Thinking about Anarchism - Crime

Anarchists say the criminal justice system, the cops, courts and prisons, are not designed to protect ordinary people but are primarily instruments to keep the rich rich and the working class in line. That said, most people faced with anti-social crimes like mugging, burglary or joy riding want something done about it. And while they might agree that crimes against property depend on a divide between rich and poor existing in the first place they are not so convinced that crimes like rape and murder will simply vanish 'come the revolution'.

Whatever nice theories anarchists might come up with we can be sure that any community subjected to a murder or a rape will want something done about it. This would include detecting who had committed the crime, confirming that they were the guilty one and finding ways of ensuring they would not commit another crime. Particularly where the victim is a child, the failure to fulfill these three needs would very quickly lead to vigilante justice.

In historical revolutions this task has been undertaken by militias but a post-revolutionary society would obviously need some way of fulfilling these tasks without reconstructing the current judicial system with all its flaws. In particular, the current justice system gives a lot of power to judges, police and prison wardens and creates hierarchies of abuse simply due to the class nature of this society.

But what about the here and now? Poorer urban working class communities today often find themselves caught between vicious anti-social crime driven by poverty, lack of hope and heroin addiction and a police force that sees its role as stopping such crime spreading outside the boundaries of those areas. Young people are particularly likely to be faced with the contradiction of police harassment if they socialize outside their estates or being seen as (and often being) an anti-social nuisance as they hang around their own street corners.

In Ireland the state does not have a monopoly on organized Violence. Sometimes paramilitaries step in to curb anti-social behavior through punishment beatings and exile. Yet these are forms of punishment that would never be tolerated if carried out by the Gardai or PSNI. Are there alternatives to this sort of vigilante approach to anti-social crime?

One set of important experiments are the Community Restorative Justice projects where those guilty of anti-social crimes are confronted by their victims, made to realize the harm they are doing and ways are found for them to make up for damage done. These provide a useful guide on which to base an anarchist approach to anti-social crime. Community based anti-heroin initiatives in Dublin have also shown ways of the community dealing with drugs and drug related crime. It is significant that the Gardai often seemed to be more concerned with suppressing these initiatives then ending the dealing.

But dealing with anti-social crime in the here and now cannot be reduced to a question of policing. Much anti-social crime is fuelled by deprivation and heroin addiction. Even the Governor of Mountjoy Prison, John Lonergan, has admitted that the inmates come overwhelmingly from a few areas of social deprivation. Research carried out in Mountjoy found that 75 percent of Dublin prisoners came from six clearly identifiable areas, or - as he described them - "pockets of disadvantage.....infested with heroin". For this reason combating anti-social crime is very dependant on winning extra community resources, building a sense of solidarity and eliminating poverty. That the perpetrator may be from a deprived background is of little comfort to those who get mugged. Yet most of us already know that in such a situation the police are pretty useless anyway. They seem to have little or no interest in preventing anti-social crime in working class areas and when a victim reports a crime can take hours to show up, if they bother at all.

There will never be a simple answer to anti-social crime because of its nature. It is one section of the working class preying off another section. It covers a broad span, from teenagers making too much noise to rape and murder. We can, however, note that experiments with alternatives to accepting the capitalist 'justice' system already exist. Learning from these helps us build an anarchist theory of crime prevention.

by Andrew Flood

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This edition is No82 published in September 2004