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Streets, suits and strange theories

Streets, suits and strange theories

Street criminals are disconnected from society, driven to steal by materialism. What's wrong with this analysis?

Both need and greed may motivate people to commit crimes, John Braithwaite argued some years ago. Jack Katz writes in his book Seductions of Crime that socioeconomic status explains the modus operandi of criminals rather than whether and why people break the law. I thought about their analyses after watching a Dutch television programme that reported that multi-billion dollar companies such as Google, Starbucks and Amazon register their companies in the Netherlands in order to avoid paying taxes in the UK. The Dutch government agreed upon an extremely low tax rate for these companies. A British committee scolded the companies’ executives for stealing, not once but twice: first by avoiding tax and second by using public services (roads, security) while not paying for them.

On the other hand, while petty thieves just take, these multinationals also give: they employ people all over the world. Starbucks even sells fair-trade coffee. Does the end justify the immoral means? It actually makes things worse: not only are these companies skilful thieves, they are also very good at misleading us, making us believe that they care about people and justice. They have taken stealing and conning to a higher level.

Meanwhile the criminal justice system and many criminologists continue to focus on street criminals and correcting whatever it is that makes them immoral, dangerous and, most of all, different from us.. Take for example this analysis of youth crime in a Rotterdam policy document (my translation): ‘The street culture increasingly influences the Rotterdam youth. […] On the street, personal norms and values rule, which can conflict with the prevailing views. Materialism is glorified […].’ Apparently wanting money and things is an anomaly that drives only petty thieves to steal from frugal citizens. As if most of us are not preoccupied with buying more (expensive) clothes, electronic gadgets, a new car, make-up, furniture – basically, with consuming in order to live a happy and fulfilling life. As if we are not urged to buy things to keep the economy going and growing. As if CEO’s, bankers, accountants, and politicians who embezzle money, avoid taxes, receive bonuses and make astonishing profits are indoctrinated by the mo’ money-mantra. In what ways are the motives of those street youths different from these executives, and from the rest of us, really? And what can be more symbolic of our materialistic culture than rich people stealing to get ridiculously rich?

Policy makers and mainstream criminologists often claim that street criminals stand outside our society, that they are disconnected individuals who need help through reintegration programmes. Meanwhile white-collar thieves register their companies abroad, thus placing themselves literally outside our society. Why would materialism and disconnection characterise street crimes only, if they are characteristic of anything at all? It seems that both street criminals and criminals in suits have internalised the norms and values of our consumer society very well. They are far from disconnected. The only thing that disconnects criminals from society is our theories and (tax) policies.

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