Wednesday, 14 May 2008

What Can Be Done About Corporate Crime?

This piece looks at some of the conclusions drawn by Steven Box on how corporate crime can be tackled in his book Crime, Power and Mystificaion.

As we have commented before, Box points out during this book that corporate crime (that is crimes committed in the interests of corporations) is a much bigger problem than ‘street’ crime. Now fundamentally, corporate crime revolves around securing profit and advantage for businesses within a capitalist system - Box, however, won’t go as far as saying that socialising the means of production and distribution would solve this. And that is true – mere nationalisation within a capitalist framework may derive some advantages, but it’s only when the whole capitalist framework is removed and production revolves around needs that preventing harms will become a real priority.

Box does not concur with this last paragraph, however. In common with other left realists (which is where I believe his analysis fits), he does not see a socialist revolution, or even a capitalist major nationalisations occurring soon, saying “there is no reason to believe that we will see the lights going down on capitalism in our lifetime.”(pg.63) Despite criticising piecemeal reforms, it becomes the only way to do anything about crime, he says “Maybe liberal reformism is something to be contemplated today, even by those waiting patiently for the revolution tomorrow.”(pg.64)

Box points out two things that he thinks will do something about corporate crime. Firstly there is informing more people about corporate crime – Box points to investigative journalism and TV documentaries that have helped promote this, but he sees this as a way of putting more pressure onto the state to prosecute such crimes. The second way is by convincing the state to prosecute more crimes by demonstration of how damaging corporate crimes may be. One can feed into the latter with successful prosecutions being publicised and raising awareness. However, I think there is a big flaw with this – the fact that to publicise these things effectively you need some kind of platform – and I doubt that the capitalist media will severely criticise its own system (I have written previously of how corporate crime is presented as ‘a few bad eggs’. Plus, corporations already have massive leverage over government bodies that exist (and that Box criticises as being ineffective) so if any new body was created, or even if the police were used, are they any likely to be any more effective?

One thing I also dislike within Box’s suggestions is that ‘the right to trial by jury’ could be abandoned in corporate crime cases and replaced by judges versed in the legal complexities of the area. This effectively gives the public no say in the matter, and the whole issue is left to be decided by people who come from a similar background to the offenders. Under the current system this would be just another way for these corporate criminals to get away with their crimes in the vast majority of cases.

One thing that Box does note is that even where corporate officials are sentenced to prison, which I believe is a sentence that corporate manslaughter campaigners want to see for that crime, is that on release they are promoted by that corporation to a much higher salaried post, but in a less responsible/public post. So even an effective punishment being handed out to some corporate officials probably won’t deter others.

Box discusses how deterrent punishment could work on the organisational form of the corporation itself. Commenting on the paltry level of fines handed out to corporations, he suggests raising them drastically may be a solution, however, he also notes that it would be problematic if the fine bankrupted a corporation innocent employees, consumers and their dependents would suffer. But even more likely, whatever the size of the fine, any cutbacks would be foistered onto these people rather than the boardroom and the big shareholders.
Another deterrent he suggests is to nationalise companies for a specific period, with the length depending on severity of crimes and the time need to rehabilitate the company. This he suggests would incapacitate such organisations. However, generally nationalisations occur when an industry is in trouble, rather than benefiting from such problems. However, I would suggest that the only government prepared to nationalise a company on this basis, would be a socialist one that would nationalise companies permanently anyway.
Another suggestion he makes is having a sort of corporate probation, where a company spends time being monitored by a group of accountants, lawyers, engineers, mechanics etc. selected with regard to the work inside those companies. Such ‘probation officers’ could monitor the company and if it fails to make progress, or ignores them, could send them back to court for re-sentencing. But then surely this exists to a sense at the moment in factory and workplace inspectors, and any similar scheme would be similarly underfunded.
He also suggests that they could do a form of community service (by building new public facilities), or pay compensation. Both these suggestions would again suffer the problems related to fines.

I actually find it rather surprising that Box attempts to take elements from the criminal justice system and apply them to corporate crime, given he knows that these methods don’t work in general with regard to ‘normal’ crime, why does he think they will work with regard to corporate crime?

One other point that Box makes is the transnational status of the biggest corporations, which are the worst corporate criminals, means that corporate crime cannot be tackled within just one country. And because nation-states are in essence competing against each other to offer conditions that are useful to such corporations, again this problem cannot be fully tackled under capitalism, as Box notes, any methods that do challenge corporate crime, will likely lead to the export of corporate crime.

What is the solution? Ultimately, I think a socialist world where production is democratically controlled by those who produce and use products is necessary and would guard against corporate crimes (as they would be the victims of such acts anyway). In the meantime, I think a strong, combative trade-union and socialist movement worldwide which can fight against the harms caused by corporate crime and inform its own members and others about such problems will help limit such problems whilst building a movement which will hopefully rid the world of corporate crimes forever.

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