Marx and Ideology

Food for Thought: 

“Law’s repressive coercive (material) functions are obscured by its ideological (symbolic) functions that portray it as equal, universal, and just”.

I believe this quote is accurate because sometimes laws that seem just and fair at the surface might in effect be discriminatory towards a specific segment of the population. What I believe this quote means is that laws are not always fair and square to everyone in society. Sometimes laws passed with the best of intentions in mind can sometimes be inadvertently discriminatory towards certain sections of the population. Everyone considers that killing another human being is immoral and bad. However, our law punishes a battered woman who kills her husband after years of abuse more severely than the CEO of a corporation that dumps toxic waste into the water supply of a rural area in some country, which indirectly causes more damage as compared to that caused by the battered woman. From an ethical perspective, the battered woman’s crime is more justified than that of the CEO but still has a harsher punishment attached to it. Hence, our homicide laws are more inclined to punish individuals than business organizations. A case can be made that a number of laws, including our murder laws, are tools that are used by governments and corporations to control the general public.

For example the Safe Streets Act makes panhandling illegal. At the surface it appears that this law protects everyone from being harassed on the streets ; but we know for a fact that the people who are asked for money or food are generally the middle or upper class people, and the people who are at the receiving end of transaction are the less fortunate . As a result of this, the people being protected by this act are the wealthy and the middle class people, and the poor are being targeted for being poor. In effect this act makes being poor a crime. The safe streets act makes sleeping on the side of the street illegal. How justified is a law that further targets the already less fortunate in our society? In my belief, not a tiny bit. People do not choose to sleep on the streets, they are forced to by factors such as mental illness, job loss, drug addictions, etc. On the one hand the government is closing down institutions like Riverview Hospital which are home to numerous mentally ill people and on the other hand they are making being homeless illegal. All the patients who do not have family or friends to take them in are going to end up on the street, violating a section of the Safe Streets Act without having any control over their situation. Just to get a synopsis of how laws affect different segments of the population differently, consider the effect of the Safe Streets Act combined with the shutting down of Riverview Hospital on a patient who was housed at Riverview and a computer programmer living in a seven thousand square foot mansion in a gated community in Fleetwood. It is true that the Safe Streets Act makes our streets safer, but at what cost? It seems to me that the government has adopted a ‘out of sight, out of mind’ policy towards dealing with poverty and other social problems because the Safe Streets Act does not attempt to fix any problem at the root but sweeps them under the rug by making it invisible to people.

Another example would be the income tax laws. Even though the law is the same for everyone but individuals who try to evade taxes are more likely to be convicted than a corporation that tries to evade taxes because they have more resources in the form of money and a legal team that can defend them in court.

Therefore from the examples above, we can note that laws that are seemingly fair and just might in fact be more punitive towards the common people.

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One response to “Marx and Ideology

  1. Interesting post! I get the impression that you have been studying corporate and white-collar crime.

    The Safe Streets Act is a good example of the ideological nature of law. Here is the text of the Act, from the Ontario e-Laws portal: http://www.e-laws.gov.on.ca/html/statutes/english/elaws_statutes_99s08_e.htm .

    It prohibits aggressive solicitation, prohibitions solicitation of any kind in certain spaces, and creates offences related to the ‘disposal of dangerous things’, including drug and sex paraphernalia. It also provides the police with expanded powers to arrest without warrant.

    Ostensibly, the law applies equally to everyone, regardless of class or other factors. In practice, the prohibition against soliciting persons in or on a public transit vehicle or at a transit stop will disproportionately impact the most vulnerable and disadvantaged populations.

    For further analysis of this Act from a Marxist angle (and on the criminalization of poverty in general), see Gaetan Heroux’ chapter “War on the Poor: Urban Poverty, Target Policing and Social Control” in the edited volume ‘Anti Security’ (Neocleous & Rigakos, eds).