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April 18, 2011 / C H Thompson

Marxist perspectives of crime

Marxists effectively developed labelling theory so it would recognise the social and political structures in which labels are created and adhered. In a sense Marxists appreciated the logic of labelling particularly as it examined the processes through which deviance is defined, secured and sanctioned.

However for Marxists labelling theory failed to account for why some behaviours were defined as deviant and other not.  Instead Marxists looked at how certain social groups achieved the power to apply labels to certain acts and whether or not these same social groups were having ‘their own’ law and order protected.

It’s easier to understand Marxist perspectives of crime, if you fully grasp the Marxist social theory (in fact it’s easier to understand all the perspectives of crime this way). For Marxists all social phenomena are explainable through society’s means of production.  Our capitalist means of production mean those who own the means of production have structural control over those who don’t. This causes social inequality and social conflict.

Marxist views of crime are best understood has having three distinct elements or processes :

  1. Criminogenic capitalism
  2. The role of the state and law making
  3. Selective enforcement

Criminogenic capitalism: Bonger (1916) was the first to apply notions of social conflict to the subject of crime and here’s a few of his central themes:

  1. Criminal law exists to protect the interests of the powerful
  2. The dynamics of capitalism encourages egoism and greed which in turn motivates both the working and ruling-classes are prone to crime as they don’t care about each other
  3. Poverty prompts crime to the extent it creates a desperate need for food and other necessities

The role of the state and law making: sixty years later Chambliss’ Marxist perspective on crime moved Bongor’s points forward by concentrating on the role of the economic production on social relations (including crime):

  1. the ruling-class will violate laws with impunity while members of the subject class will be punished
  2. acts are defined as criminal because it’s in the interests of the ruling-class to define them so
  3. crime will persist in capitalist societies because such societies promote inequalities, class-conflict and penal laws expand accordingly

Selective enforcement: Spitzer (1975) argues deviants and criminals are ‘constructed’ when certain groups (working-class) create problems those who rule. Therefore any person who calls into question the social conditions under which capitalist production takes place are likely to find themselves subjected to a process of criminalisation.

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