- Byron Clark, Workers Party candidate for Christchurch Central
Crime has become a hot issue in New Zealand this year. It’s an election issue largely because the major political parties are committed to maintaining the status quo on economic issues; instead they campaign on non-economic issues like “law and order” rather than wages, unemployment or social inequality.1
The government and the opposition’s “tough on crime” stance also results in increased state power and erosions of civil liberties. Politicians have been calling for the police to be armed and patrolling working-class parts of Auckland. We’ve also seen the passage of the Criminal Disclosure Act, which removes the need for a unanimous jury verdicts (replacing it with an 11:1 majority) and creates exemptions to double jeopardy (the legal defence that prevents a person from being tried twice for the same crime on the same set of facts).
These things are certainly something to be concerned about, but it doesn’t mean crime itself should be ignored. While on the whole crime is down, the statistics show that violent crime (with the exception of homicide) is up. A large part of this increase (35%) is in the “threats and intimidation” category, and is probably a result of increased reporting now that more people own cellphones. Increased reporting of domestic violence as a result of the “It’s not OK” campaign is also a possible factor in the increase.
However, it is undeniable that violent crime is occurring, and the reasons for - and possible solutions to - this should be examined.
It is well known (and can be seen by comparing statistics) that there is a correlation between poverty and crime, and with this being so a slogan like “zero tolerance on poverty” is probably more useful than the cliched “zero tolerance on crime”.
Some people resort to crime for basic needs they can’t afford, as is no doubt partly the case in the recent spate of petrol thefts as the price continues to rise faster than incomes. There has even been a reported increase in license plate thefts, as people attempt to cover their tracks when steeling petrol.
But is poverty to blame for violent crime? In part, yes; recently the Women’s Refuge reported a “surge” in domestic violence. Maree Saunders, an advocate from Tauranga, told Radio New Zealand of a woman who was badly beaten for not having money left over from shopping for groceries, and of another incident where a couple physically fought over two dollars. While there were obviously other factors involved (most low-income people are not abusive toward their partners) poverty was certainly a factor in these situations.
Poverty can also take some of the blame for non-domestic violent crime, or more accurately, social inequality can take some of the blame. Criminologist Greg Newbold noted in his 2000 book Crime in New Zealand (page 114):
“In terms of property, disposable income and standard of living, there is thus a large gap separating the rich from the poor in New Zealand and that gap has been widening since the 1960s. There are more millionaires now but there are also more beneficiaries. The frustration, alienation, and sense of injustice which this situation produces in some people contextualises and provides a partial explanation for the dramatic increases we have seen in levels of reported violence.”
High levels of poverty do not automatically lead to high levels of violent crime, however. There was less violent crime during the Great Depression than there is today. There is also, however, less social solidarity between people now. New Zealand has became a country of isolated individuals, so alienation is a key word.
With strong communities built on solidarity, people are, one, less likely to assault each other, and, two, more likely to look out for each other and thus prevent such incidents when they do happen. This type of social solidarity comes from people acting collectively to improve their standard of living both in their workplaces (where these days most of a person’s time is spent) and outside them.
Symptoms of alienation and social deprivation are often mistaken (or consciously blamed) as cause of violent crime. Alcohol abuse has became the target of this latest moral panic, and there have been calls to restrict the number of licensed premises in order to restrict supply of the demon drink. Like the armed cops, this suggestion has targeted working class areas, yet proponents of this “solution” seldom mention that licensed premises are more prevalent in higher socio-economic areas. For example while Manukau has one licensed outlet for every 655 people, North Shore has one for every 470 people. 2
Real solutions to violent crime should not involve attacks on civil liberties, or collective punishment of working-class communities. Nor can real solutions be summed up with a populist election slogan. Crime grows out of the inhumanity of capitalism, and an end to crime can only come from the radical transformation of society into one based on equality and human need.
Until then, crime can be prevented by “bottom-up” methods, rather than top-down ones from the capitalist state. Workers should organise collectively to achieve a decent standard of living. Communities need to strengthen social solidarity and create a culture that does not accept a person inflicting violence on another.
When workers are able to own more of the wealth that our labour creates, more resources can be given to those preventing violence (such as Women’s Refuge), as it will not disappear overnight, even in a socialist society. There is no quick-fix for violent crime, but what better time to start working on the long-term solution.
2See “South Auckland awash with Thirsty Journos” by Martin Hirst http://tinyurl.com/6y6cl4).`