Understanding crime: Realism doesn’t belong to the right!

Guest blog from Prof Steve Hall

Over the years social science has made a lot of noise about its ability to shatter the myths that constitute popular common sense. It has been a little quieter, however, about shattering the myths that have come to constitute its own common sense. Across Europe and the USA, social scientists looked on horrified as the Brexit drama unfolded, Marvel-comic villain Donald Trump – resplendent in his very own urban tower with its gold-plated elevator and other tasteful soupçons of interior design – was elected to the White House, and far-right parties increased their popular support in Europe. Social media was full of perplexed liberals firing off missives to scold the Brexit voters for their senseless decision. It was like watching irate 1950s schoolmasters using morning assembly to tell off the kids who had had a food-fight in the dinner hall the day before. Over the past thirty years social scientists have been highlighting creativity, resilience, resistance, progress and so on. Looks like something went badly wrong.

In a short blog like this I can’t possibly cover everything that went badly wrong with the post-war thinking that has erected social science’s conceptual infrastructure. Simon Winlow and I have covered some of this ground in numerous publications over the years, culminating in our new book on the rise of the ‘far-right’ in the UK (Winlow et al. 2017). A few other people, ranging from Russell Jacoby and Richard Rorty to Jean Baudrillard, Slavoj Ẑiẑek, Nancy Fraser and Wolfgang Streeck, also sensed that something was going wrong. But one thing is for sure. If the metropolitan liberals who dominate social science were ignoring household names like these they were going to ignore us. And they did. The few brave souls who dipped into our work did so only to conclude that our ideas are too bleak, economically reductionist, narrow and regressive to take their place in social science’s approved conceptual infrastructure.

The current situation is too serious for me to gloat about calling it right before it happened. Well… maybe a quick gloat before I move on:

‘The growth and concentration of a shared sense of suffering and dissatisfaction has throughout history driven progressive politics, and it can do so again. However, these same sentiments have often been perverted and knocked off course to descend into regressive nationalism. There are already signs throughout Europe of strange, postmodern nationalisms developing as post-political populations experience a profound sense of social anxiety and loss.’ (Winlow and Hall, 2013: 110)

Social science lost the plot

Anyway, to get back to being a proper criminologist, there must have been culprits behind the tragic loss of social science’s ability to have a rough idea of what’s going on. I’m not trying to sell a crime novel here, so I’ll not keep you in suspense. It was the liberal-postmodernists wot done it. Derrida’s sentences that never end. Foucault’s denial of truth. Lyotard’s incredulity towards metanarratives. They were aided and abetted by more sober constructivist liberals such as Goffman and Bourdieu, who, drawing on the most idealist types of anthropology they could find, tried to represent the life’n’death socio-political struggles everyday people fight in the context of unforgiving global market forces as a suburban parlour game. But it was the liberal-postmodernists wot were the real villains. They wanted us to believe that we had stepped out of history’s political and economic forces, therefore the future would be the product of our free, creative, playful, ironic and reflexive agency. That many people in the deindustrialised zones had never had a decent job for thirty years and could see no future for their children was deemed secondary to a few minor victories in the parlour games – a bit of improvement in the impression management here, a bit of new cultural capital there. Even those who valiantly remained focused on ‘inequality’ in all its intersectional complexity proposed only tax’n’spend solutions, somehow failing to understand what the terms ‘oligarch’ and ‘tax haven’ actually mean. Only Corbyn’s promise of public investment banks gives us even a glimmer of hope that there might be a way out of the iron grip of neoliberalism’s global market.

In the midst of this bout of constructivism we lost touch with reality at the deeper levels of the actual and the real, which operate below the empirical. Despite the efforts of early feminists and left realists, ‘radical’ forms of criminology also remained trapped in the dominant constructivist mode, where agents, their relationships, their values and their narratives float in the sky above neoliberalism’s structures and dynamic processes – and of course their very real consequences. However, there are signs that the Brexit, Trump and far-right phenomena have created enough of a jolt to wake politics and social science out of their constructivist slumber. Let me state quite baldly that social science must now stay awake and get out of bed, otherwise, as Wolfgang Streeck (2016) has recently argued, it will sink into irrelevance.

The criminology’s viewpoint

Criminology is also showing signs of waking up. Cultural criminology has recently revised some of its domain assumptions (see Hayward 2016), the crime decline narrative has come under fire as cyber-crime slips onto the radar (see Hall and Antonopoulos 2016) and the new ultra-realist and transcendental materialist positions – both of which deal with the tricky interface between the material, the real and the subjective – are slowly establishing themselves in the literature (see Hall 2012; Ellis 2016; Raymen 2015; Raymen and Smith 2015; Wakeman 2017). However, at the moment there are enough criminological publications coming off the production line to drown out these new movements. This is why Robert Reiner’s (2016) new introductory text, which could present criminology’s need to move on to the huge number of undergraduate students who study criminology each year, is so important. Reiner moves beyond the constructivist imbalance to examine the concept of ‘crime’ as a multi-faceted attempt to represent both normativity and reality. He reminds us that criminology should devote more time poring over both its meaning and its reality rather than ‘measuring’ it as it is currently defined by law, politics, mass media and, it pains me to say, social science itself.

Reiner makes it clear that much of what people experience as crime is more than mere ‘deviance’ from existing normative rules, a restrictive definition that locks us into a constructivist mode. He points the student towards the difficult exercise of reconciling the three dimensions of legality, normativity and harm, therefore keeping one foot anchored in reality. Perspectives and definitions may vary but the harms that are the consequences of many crimes are very real indeed. Criminology should continue its discussions of meaning, he argues, but with ends in sight. By getting to the heart of the trench warfare between constructivism and realism, Reiner prompts students to ask precisely the right questions. For instance, how can we possibly call for wholesale decriminalization without first evaluating the underlying reality of harm? Similarly, removing labels would have no impact on the harms that some crimes inflict on victims, social institutions and the environment. Harms of the powerful are more serious in their destructive capability, but although the harms of the powerless might be less destructive on a macro-scale, they are more voluminous and sometimes personally injurious and therefore can be traumatic too.

Reiner is aware of the breadth of the realist spectrum. It is far more than an inherently naïve and cynical apology for right-wing variants of administrative criminology. We all know that neoclassical realism publically advocates increased efficiency in the criminal justice system whilst tacitly supporting repressive securitisation, surveillance and punishment, but Reiner ushers students to the other end of the realist spectrum. Here, left realism and ultra-realism acknowledge some forms of everyday crime as the scourge of working-class and poor communities. He is also aware of the emerging theoretical school of ultra-realism, which moves the realist paradigm forward beyond left realism to posit modernity as a pseudo-pacification process and conceptualises many crimes, especially those of the more acquisitive type, as expressions of hyper-conformity to the system’s hidden obscene drives. This principle also moves us beyond critical criminology’s crude structural differentiation to a wide-ranging critique of neoliberal capitalism and its subjectivities as a whole way of life.

Realism to understand crime

Ultra-realism builds on the basic analytical schema provided by critical realism – three levels of reality comprised of the empirical, the actual and the real and their respective epistemologies. Ultra-realism adds a fourth layer, the unconscious actions of the ideological agent who fetishistically disavows her collusion in the dynamics and processes that constitute the level of the real. Reiner’s reintroduction of these two fundamental levels into criminological thought allows him to present a useful contextual analysis of the neoliberal era, as it brought with it predatory individualism, consumerism, financialisation, unstable economies, deindustrialisation, precarious working populations and widening inequality. This set the context for the crime explosion in Britain and the USA in the 1980s. He is aware of the statistical crime decline from the mid-1990s, but reminds us that rates of violence and elite corruption remain high. Furthermore, crime has consistently been ‘defined down’, securitisation measures have contributed to the decline of some traditional crimes and the statistics will inevitably move back upwards as research begins to reveal burgeoning cybercrime.

Reiner refuses to dismiss the fundamental issues of egotistical predatory individualism as a differentially practiced norm and the erosion of informal controls, which allows him to ask deeper questions usually glossed over by right realism, left idealism and left realism. He ends his book with the fundamental question also posed by ultra-realists: how deep must political intervention in culture and economy be if it is to alleviate criminogenic conditions? This brings us back to the political situation discussed at the beginning of the blog. It is where all students should begin their investigation of crime and its control. The recent shift to the right has shown us that the metropolitan liberals who dominate political and intellectual life have sorely neglected the multitude of problems faced every day by working-class people living in environments that have declined since deindustrialisation. Crime is most certainly one of them. A new twenty-first century criminology informed by an ultra-realist theoretical paradigm and research programme has an important role to play in the reconstitution of interventionist politics.

Ellis, A. (2016) Men, Masculinities and Violence: An Ethnographic Study. London: Routledge.

Hall, S. (2012) Theorizing Crime and Deviance: A New Perspective. London: Sage

Hall, S. and Winlow, S. (2015) Revitalizing Criminological Theory: Towards a New Ultra-Realism.London: Routledge

Hall, A. and Antonopoulos, G.A. (2016) Fake Meds Online: The Internet and the Transnational Market in Illicit Pharmaceuticals. London: Palgrave

Hayward, K.J. (2016) ‘Cultural criminology: script rewrites’, Theoretical Criminology 20 (3): 257-276

Raymen, T. and Smith, O. (2015) ‘What’s deviance got to do with it?’, British Journal of Criminology, 56 (2): 389-485

Raymen, T. (2015) ‘Designing in crime by designing out the social’, British Journal of Criminology,56 (3): 497-514

Reiner, R. (2016) Crime: The Mystery of the Common-Sense Concept. Cambridge: Polity

Streeck, W. (2016) How Will Capitalism End? London: Verso

Wakeman, S. (2017) ‘The ‘one who knocks’ and the ‘one who waits’: gendered violence inBreaking Bad’, Crime, Media, Culture, doi.org/10.1177/1741659016684897

Winlow, S. and Hall, S. (2013) Rethinking Social Exclusion: The End of the Social? London: Sage

Winlow, S., Hall, S. and Treadwell, J. (2017) The Rise of the Right: English Nationalism and the Transformation of Working-Class Politics. Bristol: Policy Press

Steve Hall is Professor of Criminology at Teesside University and co-founder of the Teesside Centre for Realist Criminology. He has been described as the ‘most important criminologist working in Britain today’. His book Criminal Identities and Consumer Culture (Willan 2008, with Simon Winlow and Craig Ancrum) has been described as ‘an important landmark in criminology’. His book Theorizing Crime and Deviance (Sage 2012) lauded as ‘a remarkable intellectual achievement’ that ‘rocks the foundations of the discipline’. He is also co-author of Violent Night(Berg 2006, with Simon Winlow), Rethinking Social Exclusion (Sage 2013, with Simon Winlow), Riots and Political Protest (Routledge 2015, with Simon Winlow, James Treadwell and Daniel Briggs), Revitalizing Criminological Theory (Routledge 2015, with Simon Winlow) and The Rise of the Right: English nationalism and the transformation of working-class politics (Policy Press 2017, with Simon Winlow and James Treadwell). He is co-editor of New Directions in Criminological Theory (Routledge 2012, with Simon Winlow).

You can follow Steve Hall here. This article is part of a series of guest blogs written by Injustice Documentary’s interviewees and other criminal justice reformers. If you are interested in submitting a piece, please contact us.

2 thoughts on “Understanding crime: Realism doesn’t belong to the right!

  1. Indeed, if left-idealism was attached to the ultra-left, and administrative criminology to the bourgeoisie, then rather than being attached to the genuine revolutionary elements, left realism was attached to the soft left and the labour bureaucracy.

  2. There is a real demand for an alternative to the current right wing media monopoly. It is a truth that the largest part of the planet’s media is owned by right wing moguls. Their purpose is to spread the virus of capitalism and retain the world’s gap between wealthy and those in need. Left Insider offers left wing articles from reliable sites like Red Pepper and Buzz Feed etc. Everyone has the right to fully exploit our own potential and we all have the obligation to help others maximise theirs.

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