Criminologists in the 1960’s and 1970’s found traditional theories of crime intellectually sterile, and even somewhat dangerous. These theories seemed blind to the reality of capitalist society, its pervasive economic and racial inequality.


Central themes of critical criminology


The concepts of inequality and power are integral to any understanding of crime and its control. Building on the works of Karl Marx, they note that capitalism enriches some and impoverishes many, thus producing a wide gap between the social classes. The state, including the criminal law and criminal justice system- operates to legitimate and protect social arrangements that benefit those profiting from capitalism.


Crime is a political, not a value-free, concept. Traditional criminology accepts that crime is behavior that violates the law. Critical criminology, however, that what is and is not outlawed reflects the power structure in society. In general, the injurious acts of the poor are defined as crimes, but the injurious acts of the rich and powerful –sale of defective products, pollution of the environment, exposure of workers to job hazards and toxic agents, the affluent allowing disadvantaged children to go without health care- are not.


As a defender of the existing social order, the criminal justice system serves the interests of the capitalist class. The rich get richer and the poor get prison.


Capitalism is the root cause of criminal behavior. The human needs of the poor are ignored. It creates a fertile environment for crimes by corporations.


The solution of crime is to create a more equitable society. They should not be armchair criminologists but activists engaged to foster social justice.


Capitalism and crime


Critical criminologists propose that capitalism is the root cause of criminal behavior. Their analysis, however, are couched in general terms, with the bourgeois crime attributed to the need for the capitalist class to maintain its dominance and working class crime attributed to the dehumanizing and demoralizing conditions of life under capitalism.


General analyses


Karl Marx believed that in a capitalist system, the bourgeoisie –those who own the means of production- inevitably exploit the proletariat –workers who do not own the means of production.


William Bonger  (1916) offered the central thesis that the capitalist mode of production breeds crime. The key proximate cause of criminality is the mental state of egoism, whereas the social sentiment of altruism fosters pro-social relations. Egoism is rooted in economic relations, after all the basis of capitalism is ruthless competition and the exploitation of others in the pursuit of individual profits.

Bonger also recognizes that capitalism creates crime among the bourgeoisie. Crimes are a product of a bourgeois environment that inculcates the moral principle that honesty is to be valued only so long as it does not interfere with one’s advantage. Furthermore, the opportunity to commit these crimes undetected is enormous. Under socialism, where the means of production are owned by the community, crimes would be discouraged.


Richard Quinney’s (1980) Class, State and Crime centers on the proletariat’s struggle against oppression by the capitalist class. Capitalism increases the need to dominate by the capitalist class and the need to accommodate and resist by the exploited class. In an effort to secure their advantage, the capitalist class commits economic crimes, denies people basic human rights and uses the state to protect its interests and to repress the poor. For the working class, crime is best understood as a response to their harsh living conditions. Their illegalities range from unconscious reactions to exploitation, to conscious acts of survival within the capitalist system, to politically conscious acts of rebellion.


Specific analyses


David Greenberg (1993) situates delinquency within the historically specific structural conditions in which today’s youth find themselves in society.

The system is unable to provide full time jobs for teenagers. Adulthood is thus delayed as youths are consigned to schools whose main function is to keep juveniles out of the labor market and to create a docile, disciplined and stratified labor force. The prolongation of adolescence exposes many youngsters to intense criminogenic pressures. Acceptance from other youths requires the ability to participate in peer group activities. Crime, such as adolescence theft, occurs in response to the disjunction between the desire to participate in social activities with peers and the absence of legitimate sources to fund this participation. In response to their frustration, these adolescences often strike back at authority through non utilitarian delinquent acts, such as vandalism. Greenberg also notes the importance of masculine status anxiety, which confronts males concerned about their ability to gain employment and to assume the traditional responsibilities of the male role. Violence, including that against women, can occur in an effort to reaffirm their masculinity and potency in the face of this anxiety. Unlike Strain theory, Greenberg shows how criminogenic strains are rooted not in the mere blockage of the American dream but in the structural conditions of a capitalist economy.


Elliott Currie (1997) sees the roots of crime in inequality of capitalism, i.e., the gap between the rich and poor. Capitalism is not the same everywhere. In America there is a market society, where the pursuit of personal economic gain becomes increasingly the dominant organizing principle of social life. There is an imbalance of the economy and other social institutions, but the focus is less on the breakdown of control and more on how market economy is an amoral force that robs people of their jobs, fails to care for at risk kids and families and acquits the government from doing much about the human costs of inequality.


Mark Colvin (1983) focuses on coercion –together with John Pauly. He argues that parents’ class position in the labor market shapes the methods they use to exercise control over their children. Specifically he links the way in which parents are disciplined in the workplace to how they come to discipline their own children. He is concerned with those employed in the secondary job market (dead-end jobs), because these workers are controlled through coercive sanctions, e.g. yelling at and or firing workers. Importing this style of control to the family, these parents tend to discipline their children coercively, attempting to enforce conformity through harsh punishment, rather than, for example, discussions. This coercion is counterproductive, alienating children and weakening bonds to parents. As the problems surface in schools, the pattern is repeated, thus further weakening the bonds with society.

Coercive relations can appear in any number of settings, including workplaces, families, schools, among peers, and in state bureaucracies, such as welfare and criminal justice agencies. Coercion, i.e., compelling someone to act is a certain way, not only occurs through direct force and intimidation but also through the pressure of impersonal economic or social forces, e.g., living in a community in which quality jobs have moved elsewhere. In the USA, both interpersonal and impersonal coercion is tied to inequality. The greater the degree of coercion, the greater the criminal involvement.

The solution (like for Currie): supportive social and criminal justice policies that reduce the multiple forms of coercion faced by most vulnerable citizens.


The goal of peacemaking criminology (Richard Quinney) is to seek to end suffering and thereby eliminate crime. Criminologists should use their knowledge and lives to create social justice, favoring programs such as restorative justice.