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Crime and Justice


[The following is a transcription of the 79th episode of the Podcast RevolutionZ. RevolutionZ is available on ZNet but also via the various podcast providers, Apple, Stitcher, Patreon, etc. RevolutionZ typically deals with issues of vision and strategy, often with a guest, sometimes just the host, Michael Albert, as this time.]

Hello. My name is Michael Albert and I am the host of the podcast titled RevolutionZ. This is our 79th Episode and our topic this time is Crime and Punishment in a good society.

It may seem a bit strange to have an episode on justice in a good society amidst rampant injustice in our current society, but there is a logic. Vision for a truly worthy future can perhaps provide some useful insights bearing on responses to immediate injustices – from police murders to mass incarcerations. What to do, after all, depends on what we want.

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 solidarity or divisiveness, equity or desperation, dignity or self denial.

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, made humane, only to sociopaths?

For that matter, what is criminal, what counts as crime?

A bit over 40 years ago I was at a dinner party with a bunch of highly radical 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? The question ruled out refinements. It was only either – or.

To my surprise there wasn’t any debate. Only I was willing to entertain much less advocate what everyone else saw as an 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, say a year ago, would the result of such a query to leftists have been the same? And what about now, as the rebellion of our times unfolds, spurred by harsh Lock Down, huge Economic dislocation, and incredibly vile police and judicial injustice?

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 to jail one innocent person. Of course that advisory 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 calls for some calculations. For example, what is crime, 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. has been roughly 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 with.

Last time I researched it, the rate of incarceration in Spain was a bit more than in England was a bit more than in France was a bit more than in Germany was a bit more than in Turkey…and Norway and Iceland were relatively inmate free by comparison. The U.S. rate of incarceration was 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. If anything, I expect the numbers are even more skewed now.

U.S. rates began spiraling dramatically upward decades 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, to the public via news media, news shows, and popular dramas, hears little other than an endless litany of lock ’em up and let ’em rot rhetoric, they all become predictably aggressive.

Again, last time I researched it, the U.S. had approximately 700,000 police officers and another 1.5 million private security guards. 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.

And so it proceeds.

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, enforcement, punishment, and rehabilitation.

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, first time I had these thoughts, I borrowed the 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 being honest but also looking a little deeper to find institutional causes, and then propose well thought out solutions that further egalitarian and humanist values plus strategies for seeking the solutions.

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.”

That was 20 years ago. That is today. 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 the entire U.S. prosecutorial and punitive legal apparatus, as it now stands, is, in fact, largely counterproductive?

Notice, this isn’t just a query about police, but about the entire vast judicial apparatus. Finally, why are some leftists sitting around a table, 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 and most fowl, 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, more to the point, rehabilitate. This is not due to judicial wisdom. It is also not sick sadism. It is 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.

Let me repeat, please:

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.

And they use every tool at their disposal, which mainly winds up being every form of media, to induce fear and loathing they can call on for support., plus repression for those who escape media madness.

Let’s turn to the supply side. Why does a capitalist country produce crime in greater numbers than genetic endowment plus equitable social conditions might entail?

Consider Groucho Marx’s 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 geared to winning are barely discernible 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. What is actually surprising, at least to me, is that so few people steal to reduce their socially imposed hunger.

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.”

Get what you can take. That is market driven economics. Thuggish economics.

First, capitalism produces poor and poorly educated people on one side, and rich and callous people, with in many respects even worse education, though highly trained in the arts of manipulation, exploitation, and rationalization, on the other side.

In the U.S., countless millions worry about falling into or already suffer socially defined poverty. Even larger numbers think they are okay, but 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. Well, that was a true estimate, say, four months ago. But now – well, now 40 million are unemployed at this very moment, not at some point in their lives.

At the same time a relative handful of 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, steal, and otherwise fleece one’s fellow citizens through such means as price gouging, dumping pollutants, and paying pathetic and even sub minimum wages. This is precisely the real meaning of business as usual, this is what we deem normal. Because it is, in fact, our society’s norm.

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 mechanisms of enforcement and punishment that exceeds even the laws themselves – nowhere in jurisprudence is there an instruction to place knee on neck until dead…

A largely callous and often corrupt police apparatus and jurisprudence system is the vehicle by which justice is whatever the agency or agent with the biggest stick says it is. But the factory producing our punitive adjudication apparatus and legal and enforcement system is called capitalism. 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. Not to mention what is currently highlighted and leading toward potential change – cops placing knees to the neck, and firing bullets to the back.

Since it all persists with, until perhaps now, barely a wide rooted nod to improvement, presumably this is what those at the top want and are satisfied with, from behind their gated communities. But if they aren’t literally sadists, how could that be?

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, especially large-scale crime at the top, and the repression of crime is not only profitable but at least most of the time an effective means of social though not crime control.

Capitalism makes the distribution of tools of violence profitable and even empowering. It 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 literally train for and spur more crime.

To figure out a more desirable approach to discerning crime, determining guilt or innocence, and administering justice for victims and for society will be no simple task.

But to see some of the broad implications of capitalism for crime, as noted above, and of what we have called in prior Episodes of RevolutionZ, still very much available, participatory economy, and more broadly participatory society or participatory socialism for crime, as we will now discuss, is much simpler.

In a participatory economy of the sort we have discussed in our many prior episodes of RevolutionZ, citizens feel no need to reduce wide disparities in wealth by stealing because there are no wide disparities to reduce.

People are not uncertain, unstable, unsettled. They do not face destitution, with crime as a way out.

People do not choose between a criminal career and either going hungry or suffering jobs that are debilitating and dehumanizing.

But it is not solely getting rid of conditions of poverty, nor getting rid of conditions of great advantage that instill callousness and a belief that one is above society, that diminish crime rates in a participatory society.

In a participatory society, simply put, it is also almost impossible to profit 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. Income is not pegged in any realm of the economy to volume sold.

There is every reason for citizens to rationally and compassionately consider the well being of themselves and of all citizens, so intimately connected, and to pursue policies accordingly, rather than settling for personally and socially counterproductive policies in a cynical belief that there’s no better choice.

Equitable social roles and the socially generated values of solidarity and self management, plus stable and just conditions make it unnecessary for people to try to enhance their lives through crime.

But don’t we still need to deter crime rooted in pathology, or to deter social violations stemming from jealousy or other persistent phenomena?

Yes, that is true, so 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 that is profoundly different than having judicial arrangements to defend great wealth and power, and having conditions which create desperation and then using desperate behavior as an excuse for profitable incarceration and control.

And there is another feature as well that is quite interesting and instructive, insofar as we consider crime for personal material gain – as compared to criminal pathology (crime for pleasure), or 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 of their thievery. And unless caught – which is less likely the bigger a criminal they are – 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 participatory society?

We don’t know precisely what type of criminal justice system it will have, though we know it will incorporate balanced job complexes, of course. But we can very reasonably consider the possibility that some people will still be fraudulent, grab what isn’t theirs, or commit other self aggrandizing criminal acts.

The question is what happens next.

Assume they succeed. They make off with what they try for. How do they then enjoy the material spoils of their crime?

If the spoils are tiny, their enlarged 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 our income way up. How can criminals enjoy that in a participatory society?

The answer is, pretty much that they can’t enjoy that kind of booty save perhaps in their own basement, if one has stolen items like paintings.

In a participatory economy, any open consumption of significant criminally acquired income will be visible to others.

Income in a participatory economy is for hours, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued work. This can vary from person to person, by their own choice, if those measures vary. But there is only so much those measures can vary.

The gap in income from one person to the next, either due to getting more or less than average, is quite modest. And it owes only to working longer, harder, or under worse conditions.

In capitalism, there are all kinds of ways for people to have hugely disparate incomes, but in a participatory economy, that isn’t the case.

If in a participatory economy you don’t work much longer or much harder – and there are physical limits to what is possible – to how much longer or harder anyone can in fact work than anyone else – then the only way you can have significantly extra wealth is through illegal means.

In other words, participatory society creates a context of income distribution that makes it impossible for anyone to benefit greatly, in public, from crime. If you steal a lot, your enlarged wealth makes evident that you stole a lot

This both reduces the appeal of crime like theft and fraud, and greatly simplifies its discovery.

A participatory economy 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 finally, prospects for success at crime.

But, you might very reasonably wonder, does a participatory economy add another possible avenue of crime even as it curtails 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. Sadly, with a judicial system that serves power, crime isn’t always unearthed and prosecuted, but these things are criminal, at least.

In a participatory society of the sort we have described in past episodes, beyond slave holding, for example, 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 participatory socialism will establish a context in which violations of defining economic structures are so difficult and so unrewarding, that even for a greedy soul, and even without considering legal penalties, they would rarely if ever attract interest.

Take opening a workplace and hiring wage slaves – that is, people relegated to having zero influence over their circumstances and paid as little as power relations permit.

It is certainly possible to open a new workplace in a participatory society. It entails establishing a workers council and receiving an okay from your related industry council and then entering the planning process to receive inputs and provide outputs and to have employees earn income.

But this new unit cannot employ wage slaves openly because there would be no acceptance of it, no entry to the planning process.

But could one claim to be a participatory economic firm in public, but behind closed doors have a relative few people entirely running the show with all the other employees receiving full incomes but then having to turn 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 participatory shape?

Similarly, suppose there is a participatory economy in some country and an overseas capitalist decides to open an auto plant inside its borders. He brings components in the participatory 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-social firm.

Obviously the above applies identically to violations of participatory economy 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 equitable remuneration for how long, how hard, and the conditions under which I work.

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 my 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 participatory economics, 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 an equitable income from a participatory 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 achieve is 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 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 automatically 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, participatory economy 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 a participatory society tends not to produce crimes and would certainly be compatible with desirable ways of dealing with crime control in a new and improved society.

But okay, what might be those ways, and what implications of such a better future have for what people seek today, amidst the growing resistance to current policing, adjudication, and incarceration?

I don’t know.

I would guess there would be folks whose main job was to protect society and its citizens from unlawful behavior. That is, people uncovering serious crime like murder, rape, assault. And intervening to stop it.

After all, like other jobs that society needs done, this requires serious training, responsibilities, and norms, and thus cannot be left to volunteers or spontaneous pursuits.

We can call these folks Protectors, say, and they would accomplish something we can recognize as a true police-like function.

I would imagine there would also be folks specially trained to deal humanely and constructively with what now calls forth police coercion. Manifestations of mental illness, for example.

We can call these people healers, say, and they would accomplish something that is now relegated to highly armed forces of violence, without arms and without violence.

And I would imagine there would be new means of adjudication of disputes, determination of guilt or innocence, etc.

And I would imagine that in all but the most extreme cases, instead of incarceration in prisons that are schools for learning how to conduct crime more successfully  – emphasis would be on training, rehabilitation, health, and generally schooling to rejoin society as a full and productive member.

It turns out, I think, that these ideas lead toward and flow from the kind of thoughts that are arising from radicals who have for long times addressed issues of policing and incarceration – and even from just those first addressing the problems now.

Defund police, even shut down police. Those calls don’t mean ignore that someone is a murderer or rapist, or even just a bully, or is drunk or otherwise needs help.

They mean move much of what the police do to people better trained and able to deal with addictions, petty acts, drunkenness, mental illness, etc., and not trained and armed to deal with violent situations.

They mean use funds to diminish societal inequality and improve the lot of people suffering poverty for their benefit, and also to reduce the motives for crime.

They mean eliminate profit seeking by incarceration and criminalization.

They mean eliminate racism not just among particular cops, but in the systems of society – its housing, schooling, health care, employments, and much more.

They mean eliminate the massive militarization of an otherwise modest essential police function vis a vis dealing with serious criminality and provide appropriate norms and responsibilities and oversight for those legitimately and usefully fulfilling that limited function.

The best prospect for today is that we move from outrage at police violence and racist and social deprivation to positive demands for changes that improve the lot of the suffering but that also pave the way for still greater changes to follow all the way until we arrive at a truly better – I would say, participatory society.

The crimes that ultimately matter most, however, in the world we currently inhabit, are not crimes in the streets, they are crimes in the suites.

They are crimes deemed legal that create fortunes like those of Jeff Bezos and, yes, Donald Trump.

It is hard to imagine a level of callous disregard for and willingness to perpetually exploit others that would exceed that of those two exemplars of contemporary economic and political life.

If you must feel anger, must even feel hatred, at some current looter, feel it for them.

And, while I feel a bit silly saying it in times like these, if you can possibly spare the time and aid, how about visiting www.patreon.com/revolutionz to learn more about this podcast, and to perhaps lend us a bit of material help. We do need it.

And please note, there have been 78 episodes before this one. They are all still available. None are news cycle pieces, they all are as relevant now as when first recorded, often even more so.

So give a thought to delving into the archive of episodes, for their lasting visionary and strategic content.

And, that said, this is Michael Albert, signing off until next time for the podcast RevolutionZ.

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