'Solving' crime in an age of affluence

Law and Order
September 28, 2007

The main thesis of this book, as stated at the very beginning, is that the massive rise in crime of recent decades, and the increasing appeal of law and order campaigns and philosophies are due to the same cause: the dominance of the neoliberal political economy since the 1970s.

With this premise-conclusion, Robert Reiner examines the effects of the current "revolution of the rich", which produces negative economic, ethical and sociopolitical consequences. These include harm associated with the formation of monopolies, growing inequality, egoism, short-termism, irresponsibility, poor health, violence, private affluence and public squalor. The spread of a culture whereby winning by any means is preferable to losing by the rules is said to imply huge consequences for crime at all levels of society. Meanwhile, with the politics of law and order leaving out many forms of crimes committed by corporations and states, the criminal justice system ends up processing, almost exclusively, a narrow range of offences perpetrated by the poor and the disadvantaged.

Reiner reviews a very large body of criminological literature, and his detailed arguments, along with the bibliography he offers, constitute in themselves an important source for students and researchers. He also examines how the development of the crime control complex, tougher sentencing and the growth of the prison population are leading to an authoritarian state. After noting that the fall in criminal victimisation since the 1990s did not produce a correspondent decline in the fear of crime, the author stresses that such fear is partly generated by widespread awareness that the causes of criminality remain largely intact. I would add that fear is also caused by the perception that inequality is increasing to such an extent that society acts as a collective portend: such increasing inequality is bound to bring more crime.

It is on this point that Reiner's book will perhaps raise some controversy, in that the author attributes the declining crime rates since the 1990s to lower degrees of inequality and to governments bringing "considerable benefits to the most vulnerable people in society". While statistical evidence on this issue is hard to collect, are we sure that such purported benefits will have any effect on individualism and insecurity inherent to consumer societies? Zygmunt Bauman, after working for many years on this subject, has concluded that individualism itself compels society to sacrifice collective security in the pursuit of individual liberty. Individualism and consumerism, in his view, are themselves the source of anxiety because of the inherently competitive nature of consumption. Can a slight reduction of inequality, or relative deprivation, change all this? To say it with Bauman, market seduction, which appears to be a great equaliser, is in fact a great divider, also because some (or many) are denied the legitimate means to satiate the desires thus created. In order to reduce crime, in brief, one is forced to start thinking about reducing the seductive strength of markets.

In truth, Reiner would perhaps endorse this statement, as he heavily relies on Robert Merton's notion of anomie. This notion revolves around tensions arising from unsatisfied aspirations, whose very nature varies according to culture, so that "the conceptions of what counts as success are possible sources of anomie". Hence Reiner's argument that "a materialistic culture is likely to generate aspirations that cannot be satisfied, particularly if emphasis is placed on monetary success". But if this strain, as he says, is also experienced by powerful actors such as corporations and state, why not explore, along with causations revolving around relative deprivation, aetiologies based on relative affluence?

Vincenzo Ruggiero is professor of sociology at Middlesex University.

Law and Order: An Honest Citizen's Guide to Crime and Control

Author - Robert Reiner
Publisher - Polity Press
Pages - 168
Price - £40.00 and £11.99
ISBN - 9780745629964 and 29971

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