Antiquated Thought: Crime as Calculation or Event
In Spain, the image people have of delinquents is that they are independent, calculating thinkers, or that they are victims of an array of “risk factors” which somehow relate to each other. This means, firstly, that we do not investigate how these factors that result in a crime being committed and the related power mechanisms.
Second, by dividing the criminal’s personal biography into these “risk factors”, their modus operandi becomes less clear because their life has been dissected into supposedly measurable variables that blur the relationships between them. Lastly, this approach does not do justice to the criminals’ situations, as they are not adequately represented by the methods used by investigators; their subjective realities are reduced to closed responses that offer pre-conceived hypotheses to justify their actions; their movements and activities are merely represented in reports as colored shades known as “hot spots.”
There are few projects that examine the reciprocity between social structure and agent, combining, for example, elements of political economics, the power of ideology, and cultural and social perspectives with an understanding of the subjective policy regarding criminal behavior. Criminals don’t do things just because, without a series of causes intervening. They are not one-dimensional objects because there is a set of fundamentally ideological structural, social, and cultural elements surrounding them. Furthermore, society also determines someone’s propensity to becoming a criminal because people react to their structural, cultural, and social environment. This lack of deliberation on reciprocity immediately defines delinquents, on the one hand, as passive victims of their circumstances; and, on the other, as active wrongdoers who take advantage of their circumstances, when in reality they are neither.
We must go beyond these limited approaches and consider more subliminal, even violent, processes that subconsciously operate and guide our behaviors. Therefore, I would like to speak more generally about social harm, a perspective that leads me to explain exactly what motivates crime: the why. I am sure my perspective will have its critics, and of course this does not explain the reason behind every crime, for everyone; however, it explains most crime and justifies why it is important to consider structural, cultural, and social variables and processes that are beyond an individual’s control.
The 30-30-40 Society: More Inequality than Ever
In the 1990s, Will Hutton published a well-known book that explained how modern capitalism functions. His research deemed that we live in a 30/30/40 society: 30% suffer from poverty and inequality, 30% have insecure jobs with precarious conditions and 40% have stable, secure employment. This was just 30 years ago, and at that time Spain enjoyed economic stability. However, if we were honest with ourselves about the current political situation, both economically and socially, we would have to admit that the inequality gap continues to grow at an alarming pace. How can it be that eight people have the same wealth as the poorest half of the world?
This pattern is prevalent in Spain, where the latest figures estimate that almost one third of Spaniards are at risk of falling into poverty. The economy is contracting–in spite of all the statistical propaganda they feed us–and because Spain is linked to the euro, it cannot devalue its currency in the hope of boosting the kind of productive work that allows the poorest to find stable, reasonably well-paid jobs. This is why 20,000 people are lining up at the doors of a mall in southern Madrid that is only offering 500 jobs. “Highest number of people employed since the crisis,” the politicians tell us, but these jobs are increasingly precarious and disposable; meanwhile, the most defenseless groups continue to go uncounted in unemployment figures. The only thing this achieves is to increase the pressure to find a job. This is the case because neoliberal capitalism has forced society to enter into this competition.
Subsidized housing is disappearing and the system of social aid and benefits is being demolished. Cities increasingly appear to be under an apartheid scheme and urban poverty is exacerbated by the spatial exclusion that separates the underserved from urban spaces, while also blocking their mobility towards more stable employment sectors. This is why unemployment can reach 30% in some neighborhoods of Madrid (Vallecas and Villaverde), but is less than 8% in others (Pozuelo and Boadilla).
The Spanish government is also in debt. It is corrupt: a word which few scholars, researchers, and companies have been using in public recently, although people all over the country are well aware. Researchers estimate that corruption costs the Spanish economy 40 billion euros a year. Corrupt institutions have a massive impact on a wide variety of sectors, including public services, the education system, the judiciary, the police, and the armed forces. The fact that these fraudulent irregularities are endemic to keeping the political elite in power has resulted in an austerity policy through which citizens are essentially absorbing the debt generated by the banks and other financial institutions. Thus, to strengthen the economy, citizens pay more for public services, higher taxes, etc. This is why people with the worst-paid jobs struggle to survive. They do not have access to subsidized housing, aid is cut, they cannot get approved for a mortgage, and the price of rent is on the rise. This puts pressure on their ability to keep paying housing costs, the costs of public services, and the costs associated raising children, leading families to lose their homes and causing them to stay with other family members or friends, or to illegally occupy houses and apartments.
However, the expectation is that “hard work” will lead to security, employment, a home, and a stable life. The free market, known as neoliberalism, allegedly offers the same opportunities for everyone, on the condition that they apply their own resilience, discipline, and dedication to a cause. However, for many people, this is not possible and, as a result, many survive thanks to illicit economies and many more fall into insecurity and end up as fodder for prisons and the criminal justice system: an endless vicious circle.
In short, the state has surrendered and the market has won, which is why there seems to be no political will anywhere to intervene in the world in the hope of putting things in order. In the best of cases, all Spanish politicians, regardless of their political party, hope to manipulate the existing system and punish anyone who proposes to spoil the speed of accumulation of capital to which they have become accustomed, despite the fact that most Spaniards have become poorer year after year over the last 30 years, approximately since the time Hutton published his book.
An 80-20 Society: Are the ‘Hunger Games’ on the Horizon?
Not long ago, the philosopher Slavoj Žižek speculated that our future is an 80-20 society, i.e., that 80% of the population will not have social success and will live in absolute poverty, and the other 20% will have excessive wealth, and live separately from the other 80%. Perhaps the world Žižek describes is not so far off, because we are approaching a society similar to that of The Hunger Games–even if it is fiction, Hollywood is warning us! It seems credible to me that in 30 years there could be reality shows like The Hunger Games, where people fight and kill one another in order to earn their freedom, thereby feeding their own suffering: all for the pleasure and entertainment of society’s elite, who live in the safety of gated, armed palaces. While the super-rich show off their greatness in an exaggerated fashion, dressed in expensive clothing, eating delicacies, and living each day as if they were the masters of the universe, the poor fight amongst themselves for the basics: they survive by hunting squirrels and sleep in makeshift dwellings, amidst garbage and dirt. Every day they seek a scrap of dignity, a reason to continue their struggle; and the simple smell of a bakery is a luxury to them.
In the movie, society has advanced and the gap between rich (the capital of Panem or North America) and poor (various “Districts”) has grown enormously, causing rebellion and disorder. Social control is exercised by the elite of Panem. “A ‘superior’ class has saved the world and established order, security, stability, and peace,” says President Coriolanus Snow. As punishment for the attempts to overthrow the government and to suppress the lower class, they began to hold the Hunger Games, where representatives from each District are chosen at random to fight to the death in an artificial area meant to look like a jungle. Until the Games are held, all of the contestants go through a training period where they are taught to kill, housed in a palace that is like a plastic heaven, where all of the material objects are meant to enlighten them and make them happy.
The only way out for the contestants is for them to kill the other players: there are no friends, they must fight alone, and kill to survive. This is what I call an extreme form of negative competition. The winner of the Games–through their violent conquests–achieves the status of false legend and enjoys all of the luxury of the rich forever; they have the opportunity to embrace the commercial standards that govern the wealthy class.
The upper class’ lifestyle is also a central element of this story. In sociological terms, Thorstein Veblen would have called it conspicuous consumption: when a dominant class’ lifestyle sets the trend others should follow and, as a result, reproduce. The lower class, therefore, always conspires against itself and this ensures its isolation and cancels out its collective strength, so that rebellions do not occur again. It is very easy to hide that reality of poverty, because, in the film, the media only reflect the elite’s good life, while they create fear around and put distance between the poor or dangerous class to which Guy Standing refers.
Social Harm: ‘Just Me, Myself, and I,’ ‘Negative Competition,’ and ‘Systemic Violence’
Today we do not have such strong social control mechanisms as in the movie–well, not yet. It is possible that we might not notice anything. “As long as nothing goes wrong for me, everything is fine,” citizens say, proof that individualism runs deep in our veins. But we have something in common with the movie, because we are experiencing an increase in super-protected housing developments and public spaces clean of lawless ghettos. Nevertheless, I have seen them in my research into the largest drug market in Spain on the outskirts of Madrid.
So, why do we not constantly speak out against these injustices? Our conformity and lack of rebellion are related to that limited vision in which nothing is more important than oneself, and they come from the submission that we display for products, experiences, and malls: we are not interested in speaking out against inequality because we are afraid of losing the job, or the cause bores us, as happened in 2011. In precarious conditions, and because we have lost a sense of the community thanks to neoliberalism, we only seek out solutions for ourselves and this creates negative competition.
Why is it negative? The absence of positive ethics based on intersubjective relationships and social practices creates negative competition. ‘Me against the world’ is the maxim, and this subjective vision is what leads people to make decisions and take actions that benefit the individual, not society. Because, more than ever, this subjective vision does not consider the other. Capitalism does not consider humanity or human beings, and it lacks ethical components. Its ideological structures and circuits of capital generate harmful subjectivities that lead to competitive individualism in the market rather than universal ethics or collective moral responsibility. And these traits increasingly live inside of our subjective attitude. The negative ideology of consumer capitalism affects the mind of its human subjects, it denies recognition and prevents the individual from developing critical thought about his/her circumstances and how they see the world. Human beings are lustfully tied to a system that extracts energy from competitive individualism and they are also materially tied to a system that exploits their labor and promotes uncertainty.
The social harm perspective invites us to extend the criminological approach beyond “profiling” someone, beyond predicting their criminal machinations beyond the horizon of legality. The concept combines topics such as crimes against the environment, corruption, workplace safety, diversion toward leisure on the different threads of poverty. Social harm broadens the debate beyond the narrow structures of ‘crime’ and the limitations of the law. I say this because the connection between individual behavior and the deep structures of neoliberal capitalism cause direct and indirect social harm.
That social harm does not mean that the normal functions of capitalist economic policy generate practices that fall on either side of the law, but rather that both cause social damage to communities, individuals, and society in general. Under neoliberal capitalism, a corrupt politician shares an existential essence similar to that of a street thief: the motivation to obtain whatever it may be for his own gain without considering others, and a lack of empathy. This results in a social system. I am sorry to say that these are modern humanity’s norms.
For that reason, social harm leads us to consider how society is organized, and to reflect upon the reality that crime is a reflection of social processes and structures; the crimes of the powerful are minimized, ignored, and dealt with through ‘regularization’ (which usually fails), while those who lack that authority are subjected to the penitentiary system. It works as a form of systemic violence which reflects the structural conditions of inequality, poverty, war, and suffering: i.e., the normal operation of the capitalist political economy creates objective conditions–outside of the individual’s control–in which disproportionate levels of violence are dispassionately imposed upon specific groups of society. Systemic violence, combined with subliminal symbolic violence (which the powerful assign to us through norms, values, and modes of behavior), creates the form of visible violence or subjective violence: a fight, gender violence, a terrorist attack. These events are the consequences of mechanisms deeply-rooted in society that operate subliminally and invisibly.
New Thought: Social Harm in Action
As I have been able to verify through research, for example, in one of Spain’s major drug markets, Valdemingómez, in Cañada Real Galiana, the subjective experience of drug use, violence, juvenile delinquency, and literally living on top of garbage is directly related to the spatial concentration of poverty, crime, and drug markets on the outskirts of Madrid. For years, the city government of Madrid has enclosed the Gypsy people and the outskirts of the city center to sell land in the name of economic investment which, over time, created the super-ghetto that is Valdemingómez. The money spent on the operations to resettle the Gypsies and manage growing drug addiction has been mysteriously misplaced, reduced, or cut due to the crisis, and the law is not applied beyond raids and checkpoints. Therefore, many of the ‘social policies’ adopted to deal with these consequences have zero impact.
To put attitudes towards drug use in context, I have studied the historical and cultural transition from the Franco regime to democracy, which caused an ideological feeling of freedom and liberation from the established norms, and paved the way for the acceptance of relaxed, flexible attitudes towards activities such as drug use. Returning to drug use, in a more cyclical pattern, is related to problems attaining culturally prescribed and ideologically constructed objectives of success in education and the job market, and the appeal of new informal relationships which may arise in remote contexts such as Valdemingómez.
Many of these people may blame drugs for the tension this causes with their friends and families, the debt it creates, etc., but it is something less external to their changing life circumstances and more internal to a change in their subjective identities. Losses are offset by more intense cycles of drug use. Therefore, more than the effect that drug use has on them, it is the investment they make in drugs as a result of the broader social and structural pressures, which often leads them to other problematic scenarios, such as delinquency, being processed by the criminal justice system, and embracing cultural contexts such as the shantytowns, which facilitates a transition towards addiction. They blame the drugs because that is the dominant ideology surrounding the choice of using narcotics; this is reflected in government prevention campaigns. It means that when they explain why they take drugs, all they are able to do is reproduce what they are told about why they take drugs and there is no critical application made on this.
I have studied this, as well as the deindustrialization of urban areas that has been underway since the end of the 1980s and how that created an economic vacuum that has been filled only by illegal opportunities in the growing drug market. This subjected an entire generation to long-term unemployment, delinquency, and drug use. Even today, poor people excluded from formal economies continue to choose this lifestyle, as it is common to find new camps, shantytowns, etc. in Valdemingómez every day. So, in order to understand why people walk around like zombies, covered in dirt, shooting up heroin and high on cocaine in this place, I have analyzed the urban movement of capital, endemic corruption, the policy of austerity, neoliberal political governance, and how the oppressive structures of urban social control have, over time, concentrated the Spanish capital’s main drug markets and have essentially let the problem fester, with only periodic checkpoints and raids.
The continued use of raids and checkpoints without the problem visibly improving causes ‘professional impotence’ among police officers, which often invites the temptation of corruption, especially when the officers believe that the Gypsies receive free benefits and aid. As a result, some officers warn the Gypsies before the raids. In this process, assistance in the form of detoxification treatments has been stripped of resources; and the brutal reality for people who end up sleeping on the garbage in Valdemingómez is finding a place to die in peace. This is exactly what I have seen with my own two eyes.
Why are illegal gangs killing each other in the neighborhoods of southern Madrid? It is not because they have a specific delinquent profile. Nor is it because they have calculated through a cost-benefit analysis what they can make if they steal and deal drugs. They compete with one another to sell drugs in different territories. It is not a positive meritocracy in which one person attains good results because of their achievements, but rather it is negative: the struggle to survive is negative. Like drug addicts, they are victims of this systemic violence which has created objectively negative conditions: they have failed because of the system. Despite this already-existing disadvantage, they have made decisions that perpetuate their circumstances. They begin life with an uphill battle before them, and it is not easy to overcome that disadvantage. Therefore, it maybe just a matter of time before we are killing one another to win.