Unmasking the Crimes of the Powerful

Scrutinizing States and Corporations

by Steve Tombs (Volume editor) Dave Whyte (Volume editor)
©2009 Textbook 320 Pages


Despite the enormous economic, physical and social impacts of crimes committed by states and corporations, they are still relatively under-researched within contemporary social science—partly because of the perpetrator’s ability to evade critical scrutiny. The contributions in this book map out the parameters of a political economy of researching the powerful, marking out the major problems encountered, and identifying ways in which these problems might be overcome or circumnavigated. To this end, the book brings together original essays which reflect upon researching the powerful in Britain, Canada, Finland, Ireland, Spain, Turkey and the United States. Together these chapters advance our understandings of what corporate and state power is, how this power operates, and how it might be more effectively resisted.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Editors
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword: Holy Wars and Spiritual Revitalization
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Scrutinizing the Powerful: Crime, Contemporary Political Economy, and Critical Social Research
  • Power, “Valid” Knowledge, and the Limits to Scrutiny
  • Chapter 2: Researching Corporate Crime
  • Chapter 3: Researching Corporate Crime: A Business Historian’s Perspective
  • Chapter 4: CCTV Surveillance, Power, and Social Order: The State of Contemporary Social Control
  • Chapter 5: In the Valley of the Blind the One-Eyed Man Is King: Corporate Crime and the Myopia of Financial Regulation
  • Confronting Power: Scrutiny Within Limits
  • Chapter 6: Silencing the View from Below: The Institutional Regulation of Critical Research
  • Chapter 7: “Telling It Like It Is”? Power, Prejudice, Politics, and People in the Qualitative Process
  • Chapter 8: Researching the Turkish State
  • Chapter 9: Researching Regulators and the Paradoxes of Access
  • Exposing Power: Scrutinizing the Crimes of the Powerful
  • Chapter 10: Imaginative Crimes or Crimes of the Imagination: Researching the Secret State
  • Chapter 11: Researching and Redefining State Crime: Feminism and the Capital Punishment of Women
  • Chapter 12: Whose Side Are We Not On? Researching Medical Power in Prisons
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 13: Unmasking the Crimes of the Powerful: Establishing Some Rules of Engagement
  • Bibliography
  • Contributors
  • Index



      Holy Wars and Spiritual Revitalization

I write as Bush prepares the world for a further round of his assault on “the axis of evil,” a self-determined, highly elastic, but notably quasi-religious turn of phrase. There is no little irony in the religious tone of much of Bush’s rhetoric, used, as it is, to justify the slaughter or emiseration of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children, whether through sanctions, acts of war or mass displacement. Of course, the USA—the engine of a globalizing neo-liberalism and the self-appointed guarantor of “freedom” and “democracy”—has always been extremely selective in its applications of its publicly stated principles when deciding which political regimes to attack, tolerate or actively support. The USA was born of European, and specifically English, imperialism. Europeans justified their presence and their expropriation of land in the Americas by the general Christian doctrine that God had given the world to mankind as a whole. The Spaniards further legitimated their claim by using the Papal Bull of Pope Alexander VI (Alejandro Borgia!) that gave the Spanish crown dominion over all lands 100 leagues west of the Azores not already subject to a Christian king. The English invoked a Protestant doctrine that property right came from fulfilling the biblical injunction to “multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it.” This they did by sedentary farming, and, relatedly, putting in place regimes of private property. Since the “savage” native peoples “failed” to build houses and to mark the boundaries of their property, any land that they had previously used could be appropriated by barter or conquest. Current estimates of the pre-conquest population of the Americas is that ← xi | x → it was between 80 and 120 million people and, by the eighteenth century, after extensive exposure to the European “civilizing process,” the population of aboriginal peoples was less than 10 per cent of that number.

After the American War of Independence, it was not hard for the elite that ran a new country with such roots to assert its exclusive sphere of influence in the Americas nor to claim it had the “Manifest Destiny” to bring private property, Protestantism, and its version of democracy to other lands, whether they were nearby, like Mexico and Cuba, or distant but strategic states such as the Philippines. A similar rationale inspired USA involvement in World War I, which few would now see as much more than a struggle between rival imperialist powers. Then, while World War II was undoubtedly primarily between the Allies and the Axis powers, its more general course was marked by rivalry between Britain and the USA and by a more fundamental struggle between Britain and the USA against Russia. There is good evidence that strategic considerations about containing Russian power, rather than any calculation that their use would save American lives, played the key role in the decisions to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet, at the same time, retribution—indeed, seemingly divine retribution—was at work, for, immediately after the first bomb was dropped, President Truman warned that if the Japanese leaders did not accept the surrender terms, “they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth,” and, in private, he thanked God that the bomb “has come to us instead of our enemies and we pray that he may guide us to use it in his ways and for his purposes.” Nine years later, under Eisenhower’s presidency, “In God We Trust” became America’s national motto. During the cold war against Russia, when the USA led the “free world,” the latter contained as many, if not more, dictatorships than democracies, and was marked more by poverty than affluence. Further, in that post-1945 period, the US has engaged in bombing campaigns against China, Korea, Guatemala, Indonesia, Cuba, Congo, Peru, Laos, Cambodia, Grenada, Libya, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Yugoslavia. Bush’s recent pursuit of bin Laden, then Saddam Hussein, show how little concern he has for the principles of national and international criminal law: that a suspect is innocent until proven guilty, to be judged and tried by an independent and impartial legal system.

While each of these US governments may have imagined “itself to be actuated by purely ‘political’ or ‘religious’ motives” and thereby to have transformed “[t]he ‘fancy’ the conception of … their real practice … into the sole, determining and effective active which dominates and determines their practice” (Marx and Engels The German Ideology), we do not need to share this illusion. In this context, imperialist domination and expansionism seem to have been the major motivating factors, and religious ideologies, while important, have been somewhat secondary and something of a gloss. The crucial, and obvious, point here is that it is naive to take ← x | xi → at face value claims by states that they are essentially democratic, that they are responsive to the needs of an informed citizenry, and that their societies are characterized by equality, either of opportunity or of condition. Yet to me it is astonishing that so many people, after so much critical work has been written, leave generally unchallenged the claim that America is a democracy and one founded fundamentally on Judaeo-Christian moral ideals. This may be a public conceit but, in practice, in so far as there is a practical religious morality and an eschatological faith, it is all in relation to “Mammon,” the possession of money (as capital) and in the belief in the intrinsic good of possessing ever more. Such a capitalist fundamentalism is well caught by Karl Marx’s sardonic comment in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844: “Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good. Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest: I am therefore presumed honest.” The accumulation and expansion of capital, and the preservation and extension of its conditions of existence, remain the major determinants of domestic and international state activities in societies with capitalist economies.

A commitment not to take the claims of the powerful at face value—rather, as this volume’s title notes, to subject them to scrutiny—is one of the common elements that runs through the contributions that follow. What is both notable and depressing, though, is how unusual is this commitment, and the issues that follow from it. Why notable? Many of the reasons for the relative silencing of these arguments and commitments are set out in this text, but there are perhaps a number of additional points that might be made here. In the period from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, when critical scholarship was strong in the social sciences, and when Marxism played a significant role within this, critique meant engaging seriously with the positions held by one’s opponents. In general, there was an expectation that positions with which one disagreed should be represented accurately and challenged conceptually, epistemologically, and empirically; it was also anticipated that an exchange might develop subject to the same “rules.” While this was not always achieved in practice, it nevertheless constituted a regulative ideal. By implication, social theory and social analysis were collaborative enterprises. However passionately a position was held, there existed a real possibility of its modification, its development, its abandonment, and, sometimes, the development of surprising, and non-eclectic, syntheses. A disturbing aspect of current academic practice is that differing but rigorous interpretations of the nature of the social world and of theories and theorists are often simply ignored, at times crudely parodied, or simply, and contemptuously, dismissed. This is to no one’s benefit and it seems important to find different ways of dealing with such disagreements.

One among a number of experiences of Steve Tombs and myself in this respect is illuminating. In 1990 and 1991, through the pages of the British Journal of Criminology, we had a curious exchange with Keith Hawkins regarding appropriate forms ← xi | xii → of regulatory enforcement. This was initiated by our article “Ideology, Hegemony and Empiricism: Compliance Theories of Regulation” in which we identified Hawkins as a key figure within a group of academics we termed “The Oxford School.” The results of this exchange have been curious, for at least two reasons. First, because within the mass of work that has appeared since, either within or broadly sympathetic to the views of the Oxford School, our own position, developed in those articles, is often simply ignored, at best footnoted and passed over. Curious, second, because although the exchange is often referred to by other commentators on regulation, the position that we developed in those articles is consistently misrepresented, even by those who cite it approvingly! Thus our argument—that a corporation when acting as a sophisticated amoral calculator is aware of the distinction between long-term and short-term consequences, is sometimes caught within a disabling ideology, sometimes less than competent and, as an organization, is often wrought by conflicts—gets translated into the claim that corporations are coherent organizations with a consensus about goals and means and that as amoral calculators they focus only on immediate consequences, are omniscient and never make mistakes! Two points follow. First, this is a clear illustration of how deep incommensurabilities are displayed and negotiated, but also how positions can develop or shift in the context of a dialogue. Second, there is also an indication of the dominance of certain ways of looking at the world which do not even see the need to engage with alternative knowledge claims—there is no need, it seems, for “The Oxford School” to understand, and engage in dialogue with, its critics.

There seems to be little recognition that we were clearly drawing upon the work on hegemony of the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci. This is particularly interesting because Gramsci explicitly makes the points, albeit in his case about national politics, that “a particular political act may have been an error of calculation on the part of the leaders of the dominant classes”; that the “principle of ‘error’ is a complex one: one may be dealing with an individual impulse based on mistaken calculations or equally it may be a manifestation of the attempts of specific groups or sects to take over hegemony within the directive grouping, attempts which may well be unsuccessful”; and, “that many political acts are due to internal necessities of an organizational character, that is they are tied to the need to give coherence to a party, a group, a society.” This lack of recognition suggests that there is a broader issue at work here, namely the decline of familiarity with critical modes of thought in general, and Marxist social science in particular. This aspect of the recent trajectory of social science will have the most destructive long-term consequences on the prospects for a vibrant tradition of critical social science. There is now a whole generation of academics, from undergraduates to post-doctoral teachers and researchers, many of whom lack any basic training in Marxist concepts or modes of analysis. This in turn significantly reduces the likelihood of Marxist social science being produced and then published. ← xii | xiii →

Thus, if criminology is, as Foucault said, a “garrulous discourse” noted for its “endless repetitions”—this “discipline” is, after all, a booming area—it is now so on much narrower ground than was the case in, say, the 1960s and 1970s. This is the case despite there being an abundance of sophisticated critiques of its pretensions to being a distinct discipline. In general, such pretensions demonstrate that it does not have its own social scientific ‘problematic’ but rather one given to it by sundry state apparatuses. How is it possible that its main practitioners are able simply to choose not to engage with these critiques?

Let me illustrate this with reference to a graduate/undergraduate course that I teach, “Towards a Sociology of Killing.” Stunningly, the standard definition of murder, taken up uncritically in most criminology textbooks, is simply “unlawful killing” and, like the law, there is some presumption that such acts (and not so many others also leading to death), are mala in se. Then, the criminal statistics that are used follow state practice again by excluding from their coverage all manslaughter except non-negligent manslaughter—which means not analyzing most motor vehicle-related deaths, most “accidents” at work and occupationally induced illnesses. There are some exceptions, but the work that does exist on corporate crimes of violence is generally simply ignored. And even when these matters are addressed, commentators often remain within the parameters of the way in which the law has actually been implemented. For example, the Ford Pinto case is explored, but the grounds for treating the activities of the tobacco industry as engaging in reckless or negligent homicide or manslaughter during the 1970s—when they knew cigarette tobacco was highly carcinogenic, when they knew that nicotine was addictive and when they often implicitly aimed their advertising at very young people while publicly denying all three points—are usually ignored. Four million or more premature deaths will be the likely result of the addictions produced during this period, and there is every reason to define them as homicide or manslaughter. With notable exceptions, criminology teaching and writing also excludes failures by prison officers to fulfil their duties of care, failures that lead to the deaths of inmates; excessive force by the police is also treated as of marginal interest. True, there are books like Jack Katz’s Seductions of Crime that show that it is not only police officers who engage in morally ambiguous killings, but even this interactionist text never frees itself from official definitions. State-sponsored violence in particular and state crimes in general are almost entirely absent from criminological discourses. The horrors of Nazism are generally also excluded from discussion—most of the Nazis’ killing, after all, was actually legal—and excluded too are the genocides inflicted, in the name of Christianity, on the peoples of the Americas. Serial and spree killing are generally included but war is generally excluded, as is the question of the rationales for dropping the atomic bombs and what that might tell us about state terrorism. Killing people is always morally problematic, but the moral and sociological questions are confused by uncritical ← xiii | xiv → acceptance of the definitions of murder by either states or organized religions. As Herman and Julia Schwendinger pointed out in 1975, sociology and criminology cannot be morally neutral. As intellectual practices, they unavoidably have moral dimensions. Untheorized claims to neutrality implicitly endorse extant ideologies. Not surprisingly, my Sociology of Killing course finishes with an examination of the non-elitist implications of some of Nietzsche’s perspectivalist interrogations for the question of the foundations of morality and the nature of responsibility. With Nietzsche, one wonders how it is that so many people still do not acknowledge that the Gods of Religion and the Gods of the State are dead.

There are no holy wars and if there is a spiritual revitalization, it is to be seen in the ethics and courage of those who challenge the different forms of domination in the world currently subject to a capitalist “globalization.” These challenges are taking place on the streets, across the globe; and there is some evidence that, whilst not equivalents, they are also still taking place through critical analysis and argument. This book makes a significant contribution to this challenge. ← xiv | xv →


This book began its life in the summer of 1999, when we organized some special sessions at the British Criminology Conference in Liverpool on “researching the powerful.” Since then, we have accumulated debts for support, friendship and insight in relation to this project that will no doubt overwhelm our memory. So, with apologies to those who should be here but are not, here goes with a series of thank yous. To David Bergman, Courtney Davis, Pete Gill, Chris Hamerton, and Charles Woolfson, all of whom, for professional or personal reasons, were not able to add contributions to this volume. To Gregg Barak for his incredible enthusiasm, encouragement and collegiality, and to Phyllis Korper for her patience and expertise—without either, no-one would be reading this. To the participants at the 2000 Lincoln Conference of the European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control, and in particular to Andrea Beckman, for hosting a workshop on issues relating to “researching the powerful.” To the organizations and individuals with whom we have worked, upon whose energy and courage we have drawn over many years, and who struggle at the very sharpest end of power, we say thanks for the inspiration. Among them, we owe a particular debt to the Centre for Corporate Accountability, Greater Manchester Hazards, Liverpool’s People Not Profit, Merseyside Hazards and Environment Centre and the OILC. To the contributors, who have endured with good grace and diligence flurries of e-mails interrupting months of silence; and for their contributions themselves, each of which stands as an important piece of work in its own right. It has been a pleasure to work with people we admire, many of whom have been a constant source of advice, encouragement, and inspiration. And to Frank Pearce, a ← xv | xvi → good friend and comrade, who to the best of our knowledge pretty much invented the phrase “crimes of the powerful.” It means a great deal in both personal and political terms that he agreed to write the foreword to this book. To our own friends and families—you know who you are—but especially to Jess, Pam and Patrick. And to each other—for this is but one project in a productive and long-term relationship that will continue for years to come. Keep on keeping on.

Steve Tombs and Dave Whyte

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      Scrutinizing the Powerful


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2019 (April)
social science problems political economy
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt/M., Oxford, Wien, 2009. XVI, 320 pp., 1 table

Biographical notes

Steve Tombs (Volume editor) Dave Whyte (Volume editor)

Steve Tombs earned his PhD in Sociology at the University of Wolverhampton and is now Professor of Sociology at Liverpool John Moores University, England. He is co-author (with Gary Slapper) of Corporate Crime (1999) and (with Frank Pearce) of Toxic Capitalism: Corporate Crime and the Chemical Industry (1998). Dave Whyte earned his PhD in Criminology at Liverpool John Moores University and is now a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Leeds. He has published in a range of edited collections and journals, including Corporate Watch, Critical Criminology, Journal of Law and Society, Policy and Politics, Risk Management, Social and Legal Studies, and Studies in Political Economy.


Title: Unmasking the Crimes of the Powerful