Law in a Capitalist society

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

The thought that Law serves repressive and coercive functions underneath a veil of universal equality and justice is not far from the truth.  In essence, what this means is that on a superficial level, law is portrayed in a way that makes it seems fair and just to everyone in society yet, if we were to delve deeper we can see that its true purpose is to maintain power and control over society in an effort to keep the ‘capitalists’ (as Karl Marx calls them) in authority.  Marx reasoned that the creation of the capitalist society was created by the ruling class and their power needs to be obscured “by extending rights equally and universally to all – but…within a fundamentally unequal social context.” (Pavlich, 2011, p. 99)

Karl Marx brought this idea into modern society as a way to promote his communist beliefs, preaching equality among everyone by way of liberating all forms of social hierarchy.  He also refined the term ‘division of labour’ stating that different social classes have different forms of labour, where lower classes are forced to work (sell their labour) for production and higher classes live off the labour and production from others.  These two social classes are referred to as the ‘proletariat’ (working class) and the ‘bourgeoisie’ (capitalists).   In general, what Marx argued was that there will always be a struggle between the working class and the capitalists which will subsequently cause crime.  The only way to prevent crime was to create a classless society where there wouldn’t be a struggle for authority and repression.

I agree with the idea that law does cover up its repressive actions by means of moral and symbolic functions.  We live in a capitalist society based on advancing the capitalist economy (Quinney, 1975).  Their main goal, like Marx said, is profit and authority.  This is achieved by exploiting the value of the working class, paying them far less than their production.  One relevant example is the fact that many CEO’s and politicians frequently give themselves salary increases while the minimum wage barely increases even with constant debate.  Here is one article about some members of the BC Liberal party getting salary increases while the teachers are still in need of a new contract:

Also, just take a look at the ratio of crimes reported between the lower and higher classes and you can see that white collar crime is hardly seen or heard about.  I know there are far more individuals in the lower classes which inflates their crime levels but crimes committed by the higher class occur more often than we think.  One way to understand that is that all the major media outlets are controlled by capitalists.  It makes sense for them not to show themselves as criminal and immoral so they shift the public attention towards the lower class.  The American executives involved in the 2008 financial crisis are a good example of how high ranking businessmen basically get a ‘get-out-of-jail card’.  To this day, no one involved in the disaster received any jail time and the few who were accused were only be fined.  This shows that individuals in the higher class are often exempt from the law and in many cases their only punishment is monetary which they can easily pay.  The same cannot be said for individuals in the lower class.  They are frequently given jail sentences for all kinds of crimes committed.

Law is supposed to apply equally to everyone in society, regardless of their status.  However, as Marx argued, the law itself is exploited by the higher class to further their interests.  On the other hand, law exploits the lower class by making them more susceptible to its repressive nature.

CBC News. (2012, May 4). B.C. Liberals accused of salary ‘double standard’. Retrieved from:

Pavlich, G. (2011). Law & Society Redefined. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press.

Quinney, R. (1975). “Crime Control in Capitalist Society: A Critical Philosophy of Legal Order“, in 1. Taylor, P. Walton, J. Young (eds) Critical Criminology. London: Routledge. 181-201.


1 Comment

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One response to “Law in a Capitalist society

  1. This is a great post.

    Note that Marx did not coin the term ‘capitalists’. This is, generally, how proponents of an economic system based on the accumulation of capital describe themselves. It is in no way Marxist to say that we live in a capitalist society, as this is a given. It differentiates our mode of production from alternative modes – the feudal system or mercantilism, for example.

    When reading Marx, it is important to avoid collapsing his method – historical materialism – into his political project – communism. Marx and Engels based their analysis of political economy on a detailed analysis of historical developments.

    Good use of unequal salary increases as an example of class-based inequality.

    I think that your discussion of the collusion of media and capitalist interests is interesting and worthy of further discussion. While it is true that the mainstream news media disproportionately emphasizes violent and lower-class criminality, it is also keen to pounce on the crimes of the powerful and celebrities (though these are described as ‘scandals’), provided they are suitably salacious. Where the structural bias of the mainstream media comes into play is the unwillingness to explore the systemic, class-based, and structural issues that give rise to elite offending. You may find Chomsky’s ‘Necessary Illusions’ to be an interesting read. He explores this phenomenon. As someone who does occasional work in the journalistic sphere, I would note that the media – even the mainstream media – can be a powerful means of facilitating accountability and speaking truth to power.