avatar
Parecon and Crime


This essays is excerpted from the Zed Press book, Realizing Hope

 

It is often said that how a society treats those it punishes graphically displays how civilized and humane that society is. If we look at how criminals are treated we see a portrait of a society’s moral soul. 

 

It might also be said, look at the numbers of prisoners and the basis for their incarceration to see whether a society produces more solidarity or divisiveness, equity or desperation, dignity or self hatred. 

 

Does society increase crime by making it necessary or at least viable and attractive? Does it disproportionately impel some sectors to crime? Or does society deter crime by making a lawful life worthy and fulfilling, and by confining crime, and particularly long-term incarceration, only to sociopaths?

 

In this chapter, to investigate this question from the angle of capitalism and crime, I come at the problem from two angles that are a bit different than our approach to other topics in this book. 

 

Crime and Punishment in Capitalism

 

About 30 years ago I was at a dinner party with a bunch of leftist economics faculty and grad students, and I posed a hypothetical question to engender some dinner debate. If you had only two choices, I asked, would you open all U.S. prison doors and let everyone out, or would you keep everyone right where they are?

 

To my surprise there wasn’t any debate. Only I was willing to entertain what everyone else saw as the utterly insane, ultra-leftist notion that opening the doors might be better than keeping everyone incarcerated with no changes. I then added the option of giving everyone who was let out a job and ample training, but still there were no takers.

 

Years later, would the result of such a query to leftists be the same? As context, this little experiment might best be undertaken in light of the popular notion that it is better to let ten criminals go free than jail one innocent person. Of course that may be just a rhetorical put-on for gullible law students, but it is supposed to communicate that there is something utterly unthinkable about letting innocent folks fester in prison. 

 

Okay, this implies some calculations. For example, what is innocence and what is guilt, and is it better to jail one innocent person so we can also jail 20, 50, 100, or 1,000 malevolent psychopaths who would otherwise run amuck hurting and killing way more innocent folks? On the other hand, what if the calculus is the opposite? What if the real question is should we keep one criminal in jail along with five or ten innocent folks, or let them all go free?

 

The crime rate in the U.S. is approximately the same as in comparably industrialized and citified Western Europe. The number of inmates per hundred thousand citizens in the U.S., however, is as much as fifteen times greater than in Europe, depending on which country we compare. 

 

The rate of incarceration in Spain is a bit more than England is a bit more than France is a bit more than Germany is a bit more than Turkey…and Norway and Iceland are relatively crime free by comparison. The U.S. rate of incarceration is about fifteen times Iceland‘s, twelve times Norway‘s, a bit over eight times the Turkish rate, and a little over six times Spain‘s.

 

The high U.S. rates began spiraling dramatically upward about thirty years ago in tune with political and media exploitation of a largely manufactured public fear of crime. 

 

Political candidates – Ronald Reagan being the game’s most effective player – would drum up fear and then use it to propel programs for warring on drugs, expanding the number of prisons, extending minimum mandatory sentencing, and imposing three strikes you’re out innovations. 

 

When everyone from the cop on the beat, to the police chief, to the crime beat reporter, to the district attorney, to the judge hears nothing but an endless litany of lock ‘em up and let ‘em rot rhetoric, they all become predictably aggressive. As Manning Marable reports, approximately 600,000 police officers and 1.5 million private security guards patrol the United States. The U.S. has more than 30,000 heavily armed, military trained police units. SWAT mobilizations, or ‘call outs,’ increased 400 percent between 1980 and 1995. And between 1972 and 1998 the number of people in prison in the U.S. rose by over five times to 1.8 million.

 

Most of the increase in U.S. incarcerations has been due to nonviolent crimes such as possessing drugs, whereas in Europe such "crimes" rarely lead to prison. So in the U.S. we jail 5, 6, 7, or even 11 or 14 people who would be seen as innocent enough to stay out in society in Europe, for every one person we jail who the Europeans would also incarcerate. 

 

In other words, if we opened the prison doors in the U.S. right now, a horrendous proposal in most people’s eyes, for every person the Europeans would have us jail, five to ten who they would deem innocent would be set free. This is rather sobering. If we would rhetorically let out ten guilty inmates to free one innocent one, surely we ought to happily let out one guilty inmate to free five to ten innocent ones? And then we ought to refigure our approach to laws, trials, and especially punishment and rehabilitation as well.

 

The data and most of the ideas above, by the way, did not come to me by way of a dinner party with radical leftists. Instead, I borrowed this material from an article in Scientific American, August 1999. The author, Roger Doyle, was examining some facts to see their numeric implications. Being honest, of course, means looking at facts and reporting them truthfully. Being leftist means looking a little deeper at problems to find institutional causes, and then proposing well thought out solutions that further egalitarian and humanist values. 

 

Doyle went on in his Scientific American essay to point out that (a) a key difference between young whites and (disproportionately jailed) young blacks was that the whites are more likely in our current economy to get jobs enabling them to avoid the need to steal or deal, (b) income differentials are vastly greater in the U.S. than in Europe and, (c) reading only a little into his words, that incarceration may be seen as a tool of control against the poor so that "high U.S. incarceration rates are unlikely to decline until there is greater equality of income."

 

Kudos for Scientific American’s honesty and even radicalism, but what about our hypothetical leftist dinner party? If the difference between the U.S. and Europe isn’t that Americans have genes causing them to be antisocial but, rather, that Americans, and particularly black Americans, are put into circumstances by our economy which virtually require them to seek means of sustenance outside the law, and if, to be very conservative, half the inmates in the U.S. are arrested for victimless "crimes" that would not even be prosecuted in Europe, doesn’t it make sense to ask whether this entire U.S. prosecutorial and punitive legal apparatus is, in fact, largely counterproductive?

 

Finally, why are some leftists sitting around a table, whether thirty years ago or today, or why is anyone at all, anytime, for that matter, more worried about the occasional antisocial or even pathological thug/rapist/murderer who is caught and incarcerated going free, than they are worried by (1) the violent and willful incarceration of so many innocent souls who have worthy and humane lives to live if only enabled to do so; or (2) the gray flannel businessmen walking freely up and down Wall Street who preside over the misery of so many for their own private gain, each businessman a perfect biological incarnation of willful, self-delusional, and largely incorrigible antisocial behavior that operates at a scale of violence which the worst incarcerated thugs can never dream to approach, or (3) the government, which, on behalf of those gray flannel businessmen wreaks massive mutilation and devastation on whole countries, then calls it humanitarian intervention so that they can avoid the death penalty our society prescribes for murder of any kind, much less for murder most massive such as they commit?

 

Our jails are 10 to 50 times more crowded than the number of people a humane legal system would have to incarcerate and/or rehabilitate, because ways to diminish that gap would entail reducing income differentials and improving the lot of society’s worst off. Businessmen won’t tolerate that, at least not without a fight.

 

Why does a capitalist country produce crime in greater numbers than genetic endowment plus equitable social conditions might entail? Consider Groucho Marx little joke that the secret of success is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake those, you’ve got it made. Or consider Sinclair Lewis’ description of one of his most famous characters George F. Babbitt as being nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay. 

 

In other words, we live in a society in which to win is paramount, and even in legal transactions mindsets greared to winning are barely discernable from those geared to fraud and theft. That people excluded from legal means of survival or prosperity might in considerable numbers consider illegal options is hardly surprising. 

 

Here’s is Al Capone, the famous, and, in some respects, lionized American thug on the subject: “This American system of ours, call it Americanism, call it capitalism, call it what you will, gives each and every one of us a great opportunity if we only seize it with both hands and make the most of it.” 

 

First, capitalism produces poor and poorly educated people on one side, and rich and callous people on the other. In the U.S., upwards of thirty million, and indeed, many more people worry about falling into or already suffer socially defined poverty. More frequently, even larger numbers of people periodically find themselves unexpectedly desperate. Over the course of a lifetime, as many as a hundred million people will suffer unemployment or fear of it at some point. At the same time a few million people have so much wealth and power that they virtually own society and determine its course of development. 

 

Next, capitalism imposes non-stop economic transactional requisites that barely differ from invitations to lie, cheat, and otherwise fleece one’s fellow citizens through such means as price gouging, dumping pollutants, and paying sub minimum wages. Further, largely to maintain a degree of order and, in particular, to protect the property and safety of the rich and powerful, as well as to provide a context of control over all others, capitalism elaborates a system of laws even as draconian as three strikes you’re out. A largely callous and often corrupt police apparatus and jurisprudence system is added to the mix. And the result is not just massive generally unproductive and very often unwarranted and aggressively dehumanizing incarceration rates with abominable prison conditions, but crime galore, plus rampant fear and hostility. Since it all persists with barely a nod to improvement, presumably this is what those at the top want and are satisfied with, from behind their gated communities.

 

Capitalism produces disparities in wealth, reductions of solidarity, imposed insecurities, and propulsion of a mindset that winning ought to be pursued by any means necessary. It creates an environment in which getting away with crime is commonplace, crime is profitable, and the repression of crime is not only profitable but an excellent means of social control. Capitalism makes the distribution of tools of violence profitable and even empowering, and induces conditions of cynicism that impede rational judgments about policies and practices. In light of all this, in capitalism we abide an absence of anything remotely resembling rehabilitation and we celebrate, instead, punishments and incarceration that spur more crime.

 

To figure out a more desirable approach to finding crime, determining guilt or innocence, and administering justice for victims and perpetrators will be no simple task. But to see some of the broad implications of capitalism for crime, as noted above, and for parecon for crime, as noted below, is much simpler.

 

Parecon and Crime

 

In a parecon there is no impetus to reduce wide disparities in wealth by cheating because there are no wide disparities to reduce. People are not uncertain, unstable, unsettled, and facing destitution, with crime as a way out. People do not choose between a criminal career and jobs that are debilitating and dehumanizing. But it is not solely the absence of conditions of poverty that induce people to commit crimes to survive or to care for loved ones, nor the absence of conditions of great advantage which instill callousness and a belief that one is above society, that diminishes parecon’s crime rates. 

 

In a parecon no one profits off crime. There is no industry which benefits from crime control or punishment of criminals. No one has a stake in larger and larger prisons, police budgets, and arms sales, and thus in crime growing. If there are still workplaces producing guns, no one connected with them has any interest whatsoever in anyone owning them for anything but socially desirable purposes. There is every reason for citizens to rationally and compassionately consider the well being of themselves and of all citizens, and to pursue policies accordingly, rather than settling for personally and socially counterproductive policies in a cynical belief that there’s no better choice.

 

So, in a parecon, equitable social roles and the socially generated values of solidarity and self management, plus stable and just conditions, all make it unnecessary for people to try to enhance their lives through crime. To deter crime rooted in pathology, or just to deal with social violations stemming from jealousy or other persistent phenomena, a good society would of course want to have fair adjudication and sensible practices that continually reduce rather than aggravate the probability of further violations. 

 

But there is another feature as well that is quite interesting and instructive, insofar as we are talking about crime for personal material gain – as compared to talking about criminal pathology (crime for pleasure), or about crime for passion or revenge. 

 

Under capitalism, how do thieves operate? They might engage in fraud or deception, or literally grab items that belong to others. They then either directly have more purchasing power, or they have items they have grabbed which they add to their possessions or can sell to amass more purchasing power. Capitalism’s thieves live at a higher standard, as a result. They climb the ladder of material well being and in so doing they appear to have been the beneficiary of high pay, or bonuses, or victorious gambling. 

 

Now what about in a parecon? We don’t know what type of criminal justice system it will have, though we know it will incorporate balanced job complexes, of course. But we do know that some people will still be fraudulent, grab what isn’t theirs, or commit other criminal acts. The question is what happens next, assuming they succeed? How do they enjoy the material spoils of crime? 

 

If the spoils are tiny, their consumption won’t be particularly visible. But the kind of booty that motivates serious theft is substantial. We become criminals pursuing the kind of booty that pushes one’s income way up. How can one enjoy that in a parecon? 

 

The answer is, one pretty much can’t enjoy that kind of booty in a parecon; save perhaps in one’s own basement, if one has stolen items like paintings. In a parecon, any consumption of significant criminally acquired income will be visible to others. In capitalism, there are all kinds of ways for people to have hugely disparate incomes, but in a parecon, that isn’t the case. If in a parecon you don’t work much longer or harder – and there are limits to what is possible – then the only way you can have significantly extra wealth is through illegal means. 

 

In other words, parecon creates a context of income distribution that makes it impossible for anyone to benefit greatly, in public, from crime. This both reduces the appeal of crime and greatly simplifies its discovery. 

 

Parecon thus reduces incentives to steal, conditions that breed crime, reasons for needing crime, inclinations in people’s consciousness consistent with or conducive to engaging in crime, and prospects for success at crime. 

 

But, before I close out this chapter, I should address one more point that some readers may be wondering about – does parecon add another possible avenue of crime as curtail many that now exist? 

 

In any economy, it is a crime to operate outside the norms and structures of acceptable economic life. In capitalism, it is criminal to own other people as slaves, for example, or to pay sub minimum wages, or to have overly unhealthy workplace conditions. Likewise, in a parecon it will be criminal to hire wage slaves, or to use unbalanced job complexes, or even just to operate outside the participatory planning system to accrue excessive income. Have we reduced some avenues to crime in a parecon, only to open up others?

 

It turns out this is overwhelmingly an economic question because the economic dictates of parecon establish a context in which violations of defining economic structures are so difficult and so unrewarding, that even without considering legal penalties they would rarely if ever attract interest.

 

Take opening a workplace and hiring wage slaves. It is certainly possible to open a new workplace in a parecon, of course. It entails establishing a workers council and receiving sanction from your related industry council and then entering the planning process to receive inputs and provide outputs and to have employees earn income. 

 

One cannot, therefore, employ wage slaves openly because there would be no acceptance of it. Can one claim to be a parecon firm in public, but behind closed doors have one or two people entirely running the show with all other employees receiving full incomes but then turnning over large parts to their bosses? 

 

Even if we ignore the difficulty of turning over purchasing power, the image is, of course, absurd. Why would any worker submit to this sort of condition when the whole economy is full of balanced job complexes, self-managing positions, and, even more, when the merest whisper about the situation would immediately cause the workplace in question to be revamped into pareconish shape? 

 

Similarly, suppose there is a parecon in some country and an overseas capitalist decides to open an auto plant inside its borders. He brings components in the parecon country and builds a plant – this is already quite impossible, but let’s ignore that – and then he advertises for workers. Suppose he is prepared to pay much more than the country’s average income level and he promises good enough work conditions that there are takers, which is also hugely implausible (rather like people now agreeing to be literal slaves for a foreign entrepreneur opening a shop in New York City in exchange for luxury accommodations in the slave quarters). Still, even assuming workers are ready to sign on, this is nonetheless an impossible scenario because others involved in the planning process will neither deliver electricity, water, rubber, steel, or other essential inputs, nor buy the cars produced – not to mention penalties against this anti-pareconish firm.

 

Obviously the above applies identically to violations of parecon short of wage slavery, such as unfair salary differences or unbalanced job complexes inside a particular firm. But another scenario has to be assessed as well.

 

Suppose I am a great painter, or a great cook. I work in an art council or cook’s council in my city and have a balanced job complex and get pareconish remuneration. But I am unusually good and highly admired and well known for the great quality of my creations, and I decide I want to parlay my talent and experience into higher income. 

 

I paint or cook in my spare time, in my home – figuring, as well, that in short order I can leave the pareconish job and work only out of my home. I decide to make the output of my private labors available through what is called a black market, to augment my income. This violates the norms of parecon, but what stops me from doing it?

 

Well, first, if it so chooses, society can of course enforce penalties for this type of violation just like it does for fraud or theft or murder, say. But even if there were no penalties, I would confront considerable economic obstacles to benefiting through a black market. 

 

To ply my private trade in any great degree I have to somehow obtain all the supplies I need. But, this isn’t an insurmountable obstacle since if I also have a pareconish income from a pareconish job, I can forego some personal consumption and use that income to get ingredients I need for black market endeavors. My tremendous talent guarantees that in short order the results will be worth much more than the cost. So far, so good, unlike, say, if I was trying to do something privately where I needed costly supplies or a large venue – such as if I was a pilot giving private flights, or a researcher trying to cure cancer on the sly and sell the results. 

 

But there is still the problem of people “buying” my meals or paintings. How do they consume this illegal black market bounty? And how do I get purchasing power out of it? I can’t. The best I can induce if for them to give me something for my output, such as a shirt, a meal, or a piece of furniture, and so on. 

 

But to top off that complication, in addition to the difficulties of the whole endeavor, and the risk of being caught and at the very least suffering ignominy, how can I enjoy my material bounty? I can’t enjoy it, except entirely in private. I can’t accrue a whole lot of payment in kind and then waltz around wearing, driving, and otherwise visibly consuming it, as that would be a dead giveaway that I was crooked. I have to take my bounty to my cellar, for private consumption. 

 

So the whole picture is that I have to pay for ingredients, produce on the sly something I could be well paid for and highly admired for producing in the real economy, find people willing to illegally barter for what I produced even though they could get essentially the same goods in the economy legally and without hassle, and then enjoy the fruits of my deceptions in private. Even the easiest of all possible types of violation is in a parecon made structurally onerous and of limited benefit, in addition to being illegal. 

 

Capitalism creates poor people who steal to survive or to garner otherwise absent pleasure. It creates wealthy people who steal to maintain their conditions against collapse. It creates anti sociality that makes criminal mindsets prevalent. It makes crime’s rewards unlimited. It makes revelation of even public crime unlikely. It hardens and even expands the criminal skills of those who commit crime rather than rehabilitating them. 

 

In contrast, parecon makes crime unnecessary for survival or for gaining pleasures. It eliminates rich people needing to preserve their advantages. It creates conditions of solidarity that make criminal mindsets personally abhorrent. It minimizes crime’s rewards, and it makes revelation for anything but the most secretive violation virtually inevitable. It rehabilitates those who do commit crimes.

 

The bottom line is that parecon tends not to produce crimes and would certainly be compatible with desirable ways of dealing with crime control in a new and improved society.

Leave a comment