Abolitionism and the Concept of Crime
«Mankind is really bad.
So hit hint on the hat.
Have you hit him on the hat.
Maybe he will be no longer bad.»
Bertolt Brecht, «Dreigroschen Oper»
Central position in the abolitionist rationale and reasoning is possessed by the concept of crime. This sounds logic, if we consider that «first of all we were obligated to sustain on the knowledge of the law of gravity in order to be able later to fly, in essence to be able to effectively defy the law» as the French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu recently wrote (1996). Therefore, in an abolitionist point of view, it is crucial for the success of our criminological inquiry to search for and problematize with the concept of crime.
Alas, we can not aim at the desirable absolute abolishing of the penal repression if firstly we do not problematize with the cornerstone of the penal system, the concept of crime itself. The «black» swan of the Dutch Critical Criminology, the abolitionist Louk Hulsman quiet recently located the need for an anascopic view of society, a view that will inevitably help us during our scientific research for the real concept of crime». Linking the need for this anascopic view with the search for the concept of crime he asserted that (Hulsman, 1986: 30)
«When we do not problematize - and reject - the concept of crime, we are stuck in a catascopic view of society in which our informational base (both the ³facts² and their interpretational frame) depends mainly on the institutional framework of criminal justice. It means therefore that we do not take account effectively of the critical analyses of this institutional framework by critical criminology.»
As it was noticed in the abstract of this paper, conventional criminology created an image, formed some standards and fixed through time relative notions like «crime», «criminality» and «criminal». It is really interesting to analyse and understand the way that criminal law carefully elaborates and selects its own abstract notions.
According to Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1955 (1997), the language is first of all a tool for our thought; if we underestimate the language, we underestimate the thought. Formulated in bold terms we can say that, the control of language simply forms and shapes our conception and comprehension of reality. Accordingly, more and more we hear the «language of the prevailing Law and Order» (Marcuse, 1970) to say - and here lies the power of the language - that there is nothing else more capable to be opposed against the conventional criminal doctrine and policy. And the great degree of evidence that is held by the traditional criminal policy is clearly due to the great work of «engraving» in the social tissue by the State apparatus, politicians, academics, the mass media, and last but not least, the omnipresent «public opinion» (Bourdieu, 1997).
And, the powerful Marcuse's «language of the prevailing Law and Order» is becoming more and more repressive as it calls for tougher «wars on crime» and «zero tolerance». The indices of this move towards right-wing «law and order» are as plain as day (Haan, 1987: 323):
«Increasing hostility against minorities and deviants; renewed efforts to criminalise behaviour not currently subject to criminal sanction; efforts to expand and empower the repressive apparatuses; redistribution of public expenditure to the benefit of policing and the administration of criminal justice; and increasing severity of punishment fuelled by a refreshed belief in deterrence and retribution».
Thus, criminal justice system guides in full consciousness the language (bearing in mind the great power hidden in the process of onomatopoeia) in order to bring about confusion and lack of comprehension. Thus, paraphrasing George Orwell (Politics and English Language) «the language of the penal law is more or less an attempt to justify the unjustifiable» (my italics). Therefore, in an abolitionist point of view, the word crime should «gradually disappear from our language» (Bianchi, 1986b), as it holds a stigmatising, arbitrary and dangerous character and power.
On the other hand, criminological theories seem to be separated into different schools and directions and the related debates seem to be interminable when in fact they all have the same point of departure; the concept of crime. However, both the construction of these theories and the maintenance of the debates must be seen as a means of control of whatever people may think. On condition that all the participants accept the established and assumed hypothesis, the existence of the concept of crime, as their central and main keystone, the criminological debate should be seen as never-ending. Furthermore, the current immobility in the criminological thought is elegantly portrayed in the above debates; more or less the arguments are being exchanged with a solemn air and offer little or no additional value in the social analysis of the penal subject matter or the knowledge in general (Houchon, 1989).
On the other hand, it is not risky to say that, in essence, these various criminological theories misinterpret the concept of crime, bearing in mind that criminology itself «has predominantly been a epressive science», as Herman Bianchi argued recently (Bianchi, 1986b). Under the guidance of these theories we lead ourselves far away from the understanding of the real concept of problematic situations. Thus, we create substitutes for the understanding and - that is the worst part of it - we create channels for «evasion» from the will to understand, from the necessity to understand. And the criminal law bureaucracy simply continues to have the monopoly for «crime» definition (Bianchi, 1986b).
Unfortunately, nowadays even critical and progressive criminologists seem to lose the plot, as they are stacked in a neo-classicist acquiescence by jumping on the «Law and Order» bandwagon, while criminal justice system and the penal policy as a whole get more and more repressive. Heinz Steinert problematized and observed that (Steinert, 1985: 328)
«It is easy to see the problem. ³Crime² has such a strong appeal as an ³inner enemy², a ³war on crime² is such a good banner for all the ³righteous people² to unite behind, and it is exactly the working class that especially falls for this appeal. So the left must set something against this. But we should know, as sociologists. that criminal law is not instrumental in seriously reducing undesirable conduct, that it is in fact an ideological apparatus that uses human victims to demonstrate a morality (including, first and fore most, a ³work-ethic²) and certainly not an effective instrument to bring about such a morality and the corresponding order of social relations. And we could know from historical experience that the political organisations have not all been immune to a bit of law & order politics themselves.»
It is true that criminology traditionally reflects and reinforce the values of the State and that the vast majority of criminologists «assume a State definition of crime, taking as their initial reference-point the legal code as the subject-matter of investigation and analysis» (Platt, 1975: 96). But it is also true that past attempts to redefine crime even in critical context appeared to be simple-minded; it is not the legal definition of crime the pathway that lead us to the acceptance of the fiction of neutral law, as the critical criminologist from the United States of America Tony Platt argues (ibid.: 103), but the definition of crime itself.
On the other hand, abolitionism is among the most critical perspectives towards the concept of crime in the European criminological community and abolitionists showed a great interest in criticising the concept of crime as such, and adopt a totally different view of criminality «than the simplistic crime - punishment axioma which is considered as the ³normal² way of dealing with conflicts» (Swaaningen, 1986: 12). In essence, abolitionism stood adamantly against the assumption that the masses are unable to take care of themselves and badly need «guardianship», that is to say, guidance by the authority. In an abolitionist point of view, it starkly obvious that «guardianship eventually erodes the foundations of democracy itself for, in the long run, it diminishes citizens' competence» (Haan, et al., 1991: 350).
According to the abolitionist principles, the picture of the reality of criminal justice system appears untenable and the abolitionist critique went so far as to claim that:
a. the criminal events are not exceptional,
b. criminals are not a special category of people and
c. the development of criminal law is not one slowly progressing humanisation.
Abolitionism refuse to accept the positivist definition of crime offered by the conventional criminology. Invariably it lays emphasis not only on the ideological character of the definition of «crime» but also on the «hopelessly repressive and class-biased character of criminal law and its proven ineffectiveness for creating order» (Steinert, 1985: 327). The definition of crime is «systemic» and confined within the limits of criminal justice system and, in a broader context it was said that in fact «crime» is merely a social construction (Haan, 1996). Therefore, abolitionists would not disagree with the opinion expressed in the Critical Criminology (1975) of Taylor, Walton and Young that, the present social order is unjust, the «equal opportunities for everyone» is another myth and last but not least that «the definition of what is or is not a crime is biased by unequal relations within the social order» (Haan, 1990: 4).
It is true that the Marxist criminologist Anasenov was the first who claimed that the notion of crime was born simultaneously with the emergence of the class structured and class divided state, to be followed by another Marxist, E. Pashukanis who considered criminal law as an organised class terrorism (Alexiadis, 1989). That sounds logic if we considered that the sovereign political and economic class is the class that controls the sovereign institutions, like the criminal justice system. And those who control the sovereign institutions ensure their power to a great extent by imposing their definitions and their will. Historically we can conclude easily that the concept of crime is creating by the process of criminalization; crime simply exists because of this process and the process of criminalization has its own historicity (Dimopoulos, 1989). Crime is a «myth» (Steinert, 1985). And that is to say that mainly neither «crime causes problems to society» nor «society causes the problem of crime» (Young, 1997b: viii); criminal justice system invents crimes and put in trouble the community. It is not a reverse of casuality what is occurred but rather a creation of casuality.
In essence, the concept of crime has not any substantial content because it is a divertible human decision that determines which problematic situation would be considered as «crime» (Hulsman, 1997). There is no common denominator neither in the definition and the motives of those engaged in nor in the penal measures that provided for against them. The one and only link that bound them together is a pure technical one; a typical competence of the criminal justice system to deal with such situation. It is the law that determines what is crime, it is the law that creates the criminal. Tout court, crime is a product of criminal justice systems rather than the converse. Crime has no ontological reality and unequal (both qualitatively and quantitatively) actions are characterised and given an element of unity through criminalization as «crimes» (Hulsman, 1986 and 1997).
«Within the concept of criminality a wide range of situations are linked together. Most of these, however, have separate properties and no common denominator: violence within the family, violence in an anonymous context in the streets; breaking into private dwellings; completely divergent ways of receiving goods illegally; different types of conduct in traffic; pollution of the environment; and some forms of political activities. Neither in the motivation of those who are involved in such events, nor in the nature of the consequences, nor in the possibilities of dealing with them (be it in a preventive sense, or in the sense of the control of the conflict) can any common structure be discovered. All that these events have in common is that the criminal justice system is authorised to take action against them.» (Louk Hulsman, 1986: 27, in fine).
Thus, in an abolitionist point of view, the problem «crime» is stripped of all the labels and stereotypes that were invented through time in order to be characterised and functionally takes its social role in the framework of the general social tissue (Wolfgang and Feracutti, 1995). The concept of crime has a clear ideological character and crime is an inadequate social construction (Hulsman, 1997); the myth of crime simply (Haan, 1987: 326);
«serves to maintain political power relations and lends legitimacy to the expansion of the crime control apparatus and the identification of surveillance and control. Public attention is distracted from more serious social problems and injustices. It justifies inequality and relative deprivation. In short, the bigger the social problems are, the greater the need for the crime myth. Thus, not only should we discard the concept of crime, but we should get rid of the theories of crime as well».
On the other hand, in an abolitionist point of view, there are no felonies or misdemeanours but simply unique and unparalleled problematic situations (Hulsman, 1986 and 1997).
More to the point, the world is more complex than traditional criminology likes to think and the same goes for the actions, the «sins» or crimes this very criminology likes to «clearly» classify and rank in advance. On the other hand, penal abolitionists like to wonder;
«What about those offenders who have suffered so much beforehand in life that they, in a way, have been punished long before they committed the crime they now have to be punished for? What about the difference between the poor thief and the rich one, the brilliant and the stupid, the well-educated and the uneducated?» (Christie, 1981: 45).
Abolitionism is obligated to reveal all the successive veils of distortion that surrounds the concept of crime and let people see the truth. And in essence, this struggle is not so difficult as it appears to be. Plain people are more ready to accept a new model for the definition of the problematic situation and if re-skilled than, for example, a university-based elite; it is well known that propaganda and the «language of the prevailing Law and Order» (Marcuse, 1970) is applied perfectly among the educated parts of society than the non or less educated. As Noam Chomsky argued so forcibly (Chomsky, 1995) well-educated people are either receiving «high doses» of propaganda because they read more, or they are used as a vehicle of propaganda and belong to the so called «privileged elite». For, as we know, the greatest social changes brought about not from actions by great men who transferred their will and their noble ideas to the passive mass; it is exactly the evolution of the internal power of the society that will bring the change (Cornforth, 1975). And it is in abolitionists» responsibility to struggle for a radical social change, struggle for humane human life. The existence of the above can clearly explain why the abolitionist is considered as the «threatening Other» or, at least, romantic.
On the other hand, it is true that the existence of «crime» was invariably been characterised with a metaphysical concept by conventional criminology. Crime is something evil that needs to be confronted by any means (Holy Inquisition in the past, «war on crime» and «zero tolerance» nowadays). However, in an abolitionist point of view, the appearance of problematic situations is not only something natural but also something essential. Conflicts are seen as «potential for activity, for participation» (Christie, 1977: 7).
In essence, abolitionists manifestly discover a technique for demonstrating the two subjects/parameters, i.e. community and problematic situations, which although are developing in a counterpoint way, they finally harmonised. It is exactly the community's field of power where the essential stretching for life is creating and it is the same field where the energy for the change and transformation is developing. In this respect, penal abolitionism adopts a fully social approach to «crime» away from criminal justice system's abstract regulations and tricky legitimations (e.g. «social dangerousness») of penal intervention (Swaaningen, R.V. and Beijerse, J., 1993: 138-140). Thus, the abolitionist perspective is inevitably driving us from the thesis to the antithesis, in order to help us make the clearest possible synthesis.