Corporate crime was a concept that was rare to find in public discussions until the late 1980s. The Savings and Loans scandal, Enron and the sub-prime mortgage fraud leading to the Wall Street crash in 2008, collectively brought talk of class and power to the bandwidth. The class features of capitalism can now be witnessed in stark relief, that is, if we turn pull ourselves away from America’s Got Talent and other cognitive opiates. There is some serious attention in the media given to issues of class and power, but they are rarely framed in those terms (see, for example, PBS Frontline’s series on The Untouchables).
A class society?
The powerful, corporate dominated media eschews any suggestion that we might live in a class society. When was the last time a documentary showed how inheritance laws pass wealth and power through hereditary blood lines? If the Prime Minister or US President announced that his nephew was going to assume power instead of holding a federal election, Canadians and Americans would be rioting in the streets. However, we don’t have an issue with billions of dollars of assets being passed to heirs who didn’t earn their wealth. The attention seems rather to focus on single mothers who abuse the welfare system or tax breaks given to the Aboriginal people from who we stole their land and annihilated their culture.
A lesson or two from Karl Marx
Marxism is not a unified perspective, varying to the degree that adherents can produce historical or contemporary evidence to support their claims. With respect to the role of the state, most allege that governments have one purpose: to support the interests of capital, although the latter may be relatively autonomous. No surprise there. The state is dependent on corporations and business activity for its existence. The question becomes in whose interest does the state act at any particular historical moment? Sometimes the rich don’t get what they want from government.
When it comes to the regulation of tobacco, the public benefited from the restrictions put on the marketing and sale of cigarettes. However, legal changes in North America had little to no impact on the stock prices of multinational tobacco companies. There’s billions of people in China and India who are not subject to the same restrictions on tobacco as we enjoy in Canada. Tobacco regulation is a cost which the industry can afford and still make handsome profits.
Marxists use a term called dialectical materialism. The simplified version is that for every step in a direction that we might see as emacipatory for humankind (e.g., regulating a deadly drug), capital can absorb the consequences and continue to do its job: make money for shareholders.
The plot gets thicker: Most of us are shareholders and we benefit when Imperial Tobacco and the rest of the nicotine cartel profit from selling their killer drugs to poor children in Bombay. If you think I’m using hyperbole, just watch The Tobacco Conspiracy, produced by the National Film Board which does not depend on corporate revenue.
Lately, revelations by whistle blowers like Bradley Manning and Eric Snowden tell us that the US government is, or has been involved in clandestine activities such as spying on its own citizens and allies. Manning’s release of materials to Wikileaks showed the world graphic images of US forces killing civilians in Iraq, an event which officials had previously down-played or marketed as “engaging enemy combatants”.
There is an emerging body of research and expose journalism showing us that the crimes and social harms committed by governments and corporations cause far more damage to society than all of street crime in North America combined. From stock market fraud on Wall Street to the illegal invasion of Iraq, these powerful entities enjoy relative legal immunity. Their harms are either not defined as “crimes” in the traditional sense, or they can invoke rationales (“plausible deniability”) which make their actions exceptional and necessary.
It is the unique legal status of the corporation, and the ability of state agents to avoid responsibility despite the harms caused by their activities, which allow these organized groups to steal, maim or kill with relative impunity. Left unchecked, governments and corporations will create the conditions for the degradation of life on earth, either through nuclear warfare or ongoing environmental degradation.
When Malaspina University-College (now Vancouver Island University) made it possible to offer four-year degrees in the social sciences, I developed our current baccalaureate with required and optional courses dedicated to studying terrorism, restorative justice, organizational crimes and comparative criminal justice. Among other things, this was to help make our program different from the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University. Students want knowledge on terrorism, state-corporate crime and restorative justice (including state-sponsored “truth commissions”). Many of our students enter the first year expecting to learn about Crime Scene Investigations (CSI) because the word “criminologist” is used inappropriately in these prime-time fictions.
Does Criminology Fiddle While Rome Burns?
Despite the knowledge we have about state-corporate crime, the discipline of criminology seems to “fiddle while Rome burns”. In other words, most criminologists study street crime, managing criminal offenders, responding to victims of crime, and immersing themselves in criminal justice issues (police, courts, corrections); meanwhile, the more substantive harms around the globe lie largely outside our research interests. Worse yet, criminology departments across North America are becoming “criminal justice programs” which provide a supply of literate young women and men to toil in private and public agencies which are charged with managing criminal or other marginalized populations.
Fewer than 3% of published articles in major criminological journals address state and corporate harms. As long as criminology depends upon the state for its object of study, it will fail to be a truly academic discipline. The alternative is to study social harms, irrespective if they are covered by criminal law, corporate regulatory bodies, or human rights legislation.
Through out my academic career, I could never understand why some criminologists, despite their brilliance, wrote in a way which ensures their liberating messages will never be understood by those they wish to liberate (e.g., “the working class”).
The problem with criminology and some other academic disciplines is that our knowledge is kept somewhat secret from the public. Knowledge is largely held in university libraries or electronic databases which require membership, fees or both. When this research is accessible, it’s almost always written in dense, academic jargon which requires significant background reading to understand the meanings and terminology in which many authors write.
My hope on this blog is to stimulate awareness and hopefully discussion about state-corporate crime, and what we can do to make the world a better place to live. Here’s some of the readings and research which have been influential in my thinking, below. I will add academic and publicly accessible sources over the next few weeks.
Selected Academic Sources on State-Corporate Crime
Bonn, S. A. (2010). Mass deception: moral panic and the U.S. war on Iraq. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Chambliss, W. J., Michalowski, R., & Kramer, R. C. (2010). Epilogue: Toward a public criminology of state crime. In W. J. Chambliss, R. Michalowski & R. C. Kramer (Eds.), State Crime in the Global Age (pp. 247-261). Devon, UK: Willan.
Faust, K. L., & Kauzlarich, D. (2008). Hurricane Katrina Victimization as a State Crime of Omission. Critical Criminology, 16(2), 85-103. doi: 10.1007/s10612-008-9052-x
Fisher, L. (2008). A culture of deference: Congress, the president, and the course of the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. Political Science Quarterly, 123(2), 323-324.
Michalowski, R., & Kramer, R. (2007). State-Corporate Crime and Criminological Inquiry. In H. Pontell & G. Geis (Eds.), International Handbook of White-Collar and Corporate Crime (pp. 200-219): Springer US.
Rothe, D. L., & Ross, J. I. (2010). Private Military Contractors, Crime, and the Terrain of Unaccountability. Justice Quarterly, 27(4), 593-617. doi: Pii 912497226
Rothe, D. L., & Ross, J. I. (2008). The Marginalization of State Crime in Introductory Textbooks on Criminology. Critical Sociology, 34(5), 741-752. doi: 10.1177/0896920508093366
Welch, M. (2009). Fragmented power and state-corporate killings: a critique of Blackwater in Iraq. Crime, Law and Social Change, 51(3), 351-364. doi: 10.1007/s10611-008-9169-6