The link between economic conditions and crime has been explored directly or indirectly by a range of theories, including conflict theory (Bonger, 1916; Marx, 1887; Taylor et al., 1973), subcultural theories (Cloward and Ohlin, 1960; Wolfgang and Ferracuti, 1967), strain theory (Agnew, 1992 and 1999; Merton, 1949), opportunity theories (Cantor and Land, 1985; Cohen et al., 1980), social disorganization theory (Kornhauser, 1978; Shaw and McKay, 1942), economic theories of crime (Becker, 1968; Blau, 1977; Ehrlich, 1973), and relative deprivation theory (Crosby, 1976; Davis, 1959; Gurr, 1970; Runciman, 1966).
Conflict theory indicates that in capitalist societies, structural contradictions lead to the economic exploitation of workers, which in turn promotes class struggle between workers and capitalists (Marx, 1887). According to Marx’s theory of rebellion, the greater the extent of economic exploitation, the more likely that the working class will experience discontent, or what Marx referred to as immiseration. The greater the immiseration, the more likely that state policies will be violently challenged. In addition to the affective component of discontent, Marx also refers to a cognitive component – that workers must develop class consciousness and recognize their exploitation in order for rebellion to occur. According to Marxist theory, crime is a response aimed at recapitalization; a reorganization of the distribution of resources in a more equitable manner (Hagen, 1994). Marx’s theory may help to clarify why inequality may be linked to political violence, but does little to clarify why some researchers have found a link between inequality and crime in general, especially where others who suffer inequality are the victims. Engels (1969) adds to Marx by suggesting that lower-class people are brutalized in so many spheres of their lives that they come to believe that brutalization represents a solution to many of their problems. Poverty also leaves them disillusioned about the sacredness of property. This is essentially a crude frustration aggression hypothesis as described by Dollard et al. (1939). Engels adds to Marx by clarifying how lower-class persons may become victims of crime, but does little to clarify white collar criminality. Willem Bonger’s (1916) pioneering work helps to fill this omission. For Bonger, cupidity and exploitativeness in interpersonal relations emerge in the capitalist transformation of work from its value for use to its value for exchange. Key to this transformation is the increase of productivity to the point where more than is needed is being produced. This surplus value encourages greed and runs counter to the “social instincts of man, ” who prior to this gave to his comrades what they needed. The thrust of Bonger’s argument is that capitalism “has developed egoism at the expense of altruism.” This account is not confined to explaining lower-class criminality, but applies also to the industrial bourgeoisie. Capitalism encourages criminality of the lower class by the misery and inequality inflicted upon them, and criminal attitudes are encouraged among the upper class by the avarice fostered when capitalism thrives.
Alternative accounts of how inequality may lead to youth violence have been advanced. It has been argued, for example, that inequality can reduce self-esteem and fosters the development of a negative self-image, which in turn can lead to crime (Hagen, 1994). The involvement in illicit activities not only provides short-term capital gains, but also bolsters self-image and feelings of social competence. This argument is related to the powerlessness thesis. Here, “delinquent and criminal acts are an attempt to make a mark on the world, to be noticed, to get identity feedback. [F]or the powerless, crime and delinquency are a desperate effort to make things happen, to assert control” (Braithwaite, 1979: 68). It is important here to note that while Marxist theory argues that a reaction to inequality should be an attempt to overthrow the existing order and redistribute resources, the powerlessness thesis highlights that this is not often possible since inequalities often tend to deprive the lower strata of the strengths and resources needed to organize successful collective action. Coser (1968) notes that if such conflicts cannot find realistic expression, they may find expression as “non-realistic conflict.” Such frustrations may result in feelings of diffuse aggression, with people more driven by hostile impulses rather than governed by rational processes.