The end for capitalism, the end for punishment?

This is the fourth episode in a series of articles about Criminology concepts in a Socialist context and this week I will be talking about what the future holds for capitalism and the way it’s dealing with crime by punishment of offenders. If we would choose Socialism as a system to organise society, would there still be need and necessity for a penal system and prisons? How would we deal with crime and criminals? How safe would we be?

The end for capitalism

To answer these questions I have to explain why I see the end for the capitalist system. The short answer is that it just doesn’t provide any solutions for the many problems it has created. Inherent to capitalism is inequality and competition, and without it it can’t function. But, as we increasingly found out during this current Covid-19 pandemic, it doesn’t function with it either. Capitalism has exploited our natural world for its resources and created global warming because of it, but because of its relentless drive for more short-term profit it doesn’t have any interest in investing those profits in developing long-term tactics to sustain itself. The pharmaceutical industry is competing with itself to develop the best and quickest Covid vaccine but because those companies want to make a profit, only sell it to the richest countries. In the poorer countries the illness keeps mutating and eventually outmanoeuvres the vaccines, defying the objective and eventually everyone including the richest are going to suffer the consequences. This is only one small example, but fundamentally this is how capitalism creates its own gravediggers (Marx and Engels, 1848).

So what has the penal system to do with capitalism? Hasn’t it evolved by itself regardless of the system it is embedded in? No, I don’t think so. It is a fact that most corporate and state crime is not prosecuted because it is embedded in capitalism. The rich and most powerful in society produce the laws, which they write in their own interests, they pass the laws through parliament and enforce the laws. They have seats in all the pillars of the justice system, so that in itself makes that most corporate and state crime is not ending up in court, let alone prison. Capitalism is inherently inequal, the justice system is too. The poor, working-class and BAME communities are disproportionately represented in prisons and therefore one can argue that the Criminal Justice System is just a Criminal System without the justice. In my view, if justice is not applied equally it is not justice. The capitalist state uses the Criminal Justice System (CJS) to control the poor and most disadvantaged in society, as those groups are the biggest threat to capitalist power. If those groups, which lets face it are the majority, discover their collective power the ruling class will be gone forever. So this system is designed to pitch people against each other, compete, divide and encourage individualism, because the opposite, collectivism and socialism is a threat to the status quo.

A better result for society

The penal system is based on punishment and retribution because if it would actually look at the causes of crime and violence it would inevitably have to conclude that the whole capitalist system of exploitation and profit making was at the root of it. And off course that is not an option. So instead the whole penal system is now driven to the pursuit of profit by exploitation as well. And any subversive attempts to rejection or protest is met by state violence.

So lets imagine our society would transition to a socialist state. Every aim would be directed by how society as a whole would benefit to the maximum possible result. So lets say a man had murdered his wife. In the current system he would be facing 20-30 years in prison, which literally means he’d be locked up without much effort to rehabilitate him, let alone look at why he did this heinous act. I can imagine in a socialist society every effort would be undertaken to first assess why he did this and what led up to this act, then work with this man to see how he can firstly accept and face up to the fact of his murder and once he accepts he did this, then steps can be taken to work on why he did it, and how he could be rehabilitated. At the same time every effort needs to go into working with the family of the victim, to go through a process of mourning, and support them in every way to process and deal with this traumatic event. In all of this central should be to eventually reach the best possible outcome for everybody involved, and ultimately for the wider society. Because at the end of the day, society is best served by making sure people feel safe, and can be themselves to the best of their ability. At the moment the central aim of society is to make a few very rich people even richer at the expense of the majority and to keep it that way at any cost. Punishing people is not and is proven not to change anyone. It is counterproductive as it creates more violent and disturbed people. So rehabilitation and education is the way forward I think. Imagine if all the resources that are put into prisons and keeping people locked up go towards investing in people, in mental health care and research, in education and rehabilitation. In quality youth services, and support for parents in raising children, better and cheap housing for everyone, shorter working days so people have time to spend with their families and do things they love. I believe it would lead to less crime and happier people.

Transition

But would it actually eventually lead to a complete abolishment of the prison system? Maybe not, but if it would be necessary to keep people away from the rest of society for a time, it would be much more open and aimed towards integration into society. Off course we would have to deal with the results of capitalism for a long time, so a gradual transitional programme would be implemented. And the bottom line would not be based on punishing people for crimes, but on rehabilitation and integration. This is I think based around the idea that punishment, retaliation and retribution is eventually exacerbating the cause and only inciting further violence.

I think if the Criminal Justice System would be based on a community led, democratically run system justice could be actual justice, where the plight of the criminal would be just as important as the recovery of the victims and intrinsically linked, however difficult this would be for both parties. This is not an easy answer, or an easy way. I think it is very complex and difficult, but in the end society would be better off because it would deal with the actual causes of crime, instead of constantly creating more.

Because the whole of society would be involved in the creation of this new system, the world would slowly become safer and a happier place to live in for everyone. There are no guarantees or assurances, and it is a very difficult road, hence why a lot of people would say this is inherently utopian. To those I say: “is trying to reform this cruel and dystopian monster of a system we live in today, with all its injustices and inequalities, which only profits a handful in the short-term but makes this planet inhabitable for all of us within 2 or 3 generations not the definition of utopian?”. Trying to change something by doing the same thing over and over again is insane, so trying the opposite might actually result in the biggest rescue operation of our habitat and species and security of our future. Marx, Engels and Trotsky were not utopians but realists, their theories and strategies are based on everyone’s lived experience, they recognised that everything is constantly in motion, moving and changing and to influence these processes you need to analyse events and apply the lessons of the past to problems we face in the present to create a new future. Their version of socialist theory is called ‘dialectic materialism‘ which means that in essence matter is constantly moving, changing and evolving, and the old system already has the seeds of the new in it, as the new system will contain some of the old too as it is ever changing.

Conclusion

For decades now statistics show clearly the Criminal Justice System is not contributing to bringing down crime rates and the rehabilitation of convicted criminals. If anything the situation is worsening. The whole capitalist system is in crisis as it seems to be in a downward vortex of a profit driven debt mountain, which causes economic instability, exploitation of natural resources to the point of global environmental collapse, and all of it causes mass movements of people on the run for economic, environmental and social disasters. A pretty dystopian picture. Socialism on the basis of Marx’ and Engels’ dialectic materialism offers a genuine alternative with hope on a better future for everyone. This is not an easy or even guaranteed route to success. It is a very complex and difficult fight but one that is very positive and forward looking. I find that very appealing compared to the dead end road we are on now, with none of the people in power at present offering a genuine alternative or even a glimmer of hope. If I have to imagine how safe we would be in a socialist world, I think the answer is that we would be as safe as the most vulnerable person would be safe. We all have the responsibility to work towards making it safer everyday for that person, by paying attention, by listening, by investing in our children and young people, by investing in ourselves.

There is absolutely no point locking people away, punishing people, killing people in name of the state because all it does is making the situation worse. The children of convicted offenders won’t have a dad or a mother to guide them away from crime, all they have is anger and frustration, guilt and shame which can only lead to negative outcomes. The family of the victims also don’t have any positive guidance and support, only anger, grief and loss which can only lead to a negative outcome for them. We have tried prison, punishment and deprivation, with no real positive results so why not try the alternative. Rehabilitation, restoration and reconciliation, truly investing in people with positive action. But this is only possible if the whole system is transformed by the majority in a democratic, planned economy for a socialist future for everyone.

A fair trial in a Socialist state

In this third edition of my series of articles discussing Criminological concepts in a Socialist context, I am looking at what a fair trial would be like in a Socialist society. What does a fair trial consist of today, who makes the decisions of guilt or innocence and how would that be different under socialism? Is the justice system just, and if not, how would a Socialist justice system do better?

Roles within the justice system

To start with lets explore the different roles within the justice system today. The police‘s role is to investigate alleged offences by following all reasonable lines of enquiry to make sure the wrong person is not charged. A prosecution is the act of charging someone with a breach of the criminal law. A prosecutor is a person presenting the case in court, and must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the accused has committed a crime (Bloom, 2019, p. 54). The role of the court is to test state accusations of guilt and asks the tribunal of fact (the jury): ‘Are you sure of guilt?’ (Secret Barrister, 2018, pp. 155-6). The defence are the defendant (before they are charged they are called the ‘accused’ or the ‘suspect’) and their lawyers who will represent them in court (Bloom, 2019, p.57). The witnesses are those giving evidence in court and can include both the defendant and victim. The judge decides which laws to apply and how the jury should be directed to apply them, for example the judge will decide what evidence the jury is allowed to hear (Bloom, 2019, p. 59).

In a Socialist society the different roles will change, for instance the police will be community-led and will slowly turn its attention to threats to the socialist system; pro-capitalist forces trying to undermine the basis of socialism, corruption and cronyism. Off course it might take generations before other crime as we know it is eradicated or at least significantly reduced. As for the prosecution, this should be possible to anyone, not just the state and also the judge and jury might change to justice committees.

Elements of a fair trial

Within the Capitalist justice system there are two basic elements of a fair trial:

  • The judge and jury are impartial
  • Both sides of the dispute are heard, as cited in Bloom (2019a, p. 55).

Although the right to be afforded a lawyer to UK citizens who are accused of having committed a crime exists since 1949, austerity measures and severe cuts to the Department of Justice have meant that this right has been hollowed out (Bloom, 2019, p. 58). Between 2010 and 2023 the budget for the Department of Justice has decreased by 48% (Falconer, 2018) as cited in Bloom (2019, p. 58). On top of that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused a backlog of more than 457.000 court cases awaiting trial, which is a 100.000 more than it was before the pandemic struck in the UK. As the crown court backlog grew, so did the number of prisoners on remand awaiting a trial. They now represent more than 15% of the prison population (Casciani, 2021). It can be argued that legal aid cuts reduce the possibility of a fair trial and increase the risk of miscarriages of justice. And let’s be honest, that is putting it mildly!

The elements of a fair trial in a socialist system might still include the above points but I can imagine that accountability to the whole of society would take centre part. This might be in the form of justice committees for both parties or instead of a judge. The whole point of socialism is that the working class collectively decide democratically how this legal system would look like. And off course that all starts with making appropriate laws. If the law is much more focussed on serving the interest of the working class, instead of the ruling class the tables will be turned but this does not automatically mean that justice will become more equal or just. It will mean that it is in the hands of you and me to decide.

I would also like to highlight the fact that the jury nowadays is cloaked in secrecy in the UK. They are only allowed to give a ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’ verdict, but can’t comment on the reasoning or process behind that decision. I think in a socialist society that can never be allowed. Transparency and accountability towards the working class is paramount, so that part needs to change too.

Socialist justice

If I imagine a socialist world I think the justice system would be transformed through the methods of Leon Trotsky’s Transitional Programme. As for all other parts of society, the working class would form committees, through debate and discussion decisions would be made collectively on how the new justice system would look like, and then send representatives to congress who will vote on their behalf. As I said before, those representatives would be subject to immediate recall and mandatory reselection, so at all times they will be accountable to the working class. Any state official will be subjected to that and will only be rewarded an average worker’s wage. Mind you, that wage would be significantly higher than you can probably imagine today.

Book cover of the Committee for a Worker’s International’s (CWI) new publication about the ideas of Leon Trotsky.

So how would it look like? To begin with the whole aim should be that equal and fair justice can be done to anyone, that nobody is above the law, and that every single part of the system is directly accountable to the working class as said above. At no point should it be possible for any participant within the justice system to gain any kind of advantage above the other party in the case. It goes without saying that the law should be written, enforced, tested and applied by the working class, through democratic processes like everything else has.

Another aspect is that I think sentencing has to be proven to be beneficial to the whole of society, so rehabilitation and restorative justice has to be paramount in equal measure to the benefit of both the victim and the perpetrator but above all society as a whole. I think it is needed that answers to this incredible difficult and complex problem are researched and found. I think that in that process criminologists and other independent specialists and experts can play a vital role, as they should have an objective view as academics.

Off course in a Socialist society all parts of the justice system would be nationalised and no aspect would ever be run for profit or privately owned. Big investments need to be made to transform it and make it accessible to anyone and not, as it is now only the State and rich and powerful people are able to afford to prosecute a case. Lawyers and barristers will be freely available to anyone who needs legal assistance, they will be independent and paid an average worker’s wage.

Accountability

I think to start with the biggest excesses of miscarriages of justice and evasion of justice has to be dealt with. The reason the current system allows this to happen is the entanglement of corporate interests and political power which are all in the hands of a few people. So opening the justice system up to being accountable to the working class instead of a few judges and a capitalist state effectively run by big corporations will already change the outcome dramatically I suspect. Also the fact that in a Socialist system the biggest companies and banks will be nationalised will mean that accountability will change from private hands to public hands. Each individual in society will have to be accountable to the whole of society. So when a group of people together act in a harmful way, they all have to account for that to the whole of society. At the moment under capitalism this is very difficult to pursue. For instance in the case of the Grenfell Tower Fire and the aftermath with a 100.000 buildings still clad in flammable material it seems near impossible to bring all the different guilty parties to justice. In a Socialist society there would be a big independent public inquiry run by a community committee, but I think such disasters wouldn’t take place as there would be stringent health and safety laws and regulations, and high rises like Grenfell would be replaced with safe, spacious, quality public housing.

Conclusion

In the process of the transformation of society towards socialism, the roles within a court trial might change dramatically to reflect accountability to the whole of society, which requires much more transparency and impartiality than the justice system has now. The fairness of trial and protection against miscarriages of justice has been seriously eroded by decades of austerity and cuts to public services like the Department of Justice. In a socialist society accountability to the whole of society would take centre stage, as well as equality before the law, fairness and the possibility for rehabilitation for the offender and recovery for the victim. The long-term outcome for society has to be positive in deciding the sentence. The whole justice system would be a public service, with no aspect of it in private hands, and free on the point of use to anyone. Many crimes will cease to exist as poverty, inequality, competition between people and the race for profit will be eradicated.

References:

Bloom, T. (2019) ‘The prosecution on trial’ in Downes, J., Kent, G., Mooney, G., Nightingale, A., and Scott, D. (eds.) Introduction to Criminology 2, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 51-74).

Casciani, D. (2021) ‘Covid and the courts: ‘Grave concerns’ for justice, warn watchdogs’ [Online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-55712106 (Accessed on 01/02/2021).