In this book (published 2008)Robert Reiner analyses trends in crime since the 1950s and argues that neoliberal economic policies are associated both with higher levels of serious crime than social democracies and with more punitive and inhumane crime control.
Reiner argues that there are three main historical trends in crime post World War Two:
- 1950s – 1980s – rapid recorded crime rise
- 1980s – 1992 – crime explosion
- 1992 onwards – Ambiguously falling crime.
In this post I will outline Reiner’s analysis of why crime trends have varied over the last six decades, focussing especially on how neo-liberalism lead to rapidly increasing crime rates during the 1980s and 1990s.
1950s – 1980s – rapid recorded crime rise
Reiner argues that a variety of factors lead to increasing crime during this period. Among them are –
- The 1950s was the decade when we entered the age of mass consumerism – it was the first decade where it was regard as normal and desirable to have a high level of consumption of material goods.
- Reiner explicitly notes the role of television in ushering in a consumer culture and the norm of ‘immediate gratification’ – ‘ It is perhaps no coincidence that the rise in crime began in the same year (1955) that ITV, the first commercial channel, began to broadcast’,
- Reiner argues that a combination of advertising and game show culture (stressing the idea that you can get rich quick for doing nothing) undermined the previously widespread norm of deferred gratification pointing out that criminals tend to be impulsive, insensitive, risk taking and short sighted – which in his eyes also describes the perfect consumer in a capitalist society.
- Reiner also reminds us that the mid 1950s saw a weakening of informal and formal controls. The 50s saw the emergence of independent youth cultures and declining deference to authority.
1980s – 1992 – crime explosion
Reiner argues that the neoliberal economic policies of Margaret Thatcher’s government was the key accelerant behind this ‘crime explosion’ From this section we can identify several factors that explain an increase in the crime rate –
- Increasing levels of long term unemployment
- An increase in insecure, low paid, casual jobs (McJobs)
- Declining wages for unskilled workers
- Increasing levels of inequality
- A culture of egoism – the ‘me’ society
- The withdrawal of public services and supports, especially for women and children,
- The erosion of informal and communal networks of mutual support, supervision and care;
- The spread of a materialistic, neglectful and ‘hard’ culture;
- The unregulated marketing of the technology of violence
- The weakening of social and political alternatives to neo-liberal political economy
- The spread of consumerist culture
- Increasing social inequality and exclusion, involved a heightening of Mertion ‘anomie’.
- The erosion of conceptions of ethical means of success being preferable, or of concern for others limiting ruthlessness.
Reiner’s take on Neo-Liberalism and how it relates to crime…
Reiner says of Neo-Liberalism – It is the economic theory and practise that has swept the world since the late 1970s. As an economic doctrine it postulates that free markets maximise efficiency and prosperity by signalling consumer wants to producers, optimising the allocation of resources and providing incentives for entrepreneurs and workers. Beyond economics, however, neo-liberalism has become the hegemonic discourse of our culture’
Neoliberalism as culture and ethic
To neoliberals free markets are associated with democracy, liberty and ethics. Welfare states they claim have many moral hazards: they undermine personal responsibility, and meet the sectional interests of public sector workers but not the public. Neoliberals advocate market discipline, wand Public- private partnerships to counteract this.
Neolieralism has spread from the economic sphere to the social and cultural. The roots of contemporary consumer culture predate neoliberal dominance, but it has now become hegemonic. Aspirations and conceptions of the good life have become thoroughly permeated by materialist and acquisitive values. Business solutions, business news and business models permeate all fields of life from sport and entertainment to charities and even crime control.
Neoliberalisation has meant the financialisation of everything, penetrating everywhere from the stuff of dreams to the minutiae of everyday life. Money has become the measure of men and women with the ‘Rich List’ and its many variations ousting all other rankings of status.
1992 onwards – Ambiguously falling crime
Reiner says of crime in this period –
- No grand narrative can help explain wy crime is falling.
- He dismisses the view that zero tolerance policing and mass incarceration have reduced the crime rate – because there is considerable evidence that crime rates have fallen in countries that haven’t employed these policies. It is very important to note that the ‘tough on crime’ approach is much more likely to be found in neoliberal countries such as Britain and is part of the ideology of neoliberalism. The New Right claim it is necessary to reduce crime – but this is a false claim because crime has been decreasing elsewhere!
- There has been a fall in long term unemployment that partially explains the fall in crime
- There has been a halt in the acceleration of inequality – which at least helps to explain why crime is not growing!
Reiner finishes off by noting that today there is a paradox of security – although crime has been going down since the mid 1990s, public fears of crime have not declined at anywhere near the same rate – there is thus a ‘reassurance gap’ – one of the reasons Reiner cites for this is that when we see increased measures of control – we think they must be there for a reason – so we assume the crime rate must be high. The paraphernalia of crime control reminds us that the risk of being a victim of crime is significant.
Look out for my next blog when I’ll be summarising Reiner’s views on the relationship between neo-liberalism and tougher measures of crime control