An inevitable confrontation for revolutionary socialists
In this sixth edition of articles about criminology concepts in a socialist context I will talk about political crime. Admittingly this also is the subject of this week’s study material, but off course as a socialist I can’t ignore this important topic. To be honest, before I started reading about this last Monday I did not even know of the existence of political crime as a concept. Or perhaps it is more that I never considered it, which is strange because I am a political activist and campaigner.
Defining political crime
Anyway, let’s start by explaining what the definition of political crime is. It is, as cited in Kent (2019, p. 129),
‘politically motivated acts by citizens challenging the state, which are labelled as criminal, and as a consequence acted upon by the criminal justice system’.
I have to add that this concept is contested by many in the criminology field, including myself even though I am only just starting as a student. What is ‘political’ is contested, as well as what is ‘crime’, because both concepts are defined by the state. And the state, as Friedrich Engels (1977) explains, (cited in Head, 2011, p. 5)
“.. is a tool by the ruling class, a tool for the oppression of one class by another; the creation of ‘order’ that legalises and extends the oppression by regulating the conflict between classes whilst stripping the means and methods of struggle from the oppressed class to overthrow the oppressors”.
In most Western societies only a mere vale of democracy is draped over this concoction and really only officially allows freedom of press, freedom of assembly and equality before the law for all citizens but has always possibilities built into its constitution to declare martial law whenever a ‘crisis’ erupts and the people attempt to defy bourgeois rule (Head, 2011, p. 6). Trotsky observed that in times of economic growth and prosperity states can afford to rule democratically, showing leniency towards industrial action and political opposition but as soon as times get tough there would be no room for manoeuvre. He explained that moving to totalitarianism (in the 1930’s) came from the fact that parliamentary democratic institutions could not stand the pressure of tensions internally, and conflicts internationally (Head, 2011, p. 6).
Marxist criminologists Marshall Clinard and Richard Quinney (1973) as cited in Kent (2019, p. 135) divided political crime in two categories:
- Crimes against government
- Crimes by government
Unfortunately, because crimes are defined by the state, government can still potentially evade accountability for its own harmful actions, simply by not defining them as crimes.
Remaining options of opposition
Keeping this in mind, it is interesting to see current events unfold after the worst economic downturn since the 1930’s. The Conservative government has implemented legislation criminalising trespass, which deeply curtails legal opportunities for the whole of the working class to agitate, protest and oppose their rule, as well as criminalising traveller communities and the homeless. This is, in my mind, because the government fears massive outburst of anger and protest after the latest lockdown ends. Just this week they have announced a measly 1% pay ‘rise’, a pay cut off course in real terms for nurses, only months after the prime minister and his club of chums was clapping for carers and praising the NHS staff for saving his life from Covid-19. And that is only an example of the complete disastrous handling of the pandemic, the looting of public money by handing track & trace contracts to inept private companies (75% Tory donors). There is also a wave of unfair dismissals of union reps across industries and fire-and-rehire tactics by big companies, lowering the wages and T&C’s of staff. I think all this is political crime by the state and big industry to the aim of at any cost maintaining and continuation of the capitalist system.
So far, besides the big protests last year after the murder of George Floyd by police and several similar cases here in the UK, a big eruption of anger is still at large. But it is inevitable that people will start to engage into struggle, as living and working conditions are severely compromised and the unemployment rate soars. The government can’t delay ending the furlough scheme beyond September, and even with that money it is still a 20% cut in wages which few can afford. It is absolutely depressing to see the endless queues for foodbanks and the soaring rise in domestic violence deaths, especially when it is said that the 10 richest have gained $540B since March 2020.
But are there still means by which the working class can legally oppose and protest? I think it is a duty of any citizen that is aware of the threats and murderous regime (and who can say they aren’t in this digital age) to at the very least call out all injustices, corruption and exploitation to as wide an audience as possible. I think we can all join a union and get active organising in workplaces, and educate ourselves. Still the best option we have is organise, in trade unions, in political parties like the Socialist Party or standing in elections in coalitions like TUSC. We need political representation, not to win in a system which won’t allow that, but to find a path to power, to arm us politically and find and educate as many as possible to lead us in the struggle to a socialist society.
The right to rebel
Democracies rely on the concept of the social contract;
- an explicit agreement among everyone in society to exchange some individual freedoms and uphold certain responsibilities for certain state protections and so we can live peacefully together (Drake and Scott, 2019, p. 59).
The Russian-American Emma Goldman was an anarchist political writer and activist who challenged the US government by publishing ‘A New Declaration of Independence’ in 1909 by claiming:
When existing institutions prove inadequate to the needs of man, when they merely serve to enslave, rob and oppress mankind, the people have the eternal right to rebel against, and overthrow, these institutions.
(Goldman, 1909, p. 1 as cited in Kent, 2019, p. 144)
Additionally, the UN Declaration of Human Rights also gives provision to uphold the right to rebel against tyranny and oppression (UN General Assembly, 1948 as cited in Kent, 2019). But Goldman really raises the question why it is illegal for citizens to rebel in democratic states, when those states don’t hold their end of the bargain, namely the social contract. I think the answer lies in the fact that to the ruling class the gloves are off when it comes to defending the capitalist system. They have purposely created this whole charade of ‘democracy’ to be able to get away with political crimes themselves and in the process criminalise any act of defiance which could jeopardise their power structure. It really is a dictatorial regime with no solutions to social and political conflict. In fact, it doesn’t offer solutions to any of the problems that face humanity at the moment, and that means time is up for capitalism.
Political crime is a construct of the state to defend the capitalist system against the threat of political or social opposition, by criminalising dissent, protest or other acts of defiance and violence. Even though the UN Declaration of Human Rights state that people have the right to protest, and rebel against oppressive states, many capitalist governments don’t acknowledge or accept it in practise by the way they define crime or legislate. This is how they can evade being held to account on their own conduct. In the long term this doesn’t offer any solution to conflicts which arise in society. I think socialist ideas from great socialists like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin offer great potential for solving those massive upheavals we are facing today. I urge you to read their books.
Drake, D. H. and Scott, D. (2019) ‘Law and order or harm and disorder?’, in Drake, D. H., Nightingale, A. and Scott, D. (eds.) Introduction to criminology 1, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 55-78.
Head, M. (2011) ‘Introduction: what are crimes against the state?’ [Online] Crimes against the state: from treason to terrorism. Available at https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/open/reader.action?docID=714104 (Accessed 12/03/2021).
Kent, G. (2019), ‘Deconstructing political crime’ in Downes, J., Kent, G., Mooney, G., Nightingale, A. and Scott, D. (eds.) Introduction to Criminology 2, Milton Keynes, The Open University.