“Society prepares the crime; the criminal commits it.” Progressives need Victims

In speeches, lectures, and debate, I have often rehearsed Henry Thomas Buckle’s (in)famous 1857 aphorism: “Society prepares the crime; the criminal commits it.” Karl Marx, impressed by Belgian astronomer Adolphe Quételet’s analysis of crime patterns and its associations, independently made a similar observation, actually just a bit before Buckle, in a 1853 article published in the New York Tribune.

Rejecting the practice of deterrence for its presumptuousness (by what right has the state to intimidate the herd by sacrificing the life and liberty of the one) and its inefficacy (the wrath Yahweh visited upon Cain for murdering his brother Able did not end murder), Marx writes, “From the point of view of abstract right, there is only one theory of punishment which recognizes human dignity in the abstract, and that is the theory of Kant, especially in the more rigid formula given to it by Hegel.”

What was this theory? Marx quotes Georg Hegel from the latter’s Philosophy of Right: “Punishment is the right of the criminal. It is an act of his own will. The violation of right has been proclaimed by the criminal as his own right. His crime is the negation of right. Punishment is the negation of this negation, and consequently an affirmation of right, solicited and forced upon the criminal by himself.”

Never without a sharp critique ready, Marx asks, “Is it not a delusion to substitute for the individual with his real motives, with multifarious social circumstances pressing upon him, the abstraction of ‘free-will’—one among the many qualities of man for man himself!” Ordinary man has not, Marx contends, arrived at that state. He remains alienated from himself (and others).

Marx argues that “punishment is nothing but a means of society to defend itself against the infraction of its vital conditions, whatever may be their character.” To put this another way, the law is an instrument of power; power is asymmetrical and roots in class relations, which differentiate communities; the prevailing character of the law projects the interests of the ruling class. Elsewhere, Marx finds it difficult to accept the notion that those who do not belong to the same community as the bourgeoisie should be judged by bourgeois values. But he also detects in the lawbreaker “real motives.” Moreover, he and Friedrich Engels both recognize the futility of “primitive rebellion.”

Marx and Engels came to this position early on. In an 1844 letter to Marx from Paris, Engels sees in “the rapid increase in crime” among the proletariat, “robbery and murder” as “their way of protesting against the old social organization.” He describes, seemingly, at first, hopefully, “At night the streets are very unsafe, the bourgeoisie is beaten, stabbed and robbed; and, if the proletarians here develop according to the same laws as in England, they will soon realize that this way of protesting as individuals and with violence against the social order is useless, and they will protest, through communism, in their general capacity as human beings. If only one could show these fellows the way!” Then he laments, “But that’s impossible.” He leaves out what is true today and must have been true then, namely that most of those beaten, stabbed, and robbed by the proletariat, were other proletarians.

Must we blame society for the criminal’s actions? I cannot go with Marx and Engels if what they are saying is that individuals are for the most part animated by unseen social forces. This is too positivistic. How can the criminal possess his “own will” when he suffers amid the welter of alienating conditions, a situation described by Engels in his 1845 The Conditions of the Working Class in England? One cannot deny the objectivity of this situation. Deprivation is a hard and brutal truth. Yet, the criminal is responsible for the choices he makes. Unless he suffers from a mental defect, he did make a decision. Mens rea!

Few among us are entirely puppets on strings. We have agency. It’s what makes us human—however much estrangement keeps us from our species-being (Gattungswesen). To deny this agency is to dehumanize and deny the individual and the capacity of humans to collectively overthrow oppressive conditions. We each have a moral obligation to resist the urge and the opportunity to commit crime and other injurious actions whatever their source. Not a bourgeois obligation (to be sure, the force of law lies in wait), but a human obligation.

In a speech at the Republican National Convention Platform Committee Meeting, Miami, Florida July 31, 1968, future US president Ronald Reagan (in)famously said, “We must reject the idea that every time a law is broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.” The quote is perfect for social media memes (and we get to see Reagan’s smiling grandfatherly visage), but it is a whopping expression of naïve idealism.

To the Reaganite conservative who scolds liberals for “blaming society” for crime and poverty, by which—from his standpoint of idealism—he means to commit the offense of rendering accounts for crime and inequality that go beyond the “abstraction of free will,” I have said many times that identifying the social forces that immiserate communities and increase the propensity to commit crime is not blaming society but explaining phenomena. This is what I think Marx means, his excesses in the opposite direction aside. Marx wonders whether there is “a necessity for deeply reflecting upon an alteration of the system that breeds these crimes, instead of glorifying the hangman who executes a lot of criminals to make room only for the supply of new ones?” Agreed! Grasping causes is empowering. It’s why the powerful don’t want the people to know about them. 

What are the criminogenic social forces in our time? They are several, but the main ones are these: deprivation, disorganization, subculture, and family structure. They are intersecting forces, each caused by and causing the other. And, while these forces exist across ethnic and racial subcultures and the class structure, they are, for complex social, historical, and policy reasons, most pronounced in impoverished black neighborhoods. Although blacks comprise 13 percent of the US population, they have over the last several years accounted for more than half of all murder and non-negligent manslaughter arrests and more than half of all robbery arrests. Overall, black Americans account for more than a third of all violent crime arrests (which goes a log way in explaining why black American make up approximately a third of prisoners in the state penitentiary system). I n recognizing the significance of this it must be called to mind that the interracial nature of street crime means the majority of victims of crime committed by blacks are other blacks. In light of this, the lack of compassion for the victims of criminal violence in black neighborhoods refracted through the depolicing and prison abolition movements is really quite remarkable.

Confronting the criminogenic forces that encourage the wrongdoing that injures so many people requires human agency, and that means that those who live in crime-ridden communities have need to organize politically and change the conditions of their existence. This project is made difficult when progressives, who represent the interests of the “enlightened” bourgeoisie, control urban neighborhoods, depolice high crime areas, and infantilize black Americans by idling them and making them dependent upon government. A custodial state is not a peaceful state. We have decades of evidence showing that progressive politics and policies don’t work. I don’t think they’re supposed to. 

The first steps are these I think: (1) hold individuals accountable for their wrongful and injurious conduct to their communities; (2) overthrow the political culture that disempowers those who live in those communities. For (1) to be effective, (2) needs accomplishing. But the people can wait for neither. They can no longer afford to listen to the paralytics of antiracism, critical race theory, and neo-Marxism. They will tell you my argument is victim blaming. It’s not true. It’s an argument for empowering the proletariat. Progressives want victims. The people want something else. The people want justice.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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