Sunday, July 1, 2012

Crime and ideology: Ernest Mandel

Delightful Murder:  A social history of the crime story
Ernest Mandel
London: Pluto Press, 1984

According to the evidence contained in the slim and very useful book Delightful Murder, Ernest Mandel spent most of his life not as a practicing Marxist political economist or leader in the Fourth International, but as an omnivorous reader of crime stories and thrillers.  He has everyone from E. Philips Oppenheim to Erik Van Lustbader at his fingertips, and between Agatha Christie and Mario Puzo clearly knows his hawk from his handsaw.

Delightful Murder is an examination of the "demand side" of crime fiction as a social phenomenon that needs to satisfy a useful value, changing over the years in relating itself to the general structure of bourgeois society.

His guide is Marx:

....when a new need appears the question is posed of the inner necessity of such a need in relation to other areas of life and the world.  For at first sight, we can do nothing but register the existence of this new need, we cannot immediately explain it.  Such an explanation demands further analysis.  What science demands [from us] is to understand the essential inner relation [of the new need to the rest of life] and their mutual necessity. [vii]

Mandel asks in his Preface, " do the laws of individual psychology intersect with the great curves of social ideology and of social evolution as a whole?"  The book is his attempt to answer the question, using the procedure outlined in the above quote from Marx.

He goes on to state:

To those who consider it frivolous for a Marxist to spend time analyzing crime stories, I can only offer this final apology: historical materialism can - and should - be applied to all social phenomenon.  None is by nature less worthy of study than others.  The majesty of this theory - and the proof of its validity - lies precisely in its ability to explain them all. [viii]

What follows are some of my reading notes from the book.



Chapter 1:  From hero to villain

Yesterday's bandit hero has become today's villain, and yesterday's villainous representative of authority today's hero.  [3]

Pre-18th century sem-feudal ideology.
Wrong-doers refuse to perform honest labor.
    But the society can still deal with malefactors without specialists: no need for police or detective. [4]

Beginning of 19th Century:
Evaporation of a sense of security had occurred among the petty bourgeoisie and the literate layers of the working class well before it did among the upper classes and high society.
    Beginning in 19th century professional criminals emerge; unknown in 18th century.
    Balzac related rise of professional criminals to rise of capitalism and subsequent emergence of unemployment.[5]

Popular press and theater made it possible to ignore rising street crime.  Press and theater owners increased their profits and accumulated capital by catering to public's taste for nerve-tingling stories about murders real and imagined.

Speculation about identity of murderer part of delectation of murder story delineated by Thomas De Quincy.

Dickens, Hugo, Dumas, and Dostoevsky also expressed their  interest and concern over crime:  they gave expression to genuine social concerns and deeper ideological motivations.  [6]
Balzac was an arch-conservative, but well-aware of the social causes of crime.

[n.b. See Marx on Eugene Sue's sentimental thriller The Mysteries of Paris  here.]

Sue's The Mysteries of Paris: main character Rodolphe is an individual avenger of injustice and thus forerunner of future master detectives, and a fugitive. from a sector of authority. [7]

We must examine both the objective function of popular literature and its ideological metamorphosis during the last half of the 19th century.

Popular literature a prosaic reflection of bourgeois society.  Unreflected or reflectionless literature.  It responds to the need for distraction - for entertainment - sharpened by increased tension of industrial labor, generalized competition, and city life. 
    Answers need to overcome the growing monotony and standardization of labor and consumption in bourgeois society through a harmless [since vicarious] reintroduction of adventure and drama into daily life. 
    The romantic, bucolic setting of the old bandit stories becomes meaningless in this context.
    Popularity of crime stories among petty bourgeoisie and higher levels of the working class also fueled by an anxiety that is more deep-seated, a contradiction between biological impulses and social constraints that bourgeois society has not solved, and indeed cannot solve.
    Contradiction between nature and bourgeois - reasonable - society. [8]
    The rising place of crime stories in popular literature correspond to the for bourgeois class to reconcile awareness of the biological fate of humanity, of the violence of passions, of the inevitability of crime, with the defense and apology for existing social order.  Revolt against private property becomes individualized.  With motivation no longer social, rebel becomes a thief and a murderer.  Their attacks on private property are thus turned into ideological supports of private property.

Walter Benjamin:  traveler reading a detective story on a train is temporarily suppressing one anxiety with another.
    Thus, not contradictory to observe and maintain that the need for distraction from monotony lies at the root of the crime story's popularity, and that simultaneously this popularly expresses a deep anxiety buried within the need.

Erich Fromm:  Sensation of tedium and monotony, of boredom, is but a manifestation of deeper anxiety.  There are two ways to defeat boredom: to become productive and thereby happy, or to escape its manifestations.
    To escape: ceaselessly pursuing amusements and distractions of the most varied forms.  Feelings of depression and boredom are most striking when one is alone with oneself or those closest to one.  All our amusements are designed to escape the boredom through one of many flights open to us.
    Crime and misfortune correspond to a deep yearning for the dramatization of the ultimate thing in human life, namely life and death, by crime and punishment, struggle between man and nature.  [9]

Thus can people be bent to purpose of defending private property: defense taking shape in an unreflected way.
    Crime stories portray conflicts between individuals and society.  The criminalization of these conflicts makes them compatible with the defense of bourgeois law and order.
    This is objective meaning of rise of the detective story.
    In mid-19th century, a particular stage in the evolution of capitalism, pauperism, criminality, and primitive social revolt reflected in the popular crime story, coincident with evolving need for bourgeoisie to defend instead of attack the social order.

Marx in Theories of Surplus Value:
....A criminal produces crimes...
criminal produces not only crimes but criminal laws....
criminal moreover prduices the whole of the police and criminal justice, constables, judges, hangmen, juries....
The criminal produces and impression partly moral and partly tragic, as the case may be, and in this way renders a 'service' by arousing the moral and aesthetic feelings of the public.  He produces not only compendia on Criminal Law.... penal codes and along with them legislators... but also art, belles lettres, novels, and even tragedies.
.... The criminal breaks the monotony and everyday security of bourgeois life.  In this he keeps it from stagnation, and gives rise to that uneasy tension and agility without which even the spur of competition would be blunted....
Struggle against crime absorbs absorbs another part of this [otherwise unemployed] population.... Thus the criminal comes in as one of those natural 'counterweights' which bring about a correct balance and open up a whole perspective of 'useful' occupations."  [10-11]

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