Friday, September 17, 2010

Why the Conservatives like crime. . . . .

A brief glance at the academic literature concerning the Inquisition in Europe demonstrates a rather remarkable tendency. It becomes clear as one learns of the events of the several hundred years in which  the Church used the institution of the Inquisition, that it used the existence of 'heresy' to extend and entrench its power across Europe. The Inquisition was not simply reacting to the presence of genuine so-called heretics, but actually encouraged the exposure of heretical people or groups regardless of whether they were real or posed any significant threat to the power of the Church. Where no hertics existed Church members were eager to fabricate their existence or falsely accuse someone of sacrilege in order to further establish the power of the Church as a forceful social and political institution. Beside actual occasions of false accusations, the Church came to depend on the existence of Heretics in order to justify its iron-handed control.

The idea of the Church talking about heretical threats where none really existed reminded me of something we saw here in Canada recently, to wit: Stockwell Day's hullucinatory rantings about unreported crimes and imaginary criminals for whom we need to spend billions on new prisons. The fact is that the Conservative party has come to rely on crime to do two specific things. First, talk of out of control crime-rates furthers the conservative agenda through the spread of fear and the promotion of the idea that only their heavy-handed 'tough on crime' approach will save us from total chaos. Second, the existence of high rates of crime contributes to the conservative narrative of the "natural" legitimacy of capitalist relations. This is a more complicated notion but a very real one. Capitalist ideology has long depended on the notion that many people are inherently bad and that people at large are inherently selfish or self interested. These ideas are very explicitly expressed in early modern conservative and capitalist literature from Adam Smith and Edmund Burke to the more extreme Thomas Malthus. Besides advocating a capitalist order as the only possible response to an inherently self-interested population, capitalist ideology has depended upon certain kinds of consistently selfish or even criminal behaviour to justify its underlying world-view. In other words, if liberal (and I use that term intentionally with a small 'l') ideologists can demonstrate that the under certain social conditions of prosperity, education, and rehabilitation, crime rates can go progressively down, the most basic aspects of capitalist and conservative ideology are under threat. It does this by showing that people are not necessarily inherently selfish or criminal but are malleable, and can change their behaviour in very significant ways according to the context in which they are raised and live. This is one of the reasons that one can detect among the Conservatives a state of near panic when the media reports that over the past thirty years crime rates have gone down. If this is true, not only will the Conservatives have trouble selling their agenda through fear, but an important part of their actual world-view is threatened. If a government run justice system that includes a strict adherence to basic rights, relatively liberal sentencing, genuine rehabilitation programs, etc, can work and actually bring down crime rates, one can see how, at a very basic level, Conservative ideology is threatened. It means not only are people partly a product of their environment, but that government institutions are not inherently useless and inefficient. And if these two claims are true than we are getting dangerously close to the idea that our species can perhaps evolve and a mixed economy with some genuinely social efforts can bring about real prosperity and increasing levels of social harmony.

In other words, Conservatives are desperate to hold on to their narrative of a world full of inherently bad people and ever-increasing crime rates. And if this idea is not reflected in the world they are happy to fabricate it. Just as the Church depended on the existence of 'heresy,' conservatives necessarily have to harbor a secret hope that crime will continue and even get worse so that their agenda continues and their ideology stays in tact.

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