Thursday, August 18, 2011

Crime and Punishment (and Justice)

Two young men face four years inside after they failed to incite a riot
A dozen days after the riots started, the court system continues to churn out huge custodial sentences, the government continues to roll out police state measures, and virtually all sections of the corporate media cheer the whole repressive process on, demanding "retribution" for those who suffered in the disturbances. In reality, they are demanding protection from sections of the working class they have long held in contempt. But what does 'justice' really mean, and how should communists approach the issue?

This morning, the supposedly 'liberal' Guardian newspaper marked a new low in the media backlash - and indeed the decay of liberalism - when its deputy editor Michael White joked about the possibility of incarcerated Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan and Jordan Blackshaw waking up "in the slammer on Thursday remembering that, no, it's not all a bad dream. It could be like this for the next 18 months, lads. And what if that big bloke on the next floor takes a shine to you?"

Sutcliffe-Keenan and Blackshaw have been imprisoned for posting Facebook 'events', inviting their friends to meet up and go rioting. At the appointed hour, only police turned-up, to make arrests. Under normal circumstances, someone would have to kidnap someone, kill while drink-driving, or be convicted of sexual assault to get around four years.

But this is the new normal, and the ruling class are seizing on the opportunity provided by last week's riots to wage Orwellian war on the working class. Meanwhile, pundits like Michael White cheer for "retribution" from the sidelines.

The 'justice system' has always served the ruling class of the day, as it must do. A primary function of the state is - as Noam Chomsky once put it - "to protect property from the majority". A few years back, then Met Police Commissioner Ian Blair admitted that the original 'Peelers' "were not a police for the whole people but a police to protect the better off from what were described by Victorian commentators as the dangerous classes'." This principle has remained in place ever since, and the police literally get away with murder because they are the security guards of the ruling elite. Similarly, what is meant by 'criminality' has largely been framed by the interests of the wealthiest.

Within bourgeois philosophy, there have traditionally been two schools of thought on the justice system. One is that courts should impose the harshest possible sentences, to 'act as a deterrent' for others, and remove the person from the streets, so they could not commit crimes for the duration of their sentence (of course, if they are killed, they are certain not to re-offend). The more liberal discourse revolved around the idea that "prison doesn't work" - i.e. it doesn't actually do much to prevent re-offending, and it costs way too much to keep people locked up forever.

As the Thatcherite counter-revolution took hold, mirroring processes well underway around the world, these liberal voices gradually got drowned out. After all, if there is a widening gap between rich and poor, the poor really must be deterred from stealing property, because 'property is nine tenths of the law', and so much of it belongs to one tenth of society. Even before the riots, Britain was a European leader in locking people up.

In the midst of the current catastrophic social crisis, the more far-sighted ruling class strategists anticipate a working class fightback against the mass looting of the super-rich. The rioters' rather individualistic and often anti-social attempts at self-enrichment gifted Cameron a shot at completing previous governments' efforts to erect the scaffolding of a police state. The measures he now proposes will not be quietly dissolved once all the rioters have been processed by the 'justice system'. On the contrary, they will be used against any working class person who dares to say that the rich should not be allowed to plunder their wallet or purse.

So workers should not press for measures which will eventually be used against them. To quote the famous Spanish Civil War poster, "If you tolerate this, your children will be next". Instead, before we can establish individual justice, we must establish social justice, and bring the world's resources under our collective control. Once we've done that, we can do the same with whatever new 'justice system' we devise.
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