About this sample
About this sample
Words: 1686 |
9 min read
Published: Aug 31, 2023
Words: 1686|Pages: 4|9 min read
Criminology is a field of sociological inquiry that focuses on the causes, consequences, social perceptions, and prevention of illegal behavior and social deviance. It is, therefore, a discipline that pertains to some of the most fundamental questions a society confronts, such as the nature and purpose of the state’s use of coercion (through institutions like the prison and police systems). It is a high-stakes area and eminently practical area of study – one that has prompted the evolution of criminology, leading experts and scholars to devise a range of theories geared toward explaining criminal phenomena. The usefulness of these theories is evident in how well they can explain or interpret facts about criminal behavior. Indeed, according to criminologist John Braithwaite (1989, pp. 44-50), for any theory of crime to be explanatorily useful, it should be able to account for thirteen facts about crime. The present essay looks at one specific theory of crime – the Marxist approach – in order to explain six different facts about crime. Those facts are that crime tends to be perpetrated by young people (age 15-25), by males, by unmarried people, by people who have low occupational and educational aspirations, by people who are friends with criminals, and by people who are at the bottom of the class structure (Frailing & Harper, 2016, p. 46).
As a school of critical criminology, the Marxist approach to crime seeks to understand the phenomenon by placing it within a broader social context of injustice and socio-political struggles. It is critical in the sense that it is a departure from, and criticism of, previous understandings of crime that either took crime for granted or sought to explain it with reference to individuals rather than social patterns (Friedrichs, 2009, pp. 210-211). Marxist criminology, then, aims to analyze crime as fundamentally social, as inextricably linked to social hierarchies that distribute different expectations and roles to individuals on the basis of their social relationships and their identities.
Despite the fact that Karl Marx himself never elaborated his ideas on crime into an understandable body of writing, he did create a theoretical and intellectual foundation that later criminologists have employed to develop a distinctly Marxist approach to crime. The social theory that he crafted suggests that deviance and violent anti-social behavior more generally are attributable to historically specific forms of economic exploitation, not to the timeless failings of human nature or to physiognomic differences. In the absence of economic exploitation of one class by another—without the use of private property to appropriate other people’s labor—forms of social oppression like racism and sexism would lose social root (and purpose), becoming undone from the underlying interests that fuel the reproduction of cultural ills (Spitzer, 1975, pp. 639-641). For Marxists, the struggle to forge a radically egalitarian society in which property is held in a collective and democratic manner would require overcoming class antagonisms that drive not only property crimes but also crimes of bigotry and prejudice. It would also signal the triumph of a communal approach to social relationships over the atomized, competitive relationships that characterize the capitalist mode of production.
That Marxist criminological theory has analytical power that extends far beyond property-related crimes is evident in how it relates to what might be termed the problem of single young men. Three of Braithwaite’s facts of crime suggest that perpetrators disproportionately tend to be males, to be unmarried, and to be between the ages of 15 and 25. While this might seem to be beyond the explanatory reach of Marxism, these facts point to the centrality of the family as an institution ensuring the smooth reproduction of class society. The family is the location where unpaid domestic labor takes place – e.g., cooking, cleaning, and other chores. It is, in Marxist terms, the site where workers’ labor power, or the capacity to labor, is reproduced in order to be sold as new each day to business owners (Vogel, 1983, ch. 10). Yet is also the site where labor power is generationally reproduced, where parents raise children to become economically productive adults. Without domestic labor of both kinds, which is itself becoming increasingly commoditized through nursery and cleaning services staffed disproportionately by women, capitalism would not be able to function.
At the same time, economic competitiveness in the workplace places a premium on the consistency of performance and intensity of professional focus. This fact disadvantages women’s value to employers, since women bear the exclusive burden of pregnancy and, as a result, may experience for periods of time a reduced ability to devote themselves to their jobs (Vogel, 1983, pp. 151-155). The institution of the family disproportionately disadvantages women in economic and in cultural terms, burdening them with lingering social expectations that their place is primarily in the home rather than the workplace, that their contribution to society comes primarily through their fertility and sexuality rather than other areas. The overall result of these gender expectations reaches even into childhood, where “girls are more closely supervised than boys, and are afforded less freedom—reducing their opportunities for participation in delinquency without their parents’ knowledge” (Greenberg, 1993, p. 408). By contrast, boys and young men are socialized to be “rugged, self-assertive, achievement-oriented, and competitive,” and face much greater expectations for “earning income for themselves” (Greenberg, 1993, pp. 407-408).
Gender differences in cultural expectations and socialization explain why young, single men disproportionately tend to be the perpetrators of crimes. As males, they face pressure to achieve economic success and independence. Crime becomes a route – one more easily accessible to them than to young women – to meet these expectations illegally. That route is particularly appealing to young, single men specifically, who are in a period of mounting pressure to transition to the role of breadwinning head of household. In comparison, married men (and older men, who more commonly tend to be married than younger men) are more likely to have accumulated greater social connections, professional experiences, and property. As a result, they tend to be anchored not only in abstract gender expectations but also obligations to family and others in the community. By placing gender expectations in the context of the capitalist nuclear family, Marxism is able to make sense of at least three of Braithwaite’s facts about crime.
If young men face pressure to fulfill gendered expectations to achieve economic success as a head of household, poor men face the additional challenge of having minimal “legitimate” resources to live up to these expectations. For this and other reasons, poverty is a breeding ground for crime. Unemployment, lack of financial security, and other factors of poverty strain the social support systems that make crime less likely. But they also deprive people of the ability to address mental health issues, which in turn can result in criminal behavior. Moreover, a Marxist approach to criminology stresses that the state and its laws are ultimately instruments by which the capitalist class oppresses and regiments the working class. This is evident in what recent critics have called “the criminalization of poverty” – where laws have criminalized the immediate consequences of being poor, such as inability to pay stipulated child support or inability to correctly navigate the increasing restricted public welfare system (Edelman, 2017, chs. 5-6). Far from justifying crime as “appropriate and acceptable behavior” – as some opponents of the Marxist approach have caricatured it (Frailing & Harper, 2016, p. 173) – Marxist criminology clarifies and explains the correlation between poverty and crime by emphasizing the political dimensions of access to resources. The wealthy have the resources to avoid running afoul of the law while pressuring government officials to crack down, often profitably, on those who do not.
The lack of resources both arises from and also feeds into diminished opportunities for education and therefore professional advancement and encourages the poor to seek other ways out of poverty. Particularly in the United States, where school quality is directly tied to local property tax values, schools can function as a superstructural site for warehousing youth and conditioning them through a “hidden curriculum” to prepare them psychologically for low-wage labor (Bowles & Gintis, 1976, pp. 39-42). Deprived of a robust channel for upward mobility, the impoverished – segregated geographically and educationally – often turn to one another for help. The result is the construction of criminal subcultures, ranging from informal street gangs of youths to highly sophisticated criminal enterprises—enterprises where the formal, class-inflected credentials of mainstream society are not essential to acquiring the trappings of wealth. Marxist studies of organized crime and criminal subculture have stressed the spatial and geographic dimensions of organized crime, arguing that the very attempts to exclude immigrants have resulted in the creation of criminal networks that seek alternative routes out of poverty (Pearce, 1993). In other words, Marxist criminology does not attempt to justify crime so much as argue that crime is the byproduct of unequal access to political and economic resources, including education resources, that can be offset through the creation of illegal networks. In this way, Marxist criminology explains the fact that criminals also tend to be people who have low occupational and educational aspirations, who are friends with criminals, and who are at the bottom of the class structure.
Three decades after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, Marxism has all but been forgotten as a political project. But it remains an important criminological perspective, if not because of the correctness of Marxist theory than because it emphasizes interconnections between politics and wealth that other approaches downplay or sideline.
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