Can poverty, crime and inequality end under capitalism?

A contradictio in terminis

To answer this question it is important to know what capitalism really is. How does it function? Capitalism is a hierchiacal economic system which is build around private property of the means of production in pursuit of profit through competition in the market, where prices for goods and services are determined by demand and supply of materials and wage labour. It is build on the exploitation of workers, and the environment. Because wages are the biggest cost for capitalists, the owners of the means of production (the bosses) are always looking for ways to drive the wages down. They have no influence on the price of raw materials, or the running cost of the factory, or transport, so wages are the way to increase profits. They do this for instance by competition for jobs. By playing the workers out against each other. A great example at the moment is the de-skilling of electricians at the Hinkley Point Nuclear Reactor by two big construction companies. By introducing a new apprenticeship in which candidates do a 2 month course with a job at the end they by-pass expensive fully qualified electricians who train for years to get their qualifications. Off course this also goes to the detriment of safety on site, as these apprentices cannot possibly deliver safe work after only 8 weeks on the job.

Cutting cost on wages is one way to increase profit, and cutting cost on safety another. This can be done by increasing working hours, using cheaper materials, and driving wages down through precarious contracts, zero-hour contracts and bogus self-employment for instance in gig-economy jobs. Every morsel of cost is diverted back onto the worker, or the consumer. An example of this can be found in care work. Many care workers are on zero-hours contracts, have to pay for travel between jobs themselves, and are put under extreme time pressure (15 min visits in which they have to wash, cloth and feed a person). These workers are only paid per visit, time waiting in traffic, travelling between clients etc. is unpaid. Many of these workers, millions in fact, are on such a low wage that they cannot sustain themselves and their families. In April 2019 2 million workers earnt on or under the minimum wage in the UK said the Low Pay Commission (2021) as cited in The Commons Library (2021). In April 2019 the minimum wage was £7.83 per hour for adults over 25 (UK Government, 2021).The average rent in the UK in 2019 was £700 a month (ONS, 2020), so an adult working 40 hours a week would earn £313.20 a week which is £1357,20 a month. That person would have £657.20 left per month = £151.66 per week for all other bills, travel, food and clothing. Off course if you have children or are on a zero hour contract you likely have less than this.

It is no wonder that many young people, who are under 25 and earn significantly less than the above, are driven into the arms of gangs and feel there is no other option than crime to earn a living. Austerity has decimated youth services, education opportunities and apprenticeships. All other public service provisions have been cut to the bone, many local authorities are in enormous debt and face bankruptcy (for instance Northamptonshire County Council, in 2018). The capitalist system looks to privatise all public services, so the market can monetise it and make every aspect of life a commodity, to be bought and sold. The result is massive disparity between rich and poor, and the middle classes falling into the poor category more and more, as slowly the greed of an ever decreasing group of exceedingly rich people have to tap into the wealth of an ever increasing group.

Pamphlet ‘The Transitional Programme‘ by Leon Trotsky, Leftbooks

To control this immense army of poor, capitalists use divisions and inequality to their advantage. Individualism is encouraged and promoted, collectivism discouraged and criminalised. Racism, sexism, homo-, and transphobia and any discrimination of ethnic minorities is rife as a result. As long as people fight amongst each other, anger and frustration is not aimed at the real causes of their suffering; the ruling class, the rich, the big corporations, the state and the capitalist system itself.

Last night I attended a Zoom meeting titled: ‘Is it a crime to be poor?’, with speakers including academics and former prisoners, and it was chaired by a Labour MP. The whole discussion was addressing lots of different aspects of the problem, and many attendees gave hosts of ideas what needed to be done about them. But nobody actually addressed HOW we could achieve them. When I asked why we were not talking about the cause of poverty and crime, namely the capitalist system and how to overthrow it, the answer was: ‘Because it is too big to deal with’. Others were saying that when we chip away at the fringes, deal with smaller issues somehow we could change the narrative and slowly change the system. What a cop out.

In my opinion these types of responses are given by people who don’t have any trust in the power of the working class, in the power of many, many millions of people fighting collectively to overcome their suffering. Yes, it is a huge task. Yes it is very difficult and challenging, but it is not impossible. And, above all, it is the only way it will be able to bring about lasting change for the benefit of all. Think about it. How will the capitalists with their wealth and power respond to ‘chipping away at the fringes’ and single issue responses? Exactly, with force and only a little force is needed to stamp that idea out as it only is done by a few well-wishers and do-gooders. But think about what they can do when millions of people strike and protest at the same time, what can they do when the whole economy is disrupted, like you could see happening during the Covid lockdowns worldwide. There is nothing they can do, because together we, the workers make the world go round. So in my view, our task is to convince our families, neighbours, colleagues and friends of this way. Read Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Leon Trotsky, their ideas are worked out to the letter of what is needed to make this happen, and join the Socialist Party or the Committee for a Worker’s International (CWI)for the section in your country.

The death penalty

In the last week before Christmas I am still a week ahead of schedule with studying. This week, the topic is the death penalty. Obviously as a revolutionary socialist I am firmly against the death penalty, hell I am against the whole penal system. In this last blogpost before the new year, yes I am also taking a break, I will explain my thoughts and theory on this topic.

I will start off with an interesting view on murder by Friedrich Engels (1845), who is for those of you who don’t know, the financial force and co-author of Karl Marx’s ‘Communist Manifesto’. He personally wrote ‘The Conditions of the Working Class in England’ in which he made this statement about the concept of ‘social murder’:

“..they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live – forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence – knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual” (p.126). 

I would go as far as saying that all crime is a consequence of the material conditions people live in, which means that the capitalist state is ultimately creating crime. The capitalist state then punishes its citizens for committing these crimes, but doesn’t acknowledge its role in creating them nor does it have to face scrutiny or consequences for committing ‘social murder’ itself. This is because the state decides what is crime and has the power to legislate. When I say that the capitalist state creates crime, I mean it creates the conditions in which people are forced to commit crime, or are driven to commit crime. I know the causes of crime are very diverse and complicated but I think a lot of crime is caused by inequality, exploitation and deprivation which are the components on which capitalism thrives. Okay, yes, this is just my own personal opinion, I am not going to delve into it further and back it up with evidence.

Now the arguments in favour of the death penalty fall into two categories (Drake and Scott, 2019, p. 197):

  • Arguments around preventing future harm
  • Arguments based on morality

The first argument has two components:

  • 1. deterrence – the threat of death will deter people from committing a similar crime.
  • 2. incapacitation – by executing the death penalty a person will be permanently removed from society and thus does no longer pose a threat to society. This then suggests there is no hope for change within the offender.

Resulting from this line of thinking (deterrence), one has to conclude that capital punishment should result in clear reduction of murder rates (Drake and Scott, 2019, p. 197). Unfortunately this is not the case. In the US the states with the highest murder rates account for around 80% of all state executions (Drake and Scott, 2019, p.193). So you can’t say it actually works as a deterrence, as evidence suggests otherwise.

Then there is the arguments based on morality. This includes retribution so that the death of the perpetrator can somehow provide ‘closure’ to the victim’s family. Unfortunately, this argument also is based on a sense of morality rather than evidence (Camus, 1957; Pojman and Reiman, 1997).

‘Stairway to Hell’ | Graphite on paper | Mayola | 2020

Arguments against the death penalty are also divided into the same 2 categories, based on morality and around preventing future harm. In case of the latter, the death penalty does not prevent future harm as a general deterrent, meaning that in places where the death penalty is applied as a threat for specific crimes, these crimes still happen at similar rates to places that don’t have the death penalty. It does however obviously work as a specific deterrent; a person killed through the death penalty will not commit any crime ever again Bedau, 2001). Another point is that often people legally killed by the state like this turn out to be innocent of the crime. It is also impossible to determine if someone would kill again in future (Zimring, 2004).

The moral arguments against the death penalty are for instance that it can be argued to be an act of hypocrisy that allows the state to commit legal murder on a person accused of the same act. Critics also question that it is mainly poor people who are sentenced to death, which undermines the application of the death penalty (Culbert, 2001). International human rights bodies like the UN argue for the importance of the ‘right to life’, and highlight the way that the state has power to take life, questioning the right of the state to have such powers (Drake and Scott, 2019, p. 201).

I think after reading all this, that there are much better arguments against the death penalty, with evidence to back it up. It really makes me wonder how society would develop if we would live in a much more equal society, based on the common interest of improving living conditions for everyone on this planet. If life was not based around competition and producing the most profit and private property for a few extremely rich individuals over the backs of the billions of workers who are exploited for their labour.

Imagine if every aspect of life was based on the idea of improving everyone’s living conditions equally to the maximum possible. That is what socialism and ultimately communism is. There would be no competition, because we would all work towards this common goal. The death penalty does not belong in that picture. Yes, we would still have generations of extremely disturbed murderers we have to deal with, but because the whole outlook would be different, we might discover ways to rehabilitate most criminals and even murderers. If we would collectively look at solving those problems, I am confident we can find a way that works much better for both the victims of crime and their families, and the criminals and their families.

And living in a world that has to improve all life equally, the causes of crime would slowly disappear. To give an example, I once read about an experiment with rats. One rat was put in an empty cage with two bottles. One filled with water, and one filled with water laced with heroin. Very quickly the rat would start drinking from the laced water because it would feel better dealing with its surroundings and become addicted.

Then the same rat was put in a cage but this time it was filled with lots of fun activities, bedding, food and a few rat friends to accompany him. Both bottles were still there, but the rats hardly touched the heroin laced water. Conclusion, having company, warmth and activities to do making the rat feel comfortable and safe meant that it wouldn’t get addicted. Off course the same counts for humans.

In this capitalist society where individualism is encouraged, and communal activities are discouraged, there is lots of competition for necessities like food, water, housing etc. which places people against each other. Every aspect of life is made a commodity and love, care and empathy are rare and often also made a commodity for sale. This is extremely unhealthy behaviour and leads to addiction, loneliness, crime and deprivation. Communism is the opposite of that, it encourages working together, diversity, respect and love. I always have to think of the motto of the three musketeers: ‘One for All, All for One!’.

References

Engels, F. (1845) The Condition of the Working Class in England, Oxford, Oxford University Press (this edition 2009).

Drake, D.H. and Scott, D (2019) ‘The Death Penalty: state-sponsored murder?’, in Drake, D.H., Nightingale, A. and Scott, D (eds) Introduction to Criminology 1, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 183-208.

Camus, A. (1957) Resistance, Rebellion & Death (including Reflections on the Guillotine) (Trans. J. O’Brien), New York, Alfred A. Knopf (this edition 1961).

Pojman, L. and Reiman, J. (1997) The Death Penalty: For and Against, New York, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

Bedau, H. A. (2001) ‘Abolishing the death penalty even for the worst murderers’, in Sarat, A. (ed.) (2001) The Killing State: Capital Punishment in Law, Politics, and Culture, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Zimring, F. (2004) The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Culbert, J. L. (2001) ‘Beyond intention: A critique of the “normal” criminal agency, responsibility and punishment in American death penalty jurisprudence’, in Sarat, A. (ed) (2001) The Killing State: Capital Punishment in Law, Politics and Culture, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Drake, D.H. and Scott, D (2019) ‘The Death Penalty: state-sponsored murder?’, in Drake, D.H., Nightingale, A. and Scott, D (eds) Introduction to Criminology 1, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 183-208.