Monday, February 04, 2008

A Victorian Victim of "Moral Panic"

An early exponent of the "crime as class warfare" school of criminology - who, as befits a wealthy, fox-hunting scion of the manufacturing classes, doesn't seem to realise that crime above all impacts the poor and vulnerable.

Friedrich Engels, "The Condition of the Working Class In England".

"with the extension of the proletariat, crime has increased in England, and the British nation has become the most criminal in the world. From the annual criminal tables of the Home Secretary, it is evident that the increase of crime in England has proceeded with incomprehensible rapidity. The numbers of arrests for criminal offences reached in the years: 1805, 4,605, 1810, 5,146; 1815, 7,818; 1820, 13,710; 1825, 14,457; 1830, 18,107; 1835, 20,731; 1840, 27,187; 1841, 27,760; 1842, 31,309 in England and Wales alone. That is to say, they increased sevenfold in thirty-seven years.

... These facts are certainly more than sufficient to bring any one even a bourgeois, to pause and reflect upon the consequences of such a state of things. If demoralisation and crime multiply twenty years longer in this proportion (and if English manufacture in these twenty years should be less prosperous than heretofore, the progressive multiplication of crime can only continue the more rapidly), what will the result be? Society is already in a state of visible dissolution; it is impossible to pick up a newspaper without seeing the most striking evidence of the giving way of all social ties.

I look at random into a heap of English journals lying before me; there is the Manchester Guardian for October 30, 1844, which reports for three days. It no longer takes the trouble to give exact details as to Manchester, and merely relates the most interesting cases: that the workers in a mill have struck for higher wages without giving notice, and been condemned by a Justice of the Peace to resume work; that in Salford a couple of boys had been caught stealing, and a bankrupt tradesman tried to cheat his creditors.

From the neighbouring towns the reports are more detailed: in Ashton, two thefts, one burglary, one suicide; in Bury one theft; in Bolton, two thefts, one revenue fraud; in Leigh, one theft; in Oldham, one strike for wages, one theft, one fight between Irish women, one non-Union hatter assaulted by Union men, one mother beaten by her son, one attack upon the police, one robbery of a church; in Stockport, discontent of working-men with wages, one theft, one fraud, one fight, one wife beaten by her husband; in Warrington, one theft, one fight; in Wigan, one theft, and one robbery of a church.

The reports of the London papers are much worse; frauds, thefts, assaults, family quarrels crowd one another. A Times of September 12, 1844, falls into my hand, which gives a report of a single day, including a theft, an attack upon the police, a sentence upon a father requiring him to support his illegitimate son, the abandonment of a child by its parents, and the poisoning of a man by his wife.

Similar reports are to be found in all the English papers. In this country, social war is under full headway, every one stands for himself, and fights for himself against all comers, and whether or not he shall injure all the others who are his declared foes, depends upon a cynical calculation as to what is most advantageous for himself. It no longer occurs to any one to come to a peaceful understanding with his fellow-man; all differences are settled by threats, violence, or in a law-court. In short, every one sees in his neighbour an enemy to be got out of the way, or, at best, a tool to be used for his own advantage.

And this war grows from year to year, as the criminal tables show, more violent, passionate, irreconcilable. The enemies are dividing gradually into two great camps -- the bourgeoisie on the one hand, the workers on the other. This war of each against all, of the bourgeoisie against the proletariat, need cause us no surprise, for it is only the logical sequel of the principle involved in free competition. But it may very well surprise us that the bourgeoisie remains so quiet and composed in the face of the rapidly gathering storm-clouds, that it can read all these things daily in the papers without, we will not say indignation at such a social condition, but fear of its consequences, of a universal outburst of that which manifests itself symptomatically from day to day in the form of crime."

Engels was concerned about 31,000 arrests in 1842. Arrests for 2005/6 stand at 1,429,800.

The stuff that he was horrified by, and that seemed to presage open class warfare, would hardly make a local paper now. The Manchester Guardian in 1844 was far more of a local paper than today. I invite commenters to take a look at the Manchester Evening News a, and see what kind of crimes are now being reported. I think it unlikely that "a couple of boys caught stealing" will feature.

Hat-tip - Norman Dennis.


JuliaM said...

You could enter that piece by Engels on 'Comment is Free' today and (number and type of crimes notwithstanding) it wouldn't seem out of place...

bernard said...

Not so hasty, Laban.
Engels may have fortold something, in the ensuing decade or so:

The Afgan War: 1838-49.
Chinese war: 1859-61.
Russian war: 1854-56.
Indian mutiny: 1857-59.

Not to mention the Crimean war; Persian and Egyptian wars...all of which Britain got embroiled in, not long after his article.

Laban said...

Are you saying that those wars were entered into to give the plebs something to take their mind off their misery ?

bernard said...

No. When society feels 'restless' it often externalizes this in foreign adventures.
It's a subconscious safety-valve.
If Britain pulls out of the present wars, it would re-invent them in civil conflict.

bernard said...

As a footnote:
Countries go to war because they feel a social/economic need, which is why in the 2nd WW Germany (and Japan) did so well for the first 3 years and Britain did so badly.
It was purely the weight of numbers, by foolishly attacking Russia, (and the US coming in) that lost them the war eventually. Otherwise, without question, Germany would have triumphed.

Anonymous said...

Engels was hardly a victim of "moral panic" - that would be a bourgeois emotion. And he was a revolutionary at heart, welcoming the social breakdown which he hoped would create a revolutionary environment. See the new biography, Engels: A Revolutionary Life.