Crime And The Values Of Late Capitalism Criminology Essay

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The relationship between crime and the values of late capitalism relate to the ideas of the classless society envisioned by the fundamental individualism inherent to the American Dream. As Young (1999, p. 151) has argued, this relationship is exacerbated by the fact that, on occasion, the dream functions: unlike, say, a strict class-based or caste oriented society, the aspirations for individual success are legitimated by tales of individual success. The possibility of individual success, despite the disequilibrium of opportunity, legitimizes the American Dream and prevents its wholesale abandonment. Thus, according to Young (1999, p. 151), "the irony of the system is not only that one of its central legitimizing principles generates widespread disaffection but that the mechanism by which it does so is because it partially works." (Young 1999, p. 151). This partial functioning of the system, according to Young, creates a criminogenic model in which individual aspirations feed into crime when it is revealed that the American Dream is, mostly, due to a process of chance and privilege, rather than hard work. Individualism, according to Young, is recursive:

"The two parts of the crime equation - the motive to commit a crime because of perceived injustice and the system of social control which might prevent it (both formal and informal) - are conceptually distinct but also intimately related. It makes sense to maintain the distinction yet it is wrong to ignore the interaction of the two" (p. 160-161).

Young has extrapolated upon this idea as follows:

"Economic marginalization is a potent source of discontent; 'political' marginalization in the sense of manifest powerlessness in the face of authority is the catalyst that transforms discontent into crime. For it is the very fact of the force of law and order acting illegitimately which snaps the moral bind of the marginalized that is already strained and weakened by economic deprivation and inequality" (p. 161).

Thus, according to Young, economic marginalization - the lack of opportunity to attain the material goods promised by the American Dream - only forms part of the problem. As stressed in Clark's definition of middle-class values, as well as economic success, stability and security, middle-class individuals are also granted the opportunity to participate in the political process - in other words, they are represented and, according to Young, this lack of representation in politics and the continued negative representation in the media is what creates the sense of powerlessness that serves to transform discontent into crime. Thus, crime is defined here as a response to the inherent injustice of a legislative system that fundamentally disregards political participation for those who have failed to achieve the aspirations of the American Dream. The victims of the political and legal system in America are confined to urban ghettos, confronted with a continual barrage of information about the American Dream and its ideals, and are forced to reconcile the injustices and contradictions inherent to the American Dream with their position within it. According to Young, the individualism inherent to the American Dream has created a schism (on social, cultural, judicial, economic and political lines) between suburban and urban citizens in America. As Davis describes, the totality of this polarisation into the roles of legal and political spheres has created a poisonous concoction of individualism and poverty. According to Davis:

"The present-day occupants of the transition zone are left to fend for themselves. Lacking the resources or political clout of more affluent neighbourhoods, they have turned to Mr. Smith and Mr. Weston, whose names follow 'protected by…' on handmade signs decorating humble homes all over South Central and Mid-City Los Angeles." (Davis 1998, p. 378).

Here, Davis documents the results that emerge out of the American Dream and its contradictions. The obsession with individualism, and the concomitant disintegration of collective trust has created a society in which each individual is pitted against each other. While those who have succeeded in escaping to a suburban environment where private law enforcement and political representation is affordable, those who have failed are forced to live in a highly criminogenic society: as Davis suggested, the major problem with the promotion of individualism is that it creates an environment of distrust and suspicion, which creates an environment in which crime can flourish. As Davis (1998, p. 380) has suggested, working class families are both poverty stricken and isolated from one-another - they are neither individually or collectively successful. According to Davis (1998, p. 380):

"An estimated 100,000 inner city homes, like cages in a human zoo, have 'burglar bars' bolted over all their doors and windows. As in a George Romero movie, working-class families now lock themselves in every night from the zombified city outside" (Davis 1998, p. 380).

The American Dream contains within it the seeds for its own destruction. As the individualism promoted by it infiltrates the collectivism of state law enforcement, the schooling system, the legal and political processes, and the economic processes, Davis argues that the American Dream and the values it entertains become increasingly distant from those who are excluded from it. In other words, the have-nots in a society where everything represents personal interest become less socially mobile than a society with a rigid class system or a sense of collective, rather than individual freedom. Davis suggests that schools "have become more like prisons", despite a decrease in per capita education spending. Of course, the lack of educational facilities - the direct result of the American Dream's tendency to promote private interests over collective ones - has led to the cementation of social stratification while maintaining individualism: "Many students" according to Davis (1998, p. 381) "are literally locked in during school hours, while new daytime curfew laws - the violation of which carries still more penalties for parents - allow police to treat truancy as a criminal offence." Thus, the treatment of those socially excluded from the ideals of the American Dream further exacerbates the tendencies inherent to it. While individuals from these districts are sold the ideals of the American Dream through a diet of televised aspiration, they are denied the opportunity to flourish as individuals by a system designed to promote individuality via consumerism; thus, individuality in the American Dream is something that can be bought rather than something that has political salience. The obsession with security and private accumulation of consumer goods over any notion of collective security is criminogenic because it transforms wealth into a relative phenomenon and fosters an environment of distrust and suspicion. Davis (1998, p. 387) documents one such example of this exaggerated individualism that characterises the American Dream: namely, the creation of the nation's first "child-molestation exclusion zone", designed by "mine huge veins of displaced parental guilt". According to Davis:

"It is unclear whether the armies of lurking paedophiles in the mountains above San Dimas were deterred by these warnings, but any post-Burgess mapping of urban space must acknowledge the power that bad dreams now wield over the public landscape." (Davis 1998, p. 387).

The unchecked individualism of the American Dream becomes criminogenic when it extends into all aspects of society - the individualism fostered by the American Dream creates a number of jarring contradictions between individual and communitarian ideals - firstly, the aspiration to be middle-class can never, in actuality, be achieved by all its citizens. Furthermore, the promotion of individualism is related explicitly to consumerism. Because political participation (and identification) is a fundamental part of success in the American Dream, the discriminatory nature of the political and legal system that develops as a result creates a representational schism between haves and have-nots that serve to amplify the differential further. As Young (1999, p. 161) has pointed out, criminality can be seen to stem from the schism that results from being culturally included in a society, while being politically and economically marginalized. Taking the example of the inhabitants of the Philadelphian ghettos, Young has stressed that they were "not culturally excluded from the wider community" (p. 161) which can be seen by the degree to which the values of the American Dream have been appropriated by that culture. Indeed, echoing strain theorists, Young contends that:

"It is the taking up of the American Dream and their inability to realize it (cultural inclusion, combined with cultural exclusion) that spurs their resentment." (Young 1999, p. 161).

Thus, the criminogenic nature of the American Dream, according to Young, is the result of systemic contradictions that act as barriers to full participation within it. While the taking up of the American Dream is overtly promoted via the proliferation of "role models of work, marriage and social stability", the inability to realize this process and become a politically, culturally, and economically active member of society creates the schism that leads to increasing crime. According to Young:

"they [the residents of the Philadelphia ghettos] are awash with classic stereotypes of the American family and the helpful community, fed by their diet of television, which, given the targeting of audience, precisely presents the successful black middle class of The Cosby Show and Sister, Sister, to US blacks and, indeed, to the black diaspora both sides of the Atlantic." (Young 1999, p. 161).

However, what this creates is strain because, in order to achieve the political, cultural, social and economic recognition created as an aspiration by the American Dream of equal opportunity for all, the individual has to participate in a race in which they are politically, culturally, socially and economically discriminated against. Political marginalisation creates distrust in the whole system for those who are promised equity but are not given it. As such, the inherent contradictions of the American Dream, according to Young, act as facilitators for crime. Young's argument, therefore, is that American society is inherently criminogenic because it fails to deliver upon its promise that opportunity and participation based on merit and hard work is equally distributed. Young's critique of individualism and egalitarianism is based upon the idea that the inequalities inherent to American society are amplified when they encompass all aspects of society. For example, political and social exclusion amplify economic exclusion because they ensure that individuals who do not live up to the ideals exemplified by the American Dream are not fairly represented on a legal level. The American Dream since the 1980s has been expanded to cover legal and police-related aspects as well as economic and political issues of exclusion. As John Pitts (2003, p. 85) has argued, the expansion of the ideals of individualism into the practice of criminal law has generated what he calls "penal populism", as opposed to "penal elitism". He has argued that:

"The defining characteristic of penal populism is that policy ends and policy means must accord with the dictates of an invariably retributive 'common sense' rather than the imperatives of 'experts' and criminal-justice professionals."

If we combine the idea of penal populism with Young's idea that only the successful participants in the American Dream are represented on a political level, penal populism's recourse to "common sense" represents a particular kind of "common sense" defined by those who have both aspired to the individualism of the American Dream and achieved a degree of success in it. Thus, criminality itself and response to crime is defined by those individuals who have succeeded and therefore only represent one part of the divided society they are seen to exclusively represent. According to Pitts:

"New policy initiatives are no longer justified by reference to the criteria of these 'experts'. Now the experts are called upon to advise on the means whereby populist policy goals may be realized, rather than the ends to which policy should strive. In an earlier period, growing penal populations were represented as a shameful error on the part of the authorities because they were both wasteful and inhumane; latterly a rising penal population is celebrated as a political achievement." (2003, p. 85-86).