This piece under discussion, written in 1978, was an attempt at a critique of the Critical Criminology of Ian Taylor, Paul Walton and Jock Young as defined in their books The New Criminology and Critical Criminology. Given that they had described their criminology as Marxist and these texts were some of the most important of works emanating from the National Deviancy Symposium, it is well worth a look at this critique.
Downes’ central argument is that they (Taylor, Walton and Young) criticise capitalist society but fail to discuss what the alternative is, just naming it socialism and leaving it at that. Furthermore, Downes is quite right when he says that they don’t analyse crime in the Stalinist countries (he calls them socialist). Indeed I think we should agree with Downes on these two points that these are two things that a Marxist criminology should address.
But Downes’ own ideas are not ones we should adopt. He makes several fundamental errors in his critique, which I will now try and highlight – some are more than likely due to the ‘new left’ circles which Critical Criminology moved in counterpoising the earlier ‘humanistic’ Marx with the later Marx, and other such muddles.
Firstly after firstly correctly saying, of critical criminology “…the entire intellectual construction rests on the postulates that capitalist society is essentially criminogenic,” he goes on to add “…and that only by the total repudiation of the ethic of possessive individualism on which it rests can ‘true’ equality and ‘socialist diversity’ – the prerequisites for a ‘crime-free’ society – be attained” (pg 5-6) No, capitalist society rests on a particular stage of economic development, not individualism – and again it is a higher economic development that is the prerequisite for drastically reducing crime.
Later on he attacks, a rather loose phrase of Young’s about the working class having control over policing in their communities – and says that it means only members of one class should be able to police that class – leading to a caste type policing system where only the rich will get properly policed (because , of course, workers can’t do anything for themselves). Of course, Young’s depiction is rather vague, but it would cover the democratic control over local policing which socialists should argue for.
Although this isn’t it, a Marxist critique of the history, work and development of the National Deviancy Symposium would be incredibly useful for the development of a Marxist approach to criminology.