Corporate Crime

Corporate Crime

'Now as through this world I ramble,
I see lots of funny men,
Some rob you with a six gun,
And some with a fountain pen.'
(Woody Guthrie, 'Pretty Boy Floyd')

Woody Guthrie

'The real criminals in this society are not all the people who populate the prisons across the state, but those people who have stolen the wealth of the world from the people.' (Angela Davis)
'What can be done to reduce significantly the volume of killing, maiming and economic deprivation caused by corporate crime? One brief terse answer is **** all!' (Box, 'Power, Crime and Mystification')

For Marxists, the state, which makes the law, represents (directly or indirectly) the interests of the ruling class. Law is a coercive instrument of the state, used to maintain the existing social order.

While some laws protect us all they do not protect us all equally.

'Criminal laws against murder, rape, robbery and assault do protect us all but they do not protect the less powerful from being killed, sexually exploited, deprived of their property, or physically and psychologically damaged through the greed, apathy, negligence, indifference and the unaccountability of the relatively more powerful.' (Thio, 1978)

Corporate crime is a real killer:

  • Neglect of safety equipment - Piper Alpha, Herald of Free Enterprise.
  • Inadequate testing - Ford Pinto, Low dose contraceptive pills.
  • Avoidable industrial disease/accidents.
  1. Thalidomide - 8000 - Chemie Grunenthal falsified test data and concealed the truth about side effects.
  2. Opren?
  1. General Electric - price fixing $50 million.
  2. Hoffman La Roche - Valium - NHS overcharging £25 million.
  3. Maxwell - pension fund.

Overall, the economic cost of corporate crime is greater than any other form of crime. Additionally, there is the social cost, corporate crime often involves a betrayal of trust.

Pearce (1976) 'Crimes of the powerful'

Examines the relationship between the ruling class and crime; argues that the ruling class often uses criminals; for example.

  • Ford and GM both used strikebreakers.
  • Control of Unions.

Chambliss (1978) 'On the take: From petty crooks to Presidents'

Suggests that the ruling class is an integral part of the criminal world.

Study of Seattle, 1962-1972.


  • Crime occurs in all social strata - differences are in type of crime committed and in level of law enforcement.
  • Leading crime syndicate - establishment figures; businessmen, politics, law enforcement. Criminals belong to the elite.
  • Ruling elite benefits from crime - money laundered finances legitimate business.
  • Ruling elite crime is not penalised - blind eye and police corruption.

Marxists also refer to laws which are not passed (or even discussed). Acts that are not defined as crimes - for example, laws on wealth and poverty, hunger, etc.

'Isn't it time to raise serious questions about the assumptions underlying the definitions of the field of criminology, when a man who steals a paltry sum can be called a criminal while agents of the state can, with impunity, legally reward men who destroy food so that price levels can be maintained whilst a sizeable proportion of the population suffers from malnutrition.' (H and J Schwendinger, 1975)
'Those who are well off commit acts that are not defined as crimes and yet are as harmful or more so than the crimes people fear.' (Lea and Young, 1984)

Marxists argue that ideological hegemony (ruling class control of beliefs) ensures that these ideas are not even discussed, or are regarded as nonsensical.

Crime is widespread but official statistics give the impression that crime is largely a working class phenomenon. This is refuted by self-report studies.

Middle class crime is more expensive. Numerous examples, Conklin (1977) robbery in US cost $3-4 billion; White collar crime $40 billion.

Prosecution of the elite is rare, but occasional prosecution maintains the myth of equality before the law - 'justice is blind'. The small number of elite prosecutions creates the impression that elite crime is minimal.

Law enforcement serves to protect the capitalist system:

Crime scene

Crime is presented as an individual problem - the system itself is not seen as a cause of deviance. Individuals rather than institutions and structural arrangements are to 'blame' for crime.

By defining criminals as misfits it provides a justification for imprisonment; the nasty products of capitalism are thereby kept hidden and this avoids questioning the system that produces such behaviour, for example, rapists and muggers. Additionally, such criminals can become scapegoats for the frustrations of the working class.

Hall et al, 'Policing the Crisis' suggests that moral panics (muggers, football hooligans, poll tax rioters) occur as diversions during the crises of capitalism and they justify increases in social control measures.

Box, 'Power, Crime and Mystification' suggests that the social control function of the police is of special importance. The police act as a 'front line' mechanism of oppression. In times of political crises, for example, the miner's strike, the urban riots of 1981, the police are given greater freedom to act against subordinate groups.

'Much police behaviour seems most easily explained when one considers that whenever there is a conflict of interests between the dominant classes in a society and less powerful groups, the police protect the interests of the former and regulate the behaviour of the latter.' (Galliher, 1971)

In traditional Marxist analysis, crime is created by the social structure. In capitalist society, the desire for profit leads to greed and competition and breeds aggression. Crime is seen as rational behaviour, a response to the nature of capitalist society. The type of response merely varies by class location, for example, working class mugging, stealing, prostitution; middle class business fraud.

Below is a taster of a Marxist analysis of crime drawn from Stephen Box, 'Power, Crime and Mystification':

Some sociologists have... come to the conclusion that criminal law categories are ideological constructs... designed to criminalise only some behaviours, usually those committed by the relatively powerless, and to exclude others, usually those frequently committed by the powerful against subordinates. Criminal law categories are resources, tools, instruments, designed and then used to criminalise, demoralise... and sometimes eliminate those problem populations perceived by the powerful to be potentially or actually threatening the existing distribution of power, wealth or privilege.

Not every criminal law represents the interests of the ruling class. Some laws are passed purely as symbolic victories which the dominant class grants to inferior interest groups, basically to keep them quiet; once passed they need never be efficiently or systematically enforced. Occasionally, the ruling class is forced into tactical retreat by organised subordinate groups... but these victories are short lived. Powerful groups have ways and means of clawing back the spoils of tactical defeats. In the last instance, definitions of crime reflect the interests of those groups who comprise the ruling class.

Some criminal laws are in all our interests. None of us wants to be murdered... none of us wants our property stolen... in that sense criminal law against murder, for example, is in all our interests. But this is not all the truth... some groups of people benefit more than others from these laws. It is not that they are less likely to be murdered or raped, for example, although the best evidence shows this to be true - but that in the criminal law, definitions of murder, rape, theft and other serious crimes are so constructed as to exclude many similar acts, and these are just the acts likely to be committed more frequently by powerful individuals.

The criminal law defines only some types of avoidable killing as murder; it excludes, for example, deaths resulting from acts of negligence, such as employers failure to maintain safe working conditions; or deaths which result from governmental agencies giving environmental health risks a low priority; or deaths resulting from drug manufacturers failure to conduct adequate research; or deaths from a dangerous drug that was approved by health authorities on the strength of a bribe; or deaths resulting from car manufacturers refusing to recall defective vehicles because they calculate that the costs of meeting civil damages will be less.


We are encouraged to see murder as a particular act involving a very limited range of stereotypical actors, instruments, situations and motives. Other types of avoidable killing are either defined as a less serious crime, or as matters more appropriate for civil proceedings... it may be just a strange coincidence that the social characteristics of those persons more likely to commit these types of avoidable killings differs considerably to those possessed by individuals more likely to commit killings legally defined as murder.

The criminal law sees only some types of property deprivation as robbery or theft, it excludes, for example, manufacturer's malpractices or advertiser's misrepresentation; it excludes shareholders losing money because managers behaved in ways that benefited only themselves; it excludes the extra tax citizens have to pay because the wealthy are able to avoid tax, or because drug companies overcharge the NHS. If an employee's hand slips into the boss's pocket and removes any spare cash, that is theft; if the boss puts his hand into the employee's pockets and takes their spare cash by reducing wages even below the legal minimum, that is the labour market operating reasonably.

The criminal law includes only one type of non-consensual sexual act as rape. It excludes sexual intercourse between husband and wife (not now though)... It excludes sexual acts achieved by fraud, deceit or misrepresentation. It excludes men who use economic or social power rather than force. The outcome is that men who have few resources other than physical ones are more likely to commit legally defined rape.

Thus criminal laws against murder, rape, robbery and assault do protect us all but they do not protect us all equally. They do not protect the less powerful from being killed, sexually exploited, deprived of what little liberty they possess, or being physically or psychologically damaged through the greed, apathy, negligence and unaccountability of the relatively more powerful.

Another example of the work of Box is: Recession Crime and Punishment (1987)

Is there a link between recession and crime, including corporate crime?

There has always been less research on corporate crime:

  • Scarce funding.
  • Ideological bias.
  • Access.

Most studies focus on one dramatic example:

  • Pinto car scandal (Dowie,1977) Ford Motor Co 500-900 deaths.
  • Scotia Coal Co (Caudill,1977) 26 deaths.
  • Electrical Industries Price fixing (Geis,1967) 29 leading companies.