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Corporate crime – hidden in plain sight

This week I try to answer some pressing questions around corporate crime. Why is there so little attention in the media around these often horrific and large-scale crimes? Why are there so few convictions and so few individuals held to account for harms that far outweigh the consequences placed on ‘street crime’? Is there anything to be done to change these outcomes?

Off course the issues around this concept are very widespread and take more than a simple blog post to discuss. But I just intent to get you thinking around common assumptions and the way corporate crime is dealt with in the Criminal Justice System (CJS). So first of all, what exactly is corporate crime?

  • Crime committed on behalf of an organisation, or in pursuit of its formal goals (cutting costs, increasing market share, profitability, innovation, and so on).

These include:

  • Financial crimes such as bribery of governments officials;
  • Crimes against consumers, such as price-fixing;
  • Crimes associated with employment relationships (including those related to employee safety); and
  • Crimes against the environment, such as illegal emissions from cars.

(Tombs, 2019, p. 196)

Media silence

There are many examples of corporate crime that is reported on in the media in the first instance, but then seem to disappear as time goes on, and because those crimes are often not prosecuted, let alone sentenced like ‘ordinary crime’, there are no events taking place that could draw the attention towards it again. To see the difference in media coverage you only have to do a comparable internet search. When I typed in ‘criminal’ the results showed at the top many video’s, podcasts and TV shows, but when I typed in ‘corporate criminal’ I got a few law firms, government websites and Wikipedia pages.

This difference in media coverage, as well as the lack of prosecutions, has created a false idea about crime in the collective conscience of people. Also in the academic world there is hardly any research done on corporate crime because it is very expensive and who is willing to fund it? Business isn’t, and governments neither, as their capitalist interests match those of the corporations. Besides, big companies have large pockets and anyone who enters into a legal battle with them (using laws in a system which the most powerful have created) will have to match their expensive legal teams.

This could be one of the reasons why individuals are pursued much more, as they are easy targets, for the media as well as for the CJS. By creating stereotypes about criminals, and common assumptions, divisions are made between certain groups of people, which plays into the hands of the state as it is easier to control people when they are divided. The media profit from this too, because sensationalist articles sell.

One law for us, a different law for them

The way crime is looked at for companies is very different from crime committed by individuals. Companies provide an important economic function in offering jobs and revenue which is used as a justification to approach corporate crime on a forward looking basis. With this I mean that prevention of future harm is the aim, instead of punishing past harms which usually counts for the rest of us (Tombs, 2019, p. 204). While individuals are mostly solely seen as criminals after committing a crime, corporate crime is merely portrayed as a side business, apart from their main, legal activities. Therefore, corporations are not seen as real criminals.

This is in contrast with how individuals are seen with a criminal record. It is almost impossible to find a job after you have served a sentence, and even after minor convictions the label seems to stick for the rest of your life. And in particular if you are young, male and from a BAME community, people are criminalised and targeted. But that is not to say that if you don’t fall into those categories, you are not committing crime, it is just less likely that you are caught and prosecuted.

So when crimes are committed in the corporate world, seldom a company and its leadership are prosecuted or punished. It is often worded as ‘accident’, ‘disaster’ or ‘scandal’ but rarely do you hear the word ‘corporate crime’, which is off course what it really is. This in my mind is all part of how the capitalist class defend their system and interests, which has little to do with justice and equality. The CJS, the economic and legal systems are all rigged in favour of the rich and powerful, and against anyone who doesn’t conform, is in a minority or otherwise criminalised.

Reform or system change

Would it be possible to reform this reality of injustice? Well, there have off course been attempts in several countries with different ‘adjustments’ usually based on a social-democratic model, but still this does not address the structural inequality and oppression that is inherent in the capitalist system. I welcome any improvements and reforms that benefit working class people but to think that reforms can radically change this pyramid scheme I think is utopian. That is because exploitation, inequality and competition are the bedrock on which capitalism is built.

I believe only socialist change can achieve true equality for all, as socialism is built on equality, sharing, community and collective action. It is built around the idea that workers have control over the means of production, and production is done on the basis of need instead of profit. Every aspect of society is democratically decided, with every representative subject to immediate recall and only on an average worker’s wage. Environmental protection, health & safety and quality will be paramount, and with the largest industries taken into public ownership everyone’s living standards will be raised dramatically. Average wages will be much higher, and everyone will have work but work less and have access to education throughout life.

If you like to know more about how this is practically possible please visit https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/ in the UK or https://www.socialistworld.net/ for your country elsewhere, or read this book:

References

Tombs, S. (2019) ‘Deconstructing the criminal’, in Downes, J., Kent, G., Mooney, G., Nightingale, A. and Scott, D. (eds) Introduction to Criminology 2, Milton Keynes, The Open University pp. 185–208. 

2 thoughts on “Corporate crime – hidden in plain sight

  1. Another very welcome and extremely informative piece. Love reading your analyses of capitalist criminality. Particularly like your comparison of how corporate crime is perceived differently to individual criminality, as an incidental aberration even when it involves the death or safety of large numbers. Look at the Grenfell Tower incident. Only the power of large numbers of people have even got it this far and it is totally insufficient. It is no wonder they are trying to outlaw protests. They are the only accountability the government, local councils and large corporations really have.

    1. Thank you!

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