‘Radical and Marxist Theories of Crime’ reviewed by Miroslav Imbrisevic

and (eds)
Radical and Marxist Theories of Crime

Ashgate, Farnham, 2011. 546pp., $325.00 / £ 170 hb
ISBN 9781409423096

Reviewed by Miroslav Imbrisevic

About the reviewer

Miroslav Imbrisevic completed a PhD on Carlos Nino’s theory of punishment in 2013 at Heythrop …


This collection of essays approaches the issue of crime from the perspective of criminology, which is traditionally concerned with the nature and causes of crime. Radical or Marxist criminology (RMC) became prominent in the late 60s. This strand of criminology is concerned with how class formation, class structure and crime are related. It is assumed that the motivation to commit crimes is not innate to individuals but is a result of social conditions. RMC’s most important premise is that the structure of the production process shapes the construction of various classes as well as shaping a concomitant power structure (i.e., who owns the means of production and who controls the labour power). Most importantly, for the discussion of crime, economic power can be translated into political power (e.g., through lobbying or funding of political campaigns/candidates).

According to the series editor this volume forms part of a series of books with the aim of bringing together ‘the best of the theoretical contributions’. The contributions cover the period 1971-2007. The volume contains 22 essays which are grouped into four sections: 1. Definitions and Background, 2. Varieties of Radical/Marxist Criminology, 3. Explaining Crime and 4. Social Control: Policing and Punishment. I will not discuss each essay separately, instead I will focus on some themes which emerge.

The Definition of Crime. According to the traditional – legalistic – view, the notion of crime is simply what is defined as such by the criminal law. But the RMC notion is wider. The legal system reflects the interests of the ruling class(es) and for this reason it is often ‘blind’ to other wrongful acts. RMC argues that there are, in addition to crimes as defined by the law, crimes of the state, white collar crimes, environmental crimes and corporate crimes.

Note that legal systems contain contradictions. They can be viewed as ‘instruments of ruling classes, but certain laws that safeguard personal property, security of the person, economic and political rights, etc, may at any given time also be in the interests of working classes.’ (Schwendinger & Schwendinger, `Social Class and the Definition of Crime’ 1977, 5. References refer to articles included in this volume). However, this dialectic, viewed comprehensively, works ultimately in favour of the ruling class through its stabilising effect (i.e., compliance with the legal system and acceptance of the economic and political system).

Traditional criminologists claim that crimes are anti-social acts and therefore harmful. Schwendinger (1977,7) writes: ‘since the control of state power enables ruling classes to legally sanction acts that oppose their own interests, such as strikes, political dissent, and affiliation with left-wing political parties, any definition that accepts the corollary that legal crimes are social harms, implicitly legitimates such criminal laws and sanctions regardless of their repressive contents.’ This means that some prohibitions within a legal system protect the interests of the powerful, and are thus contributing to the exploitation and oppression of certain sectors of society. We can say that the RMC project is twofold. It is to widen the notion of what is a wrongful act/crime beyond existing legislation as well as to scrutinise the existing legislation for laws which favour the powerful.

How Does Crime Come About? Chambliss explains that ‘the structure of capitalism creates both the desire to consume and – for a large mass of people – an inability to earn the money necessary to purchase the items they have been taught to want.’ (Chambliss, ‘Toward a Political Economy of Crime’ 1975, 40). Furthermore, ‘as capitalism develops and conflicts between social classes continue or become more frequent or more violent (as a result, for example, of increasing proletarianization), more and more acts will be defined as criminal.’ (Chambliss 1975, 41).

A worrying development of modern capitalism, particularly in the US, is the phenomenon of the working poor (De Giorgi: ‘Toward a Political Economy of Post-Fordist Punishment’ 2007). This is the result of a changed economy combined with cuts in the welfare system over past decades. People with low level skills have to hold down two or three jobs in order to survive. RMC’s claim is that when there is an underclass struggling to survive, this breeds crime. But the well-off also commit crimes. Here it is the desire to consume – but not for reasons of survival – which motivates the crime.

Chambliss (1975, 56) writes: ‘Criminal acts are widely distributed throughout the social classes in capitalist societies. The rich, the ruling, the poor, the powerless and the working classes all engage in criminal activities on a regular basis. It is in the enforcement of the law that the lower classes are subject to the effects of ruling class domination over the legal system, and which results in the appearance of a concentration of criminal acts among the lower classes in the official records.’

In a system where economic competition is unrestrained ‘an egoistic moral climate and lack of sensitivity to the needs of others is almost inevitable only individual selfish interests can guide the pursuit of profit, leading to the disregard of ethical concerns.’ (Antonaccio, ‘A Cross-National Test of Bonger’s Theory of Criminality and Economic Conditions’ 2007, 204). This explains the crimes among the better-off classes. Certain crimes (involving violence, drugs or property) are much more prevalent in the US than in Europe. The explanation given for this discrepancy is that there is usually a better welfare system in place in Europe.

However, religion may also a factor influencing crime rates. Antonaccio (2007, 215) finds ‘that nations with particular cultural religious orientations, such as Islam, Buddhism, or Confucianism’ exhibit lower homicide rates than societies which were shaped by Christianity.’ Antonaccio (2007, 224) suggests ‘the strength of informal networks of social control’ in societies of Eastern religion as a reason for lower homicide rates.

Lynch states that the traditional radical view of linking unemployment to crime is not the best indicator for crime rates. Instead it is the degree to which surplus value is extracted which is a statistically better ‘predictor of aggregate rates of arrests and crimes’ (Lynch et al., ‘The Rate of Surplus Value and Crime’ 1994, 283). An increase in the degree to which surplus value is extracted within a society leads to a greater marginalisation of some of its people (i.e., the poor and the working poor). This marginalisation is conducive to committing crime. And Nalla (et al., ‘Determinants of Police Growth in Phoenix’ 1997, 460) finds that the rate of surplus value is a statistically significant indicator for the growth of the police force.

How to Respond to Crime. There is a debate between ‘Realist Criminologists’ and ‘Radical Criminologists’ on how to tackle crime. The former advocate measures to ameliorate poverty and social exclusion, the latter claim that we need to address the inherent contradictions of modern capitalism as such (Gordon, ‘Class and the Economics of Crime’ 1971, 188). It seems obvious that ameliorating the plight of the disadvantaged will reduce crimes which are related to deprivation. But this measure does not address the crimes of the better-off classes.

Marx himself recognised, in Theories of Surplus Value, that the criminal/deviant is to a certain degree a stabilising factor in capitalist societies. The route into crime helps to remove some of the surplus labour. And what we can observe in recent times is that the practice of mass incarceration has turned into an economic endeavour. It creates jobs (in the legal profession and in law enforcement) and it creates new technologies (e.g., electronic tags). Furthermore, the existence of criminals/deviants might foster the feeling of societal cohesion among the law-abiding and among those who appear to be law-abiding.

Schwendinger argues that the response to crime ‘depends upon how the causes of crime are interpreted. Is rape really a crime that erupts from the sordid nature of men in general? Or does it express complex causal patterns due to the nature of society rather than man? The answers to these questions are extremely important. If social relationships are the fundamental causes, then the repression of individual rapists will never provide a long-term solution to the eradication of rape. For every imprisoned rapist there will be others created by society to take his place in the population at large.’ (Schwendinger, ‘Rape, Sexual Inequality and Levels of Violence’ 1981,160). Schwendinger suggests that the repressive nature of capitalist societies leads to violence, one form of violence being rape. In this context it would be interesting to look at empirical studies about crime in socialist societies. Presumably there would be fewer crimes and some crimes might not occur at all. But none of the papers in this volume address this issue.

The Increase in Punitiveness. In the early 1970s Western economies experienced a transformation from a Fordist and Keynesian model to a post-Fordist order, ‘characterised by high unemployment, increasing labour flexibility, work insecurity and widespread social vulnerability, welfare “reforms” and rising income inequalities.’ (De Giorgi 2007, 482). Some politicians realised that crime/law-and-order would be an ideal issue to shape their politics. De Giorgi (2007, 493), referring to the work of Jonathan Simon, writes: ‘The mass-mediated discourse about crime as a major social problem affecting tax-paying honest citizens facilitates the social construction of some categories of people – the poor, African-American youth and the urban underclass – as a “public enemy” against whom a war must be waged.’ This led to a new strategy in politics: governing through crime.

The prison population in the US multiplied roughly fivefold from 1975 (400,000) to 2004 (2.1 million) but the overall population only rose by roughly a third from in the same period – so one would only expect a rise in the prison population by roughly 33%. De Giorgi states that this trend is not the result of rising crime rates, but rather a result of a greater appetite for incarceration. Governing through crime is a vote winner.

To sum up, this is, mostly, an interesting collection of papers, which gives the reader a good insight in how the strand of RMC has developed over time. Note that the title of the book might be a little misleading. Some of the papers are indeed of a theoretical nature, others mostly survey the existing literature with some interpretation thrown in, and some take hypotheses from well known theoreticians (Willem Bonger, Rusche-Kirchheimer) and measure them against empirical evidence.

One lacuna of this volume is the lack of engagement with crimes by the better off classes and with state crimes. For example, in the last decade incidence of targeted extra-judicial and extra-territorial killings, the use of extra-territorial prisons and the application of torture by some states have come to prominence. It would have been interesting to see how RMC views these issues.

I would like to close with a note on the format and price of the book. The ambition to bring together the best theoretical contributions to the debate may explain why this book has retained the original pagination of the articles. Providing facsimiles allows for easy reference and is helpful to scholars. The downside is that for some of the papers the font size is minuscule. This is an expensive book – considering that the papers did not need to be re-formatted and re-edited, and that none of them were written specifically for this volume – one wonders about the high price. 

20 September 2014

One comment

  1. The crimes done by State are more dangerous. It can also be overpopulation. One example I see in third world countries where secular taxes are converted to non secular budget to promote and over fertile population of specific race and skin color.

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