Sunday, 3 February 2008

Vice, Crime, and Class Relations

Last night I watched City of Vice on Channel 4. It is good viewing. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it centres around two toffs, Henry Fielding who was the author of the famous costume romp Tom Jones and his blind brother, John. Both are so concerned about the explosion of crime and depravity in the Smoke that they have formed the famous Bow Street Runners to take on the army of pimps, robbers and other ne’er-do-wells. However, it seems that the desire to rid the streets of London of such vermin isn’t just about morality. Another toff, Lord Newcastle, visits our heroes and bollocks them for their low clear-up rate. He warns them if they don’t make their target to return more stolen goods to their rightful owners, he is going to withdraw their funding. It seems that performance management in the public services is nothing new, and that upholding ‘law and order’ wasn’t so much about protecting moral values but about ensuring that there wasn’t too much redistribution of wealth from the monied classes to the hungry lower orders.

At the turn of the 18th century, I believe that the number of public hangings at Tyburn was its peak, a lot of them for petty theft. Forget stories of dashing highwaymen throwing flowers to cheering crowds as they made their final journey from Newgate Prison in the cart. The condemned would have been terrified of the slow strangulation that awaited them, and the lucky ones would have been insensible through drink or laudanum. Is it that the English aristocracy was so terrified by the fate of their French cousins in the Revolution, that they felt the need to protect their property rights through savage punishment?

One famous author (not so famous that I can remember his name) once commented something on the lines that if a man knocks another man senseless in a pub fight, the court will treat him fairly leniently, but that if he dared to use force to relieve a toff of his wallet he would lashed with the Cat o’ Nine Tails! And I can remember that when boozed-up Hooray Henrys from university rugby clubs threw their beds out of hotel windows, it would have been explained as ‘youthful high spirits’. If working-class kids committed similar acts of vandalism, Colonel Knee Jerk would have written to the papers demanding the restoration of the birch!

So it appears to me that criminal justice has always been as much about preserving class relations rather than ‘society’ preserving values. Mind you, I know nothing about criminology. Perhaps people could enlighten me.


Jim Jay said...

One of the interesting things about the debate that occured when England was thinking of setting up a police force (this is post bow street runners) is that the major objection was that "we don't want to be like the french"

The first cop who was killed on duty died in the fighting at the battle of coldbath fields where the police charged a radical demonstration (a precursor to the chartists). The man was stabbed in the chest with the pole of banner.

When it came to trial the jury (who were not working class by any means) returned a verdict of justifiable homicide. Now that is something we definately don't see these days.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

jim jay is quite correct to point out that the establishment of the police was resisted in particular by the middle class. i don't know much more than that, though.

as for the criminal justice system, I'd say its priority has been to preserve class relations (look at how the police were redeployed to deal with miners strike etc.), but under public pressure to also do something about how crime impacts on ordniary people (although of course the rich and more important than you or I).

It certainly legitimates itself through 'the fight against crime', but is really a terribly ineffectual weapon for doing massive things about crime, the more so when it gets 'toughened' up by successive home secretaries.

Jim Jay said...

LWC - I don't think it's useful to use the miners' strike to show what the priority of the police is purely on the basis that this is not an everyday occurance. Most UK coppers' experience of policing in the twenty first century (so far) has not involved a huge amount of battering protesters, breaking picket lines or smashing up trade unions.

I think the whole thing is much more sophisticated. In order to preserve capitalism there has to be some sort of social cohesion. A society where people can be murdered in their beds (rich and poor alike) is a society that is too fragile for healthy profit margins.

There also needs to be some semblance of social equality. After all capitalism replaced a system where the productive classes were essentially owned by their masters.

In this society anyone can become the boss - the only thing stopping them is lack of cash and connections. That legal equality is essential.

However, as a great man once said the law forbids both the rich and the poor from sleeping under bridges.

Phil BC said...

The question then is can we call on the police to make crime fighting its priority in conjunction with a series of demands that democratises the force? Historically the CWI tradition in Britain has called for the latter, while the IWCA caused a few minor ripples on the left for demanding the former. Most of the left either plays down crime as "overhyped" or prefers to fantasise about policing by workers' militias after the revolution, so some new left thinking is needed about it. I vaguely remember something from my A-Level sociology days from Jock Young (I think) who avoided dressing criminals up as latter day Robin Hoods while refusing ti glorify the police - is there anything to his body of work that could help formulate our policies and demands?

Jim Jay said...

Jock Young had a go at me once - unforgivable!

That aside he's quite interesting actually. Particualarly on the police's ability to solve crime and who the prison population are

Leftwing Criminologist said...

@ Jim Jay

"LWC - I don't think it's useful to use the miners' strike to show what the priority of the police is purely on the basis that this is not an everyday occurance"

That's not what i was getting at, more that if capitalism is being threatened to a greater or lesser degress (ie. as it was during miners strike, general strike in 1926 etc.) the police will be used to safeguard it. This partially why the ruling class got so scared during 1918-1919 strikes as during this period the police refused to do that.

On Jock Young, I posted a review of one of his books on policing here -

As for what demands we should make, I'd say the ones made by the CWI in relation to policing are fairly sound. I think you need democratic control to use the police (or any workers militia etc.) effectively. But i would give representation on that to some police union reps.

Jim Jay said...

I think it depends on context. In some situations the police can play a positively progressive role. Rare occasionss I grant you - but they do exist.

Even Lenin was given safe haven by a police inspector at one time (I may have misremembered this, but I'm sure it's probably true). Witness various shoot outs between the police and the army in Latin America in the last twenty years.

I picked up on the miners strike point not to single you out but because it gets brought up a lot in the sense that people frame the discussion as one about demonstrations or strikes when I believe this misses an important point.

Having said that I don't think it's a coincidence that the police force was set up not long after the Peterloo masacre where the ruling classes of this country realised they needed slightly better ways of repression than just riding people down and hacking at them with your sabre. Which tends to breed resentment.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

As you should know form when we've commented on each others blogs Jim Jay, I am in agreement with you about this issue. I still mean to do a post on how various groups related to the police protest recently which brings up some of these issues