Marxist and neo-Marxist approaches and explanations of crime are arguably some of the most controversial, for the reason that they state that it is the ruling class that is responsible for criminalising the working classes, which goes directly against what official statistics and Functionalists believe. However, Marxism and Functionalism do share a similarity in that both believe structures and institutions of society play a very important role in determining how people behave, criminally or otherwise.
Marxist sociologists argue that in order to understand crime and deviance, one needs to realise that it is the nature of exploitative economic systems that capitalist societies have in place that is primarily responsible.
This is because the bourgeoisie and ruling classes oppress and exploit the working classes, which drives them into poverty. This causes a rift between the “haves” and the “have-nots” as the workers try to end exploitation whilst the owners of the means of production aim to keep the system to maintain profits.
Most Marxists agree that crime is the result of poverty created through this system, for example people steal because they are materially deprived which is a result of low wages being paid by the ruling classes. This is a reason Marxists would give for the over-representation of the working classes in official crime statistics. On the other hand, Functionalists may argue that crime is not caused by material deprivation but by poor socialisation. The new right is particularly damning in its evaluation of this particular Marxists idea, saying crime stems from the welfare state and permissiveness.
Another Marxist argument is that it isn’t just the material deprivation caused by “wage slavery” but that capitalism generates crime due to the selfish mindset it creates. These feelings create crime as people put themselves first and in this world of advertising and consumerist culture, people begin to see products rather than human relationships as their goal in life, and these products become divorced from the exploitative conditions in which they are made. Capitalism encourages greed and self-interest whilst enerating frustration and aggression. Crimes motivated by financial gain, across the classes, can be seen as a logical outcome of the priorities of profit. Petty crimes can be seen as an expression of the frustration, aggression and hostility, which the system produces. This argument shows why people across the social spectrum commit crime. It links the previous argument of “material deprivation” with this inherent greed, which therefore provides an accurate way of highlighting why the rich feel the need to commit financial crimes.
Unlike functionalists, Marxists argue that the purpose of the law and order system is not to protect everyone’s interests, but just that of the ruling classes because the state represents the common interest of the wealthy. This is through how the ruling class ensure that their criminal actions are not defined that way whilst ensuring that working class behaviour is seen as criminal. Exploiting workers by not giving them the wages they deserve for producing the goods, and therefore the profits of a company is not criminal, whilst stealing to provide for families which a minimum wage cannot do is.
Furthermore, the ruling class ensure that any laws that do define their actions as criminal do not carry harsh punishments. If a leading capitalist did end up in court, they can afford the best lawyers to ensure a lenient sentence or an acquittal as the Judiciary are from the same background as the ruling class so are therefore more likely to side with them. This can be best illustrated by the immunity from prosecution that large companies in developing countries have, for example after the Bhopal disaster in 1984, which saw poor Indian workers and their families either killed or made seriously ill.
Other branches of sociology have a different say on the law, and believe that the law represent the interests of others, not just the capitalist class. Functionalists argue that it represents everyone’s interest whilst feminists argue it represents men’s interests. The Neo-Marxist “new criminology” developed in the early 1970’s is also key to understanding how Marxists explain crime. Taylor, Walton and Young’s work maintained that crime was best understood in the context of capitalism and the inequalities it creates.
One way that the neo-Marxists slightly differ with the traditional Marxist theories is that it says there is more freedom of choice that people have when choosing to commit crime and people are not just puppets of the economy. Here it could be said that the Neo-Marxists are taking interactionist theories on board and are moving away from the structuralist theories of traditional Marxism and Functionalism. With their book “The New Criminology” Taylor et al. ttempted to come up with a fully social theory of deviance and looked into the importance of the labelling of certain groups within society as being criminal, in their case it was black working class men being labelled as criminal and dangerous by the law and order systems as well as the media. The book analyses the crisis faced by British capitalism during the recession of the 1970’s and the resulting threat to the authority of the state. It argues that the state responded to this crisis by mounting a law and order campaign which lead to a moral panic over mugging.
As a result, black youth became increasingly criminalised and the state was able to justify its growing powers. This analysis looks at the “problem of mugging” on various levels – from society as a whole right down to street level. This radical criminology combines a number of different perspectives in an attempt to provide a fully social theory of crime and deviance. Within a Marxist framework, the theory includes labelling theory along with concepts such as moral panics and deviancy amplification.
In doing so, it offers a more comprehensive picture than previous perspectives. However, critics argue that many laws and much police activity cannot be seen as expression of the interest of the capitalist of class, such as traffic laws. It is also argued by the left realists that this explanation of crime trivialises the effect that these crimes have on working class communities as most crimes committed by working classes are on their fellow working classes.
Radical criminology has little to say on the victims of crime. In conclusion, I think it is impossible to ignore Marxist and neo-Marxist explanations of crime. Living in a leading capitalist society, it is clear to see some of the many problems capitalism causes throughout this country. It is also one of the only sociological perspectives that seeks to explain and condemn the very worst crimes committed, which are those of the state.
Whilst Functionalists are happy to focus on the working class and their petty crimes, Marxists believe that the mass crimes such as genocide, political assassinations and illegal wars need to be constantly investigated as well. However, it is true that in trying to fit all of crime in to the Marxist structural model, feminists can rightly say that Marxists have ignored the impact of crime on women, with crimes like rape not being about material deprivation or challenging the capitalist system but about men wanting to establish their power over women.
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