Anarchism and Crime - Ian Stewart

Submitted by Reddebrek on April 1, 2018

"You were convicted of aggravated bronchitis last year: and I find that although you are now only twenty-three years old, you have been imprisoned for no less that fourteen occasions for illness of a more or less hateful character; in fact, it is not too much to say that you have spent the greater part of your life in jail.…
"You may say that it is not your fault. The answer is ready enough to hand and it amounts to this — that if you had been born of healthy and well-to-do parents, and had been well taken care of when you were a child, you would never have offended against the laws of your country, nor found yourself in your present disgraceful position. If you tell me that you had no hand in your parentage and education, and that it is therefore unjust to lay these things to your charge, I answer that whether your being in a consumption is your fault or no, it is a fault in you, and it is my duty to see that against such faults as this the commonwealth shall be protected. You may say that it is your misfortune to be criminal; I answer that it is your crime to be unfortunate."

—The Judge's Speech in EREWHON.

DISCUSSIONS OF ANARCHIST THEORY with those to whom it is new, and those who are irreconcilably hostile, always stir up the question of criminal behaviour. Thus Colin Ward's discussion of anarchism on the BBCl elicited from one of his interrogators the objection that a social condition of anarchism would be impossible because it would have no machinery for preventing robbery. This objection was met by the observation that in our present society the existing machinery does not prevent robbery, and that penal methods may sometimes increase the severity of crimes which are committed later. The various social philosophies which stand in opposition to anarchism are remarkably unenlightening on the question of crime. Most of them have to fall back on a secular version of original sin — that some men are criminals by nature, and that every social system must have an institution for their repression. Such a view is essentially religious, and accords ill with otherwise secular social philosophy. Marxism maintains that crime as we know it, is a result of the tensions entailed in capitalist society. Unfortunately, the practical experiment along Marxist lines which has been conducted in Russia over the last 40 years has shown that the age-old patterns of crime persist, and they are manifest quite as strongly in each new rising generation which has had no experience of capitalist society. Communist apologists have been driven to take refuge to an increasing degree, with each new decade, in a sort of social Lamarkianism — that the criminality bred by centuries of pre-socialist society still impels Russians to criminal acts even when the present system produces no such tendencies. Purist Marxists will of course reject the claim that the Russian system is in any way a socialist one, and so they can retain their simple theoretical model of crime being an economic by-product of capitalism.

Anarchists will agree with Marxists in regarding crime as a result of the current social system, rather than attributing it to any personal and accidental quality of "wickedness" with which some individuals are born. They do not, however, see the problem simply in terms of economic forces as the Marxists do; indeed the post-war era with its rising standard of living for the working-class, and in particular for teenagers, has seen an extraordinary rise in the crime rates for those sections of the population who have experienced the greatest degree of economic betterment. A simple economic theory of criminality is becoming increasingly outmoded. Where unemployment is high and workers are feeling the economic squeeze, the result is not an increased rate of stealing. We must look elsewhere for the roots of crime, and such a search involves an examination of the whole social structure of our society.

It may be objected by some anarchists that the whole matter is self-evident. Crime consists in breaking the laws which the State enacts and that crime will be abolished when the State is abolished. But the problem is not so simple: if we work for the day on which "the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest", however literally or metaphorically we view such an event, we find ourselves compelled to be social scientists tackling problems which the reformist social scientists are both unwilling and incapable of tackling. This article begins with a satirical quotation from Samuel Butler's Erewhon, but no orthodox criminologist can fully appreciate that his own views about crime are just as ridiculous as the Erewhonian view. To work for the abolition of crime means to work for social revolution. This was ably expressed by Alex Comfort, speaking at an anarchist Summer School over ten years ago:2

There are two points I want to make. First of all, modern work in this field (criminology) seems to me to give us extremely strong ground for encouragement. The political field, and the type of revolution by levée-en-masse, which earlier radicals looked for, have never been bleaker in prospect: the new knowledge and study of the machinery of human societies and if individual character formation gives us, I think, not only a field in which to work with every hope of success, but also an assurance that the ideas which we have espoused, for various reasons, conscious and unconscious, since the time of William Godwin, are becoming increasingly the currency of scientific thought … Personally I would like to see more of us, those who can, take training in social sciences or engaging in research in this field. I do not want to turn anarchism into a sociological Fabian Society, from which non-scientists are excluded. I want to see something done which has not been done before — a concerted, unbiassed and properly documented attempt to disseminate accurate teaching of the results of modern child psychiatry, social psychology and political psychology to the general public on the same scale as we have in the past tried to disseminate revolutionary propaganda."

It should be noted that Alex Comfort also published a study3 of the extent to which executive and political power are in themselves

manifestations of the acting out of delinquent tendencies. As a tribute to the excellence of this book, the present writer has heard an orthodox criminologist declare with much heat that Dr. Comfort should be imprisoned himself for publishing such monstrous ideas!

Who are the delinquents?

If we ask someone to think of what the average housebreaker looks like he will probably think of a man of sturdy physique and rough features, dressed in the clothes in which Punch and other comic papers depict him. The housebreaker is in fact a stock character in our national mythology, and has his origins largely in fiction. We all know what Bill Sykes looked like. No doubt a certain amount of robbery is carried out by professional thieves of this type, but this should not be allowed to obscure the fact that in present day society about half of the total amount of housebreaking is carried out by boys who are still at school, or have only just left it.
The table which follows (Table 1) represents a breakdown of the figures by age, for an urban district in Britain in a recent year.

TABLE 1. Arrests for three categories of offences, given as percentages in different age ranges.
Age range in years … … … 8-13 … 14-16 … 17-20 … 21-30 … 31-40 … 41 & over
Housebreaking … … …… 21.3 … …27.5 … 21.1 … … 22.0 … 5.9 … … 2.2
Shop and Warehousebreaking 23.1 … 22.8 … 21.6 … … 23.5 … 6.6 … … 2.4
Crimes of Violence … … … 3.0 … … 8.2 … 19.8 … … 39.1 … 16.9 … … 13.0

A glance at the figures in Table 1 may be misleading because the size of the age ranges is very different. Thus the 14-16 year range represents only 3 years, but the 21-30 year range represents 10 years. To get over this difficulty, a separate table has been calculated which shows the percentage per year of age (Table 2). Here the youngest and the oldest age range have been omitted because there is a sharp rise and fall in these ranges and the average would not be meaningful.

TABLE 2. Data of Table 1 shown as approximate average percentage figures per year of age in the separate age ranges.
Age range in years … … … …14-16 … 17-20… 21-30 … 31-40
Housebreaking … … … … … 9.1 … … 5.2 … … 2.2 … … 0.6
Shop and Warehousebreaking 7.6 … … … 5.4 … 2.4 … … … 0.7
Crimes of violence … … … …2.7 … … … 4.9 … 3.9 … … …1.7

It may be seen in Table 2 that the figures for housebreaking and shopbreaking are very similar. Arrest for breaking in and robbing premises is about four times more frequent among boys who are still at school, or recent leavers, than among men in their twenties, and after the age of 30 such activity seems to be rather uncommon. With the crimes of violence, however, the peak of the frequency is delayed until after the age of 17 and men in their twenties are more often arrested than the boys in their early teens. As this category includes rape, indecent assault and causing death by dangerous driving, it is natural that the older adolescents are most prone to such activity.

All these figures represent arrests, and say nothing of the amount of crime committed. The figures given in Table 3, for the same area, clarify this relationship.

… … … … … … … … … … … Crimes … Arrests
Housebreaking … … … … … … 14,500 … 1,900
Shop and warehouse breaking … 16,300 … … 3,400
Crimes of violence … … … … … 4,200 … … 2,900

One boy may, of course, commit a number of jobs before he is arrested for his series of escapades, but the greater part of such crime is never detected. Can it be, one wonders, that the younger boys are more often arrested because they are more easily detected? Do they grow more wily with age?
With crimes of violence the position is different. Report and arrest is more immediate and it is more difficult to get away with it.
These statistics indicate why the authorities are worried about the phenomenon of "Juvenile Delinquency". But the popular conception of the J.D. is somewhat erroneous. He is generally portrayed as a hulking lad of about 18 who wears a leather jacket, carries a bicycle chain, and delights to assault innocent passers-by on the pavement. This stereotype is largely nonsense. It had been plugged by the popular press, TV, etc., so that many boys, insecure as to their identity and role in society, have bought themselves black leather jackets — to the huge profit and delight of the leather industry. ("These young mugs have the money to spend, so let's get it off them!"). The surest way of keeping the noses of teenagers to the grindstone of steady work is to enmesh them in debt (as is found in many primitive acquisitive societies), and if lads are compelled by their conformity to convention to pay weekly H.P. instalments on noisy, dangerous and uncomfortable motorcycles, they are going to be good, steady workers in factories, fields and workshops, and give little real trouble to their masters. It is not so easy to depend on stealing for a regular income.
By and large then, the stereotype of the J.D. is a synthetic myth which is sold both to the teenagers and to the adult public, who have different reasons for accepting it. Even the executive officers of the law are more influenced by the myth than by the reality. Ask the average Glasgow policeman to describe a typical J.D. to you and he will give you the stereotype that the Telly gives him, rather than what he actually comes into contact with in his job. Yet the police statistics are clear and unambiguous. Table 4 gives a breakdown of figures for juveniles arrested in a certain Scottish urban area over a period of some months, which gives a more detailed picture regarding age than was conveyed by the statistics given earlier.

TABLE 4. Age distribution of 1,484 juveniles arrested in an urban area.
Age … … … … 8… 9 … 10 … … 11 … 12 … 13 … 14 … 15 … 16years
No. of arrests … 18 …43… 72 … 140 … 146 … 240…350…257 … 218

Thus we see that the peak age is 14 years, and that thereafter there is a steady decline. By the age of 16 the figures are already lower than at the 13-year-old level. The vast bulk of this criminality is the theft
of property, and it remains rather a mystery as to why there is a steady drop after the age of 14. One simple-minded explanation might be that when children leave school then they can earn money instead of having to steal, but such an interpretation of the facts is rather inadequate. The spending of teenagers is rather in proportion to the lures which are set before them by society. The need for money and goods is very much greater as the boy grows older after leaving school — yet boys appear to get progressively honester. It was suggested above that part of the explanation might be in the fact that boys get more wily and difficult to detect as they get older. We simply do not know. One of the strange facts about juvenile delinquency is that it is largely a male phenomenon. Much of what is called "delinquency" among young girls is due simply to the fact that they like a sex life when they are ready for it, and this is considered wrong both by the law, the usual social agencies and often by their own parents. When parents are unable or unwilling to condone and shield their daughter's sex life, then she may possibly become the victim of predatory fornicators, pimps and "moral welfare" agents. In general, however, girls are remarkably law-abiding. What we know of boys is that about 12% of them living in urban areas are actually convicted of criminal offences by the age of 14 years. What we can deduce from this is that a large amount of criminality is commonplace, and that the police are active enough to ensure that a certain amount of it comes before the courts.
Here we have a paradox: were the size of the police force to be increased or were the force to be more active, the statistics for juvenile delinquency would undoubtedly increase. Some categories of the habitual behaviour of boys are labelled "criminal", and it is up to the police to justify their existence by bringing a certain amount of it before the courts. An example of this was when the newspapers wrote up the doings of some boys arrested for fighting in a well-known open space, where such combats of the young have probably been going on ever since we drove out the Neanderthalers. This disgraceful publicity resulted in a "rocket" going to the local police stations. The coppers then went out night after night and pulled in as many boys as they could conveniently handle. The statistics for hooliganism on that common shot up temporarily as though the lads of the district had suddenly gone on the warpath! The police produced an apparent upsurge of violence simply by being too active in response to orders from above.

The reality of juvenile delinquency appears to be much as follows. Boys are born into a culture which treats them thus and thus, and makes certain demands upon them. The result of such an educational process is that by about the age of 14 they do a considerable amount of stealing, wanton destruction and fighting. I say an educational process advisedly, for that is what it is. They have been taught to act in a way that similar young thieves and hooligans were acting when they were mere toddlers, and those who are toddlers now will soon be educa-ted to act in precisely the same way a few years hence. And who teaches them to act in such an anti-social way? I suggest it is the whole caboodle, what we call our "culture". And here we play them a dirty trick, for we take these infants whom we prize so highly and pump them full of Welfare until they are four years old, and then in ten years or much less we have turned them into little Calibans. We — who are we? All who have to do directly with the children? Their parents, their school-teachers, their telly producers, the writers of their comics? Perhaps we are looking at the problem the wrong way round.

The cause of delinquency

To ask what is the cause of juvenile delinquency is to pose the wrong question. More realistically one might ask why such behaviour is refrained from so often by so many people.

A boy wanders through a department store and sees many objects which he covets and which he could steal without much chance of detection, yet he refrains. What is the cause of the inhibition of his action? One cause is certainly a realistic fear of detection, but this cautiousness alone does not fully account for the widespread practice of honesty. Everyone will agree that there is also an inhibiting factor, an internal restraint, which we call the conscience. Many boys will refrain from gratifying their cupidity even when they are absolutely sure that they would not get caught. But to label an inhibiting factor "conscience" is not to explain it. Freud approached the phenomenon in terms of the "super ego", but one does not have to assume all the complexities of his system to study the workings of this form of built-in restraint which governs so many of our actions, sometimes in an arbitrary and ludicrous fashion.

We have pictured a boy going through a department store and coveting certain objects, but refraining from stealing them even though he cannot afford to buy them. The situation is viewed by some psychologists4 in terms of behavouristic conditioning. In an ordinarily conditioned boy the temptation to steal, that is the idea that he might steal here and now, triggers off a feeling of unpleasurable anxiety. The nearer he comes to implementing the idea, the stronger are the feelings of anxiety, and he refrains, not because of any obvious menace from external authority but because of this menace from within. The normally honest boy is perfectly familiar with this mechanism and does in fact take it for granted that he will act honestly in most circumstances. His self-image is that of an "honest boy". The interesting point is that "honesty" is often highly specific to the situation. A boy may pilfer repeatedly and lightheartedly from Woolworths, yet may be completely honest in small back-street shops. In the same way, men may have a strong conscience about killing, hence the remarkably low murder rate of this country, but in war-time certain men and women and children are designated "the enemy" and many people feel no pangs of conscience about killing them.

The degree to which the contemplation of an act arouses anxiety has little direct relation to the moral implications of the act. Anxiety, and hence conscience, is aroused according to the peculiar setting in which the act must be performed. Many people would have little scruple about defrauding the Railway of a pound if they could do so with safety, but if they had paid the fare they would be far less likely to help themselves to a pound from the till in the booking office, even if they could do so with safety. The latter act would be perceived by them as "stealing" and its contemplation would arouse the anxiety reaction which inhibits such overt acts. Many people have commented on the puzzling fact that motorists appear to feel a disproportionate lack of guilt about the death and injury they inflict. Somehow the moral, diffident and well-controlled citizen takes on a sort of fiendish and conscienceless personality when he drives a car, so that he will menace with death any pedestrian, cyclist or fellow-motorist who frustrates him in certain ways. Apparently, the guilt reaction does not work in the normal way for the motorist. There is a feeling that there is less moral turpitude attached to a manslaughter charge than to a petty larceny. If little children were brought up to feel shame and disgrace attached to speeding and bad conduct on the roads (although this is hardly possible!) just as they are conditioned in respect of stealing and sexual "misconduct", then the problem of death and injury on the roads would be very different.

The suggestion that habitual honesty is maintained by a potential anxiety reaction has much to commend it. It goes a long way in explaining the atypical acts of dishonesty, violence, rape, etc., which are sometimes committed by people of otherwise exemplary character. Examination of these cases often shows that the atypical act has been committed when the person has suffered some personal misfortune which has brought on an attack of general anxiety and depression. Where the general level of anxiety is high the normal anxiety-reaction by which the conscience operates is disorganised, indeed behaviour which is regarded as taboo may be indulged in deliberately as a counter-irritant to the individual's personal misery. A well recognised and comparatively frequent example of this is the respectable housewife who is thrown into an anxiety state by personal troubles, and then goes out shoplifting, taking articles which she could easily afford to buy. Another illustration of the breakdown of the conscience is to be observed in the operation of drugs. Many people behave in a manner which is normally taboo to them when they are under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. The effect of such drugs is to reduce anxiety, and so the intoxicated man can defy the internal prohibitions which normally restrain him.

The mechanism by which people normally refrain from forbidden acts has been discussed, and it now remains to consider why this mechanism breaks down with a certain frequency, particularly in boys of about the age of 14. One reason is that the training they have received has not been very effective. Many working class parents allow a degree of latitude to their children which is very different from that allowed in middle-class families. The boy will learn that he may get clouted if Mum catches him filching money from her bag, but this is not the sort of treatment which builds up a conditioned anxiety attached to stealing. Most studies
social taboos are by no means clear; they vary between social classes, and parents are often confused themselves. The ordinary individual does arrive at a workable standard of social morality for himself, but he has difficulty in passing it on to his children without conflict and confusion.

In a society based upon mutual aid, there would be little problem of morality. But our society is one based upon aggressive competition and unfairness. The status quo is maintained by a combination of sheer intimidation and ludicrously cockeyed moral training. One of the most sacred institutions in our society is property. If a lad were to steal my car, I would be annoyed and call upon the police to recover it for me. Yet I would feel no satisfaction if they caught the lad and put him in the lock-up. Nor do I believe that his act of theft is "immoral". As I drive through the wet, cold streets of Glasgow in my warm and comfortably empty car, and see the wretched mums of such lads queueing at bus stops, I might wonder if my position is not immoral — far more immoral than that of the underprivileged boys who occasionally steal a car. I am comparatively clever and have been well educated, therefore I am well paid for interesting and varied work, whereas they are comparatively stupid and have been appallingly miseducated, and so they are poorly paid for dull routine work. That is why I ride in the car while they queue in the wet. This is a social fact, and makes nonsense of the moralists' attempts to confuse crime with "immorality".

Society gets the delinquency rate it deserves, yet this simple fact is not recognised by many people whose profession it is to study criminology. The do-gooders vaguely hope that they will somehow reduce the delinquency rate by preventive methods of a social nature, or even by "therapy" applied to those under lock and key — and all without altering the essential structure of our society. In 1962 the criminological division of the Council of Europe circulated countries asking them what programmes of crime prevention had been inaugurated in them. The resulting document reveals the utter poverty of imagination of the majority of those who have contributed to it. In general the response could be summed up in the honest reply "nothing", but all too often a good deal of humbug is resorted to as a cover for the fact that no-one has any clear and practicable idea of how delinquency could be prevented.

Regarding "therapy" applied to prisoners in order to reform their '''criminal tendencies", most of it is a bad joke which reveals the stupidity of the psychologists who confuse criminality with mental illness. Now although certain men land up in prison because of psychiatric disorders, e.g. the exposeur, the compulsive incendiary, and the child rapist, the great majority of prisoners are not "sick" in any psychiatric sense. It is indeed a huge impertinence for any psychologist to think that he can give them "therapy". Against the do-gooders stand the hardened screws; the last thing they want to do is to do the prisoners good — they want to do them evil, to humiliate, crush and punish them. There is something terribly twisted in the character of any man who freely elects to spend his working life in prison when any other occupation, even the humblest, is open to him. Yet I have read of a self-publicist called Hauser, who claims to be showing prison screws how to become "therapists": I do not know if the Nazi movement produced any quacks who claimed to show SS men how to ameliorate the jewishness of Jews, rather than give them the standard treatment.

And in the free society?

"What do you do in your free, anarchist society when villains rob you in the street?" The only answer to that one is to enquire of your interrogator what he does in his own happy family when his wife spits in his face by way of greeting, and his son kicks him in the groin when demanding pocket money. Such conduct would imply that the family was not a happy one, just as being robbed in the street by villains would demonstrate that no free society had been achieved. We aspire to a society where we can walk unmolested in the street not because villains are afraid to rob us on account of the penal law, but because no one wants to molest us.

Against this view of a possible free society, is that put forward by Durkheim.5 In a muddled
way this view is held by many supporters of the status quo, but no one has stated it so plausibly and clearly as Durkheim. He saw the "criminals" as being of positive benefit to society. They were criminals because they broke the law and were detected; having been detected they were punished, and punished severely not out of any attempt to reform them (which was largely irrelevant) but out of society's need to define what was lawful and what was not, and to demonstrate its detestation of lawbreaking. Durkheim had no illusions about the responsibility of society for its criminals, he saw perfectly clearly that they were the inevitable product of respectable society, but these criminals were destined to be victims, and only by a cruel martyrdom of them could society preserve its mores.

Such a viewpoint as this is logically superior to the religious one — that the criminal has free will and that it is his own fault that he is a criminal — but it implies a curious framework of values. Society with its laws and mores is assumed to be of pre-eminent value; individual men or classes of men are regarded as so much expendable fodder, to be warped by forces beyond their control and then to be publicly vilified and punished for being warped. In contrast we have the anarchist view that society is simply an abstraction; society has no value as such — the only values must relate to you and me and him and her. If there are criminals, in any sense of the word, we are all inadequate in our social relations, and we had better do something about it.

I have tried to demonstrate that conscience, and hence ordinary social decency, stems naturally from an affectionate relationship between adults and children in their earliest years. A high rate of juvenile delinquency seems to be a very natural outcome of the way in which children are catered for, and the sort of social system into which they are expected to fit later on. And what do we do about this population of young lags? Again I would refer you to Erewhon where they kept the sufferers from tuberculosis and fevers in prisons and reviled them for their wickedness! Do we do much better? The answer does not lie in the direction of a sentimental do-gooders line of approach to the "poor criminals". On the contrary, a very tough line indeed is called for, and some very tough-minded thinking about the causes of crime. But to be tough with those who are convicted of crime is utterly irrelevant — as irrelevant as was the Erewhonian's harsh treatment of physical disease. As social medicine has attacked the causes of disease, so we must attack the causes of crime.

1. See the report in FREEDOM, 12th May, 1962.
2. Alex Comfort: Delinquency (Freedom Press, 1951).
3. Alex Comfort: Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State (Routledge, 1950).
4. e.g., Gordon Trasher: The Explanation of Criminality (Routledge & Kegan Paul).
5. Emile Durkheim: The Rules of Sociological Method (1895) (University of Chicago Press, 1938).

[graphic omitted]