Crime, Capital

This is a brief version of my keynote presentation at the 2015 British Society of Criminology, following Elliott Currie, on the relationship between the city and crime, using data and insights from a longer-term project looking at the super-rich in London, funded by the ESRC.

I am very struck by the simple elegance of Elliott’s consistent argument that academic research should do more to take data and arguments into the public domain and conversations that need to be prepared before political action may be possible. However, I am also very pessimistic about the degree to which these domains can be influenced, or impacted. How do we make cities less unequal and less generative of the kinds of conditions that create such worrisome and unjust social problems? One way of responding to this challenge is to see cities less as sites in which crime is more or less concentrated/produced and begin to think about how cities act as systems which produce harm and which insulate policymakers and other elites from acting with greater effort to reduce these problems. The response of these elites in the wake of London’s 2011 riots was instructive because it gave an insight into the ways in which an insulated class spoke only with outrage about the actions of rioters and ignored the social conditions and inequalities that made such an explosive reaction a possibility. To return to the themes of much critical criminology, such a one-sided explanation does nothing to make future eruptions less likely, but remain compatible with the view that our elites act more to shore-up the interests of the wealthy and homeowners and landlords than they do the excluded produced and enlarged by conditions of austerity and middle-class welfarism.

The point I want to make today is that in cities, like London and many others globally, we find a wide range of deep social problems while, at the same time, the wealthy and its political class appear untroubled by declining social cohesion, massive inequality and the lack of housing. In years gone by analysts like J K Galbraith made the argument that inequality generated problems that exposed the wealthy as much as the weak, thus offering an inducement to reform – if we didn’t want to be exposed to a lousy public realm, the risk of public violence and declining essential services the rationale for tax and public investment was clear. Now these relationships are much less clear – staggering wealth combined with new technologies and mobilities allow the wealthy to make housing choices and decisions about how they move around the city that enable these problems to be circumvented or for micro-secessionary spaces (the Shard, One Hyde Park, The Lancasters, The Chilterns and other bunker-like spaces) to be produced around the principles of a private security club, to which membership grants the ability to essentially off-shore risks and social problems (as suggested in the dystopian film Elysium). These possibility raises two questions for me. First, how does the city and its spaces affect the mentalities and dispositions of those in power and their relationship to social problems? Second, what is the role of the financial base of the urban economy in facilitating crime and regional instability in locales globally? These questions are both related and mutually reinforcing, as I shall now elaborate.

One way of thinking about London’s contemporary social milieu is to use Robert Sack’s (A geographical guide to the real and the good) arguments about the relationship between place and understandings of social reality. Sack invokes the idea that places are more or less good/bad, moral or immoral depending on how they allow us to be connected to the communities and life of the world of which we are a part. Cities like London have become difference machines that sort wealth and illicit gains from poverty and exclusion and which generates segregated and insulated spaces. Going back to my point about the riots it is important to try and understand how these bad places (what David and Bertrand-Monk called evil paradises) celebrate a form of urban culture and space that permits disregard, aloofness and disinterest in the casualties of the urban and national economy and its now withering welfare system. The perverse triumph of such a city is to cleave away the socially marginal and to neutralise any externalities or risks that they might generate for the affluent, indeed to remove them from view by virtue of the way that the wealthy flow through the city and engage with public spaces and the city’s population.

Neighbourhoods that cocoon and protect the wealthy help to offer an insulated worldview that may enable denial and disconnection from the wider problems of the city itself (now hit hard by austerity, gentrification, housing demolitions and welfare reforms) and the woes of the globe more broadly. Sack would call these immoral places since their daily life and physical seclusion enables a kind of distancing from the reality of the world around, an analysis perhaps particularly well applied to gated communities. Davis and Monk might add that the city has become a kind of evil paradise – appearing to offer all that is desired while denying the hard market realities of labour, high housing costs and possibility of a free-floating class of those benefiting from such an excessive system.

The position of the 1% and compliant policy elites is threaded through with illicit gains from international rounds of primitive accumulation, elaborate forms of property tax avoidance and the secretion of wealth into housing. For criminology the city has tended to be the place where most crime happens. Early bodies of theory offered us ecological and subcultural models of deviant conduct that were predicated upon a need to understand how inequality and the social sorting of the city into key neighbourhoods might help us to understand why people turned to crime. In today’s context the word crime appears increasingly blunt, not simply because of the wider attention criminologists pay to the notion of harm, not only because of the sense of global interconnections and problems that cities are a part of, and not least because we now recognize that we should pay much more attention to the architecture of our economies and the actions of the powerful in shaping its production. White collar crime is not simply about fraud but also about the way in which fraudulent instruments facilitate the actions of criminals in remote locations and to which the city and City benefit directly in the form of property investment and the use of ‘our’ financial services sector.

In these various respects the city is a fundamental mediating point through which a wide range of socially harmful acts are relayed and amplified. In various ways our theoretical positioning of the city in relation the question of crime, deviance and harm requires attention not only to the distributions and associations of variables for particular types of crime, but also to the way in which the city as a social/political and economic system is capable of generating harms that are located internally and at removed locations. London is a space where, to be sure, various kinds of harm and violence are enacted, but also a system built upon a finance economy that is deeply implicated in capitalist and criminal economies that span the globe. As Platt (2015) argues, to see money laundering as something that criminals simply do once they have their ill-gotten gains is a vastly outmoded perspective. Money in the system (from tax evasion, corruption, people trafficking, terrorism and so on) is in reality constantly courted by finance capitalism across the globe that vies for this trade alongside licit investment. We can suggest two results from this. The first is that the kinds of excess seen in property markets is a sign, at least in part, of the desirability of assets in a stable city within a globally unstable system. Ghost neighbourhoods and high house prices are the result (Transparency International). By extension we can understand these ‘gains’ as the result of a two-way process in which the security of the City’s operations acts to destabilise and facilitate crime and para-legal activity elsewhere. This system is going nowhere very soon despite public anger at the closet operations of individuals with dodgy backgrounds buying palatial property in London, the acts of multinationals off-shoring subsidiaries in fiscal refuges and other problematic practices. But there is something else at work here that we need in our theories of the urban and criminality and this relates to the way in which social space itself is wrought in ways that assist in the denial of the wealthy and political elites that someone is paying a price for these interconnections (this returns us to the arguments about the kind of milieu produced which I have discussed above).

Taken as a whole these changes not only further feed the wealth of the wealthy, they also amplify displacement pressures on those straining to maintain a foothold in the city’s property market. These are complex relationships and ones that have not hitherto been deeply considered by criminology. Urban studies and criminology can perhaps offer important contributions when set in tandem and to the project of understanding more about what is really urban about crime and which are barely captured by conventional notions of social ecology – notions of crimes of the powerful, white collar crime or social ecology don’t go far enough in capturing these complexities of crime, capital and politics. While the local implications of critical criminology are for better social supports, protective programmes and investments that offer greater social resilience and inclusion these proposals need to be supplemented with an understanding of how we might act at an international level to root out the deeper forms of inequality, excess/fraud and expulsion from livelihoods that permeate the global urban order. These are surely some of the greatest challenges for critical social science today and to which the efforts of accountants will be as useful as those of sociologists or geographers and the like. Transparency International (2015) have revealed through forensic analyses of documents that 36,342 properties in London have been bought through hidden companies in offshore havens and while a majority of those will have been kept secret for legitimate privacy purposes, vast numbers are thought to have been bought anonymously to hide stolen money (London has around 3.3m dwellings according to the 2011 census). On top of this the National Crime Agency (NCA) estimates that around £100bn could be laundered through the UK each year (1). These figures are only estimates of local activity and reveal little of the wider kinds of global disorder generated by these institutions, not the wider levels of fraudulent behavior within financial institutions that have so undermined public trust and fueled so much anger in recent years. All of this suggests that there is a need to channel incisive social enquiry into these zones and institutions and offer new ways of conceptualizing harm and its interconnections at the scales of the globe and cities more generally.


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