Despite the fact that Karl Marx wrote very little about crime, the Marxist approach has been one of the most important approaches in explaining deviant behaviour.
Marxists mainly base their ideas and theories upon how the ruling class control society. They say that the high rate of crime in western capitalist societies represents a protest against alienation and powerlessness. Capitalism is a competitive ideology; people are encouraged to become aggressive and hostile. In such a society, criminal behaviour is understandable.
Steven Box argues for the Marxist approach to crime and control. Box agrees with more right wing writers in that it is release from social control that propels people into committing crime. However, his starting point is not that people are essentially bad, but that capitalist society controls and exploits workers for its own ends, or rather, for the benefit of the ruling class. When people are released on some way from the direct control, then they are much more likely to commit crime because they see the unfairness of the system.
Box argues that there are five elements that can weaken the bonds of capitalist society and propel individuals into committing crime.Secrecy is one of these elements. If people are able to get away with a crime, especially by not having it noticed in the first place, then they are more likely to commit crime. According to box, this is the one key factor that helps explain why white-collar crime simply goes undiscovered.
Skills are the second element. Most people are simply unable to commit serious crime. Minor offending occurs on the spur of the moment. Serious crime, however, requires planning and knowledge, plus the skill to carry it out.
Supply is another element as even knowledge and skill are not enough by themselves. The potential offender must also be able to obtain the equipment and support to be able to carry out most serious crimes. For example, a burglar needs a ‘fence’ to whom to sell his stolen goods.Symbolic support and social support are the final elements.
All offenders must have justification for their activities and need others who share similar values to support and justify that crime. This is an example of a deviant subculture.However, box’s argument is rather eccentric as he argues that crime results from the weakening of social control, and yet sees social control as a bad thing.There is, among Marxists, the idea that it is the working class that commit the most crime.
Young’s study of ‘Mass Media, Drugs and Deviance’ argues that the mass media are always supportive of the status quo. Although united labour movements, such as trade unions, have gained the only concessions to working class people in legal rights, these come to be seen in a negative light. Strikers are portrayed as deviants. Young also noted a different level of social reaction to the use of drugs.
72 million tablets are used each year legally, but there is a widespread sense of disapproval about the use of certain drugs by teenagers etc. In ‘The Drug Takers’ he suggested that they come under police surveillance because those who reject the values of capitalist society are seen as a potential threat.The Marxists, Taylor, Walton and Young argue that capitalist society is characterised by great inequalities in wealth and power. Working-class youth commit crime because of their experience of these injustices.
This can also be related to inequalities they found in the educational system. Working class children are generally placed in lower ability groups and may develop a negative self-image due to labelling. This can cause pupils to turn to deviant subcultures to compensate from the lack of status from teachers.Marxists see crime as an inevitable feature of a capitalist economic system, which promotes self- interest and greed.
Emphasising the more sensational crimes usually committed by the working- class people helps maintain ruling class ideology and power. The view that the working class commits the most serious offences is promoted through media reports. The mass media can also help to produce deviance as advertising encourages people to see their lives satisfied by the fulfilment of ‘false needs’ through acquiring consumer items. The working class however, cannot afford these items and so may turn to crime.
This approach does provide an explanation for why so much crime is related to the desire for material goods and does explain the fact that most offenders who are prosecuted come from the lowest social classes, although some studies suggested that crime is committed by all classes.Marxists suggested that the law is controlled by the powerful; this was supported by their idea of the manipulation of values, where mainstream society, the court, the police etc. are predominantly middle class and would be biased towards the ruling class. Law enforcement agencies are said to be employed not to reduce crime but to manage it.
However the approach also fails to acknowledge that some laws operate in the ‘common interest’ rather than simply to protect the ruling class, e.g. traffic laws, laws against wounding and murder etc. It is an overly deterministic view as it sees the law as operating solely for the benefit of the bourgeoisie and the focus is only on class, so it ignores other factors such as ethnicity.
Marxists also support the information provided from the criminal statistics as it gives evidence to support their idea that working class people commit more crimes than middle class males. However, government statistics can be biased as not all crimes are reported, which means conclusions drawn from these statistics will have low validity.The theory also doesn’t explain the presence of crime in socialist societies in which there is no private property and ownership of the means of production is communal. Nor does the theory easily explain the fact that there are middle-class offenders who are prosecuted.
Functionalists criticise the Marxist idea that law is a reflection of the will of the powerful. Functionalists believe that law is a reflection of the will of people. Also, Left Functionalists such as Jock Young argue that most “Marxism” is little more than form of Functionalism that replaces the interests of “society” with “ruling class”.