or enforce – laws against such things as pollution, worker health and safety and monopolies.
While the lack of regulation in these areas is obvious in the third world, in most of Europe, there are many laws protection the environment and health and safety, but fines for them are relatively low, and, until 2007, no individual member of a corporation could be prosecuted for damaging the environment or endangering worker safety through corporate practise.
A further recent example which could be used to support this is the deregulation of financial markets prior to the financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent ‘credit crunch’ and economic recession. The activities of the vast majority of bankers and financiers were not seen as illegal and, far from being prosecuted, many grew rich through the payments of large bonuses.
Also, People have unequal access to the law. Having money to hire a good lawyer can delay trials, meaning the difference between being found not guilty or guilty, and influence the length of one’s sentence and the type of prison one goes to. Thus for Marxists, punishment for a crime may depend and vary according to the social class of the perpetrator. Poorer criminals tend to receive harsher punishments than rich criminals. As evidenced in one of the examples above, Mark Thatcher received only a suspended sentence for assisting mercenaries in a military coup against a democratically elected government.
Discussion Question: Can you think of any other ways in which the law works in the interests of the elite?
All classes Commit Crime
Marxists remind us that people from all classes commit crime. Theres no better contemporary reminder of this than the case of Donald Trump in the USA. As the ex president of the country and a billionaire, you don’t get much more elite than him!
Case Study: The Crimes of Donald Trump
The former U.S. President Donald Trump currently stands accused of committing 87 crimes between 2017 and 2022. The details of these are complex, as this article in The Conversation points out. Four of the most basic crimes he is accused of include:
- Falsifying business documents (you might do this to increase the sale value of your assets or decrease the amount of tax you pay).
- Hoarding classified documents (these may contain details of Trump’s allegedly criminal activities).
- Interference in the 2020 presidential election.
- Attempting to overturn the 2020 presidential election results (e.g. through the Capitol Hill insurrection).
The final one is just about as serious as you can get!
Trump has pleaded not-guilty to all of these charges, and has been in and out of various courts since his presidency ended. However prosecutors don’t normally pursue a prosecution unless they think they have a good chance of getting a guilty verdict. So Trump is probably guilty of all these crimes.
This is a great example of how all classes commit crime, Trump being a member of the true global elite. It is also a good example of how someone with huge wealth can stay out of jail. Trump is doing this by challenging every little detail of every charge. So this is also an example of how the legal system can work in the interests of the rich.
However the very fact that Trump is being prosecuted shows that we don’t have selective law enforcement here!
We will have to wait and see what the outcome of this is.
The ‘Crimes’ of the Elite are more harmful than Street Crime
Marxists and other critical criminologists tend to focus on ‘social and environmental harms’ rather than crimes. If we take this approach then the violence and destruction carried out by elites are by far the worst in history.
The reason for focussing on harms rather than crimes is that historically elites define the violence they do against others as legitimate, or not criminal. However from a Marxist perspective this is only because they have the power to do so.
If we look at harms through history events such as colonialism and slavery, carried out by European powers have done enormous harms across Africa, Asia and the Americas. However throughout the colonial period, these harms were not seen as criminal. But from a Marxist perspective we should redefine them as criminal. As Angela Davis puts it….
‘The real criminals in this society are not all the people who populate the prisons across the state, but those people who have stolen the wealth of the world from the people’Angela Davis, former leader of the Black Panthers.
(NB This links in to Dependency Theory).
White Collar Crime and Corporate Crime
Marxists argue that although they are hidden from view, the crimes of the elite exert a greater economic toll on society than the crimes of the ‘ordinary people’. Laureen Snider (1993) points out that the cost of White Collar Crime and Corporate Crime to the economy far outweighs the cost of street crime by ‘typical’ criminals. Two contemporary organisations: Multinational Monitor and Corporate Watch, specialise in documenting the illegal activities of corporations.
In the section below we look at two types of white collar crime – Fraud and Health and Safety infringements. Both of these sound either terribly complex or terribly unexciting (or both) which means people are generally uninterested in hearing about them, and this general lack of public interest is something which helps the elite get away with an incredibly high level of criminality.
|White Collar Crime: Crimes committed in the furtherance of an individual’s own interests, often against the corporations of organisations within which they work. |
Corporate Crime: Those crimes committed by or for corporations or businesses which act to further their interests and have a serious physical or economic impact on employees, consumers and the general public. The drive is usually the desire to increase profits.
The Cost of Financial Crime (Fraud)
Organisations such as Corporate Watch and…. Multinational Monitor, suggest that Corporate Fraud is widespread. The General Accounting Agency of the USA has estimated that 100s of savings and loans companies have failed in recent years due to insider dealing, failure to disclose accurate information, and racketeering. The cost to the taxpayer in the USA of corporate bail outs is estimated to be around $500 billion, or $5000 per household in the USA.
Case Study: Bernie Madoff’s $65 billion Fraud
In 2009 the disgraced financier Bernie Madoff was sentenced to the maximum 150 years in prison for masterminding a $65bn (£38bn) fraud that wrecked the lives of thousands of investors.
The US district judge Denny Chin described the fraud as “staggering” and said the “breach of trust was massive” and that a message was being sent by the sentence. There had been no letters submitted in support of Madoff’s character, he said. Victims in the courtroom clapped as the term was read out.
Madoff pleaded guilty to 11 counts of fraud, theft and money laundering. The sentencing, in what has been one of the biggest frauds ever seen on Wall Street, was eagerly anticipated. Described by victims in written testimony as a “thief and a monster”, Madoff has become an emblem for the greed that pitched the world into recession. Nearly 9,000 victims have filed claims for losses in Madoff’s corrupt financial empire.
Madoff masterminded a huge “Ponzi” scheme. Instead of investing client’s money in securities, it was held with a bank and new deposits used to pay bogus returns to give the impression that the business was successful. At the time of his arrest in December, he claimed to manage $65bn of investors’ money, but in reality there was just $1bn left.
Corporate America has suffered a series of massive frauds during the past decade, including scandals at Enron, WorldCom, Tyco and more recently the financial empire run by Texas billionaire Allen Stanford. Former WorldCom chief Benrard Ebbers is serving 25 years for accounting fraud. Former Enron chief executive Jeffrey Skilling was sentenced to more than 24 years in prison although the sentence was overturned. He remains in prison awaiting resentencing.
Discussion Question: Are crimes such as fraud more harmful to society than violent crime?
The Ideological Functions of Selective Law Enforcement
David Gordon argues that the police mainly focus on policing working class (and underclass) areas and the justice system mainly focuses on prosecuting working and underclass criminals. By and large the system ignores the crimes of the elite and the middle classes, although both of these classes are just as likely to commit crime as the working classes.
Gordon argues that the disproportionate prosecution of working class criminals ultimately serves to maintain ruling-class power and to reinforce ruling class ideology (thus performing ‘ideological functions’ for the ruling class.)
According to Gordon ‘selective law enforcement’ benefits the Capitalist system in three major ways:
- By punishing individuals and making them responsible for their actions, defining these individuals as ‘social failures’ we ignore the failings of the system that lead to the conditions of inequality and poverty that create the conditions which lead to crime.
- The imprisonment of selected members of the lower classes neutralises opposition to the system.
- The imprisonment of many members of the underclass also sweeps out of sight the ‘worst jetsam of Capitalist society’ such that we cannot see it.
- We may also add a fourth benefit, that all of the police, court and media focus on working class street crime means that our attention is diverted away from the immorality and greed of the elite classes.
Criticisms of the Marxist Perspective on Crime
Although there are MANY examples of elites committing VERY harmful crimes, SOME of them get prosecuted. This means the elites do not always get away with crime. The case of Sam Bankman-Fried’s guilty verdict following the collapse of the crypto exchange FTX criticises the Marxist Perspective on Crime.
However a counter claim by Marxists would be that the system has to prosecute some elites to maintain legitimacy. Most of them still get away with their crimes.
While it may be true that the economic costs of corporate crime and fraud are greater than street crime, the direct emotional impact of street crimes are greater. If you are a victim of robbery or other types of street violence, you feel it more than being a victim of a corporate crime which you may not even notice!
This is part of the reason why people are more concerned about immediate street crime, which is something Left Realists addressed.
Communist countries are not crime free. Nor are the people who live in them free of persecution by the state! China and North Korea have pretty bad human rights records, for exampl!
Revision Bundle for Sale
If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Crime and Deviance Revision Bundle
- 12 exam practice questions including short answer, 10 mark and essay question exemplars.
- 32 pages of revision notes covering the entire A-level sociology crime and deviance specification
- Seven colour mind maps covering sociological perspective on crime and deviance
Written specifically for the AQA sociology A-level specification.
- Marxism is one of the main perspectives taught within the crime and deviance part of the AQA’s A-level sociology course.
- Evaluating the Marxist Perspective on Crime (part 1)
- Assess the Contribution of Marxism to our Understanding of Crime and Deviance – outline essay plan