Compare and contrast, as the exam papers say. A heist called the biggest robbery in Britain takes place where £50 million in notes is stolen from a depot. Days of headline news follow, including a dramatic incident where police shoot out the tyres of a car, the eventual recovery of some money and the detention of suspects.
Around the same time, a number of banks announce profits running into billions of pounds. The news is greeted as at worst slightly excessive, and at best as a sign of entrepreneurial skill and endeavour. It brings to mind the German writer Bertolt Brecht’s famous saying, “What’s robbing a bank compared to owning one?”
He couldn’t have put it better. There is a great deal of talk about crime and its victims – as we can see with New Labour’s emphasis on combating crime in its local election campaign. But this focuses on a very narrow group of crimes at the expense of a wider understanding of who steals what in our society.
Different crimes can place a lot of different pressures on people’s lives. It is very frightening to be mugged or burgled, let alone to be physically or sexually assaulted. All of these can have terrible consequences for people’s lives, and should not be sanctioned in any civilised society.
However, while there is outrage about such incidents, little or nothing is said about the crime of stealing people’s pensions. To have to work another five years in order to gain a pension which you have paid for all your working life is effectively to steal tens of thousands of pounds from each worker, a cumulative total running into millions. Such robbery also ruins lives, and affects people’s security, mental or physical health and living standards.
Lengthening the working day, cutting back on health and safety at work, and allowing the food companies to influence food labelling have negative impacts on the lives of millions, as does building new roads, cutting public transport, and polluting or poisoning the atmosphere.
Yet most of these would not even fall into the category of crime, let alone carry heavy penalties. With international law, the biggest criminals run the world while the smaller criminals may if they’re unlucky end up in the Hague. The law is made by the rich and powerful for the benefit of the rich and powerful. The whole development of capitalism is hardly free of crime – slavery, colonialism, the theft of land through enclosure or clearance.
A rhyme from the 18th century makes the same point as Brecht:
“The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.”
The landowners became some of the most powerful people in Britain, backed up by the law, police and judges. Some also went on to own mines, mills and factories where they took even more – the wealth produced by their workers’ labour – to produce their profits.
While those crimes are hidden or ignored for most of the time, the other sort of crime is highlighted. No Sunday night would be complete without several television detective series highlighting murder. Crime thrillers are one of the most popular categories of books and films.
This serves to make us frightened and fascinated about terrible but luckily rare crimes, while remaining quiescent about corporate or state killing which unfortunately affects far more people.
New Labour’s stress on crime, needless to say, focuses exclusively on individual crime, and uses Asbos especially against young people. Even here the contradiction is obvious. I recently attended a school question time where it was said that all of the pupils from the school had been banned from the local Asda because a small number had been involved in bad behaviour there. Is this the same Asda that had to pay £850,000 to staff at its Tyne and Wear depot for unlawfully offering them a financial inducement to give up union rights? Is this the same Asda which is in dispute with its warehouse workers because it wants to lower wages?
Shouldn’t someone put an Asbo on them?
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