Law and Ideology

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

Karl Marx was a pioneer in bringing forward the notion of law being a tool, which serves the ruling class. This train of thought had previously been understudied in the criminological enterprise and often omitted from crime statistics. Prior to the Marxist approach most studies regarding crime and deviant behavior revolved around the lower and middle class, and focused mainly on street level crime. These theories did not highlight elite deviance and corporate crime. The Marxist approach argued that law is simply a tool used to control the lower and middle class. This Marxist approach further supports the notion that law repressive functions obscure the ideological functions of equality and universality.

This approach is very radical in terms of the unique perspective it provides, however I believe that there is some truth behind these radical words. As society progresses there is an ever-present tie between the government and large corporations. These close links allow the wealthy to have a significant influence over politicians as well as government policies. Since the government is the main source of law in most countries these ties between governments and corporations have a tremendous effect over all societal classes. Although laws are made in a manner that is supposed to be equal and applicable to all people in society, it is often the lower classes that are scrutinized for the crimes they commit. This is due to the fact that the lower and middle classes are often in situations, both economically and socially that put them in a position in which they don’t have the means to conform to the laws.  For example every member of society is required to pay taxes, and the amount of taxes you pay often increases with your salary and expenses. For the wealthy paying taxes is not difficult as they have the means to do so. However for someone who is working minimum wage paying taxes may be very difficult, as they don’t have much money to begin with. This economic factor drastically changes how equal and fair the law is applied to everyone in society. Although this law is just and applies to all members of society, extra-social factors effect how all individuals are able to conform to the laws. These social factors can put certain groups in an unwanted situation where they don’t have the means to follow the laws.

Furthermore the ruling class is also at an advantage in avoiding criminal sanctioning due to laws that work in their favor. For example laws regarding confidentiality of business deals, is put into place to serve only a portion of society. Although these laws are available to everyone the main group of people it protects is the rich. For example, Oprah was famously sued by a company for discussing the negative aspects of their product on her show. Laws like this prevent ordinary people from voicing their opinions, as they place limits on what you can and cannot say. The oppressive nature of these laws prevents them from being applied equally to the entire population.

To conclude, although laws are created equally and fairly to be applied to all there are some areas in which laws prevent certain groups of people from having the same privileges than others. This may not completely be due to the law making itself, but through societal application this phenomenon is very visible.

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1 Comment

by | October 20, 2012 · 4:58 am

One response to “Law and Ideology

  1. What do you mean by ‘radical’? I am curious as to how you are conceptualizing this term.

    You effectively explain the differential impact of taxation on the wealthy and the poor, but then note that “this law is just”. Is it perceived as just? By whom? I think that the phenomenon of Occupy has reinvigorated critiques of structural inequality and class conflict. Perhaps the ideological claims regarding the egalitarian nature of law and politics are coming into question.

    Could you provide some links / references regarding your example of confidentiality in business dealings? I would be interested in looking into this issue. Thanks!

    You conclude: “although laws are created equally and fairly to be applied to all there are some areas in which laws prevent certain groups of people from having the same privileges than others.”

    Marx or Quinney would modify this to read “The design and functioning of the legal system is intended to advance the interests of the ruling class and to ensure the stability of the capitalist status quo. At the same time, the ideological framework that surrounds the legal system emphasizes themes of equality, justice, and the rule of law, effectively masking the role of law in the preservation of privilege.”