Poverty, Crime and Politics: Frederich Engels and the Crime
© John Lea, 1996
|This article appeared in Lea, John and Geoffrey Pilling eds. (1996) The Condition of Britain: Essays on Frederick Engels. London: Pluto Books|
The present period is an appropriate one in which to re-read Engels' Condition of the Working Class in Britain. The demolition of the welfare state under conditions of high global unemployment and dramatic increases poverty would have been thought impossible twenty years ago. Capitalism appears, in this and other respects, to be moving backwards, closer to the world described by Engels in 1844 rather than away from it. Of course there is a wealth of literature and social science research studying and documenting these conditions and proposing various solutions. But in most of this literature the poor, the unemployed, remain passive victims of circumstance or even responsible for their own fate. To the extent that they are seen to act, it is usually in the guise of the threatening 'underclass' through the negativity of crime and violence. But this is not how Engels saw the suffering masses in 1844. As Lenin remarked:
It is here that one of the most important reasons for re-reading Engels' book is to be found. What appears refreshingly new and relevant for us today about Engels is his method, his understanding of the suffering masses as not just objects to be studied and helped but, in the last analysis, as acting subjects, the bearers of the solution to their own problems through a historical transformation that only they can achieve. Even if his predictions of revolutionary transformation were premature and, even if we understand that today there are new and different obstacles to their realisation, Engels' perspective appears increasingly less dated as time passes. This is underlined by a second feature of the present crisis: the combination of rising poverty and misery, with a collapse, not just of traditional welfare state policies but, at a much more fundamental level, of popular confidence in the ability of politicians and political parties, of the left as well as the right, to actually do anything about it. The supposed passivity of the poor is a distorted reflection of the impotence of the politicians.
Many of these issues are brought into focus by the discussion of working class crime in the pages of The Condition of the Working Class in England. The high incidence of crime among the most exploited sections of the working class seems to encapsulate all the problems facing any view of poor as the agents of their own emancipation. Theft or assault may well be a response to oppression and exploitation but it is only occasionally directed at the actual source of such oppression. More often the victim is, like the offender, poor and powerless. Marxists for this reason have often regarded crime as a marginal issue seeing it, for example, as a feature of the 'lumpenproletariat' rather than the working class (Hirst 1975), deconstructing discourses about crime as adoption of the ideological categories of bourgeois law (O'Malley 1988), or regarding talk of working class crime as capitulation to 'moral panic' fuelled by the mass media. A great deal of confusion is indeed created by talking generally about 'crime', a legal term which can cover everything from financial fraud to serial murder, and without paying precise attention to the social and political forces which determine which activities become criminalised in particular historical periods. When these are taken into account crime can return as a central element in the history of working class self activity. As the work of Marxist historians such as Edward Thompson (1967, 1974), Douglas Hay (Hay et al. 1975), Peter Linebaugh (1991) and others have shown, crime and punishment were central issues in the formation of the working class during the eighteenth century. But what was at issue was not 'crime' in some general abstract sense, but the criminalisation, by the ruling classes and the judiciary, of working class resistance to the development of capitalist property relations.
Engels was writing, at first hand, of the experience of the working class in the next period in the development of British capitalism, the new urban factory system as represented in particular by Manchester. His discussion of crime is more attuned to the issues of urban deprivation and poverty familiar - and increasingly so - to us today. If the eighteenth century, as studied by Thompson and his collaborators was characterised by crime as a form of politics, the early nineteenth, as documented by Engels was characterised by the transition from crime to politics as the form of working class self activity in response to capitalism. In the remainder of this chapter I shall first attempt a summary of Engels' treatment of crime in The Condition of the Working Class in England and then discuss its relevance for today.
THE NATURE AND CAUSES OF CRIME
Some years ago Jock Young summarised Engels' views on crime as amounting to four alternatives facing the impoverished worker. He "... can become so brutalised as to be, in effect, a determined creature." Secondly he can äccept the prevalent mores of capitalist society, and enter into the war of all against all." Thirdly, he can steal the property of the rich. Finally he can struggle for socialism (Young 1975, p. 78). This classification provides a very useful starting point for an investigation of Engels' treatment of crime.
crime and brutalisation
The theme of demoralisation and brutalisation of the working class as a cause of crime is undoubtedly strong in Engels. At first sight the relation between brutalisation and crime appears to take a strongly determinist form.
Engels elaborates the effects of brutalisation in a number of directions. Moral disintegration appears to be one consequence. Lack of moral restraint combined with poverty lead inexorably to crime.
Engels gives us some graphic portrayals of the moral disintegration of working class life in early capitalism. Such brutal conditions are particularly concentrated in the most marginalised elements, those on the fringes of the reserve army of labour who lead a casual existence and are forced into the lodging houses and hostels. Speaking of the London lodging houses he wrote:
And again, in the Manchester lodging houses:
But brutalisation and demoralisation not only affect the poorest elements in the lodging houses but the working class as a whole. In this context it is important to note that although property crime has a special significance, which we shall come to, Engels does not ignore other forms of crime. In particular he pays attention to prostitution, sexual harassment and domestic violence as features of working class family and working life.
The working class, "with no means of making fitting use of its freedom" turns to drink and sex which are carried to excess . This excess is related to poverty and insecurity: what is the point in deferred gratification and 'respectability' when there is no security in life [4:424]
All this sounds very similar to those middle class Victorian moralists who studied the poor and the 'dangerous class' from the standpoint of the need to inculcate moral restraint. Thus Henry Mayhew, twenty years after Engels, in his London Labour and the London Poor, published in 1861 was concerned with the 'undeserving poor' as 'a vast heap of social refuse' possessed of an 'innate love of a life of ease' and criminals as 'those who will not work'. The obsession of the early Victorian middle classes in the 1830's and 1840's had been with the 'lack of moral restraint' of the working classes, and the need to habituate them to the discipline and sobriety of hard work even if this meant reforming the worst excesses of the factory system. Engels was concerned to show that the destruction of morality was precisely a product of the 'hard work' and accompanying destruction of family life imposed by capitalism itself.
Part of these strains and stresses of working class family life are related to the condition of various family members in the labour market.
He traces similar consequences from the employment of children. Engels at first sight seems to be sanctioning a particular family division of labour and seeing domestic labour as trivial. Indeed in the German editions of 1845 and 1892 the phrase "the wrath aroused... relations within the family" is put in stronger language as "the just wrath aroused among the working-men by this virtual castration, and the reversal of all relations within the family." There were plenty of middle class reformers lamenting the effects of the factory system on the morality and family life of the working classes. But the comment "while other social conditions remain unchanged" implies that Engels starts from the possibility of a 'democratic domesticity' advocated by feminists where the capitalist ideology of the male as breadwinner has been overcome:
The first moment or aspect, then, of Engels' treatment of working class crime is the purely negative one of brutalisation and the deterioration of family life. Obviously, if this theme of brutalisation is abstracted out from the rest of Engels' work as a 'theory of the causes of crime' then we end up with something very similar to conventional sociology or criminology. In the same way that his account could be seen to echo the sentiments of middle class reformers of the factory system. But this was not Engels' intention.
the war of all against all
A second theme in the discussion of the causes of crime focuses on the social relations of competitive capitalist accumulation which have brought England to a state of the war of all against all.
At times Engels' discussion has almost the flavour of a conservative romanticism lamenting the decline of a stable ordered society in which each individual knew his or her place:
Bourgeois critics of the new urban life were of course saying similar things. Thus in the same year of publication of Engels book, 1844, the Tory Blackwoods Magazine warned that "the restraints of character, relationship and vicinity are.... lost in the crowd ... Multitudes remove responsibility without weakening passion." But unlike these critics of the anomie of the industrial city Engels is clear that is it capital accumulation that lies behind this process, and which inevitably imposes its effects upon the working class.
Crime is the natural result
Crime as the inevitable result of capitalist social relations had been stressed by Engels in his Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy published the year before.
In seeing crime as the natural result of capitalist relations of production Engels was far ahead of both those modern criminologists who insist on seeing crime as the result of some type of disruption of normal social relations as well as those who see it simply as a result of some 'moral panic' induced by the mass media. For Engels, crime is not a result of the breakdown of social relations, it is rather one of the necessary forms they take. As Steven Marcus, in his biography of Engels in Manchester, wrote, crime is not considered by Engels to be a result of deviance or the absence of norms:
That crime arises from the normal workings of capitalist production rather than their breakdown is even clearer when Engels comes to talk about the criminal activities of the bourgeoisie itself, an area with which many modern criminologists have had problems precisely because it is frequently impossible to find anything 'deviant' about the bourgeois criminal. Much of this activity, especially on the part of the small bourgeoisie, merchants and shopkeepers, concerned the adulteration of foodstuffs. Thus "The workers get what is too bad for the property-holding class..." (368), that is, low quality rotting vegetables, meat etc. Engels quotes numbers of cases of the Manchester courts fining meat-sellers for sale of tainted meat (369). He concludes:
But workers are "victimised in yet another way by the money-greed of the middle class". (370) Engels quotes the local Liverpool Mercury on cases describing all the fiddles of the period - sugar adulterated with pounded rice, even refuse from soap making sold as sugar! Cocoa adulterated with brown earth and mutton fat, recycled tea leaves, flour adulterated with gypsum and chalk etc. Not only food but cloth, pottery etc., but also various quack medicines such as the notorious Godfrey's Cordial.
Engels has thus a sophisticated understanding of the contemporary dynamics of fraud committed against the working class as consumer - small retailers have little choice but to adulterate - these are the competitive conditions. If discovered they can always move elsewhere, a large shop will lose its capital if it is exposed: the crime of the petty bourgeois in food adulteration etc. is understood as an inevitable consequence of the market. (ibid.)
The crimes of the bourgeoisie do not stop at fraud and adulteration of course. Engels was mainly concerned with the conditions of the working class, he was not writing a treatise on criminology. For a history of murder among the upper classes we can therefore justifiably be asked to turn elsewhere. Engels' focus was those crimes committed against the poor and the working class, and in this context he mentions another form of crime, sexual harassment and rape at work in a context in which modern writers would describe as 'power rape' or 'exploitation rape'
Engels' discussion finally moves on to wider crimes of the bourgeoisie which includes death in the city by asphyxiation and workplace death in the factories and mills, by what would now politely and equally hypocritically be called 'industrial accidents' in many cases brought about by the use of use of drugs to pacify children at work [esp. pp 436-7]
Up to this point Engels' has given us a graphic portrayal of crime as pure negativity, of the working class as suffering from the moral and social disintegration inflicted by industrial capitalism of which interpersonal violence and theft, inflicted by working-class people on one another is the natural result. He has also shown how the capitalist class, in the normal course of business is under constant pressure to violate laws and to engage in criminal, as well as legal exploitation of working class communities. If his account had stopped here, he would still have given us a graphic historical memoire of the conditions of life in early industrial capitalism. If he had been among the liberal utilitarian reformers of his age, such as Edwin Chadwick or Henry Mayhew he would then have continued on to suggest various enlightened strategies for the moral education of the working classes and the amelioration of their conditions. But Engels' interests lay in quite other directions.
crime and the struggle for socialism
For Engels, as for Marx, any amelioration of the conditions of the working class brought about from above, by the actions of the ruling class and the state, would be concessions wrung on the basis of fear of the self activity of the class and its latent, and growing, capacity to overthrown capitalism. Engels was not, therefore concerned with Victorian plans for social reform but with understanding how, from the conditions of demoralisation and deprivation described so far, the working class emerges as a historical force. For Engels, crime is a central part of this emergence. It is not just that the working class leaves crime behind as it develops political consciousness, crime is an essential stage in the development of class consciousness. Class consciousness and working class political organisation rather overcome the limitations of - certain forms - of crime while preserving some of their driving forces, notably the sense of rage and hatred of capitalism. Politics is the dialectical transcendence of crime, not simply its displacement.
The demoralisation and brutalisation of the workers finds its immediate negation in rage and hatred:
Such hatred, although expressed through crime, was for Engels:
The consequence is crime which is, of course, a destructive activity. The working class has been negated and crime is where it discovers its power and humanity but at first only in that negation, by negating others even within its own ranks. In other words
That the development of capitalism brings a relative shift from violence to theft in interpersonal crime would find agreement among many historians [Zehr 1976] though it is obvious that various forms of violence - against women in the home for example - would be under represented in the arrest or reported crime statistics and theft against property owners well represented.
But as capitalism develops the working class becomes aware of itself as a class, rather than as a group of individuals. The workers overcome and go beyond the individual demoralisation and brutalisation with finds its reflection in individual crime against property. The rage against and hatred of the bourgeoisie, which took an individual form in crimes against property, takes on a more directed, organised, effective political form as the working class makes the transition from being simply as class-in-itself to a class-for-itself. Engels describes the process in the following way:
How does such a transition, from crime to politics, from Luddite machine-smashing and robbery to Chartism and Socialism become possible? Obviously capitalist development, the expansion of industry and the size of the working class, the decasualisation of the labour market, the reduction in female and child labour and the stabilisation of the working class family and community: all these factors lay at the basis of the emergence of strong working class political and trade union organisation for the collective organisation of grievances on one hand and the development of strong informal controls against crime within the community on the other. But this is to move ahead, well beyond the period about which Engels was writing, and to read into his account a social history of the growth of a type of working class community and Labour politics which he did not, at that time, anticipate. In particular such a view would see criminality as a sort of pre-history rather than an essential moment in the development of class consciousness. In fact both Engels and his collaborator Marx, were thinking, in the mid 1840's, of something very different: the proximity of revolution. The growing power of the Chartist movement coupled with violent resistance by the employers to trades unionism convinced both Engels and Marx that a revolutionary situation was near at hand.
Engels quotes the criminal arrest statistics for England and Wales which rise consistently from 4,605 in 1805, through 14,437 in 1825 to 31,309 in 1842. In Scotland an even more rapid increase was to be noted. Engels emphasises the urban nature of the bulk of these arrests (London and Lancashire) - i.e. London and Manchester produced 1/4 of the whole in 1842. He also notes that nearly all crime arises within the proletariat, over half of those arrested could read or write only imperfectly and a third could neither read nor write. 0.22 out of a 100 had a higher education. He continues:
Ïf demoralisation and crime multiply twenty years longer in this proportion (and if English manufacture in these twenty years should be less prosperous than heretofore, the progressive multiplication of crime can only continue the more rapidly), what will the result be? Society is already in a state of visible dissolution..." [4:426]
Thus as the social war between bourgeoisie and proletariat continues to intensify, it would continue to take the form of both rising criminality and at the same time the metamorphosis of criminality into more organised forms of class struggle. As long as it is understood that crime and organised class struggle, far from being mutually exclusive, are components of each others development - crime as a primitive form of class war, heightened class struggle as increasing the rage that gives rise to crime, then we can understand why Engels saw it as natural to presuppose that both would increase. hand in hand. To make sense of this assumption two things have to be understood.
Firstly, it is important not to make the mistake of reading Engels' account, written in the 1840s, from the standpoint of modern notions of criminality which already presuppose the modern criminal law and a clear distinction between organised reformist working class politics and crime. The criminality which Engels has in mind is much closer to what Edward Thompson and his collaborators called 'social crime' much of which arose from the defence of older forms of traditional rights - to common pasture for example - against the encroachment of bourgeois property relations and which continued into the urban setting in such forms as traditions of 'pilferage' in the London Docks. This is the crime that working class people 'approve of in silence' and not the modern notion of petty crime, stealing from your neighbours or robbing elderly people, crimes of which the working class, then and now, firmly disapproves. Most important of all it has to be remembered that attempts at the formation of trade unions, then termed 'combination', was itself a criminal activity, under the notorious Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800. The criminalisation of working class resistance to capitalist property relations in the eighteenth century was followed by the criminalisation of working class resistance within capitalist property relations in the early nineteenth. But it is important also to understand that a clear distinction between social crime and harmful intra-class crime is one imposed by historians after the event. The distinction at the time was much more blurred. As E.P. Thompson warned: "there is not 'nice' social crime here and 'nasty' anti-social crime there" (Thompson 1972). Such a distinction presupposes the strong cohesive working class community which was as yet in a process of formation This is precisely what is implied in crime as a moment in the development of class consciousness.
A second factor to keep in mind is that Engels is not engaging in some sort of romanticisation of a criminal underworld or 'lumpenproletariat' as the leading force in the class struggle, nor is he regarding personal crimes like rape, for example, is somehow class conscious acts. Engels is clearly talking about crimes committed by the working class against the bourgeoisie, a type of criminality which, as already noted, mainly concerned theft, though arson and machine smashing are also mentioned. While Marx and Engels did not always use the term 'lumpenproletariat' precisely in a sociological sense (Bovenkerk 1984), it was clearly distinguished from the working class, including the most marginalised sections of the reserve army of the unemployed. Four years later, in the Communist Manifesto (1848) Marx and Engels referred to the
Of course, the brutalisation by capitalism to which theft is a response, also gives rise to more destructive forms of inter-personal violence within the working class, and it is in this context that some of Engels' more chauvinist remarks concerning Irish immigrant workers have to be read. It is also of course true that in the early nineteenth century, as the working class was still in the process of formation, the distinction between the living conditions of its poorest sections, so graphically documented in The Condition of the Working Class in England , and those of the lumpenproletariat or criminal underworld is blurred.
This is echoed later by Marx in Capital where the poorest sections of the reserve army of labour are seen as living in similar conditions to, though distinct from, the criminal underworld:
The fact that the actual conditions of life of sections of the reserve army of labour blur into the lumpenproletariat is the other side of the coin of the criminalisation, by the ruling class, of the working class in general in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as 'the mob' [Linebaugh 1992]. But however similar the conditions of life of sections of the working class and the criminal underworld, the political distinction between these groups remains profound. The distinguishing feature of the working class - even the weaker sections of it continually moving in and out of the ranks of the reserve army of labour - is its capacity to learn and develop forms of class consciousness. It is quite otherwise with that permanent underworld of professional thieves and robbers for whom crime is itself a form of economy and employment whose social relations are antipathetic to all forms of class consciousness.
These factors: crime as a form of generalised, albeit individual, resistance to capital, the working class rather than 'lumpen' nature of much crime together with the assumed immediate prospect of revolutionary upheaval, help explain why Engels made the assumption that crime would continue rising even as it was merging into more developed collective forms of political struggle. But history developed in a different direction.
THE INCIDENCE OF CRIME
The question of crime rates during the latter half of the last century seems to have been something of a problem both for socialists and conservatives. The Condition of the Working Class in England was, in fact, published at a turning point in the development of crime. Up to the mid century it is reasonably clear that crime rates were rising. Most historians are agreed on this [Emsley 1987]. However, from around the mid 1840's crime rates fell steadily until well after the first world war, [Gatrell and Hadden 1972, Gatrell 1980, Jones 1982, Emsley 1987]. According to commentators such as Lynn McDonald (1982) there was a conspiracy of silence about falling crime in the second half of the nineteenth century which embraced both left and right. The Right saw rising crime both as a vindication of the breeding habits of the criminal classes and of the necessity for "continued use of capital punishment (and fighting the abolition movement), flogging, transportation and severe prisons for children" [ibid.]. For the Left meantime it is argued that rising crime was an essential indicator of the worsening and oppressive nature of capitalism.
According to McDonald, this position assumed the status of political dogma in the revolutionary socialist movement: ".. a significance was given to rising crime that would make it difficult for a dedicated Marxist to question. Decreases in crime would be expected.... if the theory of the liberal bourgeoisie were right, if the post-revolutionary republic had resulted in an adequate society. But instead of 'order, harmony and love of humanity' there was 'disorder, dissension, murder, theft, bankruptcy and child abuse' ... To argue that crime was decreasing was to question the very need for communist revolution."  McDonald considers that Ëngels himself provided the kernel of a revised position" by showing that crime was a stage in the development of class consciousness and that the workers gradually made the shift to organised class politics. The argument here is that Engels, if he had thought through his argument consistently, would have realised that the development of organised class politics would have led to a decrease in crime. As I have argued above, this is a mistaken view of Engels' original argument concerning the dynamic relation between criminality and revolutionary struggle as he saw them in the 1840's. What he failed to anticipate was not the growth of working class political organisation but the particular processes of the 'stabilisation' of capitalist society which introduced a relationship between crime and politics quite different to that which he had originally envisaged. There were several elements involved.
Firstly, the development of the tradition of reformist trade unionism, led by the skilled workers drives a wedge between crime and politics in the sense understood by Engels. Social crime never of course entirely disappears from working class communities, and a healthy tradition of things 'falling off the back of a lorry' continues to the present time. But gradually theft and violence come to assume their modern forms of largely intra-class crime in which individual criminal acts against bourgeois property or its defenders, except at times of major strikes or lockouts, becomes more concentrated among marginalised members of the reserve army of the unemployed.
A second important factor is the increasing segregation between the classes in modern cities. Engels in fact observes the beginning of this process and spends some time considering its implications in the context of the anticipated climax of the class struggle. Thus he wonders aloud why the bourgeoisie is so calm in the face of the rising crime wave and accuses them of "mad blindness" arising from its "class prejudice and preconceived opinions" [4:427].
And he partly answers his question through a perception of the role of the city in enclosing and segregating social problems, so that the poor have only the poor for their victims and the rich, as long as they remain within their own suburbs. The Manchester slums hide their poverty:
He describes the division of Manchester into the central business district with main roads and busy traffic but no residents and where at night önly watchmen and policemen traverse its narrow lanes with their dark lanterns, surrounded by the working class districts and then, as an outer 'girdle' the upper and middle bourgeoisie:
Änd the finest part of the arrangement is this, that members of this money aristocracy can take the shortest road through the middle of all the labouring districts to their places of business without ever seeing that they are in the midst of the grimy misery that lurks to the right and the left. For the thoroughfares leading from the (Manchester) Exchange in all directions out of the city are lined, on both sides, with an almost unbroken series of shops, and are so kept in the hands of the middle and lower bourgeoisie, which, out of self interest, cares for a decent and cleanly external existence and can care for it." (348)
This middle class flight to the suburbs accentuated after 1870 and notwithstanding a growing middle class fear of urban public order (in London particularly) at the time of the unemployed riots of 1885 (Stedman Jones 1984) and the Jack the Ripper murders of the later 1880's, such social shifts had the effect of reducing working class crime against the bourgeoisie and increasing the relative proportion of such crime which was inflicted within the working class community itself. At the same time however the strengthening of working class neighbourhood and community organisation, evident towards the end of the nineteenth century (Savage and Miles 1994) contributed to the general tendency of crime to fall during the latter part of the nineteenth century.
Finally, Engels was writing at that historical moment when the criminal justice agencies of the bourgeois state were about to begin their incursion, accompanied by railway building and urban planning, into the hitherto no-go working class areas of the city and to bring working class petty criminality under its dominion (Gatrell 1980). To a considerable extent up until the 1850's, the working class and the poor were left to deal themselves with that crime whose victims were within their own communities (Lenman & Parker 1980] with the consequence that, while there was plenty of 'intra-class' crime in Engels' day, as we have seen, a much greater proportion of the crime that came before the Justices of the Peace was 'inter-class' crime, more closely related to the war waged by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. The effect of the gradual but successful penetration of the police into the working class communities by the turn of the century [Brogden 1982, Storch 1976] was to reduce the latter to the role of 'informal social control' of crime and other forms of deviance.
Thus the 'modern' system was consolidated. Crime and politics parted company, the latter becoming less a matter of individualised class warfare and more the petty and destructive behaviour which sections of the lower working class inflict upon one another, while the criminal justice system, by securing its symbolic monopoly over the public control of such crime and disposal of its perpetrators achieved a further solidification of its hegemony. The equality of the rule of law - while not without considerable benefits to the working class - becomes a form of domination akin to that of Capital itself, in which the equality between the parties to a contract is the starting point for subordination. By claiming to deal impartially with the violence and theft inflicted on all social classes, by equating the violence of the weak with that of the powerful, the criminal law completes its transition from the ideology of direct class rule of the eighteenth century described by Douglas Hay (1975) to that of indirect class rule through the regulation of general 'criminality'.
ENGELS AND THE PRESENT CRISIS
The Condition of the Working Class in England was written, not on the eve of revolution, but on the threshold of a long period of capitalist growth and relative stability which continued, despite period economic crises, until the First World War and the Russian Revolution. After the crisis of the interwar years a new period of stability followed the Second World War before giving way, in the 1970's, to the present period of increasing social and economic crisis. The thesis that capitalism, from an initially progressive role in developing the forces of production and culture, eventually becomes a fetter on human progress is a central component of historical materialism though it is clear that both Marx and Engels underestimated the time period over which such a process would mature. A discussion of the general dynamics of such decay and how they might be seen to manifest themselves in modern capitalism is beyond our discussion here. However one important indicator of such decay might be found in long run tendencies in crime rates.
Students of long term trends in the incidence of homicide, robbery and other violent crime have suggested the hypothesis of a 'U-curve' in which crime rates in leading industrial capitalist nations, England included, generally fell during the period after 1850 down to a plateau in the inter-war years and began rising again during the period after 1950. Such a continuous rise in crime has, of course, attracted a variety of explanations. It cannot, for example, be explained simply as a consequence of poverty and unemployment insofar as it was an observable tendency as much during the period of economic expansion and relative social stability following the Second World War as during the period of rising unemployment and economic stagnation after the mid 1970's. However it is clear in retrospect that the period of the welfare state and relatively full employment left large pockets of poverty and deprivation and at the same time by increasing expectations, particularly of working class young people, through diffusion of social rights and mass secondary education, fostered the type of frustrations that lead to crime (Lea and Young 1984). Since the beginning of the 1980's the increasing inability of capitalism to sustain the welfare state, the need for an increasingly open war by capital on all the social and political gains of the working class movement - which were the components of earlier stabilisation and integration - is recreating a society of growing poverty and inequality, long term unemployment, particularly for young people, and a social morality reminiscent of Engels' description of a 'social war' in which 'everyone stands for himself'. If falling crime during the second half of the nineteenth century was an index of capitalism's ability to develop the productive forces, raise working class living standards and create the general foundations for social cohesion, then rising crime in the second half of the twentieth century may be an index of capitalism's exhaustion reflected in an increasing socially and physically destructive use of technology, increasing inequality and fragmentation of the working class and the undermining of the foundations of social stability.
It follows that any attempt to repeat Engels' analysis and see rising crime among working class youth today as once again the precursor to radical consciousness must be aware of the fact that the 'same' phenomena under different social and historical circumstances may indicate quite different underlying dynamics. There are a number of obvious differences between the period of which Engels was writing and the present period.
On the one hand, it might seem obvious that the issue of a transition from crime to politics simply does not occur since the working class has historically already made that transition. Any re-emergence of radical or revolutionary consciousness in the forseeable future will emerge from the organised, and largely non criminalised, sections of the working class - and other social movements - taking advantage of the established structures of political organisation and civil rights based on the working class struggles of the last century. In such a situation the already established distinction between crime and politics will not be reversed - given the unproductiveness of crime as a form of political struggle and the fact that all the existing structures of political thought and organisation have moved beyond it. Even to pose the question is to answer it. Of course political and social movements will clash directly with the police. But only episodically and when the latter turn from their 'proper' focus on the control of crime to acting as the direct political agents of the ruling class in industrial conflicts or political demonstrations. Meanwhile the most salient aspect of crime in working class communities is defence against crime: a form of mobilisation, which, while it may well draw on traditions of 'self activity' is more likely to secure a closer, if critical, relationship between the police and the working class community.
On the other hand the character of much crime has changed. Precisely because of the development of the organised working class political and community structures noted above, social crime in the old sense declined. The growth of long term unemployment and the weakening of the political strength of the working class are of course fertile conditions for the re-emergence of such activity. Indeed a redistributive illegal economy of shoplifting and stolen consumer goods never entirely disappeared in the poorest sections of the working class and has undoubtedly grown in recent years. But as a form of illegal economy it has been largely overtaken by the, infinitely more profitable drugs trade. Rather than being a form of social crime or collectively sanctioned popular resistance to capitalism the global drugs economy is, on the contrary, one of the most profitable sectors of international capitalist enterprise, with its entrepreneurs, financiers, managers, and workers. It is not a matter of criminal organisations taking advantage of social crime, as might eighteenth century professional poaching gangs have taken advantage of popular resistance to the encroachment of common land rights, but rather a matter of the hegemonisation by the 'illegal sector' of multinational capital of some of the most personally destructive and debilitating responses to the demoralisation flowing from exclusion from the labour market, and the social decay which accompanies it.
This has been accompanied by an important change in the relationship between the bottom or 'latent' section of the reserve army of labour and the lumpenproletariat. The development of virtually permanent unemployment for an increasing number of young people who have never entered the labour market and no longer function even as a 'latent' section of the reserve army of labour. They have given up even looking for work. Having few alternatives to petty crime as a source of income pushes them into the traditional criminal underworld but at the same time as that underworld is being reorganised and subject to the discipline of (illegal) capital in the form of the drugs economy. The inner city unemployed youth thus moves from the bottom of one labour market to the bottom of another - from the declining, increasingly casualised legal labour market to the expanding, hazardous, casualised criminal labour market, working under conditions that make the emergence of traditional forms of class consciousness difficult to imagine. Rage and anger is predominantly a reference to exclusion from, rather than resistance to, the imposition of capitalist work and consumption relations. Meanwhile working class communities are further weakened and demoralised by the growth in debilitating interpersonal crime - theft, robbery, domestic violence and rape.
Thus making a connection between crime and political consciousness has become difficult, if not impossible. As late as the mid 1970's Stuart Hall and his colleagues could still advance a sophisticated presentation of crime as resistance. In a discussion of the involvement of unemployed black youth in street crime, they wrote:
Black involvement in street crime was an issue in the 1970's and 80's as the ethnic minority communities were the first to feel the effects of the end of post-war capitalist expansion. But by the beginning of the present decade, as the issue widened out to include substantial sections of white working class youth now surplus to capital's requirements the mood among radicals had changed. In her discussion of young people and violent crime in various parts of Britain in the early 1990's Beatrix Campbell (1993) argued that whereas the riots in Brixton and other areas in the early 1980's had a legitimate element of grievance against police victimisation of Black youth, the violence bursting out on working class housing estates around Britain ".... did not represent revolt, they were simply larger displays of what these neighbourhoods had to put up with much of the time." And what they had been putting up with was the terrorism of organised criminal gangs of unemployed aggressive young men.
Much of the discussion by the media and by social scientists has not surprisingly taken the form of a concern with the growth of the 'underclass', returning in some respects to the concerns of the early Victorian bourgeoisie with the 'lack of moral restraint' of the lower orders. From the standpoint of Engels' analysis, crime seems locked into the first, negative, stage of demoralisation and brutalisation. For the poor, and in particular long term unemployed young people, the transition from crime to politics has been replaced by the transition from politics to crime as contact with older traditions of class organisation and struggle are lost. This time the dialectic appears to be elsewhere: crime appears as an obstacle: a problem to be solved by the already existing organised working class and progressive social movements rather than a component in their own formation.
But this would be a one-sided view. The organised working class movement, the reformist political parties and the welfare state which gave them relevance, are themselves in crisis. The increasing levels of poverty, deprivation and social marginalisation which give rise to crime are part of the same forces which drive capital to demand the dismantlement of welfare rights and a recriminalisation of social protest extending from trade union action to wide categories of public gatherings . It is not a question simply of the 'old' political structures getting together to mobilise and politicise those sections of the unemployed and young people turning to crime, they have showed precious little inclination to do so up till now. It is the question of new forms of organisation and new leaderships emerging within the working class movement with the problems of crime, poverty and unemployment at the top of their agendas.