Social Crime Revisited
© John Lea 2002  
An updated version of this article appeared in Theoretical Criminology, vol. 3 no. 3. August 1999

The understanding of crime as resistance or survival was once an important element of radical criminology (Taylor et al. 1973). During the mid and late 1970s work by radical historians on social crime-criminality as rebellion, resistance or collective survival strategies in poor communities-connected with themes in radical criminology and sociology. However, in recent years such preoccupations have been displaced by an emphasis on the harmful effects of crime and on the suffering of its victims. This article aims at a critical re-appropriation of the concept of social crime. It begins by examining some of the meanings and elements involved in the original use of the term and the historical contexts in which it was developed. Then, after an evaluation of its deployment in the understanding of urban street crime in later historical periods, an attempt is made to assess its relevance for the present context.

The classic debate

The term social crime was first coined by Eric Hobsbawn in his writings on `primitive rebels' and `social bandits'. (Hobsbawm 1959, 1969, 1972) This work was the starting point for a proliferation of historical studies. (See for example, Rude 1985; Crummey 1986; Blok 1972; O'Malley 1979a, 1979b.) A second major contribution was that inaugurated by the work of the late Edward Thompson and his collaborators. (Hay et al. 1975; Linebaugh 1991; Rule 1979, 1982, Thompson 1967, 1968, 1972, 1977) The concept of social crime that emerged from these studies is quite broad and at times even opaque. It involved a number of elements by no means all of which are necessarily present, or even regarded as essential, across the range of studies. The main elements can be specified as follows.

Firstly there is the violation of law as a more or less explicit form of protest. In Hobsbawm's usage, social crime describes

a conscious, almost a political, challenge to the prevailing social and political order and its values... (which)... occurs when there is a conflict of laws, e.g. between an official and an unofficial system, or when acts of law-breaking have a distinct element of social protest in them, or when they are closely linked with the development of social and political unrest. (Hobsbawm 1972: 5)

This is more than simply a statement of the obvious fact that many criminal offenders might be driven by a rage to `hit back at the system'. The reference is rather to organised social resistance with the criminal acting in some sense as a representative or articulator of social grievances. Thus in Hobsbawm's studies of social banditry the focus is on

peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps even leaders of liberation and in any case as men to be admired, helped and supported. (1969: 17)

This brings us immediately to a second key theme, that of community support for the activities of the criminal. This was central to the studies of Thompson and his collaborators. Douglas Hay's study of poaching showed how local communities

... united solidly in defence of poaching. The keepers met with a wall of silence when they tried to make inquiries, but found that word spread like lightening when they obtained a search warrant, and that the suspects had escaped with `the apparatus' just before they arrived. (1975: 198)

However, such popular support can range from positive enthusiasm for the bandit as in the Robin Hood legend or the poacher as popular hero-to simply turning a blind eye to activities which the state authorities regard as crime but which working people do not perceive as particularly harmful.

This distinction was elaborated up by John Rule, one of Thompsons's collaborators. He emphasised the distinction between `crimes which draw their collective legitimation from their explicit protest nature and actions which although against the law were not regarded as criminal by the large numbers who participated in them whether their purpose was to make a protest or not... The most important characteristic of ``social crimes'' lies in positive popular sanction, not in the often present element of protest.' (1979: 51-2) Thus for the rural masses of eighteenth century England, excluded from political representation, food riots, machine smashing and much poaching can indeed be seen as proto-political resistance. Other forms of organised activity such as illicit distilling, pillaging ship wrecks for cargo, various types of smuggling etc., were also less clearly forms of social protest than they were continuities of older forms of `tolerated illegalities' (Foucault 1977: 82) dating back to feudal times.

The consequences of Rule's distinction can be more clearly appreciated if we consider a third element, present in many studies of social crime, the criminalisation of custom. Much social crime in eighteenth century England involved the attempt to reassert traditional land rights in the face of advancing capitalist property relations. This ranged from attempts by working people to enforce traditional grain prices against the advance of the commercial market (Thompson 1967, Cf. also Randall and Charlesworth 1996) through the role of poaching as a defence of traditional hunting rights in the face of the enclosure of common open land as private property (Thompson 1977, Hay et al.1975) to the attempt by eighteenth century London dockers to preserve traditional rights to a portion of the cargo of ships unloaded.(Linebaugh 1991) In early capitalism protest is most likely to take the form of attempts to preserve traditional rights as an alternative economy of distribution to that governed by capital accumulation and commodity exchange.

But if social crime is too closely linked to this particular element of pre-capitalist values then it will not survive long into urban industrial capitalism. The urban working class gradually loses contact with largely rural based traditional forms of distribution. Social crime in industrial capitalist society will take the form either of attempts to assert new-for example incipiently socialist-norms of distribution or, more frequently, of a surrogate capitalism of stolen property which the community tolerates not because it represents an alternative to the prevailing economic system but because it represents lower prices. Protest, meanwhile, will be located elsewhere, in the emerging structures of the labour and socialist movements who will regard such entrepreneurial crime as hardly a progressive political force.

Even in eighteenth century England, by no means all poaching can be seen as popular protest. Sections of the middle class and small gentry were also engaged in violation of game laws that benefited large landowners (Fine 1984: 184-9) while much poaching was undertaken by professional criminal gangs who sold illegally killed game to innkeepers and butchers, taking advantage, no doubt, of widespread tolerance of poaching yet at the same time embracing the new capitalist market relations rather than resisting them. (Emsley 1996: 4, 112) Such activity was likely to be nevertheless tolerated, but because it reduced prices rather than because it was a defence of traditional rights. By stressing community tolerance rather than overt protest social crime is rendered a more adaptable concept.

The final, and probably the most controversial, element of social crime is the question of its boundaries. While much social crime is seen as proto-political protest, it is also a form of crime and the question of its frontiers with ordinary `anti-social' crime is raised. Hobsbawm in his studies of banditry made a clear distinction between social bandits and common thieves or professional underworld robbers. Though even the social bandit may also engage in straightforward predatory crime

Underworld robbers and raiders regard the peasants as their prey and know them to be hostile; the robbed in turn regard the attackers as criminals in their sense of the term and not merely by official law. It would be unthinkable for a social bandit to snatch the peasants (though not the lord's) harvest in his own territory, or even perhaps elsewhere. Those who do therefore lack the peculiar relationship which makes banditry `social'. Of course in practice such distinctions are often less clear than in theory. A man may be a social bandit on his native mountains, a mere robber on the plains. (1969: 18)

In the Thompson studies of eighteenth century England the blurred boundary between social and anti-social crime is more of an issue. Those who stole the sheep from the wealthy farmer may also on occasion have stolen from the poor, the poor from each other. Both may have ended up on the gallows together with those who engaged in neither. This has been a problem for many conventional historians. For Jim Sharpe a key problem was that of `determining exactly where social crime ends and normal crime begins.' (Sharpe 1984: 140) But Thompson himself, by contrast, focussed on this ambiguity as being central to the concept of social crime itself. He warned that `there is not ``nice'' social crime here and ``nasty'' anti-social crime there.'(Thompson 1972: 5) Likewise, the authors of Albion's Fatal Tree reported that as their studies progressed

... it became less possible to sustain any tidy notion of a distinction between these two kinds of crime. There is a real difference in emphasis at each pole: certainly the community (and its culture) was more likely to give shelter to some `social' offenders (smugglers or rioters in popular causes) than to thieves or sheep stealers. Yet in many cases we found little evidence of a morally endorsed popular culture here and a deviant subculture there.(Hay, Thompson, Linebaugh 1976: 14)

The difficulty of delineating the boundaries of social crime reflected, rather than its lack of coherence as a concept, the very fluidity of social relations in the nascent capitalist society of eighteenth century England. There is a great danger, from which even professional historians are not immune, of reading the past in terms of modern conceptualisations and distinctions-and often exaggerating the clarity of the latter-which have little relevance to the period being studied. Anyone who starts out from the notion that `crime is crime' is likely to make little sense of social crime and even read it as an attempt to exonerate villains[1]. The assumption that the boundaries of crime in the eighteenth century were clear and consensually agreed automatically presupposes the same to be true of structures of political representation and activity which in fact only became firmly developed during the period of protracted social conflict during the nineteenth century. In the period studied by Thompson et al. the distinction between organised working class politics with its accompanying forms of consciousness on the one hand, and on the other, criminal activity as now conventionally understood, had not yet crystallised. When the masses had absolutely no access to what might be regarded as political representation except through riot and popular disturbance or individual action, and when Chartism, the first experiment in modern autonomous working class political organisation, was not yet even on the horizon, the notion of a vast blurred middle ground between crime and proto-political protest is entirely appropriate.

Indeed, and this is the final element of social crime in its early English context, if attacking the real sources of oppression of the community, or simply attempting to continue traditional practices, and victimising fellow members of the community on occasions blurred, if individuals moved from one activity to another without a clear-that is modern political-understanding of what they were doing, we should hardly be surprised because the ruling class and its magistrates were themselves engaging in exactly the same blurring of the boundaries. Thus Thompson, criticised accounts of the so-called `criminal subculture of Georgian England' (Rogers 1974) as

... nothing of the sort; they are simply accounts of the commonplace mundane culture of plebian England - notes on the lives of unremarkable people, distinguished from their fellows by little else except the fact that by bad luck or worse judgement they got caught up in the toils of the law. (1977: 193)

and as to the proliferation of `criminal gangs' during the period

What is at issue is not whether there were any such gangs (there were) but the universality with which the authorities applied the term to any association of people, from a benefit society to a group of kin to a Fagin's den, which fell outside the law. (1977: 193-194)

The mirror image of social crime is thus the state authorities concerned with the generalised repression of the emerging working class as a whole. Under such conditions the blurred boundaries between social crime, anti-social crime and non criminal activities are not evidence of conceptual confusion but form part of lived reality. It follows, however, that use of the concept of social crime in an understanding of later historical periods and present circumstances has to proceed with considerable care.

Social crime in industrial capitalism

With the development of the labour movement, rising living standards, the stabilisation of the urban working class community and the abandonment by capital of a strategy of general repression of the working class, crime becomes increasingly marginalised. The distinction between criminality and politics, normal social life and crime becomes firmer. (Cohen 1979) Serious predatory crime becomes the activity of a semi-professional criminal underworld and lumpenproletariat, Crime, however, never ceases to be an aspect, even if diminished, of working class life. A diffuse petty criminality, particularly among the young in the poorer sections of the working class, came, by the early part of the twentieth century, to be focused as the problem of `juvenile delinquency.' Part of this involved residues of older traditions of social crime. Historians have documented the survival of activities such as coal picking, smuggling, pillaging of ship wrecks etc. well into the modern period. Poaching continues among these to be a major activity though losing its protest connotations. According to John Benson

There seems little doubt that certain forms of popular crime declined in importance between 1850 and 1939. Poaching became less common towards the end of the nineteenth century... On the other hand there seems little doubt that other, probably more common forms of popular crime persisted virtually unabated, with scavenging, pilfering and similar activities continuing to provide work and income for a large-though unknown number of working class families. (1989: 28-9)

A sustained attempt to reinterpret much `ordinary' juvenile delinquency as a form of social crime was made by Stephen Humphries in his oral history research on working class youth in Bristol and Essex, over the period 1889-1939. Humphries argued that

`... oral interviews reveal that many property crimes were necessitated and justified by extreme poverty and the working-class family's struggle for survival. It is significant that many people described their illegal activities as `chowding' or `scrumping' apples and `picking' or `scrounging' coal, all of which conveyed a belief in time-honoured rights in opposition to property law.' (1981: 151)

Scrumping apples and picking coal immediately recall the older eighteenth century traditions and enjoyed a wide degree of community toleration. Humphries sees them as a continuation of the traditions of the earlier period studied by Thompson et al. However, he follows John Rule's emphasis on community tolerance rather than protest or resistance as the key indicator of social crime. Also, newer forms of social crime appear of which the major example is shoplifting. This can be taken as a paradigm of modern social crime. There is no reference to precapitalist rights and traditions nor any element of proto-political protest. The claim to social crime is based simply on the widespread tolerance of shoplifting in poor communities as a necessity for survival.

(A)lthough social crime released deep-rooted feelings of hostility, there was in fact little correlation between participation in social crime and the development of militant class-consciousness... despite the fact that many young people justified their thefts in terms of the injustices of social inequality, social crime was for the majority a short-term family solution rather than part of a long-term political solution to their problems. (1981: 172)

The point here is that, by contrast with the situation described by Thompson or Hobsbawm, resistance to capitalism lies elsewhere-in the organised labour movement. Where such an established mechanism of political representation exists it is much harder to sustain the idea of crime even as a form of semi-politics. Nevertheless, social crime may be sustained by community tolerance. Humphries, however, tends to push the latter conception to its limits by including not only shoplifting from large stores in city centres but also from small retailers within the working class communities themselves. After some accounts of the deviousness with which small boys approach errands to the `corner shop' he continues:

I have discovered no oral evidence to suggest that working class parents actually instructed their children to pilfer food or steal money from shops... Instead the attitude of struggling parents whose children committed such crime was gratefully to accept the bounty and to avoid asking too many questions about where it came from... (1981: 166)

This goes beyond Edward Thompson's point about the practical difficulty of distinguishing between `nice' social crime and `nasty' anti-social crime. The point here is not that those who engage in shop lifting may not make the practical distinction between the corner shop and the chain store, or that the honing of skills in some local mischief is a precursor to more daring activities in the city centre. It is that stealing from the small community store is here of itself regarded as an example of social crime rather than as an illustration of its blurred boundaries. Such activity could be expected to create bad feeling within the community, in particular where local shops were well integrated into community life giving, for example, extended credit during periods of strike activity. Moreover the requirement to avoid asking too many questions can hardly be read as an indication of widespread popular support. It is not surprising therefore that the prevalence of this sort of activity

... was prevented from deteriorating into a war of all against all by customary codes of honour and by the complex set of loyalties and obligations that developed within families, streets and the local working class community. (1981: 172-3)

Social crime here seems to have lost any features which might distinguish it from petty crime in general. The function of community solidarity has changed from that of generalised support for the criminal activity to a force which protects individual and families from its incipient destructiveness: from support for social crime to the social control of crime. In communities with less cohesion than the ones featured in Humphries' research such criminality could easily have moved from the corner shop to the house next door and so become a factor in community disintegration rather than cohesion. The strength of the community is thus a precondition for social crime. Communities cohesive enough to keep their serious villains and petty delinquents under control, are more able to steer criminality into tolerated activities.  

Street crime in the 1970s

A second example of work on criminality in urban capitalist society at least partly inspired by the work of Hobsbawm and Thompson can be seen in what still remains a classic text by Stuart Hall and others of the then Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS). Policing the Crisis (Hall et al. 1978) was an attempt to respond to a media orchestrated moral panic concerning the involvement of black youth in street robbery. If Humphries followed John Rule in emphasising community tolerance as the key ingredient of social crime, Hall et al. emphasised the theme of resistance to capitalism and attempted to grapple with the issue of whether such a concept could be meaningfully applied to street crime in 1970s urban Britain. The argument was that street crime and a subculture of `hustling' was to be seen as the activity of a super-exploited section of the working class with, however, the ability to tap into traditions of resistance (hustling) derived from the colonial experience. This was combined with elements of the thesis developed by Franz Fanon (1965) of the lumpenproletariat as, in the colonial context, able to fulfil the role of a revolutionary class. (See 1978: 381) The argument was nevertheless hesitant and qualified and ultimately failed to surmount its own ambiguities.

It is perfectly clear that crime, as such, contains no solution to the problem as it confronts the black worker... Crime as such is not a political act, especially where the vast number of victims are people whose class position is hardly distinguishable from that of the criminals. It is not even necessarily a `quasi-political' act. But in certain circumstances, it canprovide, or come to be defined as expressing some sides of an oppositional class consciousness... it requires only a moment's reflection to see how acts of stealing, pick pocketing, snatching and robbing with violence... can give a muffled and displaced expression to the experience of permanent exclusion. (1978: 390-1)

On the one hand the rejection of street crime as even `quasi-political' seems a firm statement that it fails to meet the criteria of social crime as protest. The subsequent qualifying reference to oppositional class consciousness and `muffled and displaced expression' refers only to the subjective state of the actor. The fact that the criminal is driven by anger and a desire to hit back makes his crime understandable but it is insufficient to qualify it as social crime. The argument then returns to re-emphasise the fact that

... there is, as yet, no active politics, no form of organised struggle, and no strategy which is able adequately and decisively to intervenein the quasi-rebellion of the black wageless such as would be capable of bringing about that breakin the current false appropriations of oppression through crime-that critical transformation of the criminalised consciousness into something more sustained and thorough-going in a political sense. (1978: 397)

By explicitly rejecting even an indirect political content Policing the Crisis failed to establish street crime as a social criminality of resistance. This rejection could of course be criticised on the grounds that it took for granted established traditions of working class politics as paradigmatic. Since a central assumption of the Hobsbawm/ Thompson argument of early social crime as resistance was precisely the absence of such a political tradition it becomes almost a definitional issue that criminality cannot constitute any form of political action where an organised working class politics is available elsewhere. However, the fact that large numbers of black youth were marginalised from that tradition, by racism and by the changing dynamics of capitalism, could have allowed a more open mindedness about what constituted quasi-political resistance in such circumstances. This was substantially the critique levied by many of the younger members of the CCCS in the harder argument of The Empire Strikes Back (1982) which criticised the notion of `false appropriations of oppression through crime' as opening ``... the door to conceptions of black culture and political traditions as generating criminality.'' (1982: 151) and laid firmer emphasis on seeing the most prominent aspect of black street crime as in fact the criminalisation of resistance. Thus

... battles for black civil rights and liberties... cannot be explained away by the cavalcade of lawless images of stowaways, drifters, pimps, and drug dealers whose procession extends into the present in the forms of muggers, illegal immigrants, black extremists and criminal Rastafarians (dreads). (1982: 145)

This, however, encounters the opposite problem. By seeing the issue as criminalisation of `battles for black civil rights and liberties' the impression is created of an unambiguous criminalisation of political resistance much as a modern authoritarian state may attempt to criminalise those engaged in otherwise legitimate political protest. The existence of blurred boundaries with normal anti-social criminality are not discussed and there is, as in Policing the Crisis, a failure to grapple with the issue of community support for such activities.

A second group of successors to Policing the Crisis were the Left Realists, who laid heavy emphasis on the rejection of `false appropriations of oppression through crime' and for whom, including this author, the thesis of crime as proto-political resistance was to be turned on its head. Rather than the criminalisation of resistance, media moral panics portraying `ordinary apolitical street crime' as some new form of political insurrection had `... the effect of steering public debate away from the issues of economic and social decay towards themes which attribute social problems to ``the presence of alien cultures''... Rather than politics being presented as crime, it is crime that is being presented as politics.' (Lea 1986: 159)

The 1990s

The rise of Left Realism was part of a general re-orientation of radical criminology and radical politics which, combined with Feminist themes, involved a shift to a greater emphasis on the problems of victimisation and on unambiguously `anti-social' varieties of crime such as rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse: activities which were completely outside the original lexicon of social crime. This shift in orientation was accompanied by two other important changes affecting the relationship between crime and community.

Firstly, the collapse of forms of industrial development which built strong working class communities during the last century combined with urban planning policies during the post war period which created `sink estates' of concentrated social exclusion (Power 1987) resulted in an evaporation of community cohesion in many areas. In a recent portrayal of an area of Leeds, with nearly fifty percent out of work, almost eighty percent of residents admitted in a local survey that they hardly knew any of their neighbours (Davies 1997).

This second is the growth of organised crime whose leading sector is the drugs economy. The hapless street mugger of the 1970s becomes the menacing drug dealer of the 1990s, a mobile phone call away from suppliers in the powerful international crime syndicates and prepared to fight and defend territory, including by recourse to firearms. The massive profits to be made from this activity give it a power and hegemony over other types of petty criminal enterprise. It is symbolic of the fusion of capital and crime. A form of violent capitalism targeting communities for potential drug sales and engaged in the determined suppression of threats to its hegemony could not be further from the notion of social crime. These developments act to change the power relationships between communities and their offenders. On the one hand the weakened, fragmented community finds it harder to control its villains while, on the other, the latter become more powerful and ruthless in the defence of criminal activities harmful to community life.

Recovering Resistance

Nevertheless, an overemphasis on the victim perspective can reinforce traditional views of the poor as pathological, incompetent and entirely dependent on expert intervention to resolve their plight. Emphasis is shifted away from a study of the ways in which the socially excluded attempt to resist their predicament. The growing exclusion of large numbers of people from the labour market, from welfare citizenship and from effective political participation and interest group formation, would seem to lay the preconditions for a resurgence of social crime as a survival strategy if not as a form of proto-political resistance. The need is to study the forms of resistance and survival together with the ways in which they interact, conflict and become intertwined with, more destructive forms of criminality. The concept of social crime, with its stress on the blurred boundaries and contradictory relation between the two is therefore a useful concept with which to set about this task. In the final part of this article I shall attempt to elaborate this point of view.


There has been a slow but steady growth in recent years of direct action protest movements ranging from the poll-tax rebellions, the squatters and travellers movements, protests against the criminalisation of open field entertainments to direct action against motorway construction, blood sports and genetically modified food production. Many of these actions involve criminal trespass and violation of property, and engage young people drawn from the ranks of the socially excluded. On the other hand much protest crime takes a less focused form.

... the rioters of the eighteenth century were attempting to preserve a traditional culture and way of life from the impact of urbanisation and industrial life; the young unemployed of the inner cities today are engaged in constructing a new way of life, a subculture expressive of the fact that they have grown up in and imbibed the standards and expectations of life in industrial society but have been denied the opportunity either to achieve those expectations or to mobilise in some politically effective way to secure the means to that achievement. (Lea and Young 1993: 210)

The socially excluded have to innovate. Such innovations may take a symbolic and theatrical form as with the popularity, during the early years of the present decade, of joyriding and racing stolen cars by sizeable gatherings of unemployed youth. Joyriding was ``... a particularly apt expression of the combination of marginality and relative deprivation, kids who are denied access to the labour market taking the status symbols of the consumer society and testing them to destruction!'' (Lea and Young 1993: xxviii)

However, protest crime of the latter variety may involve harsh infliction on local communities already fragile through economic and social decay. Activities such as joyriding have tended to take place in local housing estates where the participants live rather than in front of the Town Hall or the Job Centre. This is partly a question of security - it is harder for the poor and socially excluded to occupy the modern well policed city. It is also related to the symbolic and theatrical nature of such protest itself. Such diffuse and inarticulate (that is, from the standpoint of conventional organised politics) protest fuses easily with rage directed as much against the local community as the distant and opaque sources of adversity. The fusion of the social and the anti-social is thereby facilitated. The other accompaniments to joyriding as symbolic protest on Tyneside in the early 1990s were hardly a community carnival

Houses were set on fire, roofs were cleared of tiles, walls were stripped of radiators, houses were ram-raided, residents were robbed, threatened and pestered by gangs of lads who seemed beyond society's reach. Victimisation was a way of life. (Campbell 1993: 97)

But the fusion of social and anti-social is not the collapse of the former without residue into the latter. It is the contradictory nature of such actions that need to be explored rather than dismissing them as forms of one-dimensional violence or a simplistic `lawless masculinity' (Campbell 1993: 202)

community toleration

Under such conditions the types of crime most tolerated in communities with high levels of social exclusion are likely to be those which conform to the `survival' rather than the `protest' model of social crime; activities such as shoplifting, tobacco and alcohol smuggling, and much social security fraud. All are currently on the increase. Tobacco and alcohol smuggling is currently estimated to be worth about £2.3 billion. (Stone 1998) Shoplifting figures provide a more complex scenario of declining value of property stolen but an increasing number of incidents. (Bamfield 1994)

The emphasis on community toleration avoids some of the pitfalls encountered by Hall et al. in their earlier attempt to locate a political element in street crime and hustling. For example the importance of `hustling' is less as a form of protest and more as a mode of survival and as such may be to some extent tolerated by the communities within which it takes place. This approach avoids the problems of ``ossifications of subcultural adaptions to injustice into the status of political struggles against it.''(Lea and Young 1993: 126) The reference is less to Franz Fanon and more to Ken Pryce (1977) or to Dick Hobbs'(1988) portrayal of the old `bourgeois proletarian' wheeler-dealer culture of the East End of London.

However as the drugs economy takes root in weaker, fragmented communities so the toleration of crime becomes irrelevant. The crime still brings in money and family members may not ask questions about where it comes from. This is true both for parents and relatives of drug dealers and for others in the community who benefit from lower prices. They may experience one aspect of the drugs economy as simply cheap stolen goods. Howard Parker and his colleagues pointed out how important the local poor, willing to turn stolen goods into cash, are for the heroin economy.

The presence of the `straights', the coping poor of a region, particularly in recession and decline, is a prerequisite. The trading system or chain needs customers who will strike a bargain on the doorstep or in the local pub for something they want or need... For them, taking the opportunity to supplement their often low standard of living seems common sense not crime. (Parker et al. 1988: 179)

Nevertheless, the community is increasingly unable to regulate its criminals. Humphries' scenario in which community cohesion prevents petty crime degenerating into a war of all against all decreasingly applies. Participants in the drugs economy themselves reflect and live the contradiction between survival and destruction in their own lives. Eloise Dunlap describes the dilemmas of a New York drug dealer

To help his family confront poverty, Ross sells drugs. At one point he was torn between dealing heroin and watching it destroy his sister and harm his family. This contradiction became too much for him. He later sold crack and tried to resolve the conflict by setting portions aside for family members. He gives his mother money but she never inquires where the money comes from. At the same time he scorns his cousin's parents for accepting money they have acquired illegally. This is a state of crisis in values, morals and practices for Ross. He is very clear about the inappropriateness of the cousin's parents accepting 'drug money' but does not connect his activity with his mother's behavior in the same category. (Dunlap 1995: 130. See also Bourgois 1996)

alternative economies

A further issue however concerns the degree of capitalist organisation of such activities. In the Thompson studies the emphasis was on the collective attempt to preserve traditional forms of economy. This is true both of protest crime like poaching and of less protest-oriented activities such as smuggling or pillaging ship wrecks. In both these cases there was plenty of evidence of the activities of professional gangs - of poachers and smugglers - for whom social crime was a form of incipient capitalist enterprise.

The latter is even more likely in the present context. There are no pre-capitalist economic relations to be defended, meanwhile the existence of a large entrepreneurial organised crime sector means that any activity which extends beyond the operations of a few amateurs is likely to become absorbed by more organised enterprise. The channels of communication and distribution developed for shoplifted goods or tobacco and alcohol smuggling can be hijacked for other purposes such as drugs distribution reinforced by violence and intimidation. In recent years, for example, amateur alcohol and tobacco smugglers operating from the English channel ports have faced competition from organised criminal gangs prepared to use violence and even firearms to eliminate competitors. (Knowsley and McQueen 1997) In this context relations of exploitation and intimidation between different categories of criminal actors become more important than relations between criminals and the public. The poor may still benefit from lower prices even if the bootleggers are professional gangs rather than local lads and will certainly not be overly concerned with the loss of tax income to the state. It is rather violence and intimidation which frequently accompanies such organisation which is the problem.

blurred boundaries

In such a situation the question of blurred boundaries is far more complex than in the eighteenth century. Both protest crime and survival crime easily intertwine with general lawlessness in fragmented communities. Again the danger is of conflating them into a single `criminality'. Thus Nick Davies:

The crime still flashed through the estate like flames on oil. One day, it was one of the Hooks using a stolen car as a battering ram to destroy a garage door. The next day, it was a woman who lived with one of the McGibbons, coming round the estate with carrier bags full of shoplifted clothes, selling them on the doorstep and taking orders for her next trip. `Does your little boy want a tracksuit?' (Davies, 1997: 64)

But this only reinforces the necessity of exploring the contradictory elements in criminal activities and how they interact. Communities of course still vary as to their ability to withstand the anti-social and sustain the social varieties of criminality. Sandra Walklate and her collaborators (Evans et al. 1996, Walklate 1997) have recently contrasted traditional dockland communities based in public housing with the debility of more fragmented private housing areas in this regard.

Furthermore, it is important to be clear that the boundaries of criminality are being blurred from the other side. Not only is there not, to paraphrase Edward Thompson's phrase, `nice' social crime here and `nasty' anti-social crime there; neither, increasingly, is there `nice' legal capitalism here and `nasty' illegal capitalism there. Capitalist economic relations in many areas are changing. The increasingly criminogenic nature of major sectors of global finance capital cannot detain us here. (Bosworth-Davies, 1997) Meanwhile sectors of manufacturing and services such as building and construction, clothing, hotels and catering, by means of downsizing, casualisation of labour, outsourcing to small firms etc., are becoming increasingly criminogenic in their mode of functioning. Legal activities come to depend on the existence of illegal ones. Small firms may rely on organised crime to supply illegal labour at starvation wages, and on drugs shipments to provide working capital.(Ruggiero and South, 1995)

Additionally, a more serious problem for the poor lies in the financial sector. Exclusion from legal capitalist relations - refusal of bank accounts, credit, insurance services etc., forces the poor into the hands of unregulated financial institutions such as pawnbrokers and loan sharks (Leyshon and Thrift 1995) where they become prey to a criminal financial sector characterised by exorbitant interest rates and the use of violence to secure payment.

general criminalisation

A final element, present in the eighteenth century and now on the increase, is the general criminalisation of the poor as a `dangerous class'. It is beyond the scope of our discussion hear to elaborate further on the dynamics of the general criminalisation of the poor and socially excluded which are in any case well known. Suffice it to say, with Robert Reiner, that we witness today

... a return to a pre-democratic view that regarded whole classes of society as effectively outlaws. In this view the poor are regarded as the flotsam and jetsum of society - presented as somehow threatening. What this kind of language and labelling are doing is reversing 150 years of movement since the Industrial Revolution towards a more inclusive society in which everyone belongs, has equal citizenship and is guaranteed a minimum of rights. Now we are returning to the ideas of the undeserving poor, of the `dangerous classes' who, through their poverty, will always be prone to crime. (1996)

Under such conditions, reinforced and perpetuated by zero-tolerance policing, a return to a state of war between the state and whole communities, particularly young people and ethnic minorities re-creates something of the situation described by Thompson in eighteenth century England. This reinforces a further blurring of the boundaries in which the misfortunes of the criminal offender at the hands of the criminal justice system become symbols of what might happen to much larger groups of people who, by bad luck or worse judgement find themselves caught up in the toils of the law.


I have been careful not to suggest a simple resurgence of the type of social crime classically documented by historians in eighteenth century England or in other historical situations. Indeed I have suggested some profound differences such as the fact that protest crime is more likely to be associated with disruption of community life and that organised crime is likely to seek domination of forms of survival crime concerned with trading and smuggling. Nevertheless, it is important to avoid characterising in advance whole areas of social activity by reference to what is one side of a contradictory totality. Rather I have suggested that the concept of social crime can serve as a starting point for the exploration of the complex and conflicting ways in which protest or survival strategies interface with violence and oppression in both the criminal and indeed widening sections of the legitimate economy.

read also an interesting article on this website by Trevor Bark on social crime


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Thus John Langbein (1991) in a review of Linebaugh's The London Hanged says, `The argument in a nutshell is that crime was custom.'