Crime and Morality

Crime and Morality

Why do people not commit crime?

By James Clarke

The starting point for a sensible discussion of routine criminal behaviour should be to question why most people tend not to engage in it. But the question that is being asked is why a minority does.

The Home Secretary – one of the many upstarts who now hold positions of great influence in the Tory Party – asserts forcefully that there is an absolute moral law which is identical with the ideal of Thatcherite capitalism; that society consists of ·autonomous individuals with free will who know the moral law; and that crime results when a free individual voluntarily decides to do evil. He categorically denies that there is any connection between the escalating crime figures of recent times and the social conditions of recent times – if indeed such a thing as social conditions can be said to exist after Mrs. Thatcher’s decree that society doesn’t.

Tony Blair – who would now be our Home Secretary if it wasn’t for Neil Kinnock letting him down – goes a long way with Michael Howard. But he likes to add that what he calls “community” has something to do with it. Howard, therefore, classifies him as a namby pamby liberal, one of those who encourage crime by excusing it. They excuse it because they baulk at saying that it is caused solely by the deliberate choice of an individual to do evil.

The Tory Conference resembled the feeding frenzy of a school of sharks when speakers exhorted the Government to deal with evildoers by birching and strangling them. And yet there was something abysmally human in it. And the jeers directed against Tony Blair’s enigmatic references to “community” were not unmerited.

But Tony Blair is not alone in his mutterings about community. Mrs. Thatcher, when to task in a recent edition of Woman’s Hour (Radio 4) about her statement that there is no such thing as society, only individuals, pointed out that what she actually said was individuals and their families in communities. What is a community, then, if it is not a segment of society? Not the rounded local community of art, culture and economy such as existed before capitalism. That was done away with ages ago, and cannot be recreated amongst the atomised individuals of England’s capitalist cities.

The French are currently being denounced for obstructing the conclusion of the present round of GA TT negotiations. The ideal behind GATT is to transform the world into a single market of four billion economic individuals, each competing against all. Given free rein this ideal would depopulate a great part of the countryside of the world by extending the market for US grain. But France won’t have it. It isn’t that the French countryside is thickly populated in actual fact. Much of it is as thinly populated as the English countryside. But France has evolved as a peasant society since 1790, and it continues to retain the idea of itself as a peasant society long after a mere counting of heads would have shown it to be a predominantly urban society. This idea is part of its very effective national culture. And it sees no good reason to accelerate the decline in its peasant population just so that America will have a bigger market for its grain.

Britain was never a peasant country. Its countryside has always been owned by a landlord gentry and aristocracy who did as they thought fit with their tenant-farmers and labourers. The country was peopled by serfs rather than peasants, and was depopulated when it suited the convenience of the landlords.

English culture is urban culture. It may be that rural communities existed here and there for comparatively long periods. But they existed in relations of dependency with the gentry. They were not sources of national culture – apart from the gloomy novels of Thomas Hardy written when they were at the end of their tether. And because of the crucial role which the gentry played in them they could not carry their values into the process of urbanisation.

The gentry, with their town and country houses, influenced the development of the English city by mixing up physical pieces of the countryside with it, but that is a different thing. London has its great parks into which one can escape from the town in the middle of the town.

Starting at Whitehall you can walk on grass land for about ten miles Northwards, crossing only a few streets on the way. In Paris by contrast grass is not allowed. And public spaces there and in other Continental towns are not designed for escape from urban environment, but for reproducing in urban conditions the conviviality of a densely populated countryside.

A sense of community may have been retained from mediaeval conditions into the present by Continental modes of development, and may form part of the national way of life. Such is not the case in England. And unless Tony Blair means by community more intense local policing supplemented by a vigilante network, it is hard to see what he does mean.

The mode of urbanisation in England was barbaric. It was not the evolution of a way of life, but the disruption of a way of life. And it coincided with the establishment of the British Empire, which also had disruptive effects on the English way of life. (If the empire had proved to be a coherent political entity centring on England, as it was widely assumed it would be at the beginning of the present century, the consequences would obviously have been different. But because England had geared itself up to be the core of an Empire which fell apart quite rapidly, the consequences of Empire were disruptive at home as well as abroad.)

The “English Revolution” of the 18th century, about which so much Marxist fantasy has been published in recent generations, was a colossal act of destruction of the historic English way of life, and of the communal practices which are the strongest influences producing moral behaviour. It demolished a way of life – tore it up by the roots – and in place of human culture it set up a welter of conflicting doctrines about life hereafter. Its work of cultural destruction made possible the barbaric mode of urbanisation and industrialisation in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Though the Puritan state only lasted ten years, the Puritan cultural assault on the national way of life continued for generations after 1660.

On the one hand Puritan cultural destruction broke moral fabric of community and produced the free, or isolated, individuals who went into the barbaric mode of urbanisation and industrialisation. On the other hand the theological fervour which Puritanism injected into these new masses of individuals gave them the purpose in the hereafter which caused mem not only to tolerate misery in the here-and-now, but to conduct themselves conscientiously.

The question that springs to mind when you look at England in those times is: how is this state of affairs humanly possible? It was possible because the masses of individuals in its lower strata were suffused with a theological vision of life. They were hard-working and law-abiding for a purpose. Their endurance was directed towards an end. But the purpose and end of their lives lay outside everything that was discernible in life.

The supernatural purpose which gave significance to lives which would otherwise have been sheer misery was subverted in the course of the middle third of the 19th century. The manifesto of subversion was Tom Paine’s Age Of Reason, first published (and suppressed) in the 1790s. Paine was prosecuted for blasphemy by a disbelieving ruling class which could not see how the lower class could remain hard-working and law abiding if it was persuaded to doubt the supernatural purpose of its life.

In the event disbelief did not bring social disintegration because a secular socialist movement was forged in the period when Christianity was subverted. By the end of the 19th century the purpose for which privations were conscientiously endured was brought down from heaven to earth. Belief in progress towards a socialist end took over from theological belief. It was not assumed that the socialist end would occur “in the twinkling of an eye” – which was the Biblical time scale for the supernatural end. There was a sturdy conviction that if a certain line of conduct was persisted in, a worthwhile end would be reached in a generation or two – or in a century or two. And in the meantime there was sufficient satisfaction in working towards that end, and achieving small but perceptible movements towards it.

Michael Howard and Co. point out that the working class was much better behaved during the slump of the thirties than it is now. And so it was. But that does not indicate that the working class was then in the grip of absolute moral values which had to be observed regardless of social privation. Moral conduct was a by-product of purpose. The working class was suffused with a sense of purpose. It was law-abiding because of a conviction that it would in the end achieve socialism by means of law.

The Tories who now complain of lawlessness have had it as a central object ever since 1975 to demolish the purpose for which the English working class has been law-abiding. But the Tories could not themselves achieve that object. It could only be achieved by a leadership of the Labour Party which took socialism off the agenda, which caused the branches of the Labour Party to wither as institutions operative in civil society, and which even conjured the working class out of existence by transforming it into a conglomeration of the nondescript poor – or is it “the less well off’?

For the first time ever the mass of the people in capitalist England is without collective purpose, and the law is the worse for it.


This article appeared in January 1994, in Issue 39 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at and