Critics of the business world lament that crimes “of the street” are much more aggressively prosecuted and punished than crimes “of the suite,” but Gregg Barak, professor of criminology and criminal justice at Eastern Michigan University and author or editor of 20 books, believes the problem goes deeper.
In his new book Unchecked Corporate Power, Barak argues that governments’ abdication of their responsibility to effectively regulate multinational corporations has enabled white-collar chicanery to flourish on a global scale. In a chat with Nancy Bilyeau, Deputy Editor of The Crime Report, Barak discusses why he believes there’s little chance of policymakers taking action in the near future, the connection between corporate crime and climate change, and how the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal illustrates the impunity of powerful CEOs.
The Crime Report: Fewer criminologists are doing work on white-collar crime than on other crime sectors, and less work is being published in academic journals. Is this a factor in elite players presently being “unchecked”?
Gregg Barak: Interestingly, in my “White Collar Crime” class this semester, more than one student has asked me the exact same question. In a very indirect kind of way, the lack of investigation by criminologists of multinational corporate crime compared to their investigation of street or index crimes does contribute to the impunity of these acts and omissions, or to the normalization or routinization of these crimes. Certainly, if the field of criminology were paying due diligence to these crimes, there would be more attention given to them. However, that also imagines that public policy on crime and crime control, whether in the suite or the street, is in fact responding to evidence-based research on the matter—which I believe is not the case, generally speaking.
TCR: How long has “state- routinized crime” committed by multinational corporations been at the unchecked level it is at now?
GB: Actually, the track record of checking multinational corporate misbehavior has for the most part always been beyond incrimination, so at the present time, it is pretty much business crime as usual.
TCR: Is there anything you can single out as bringing us to a fever pitch on this?
GB: While fundamentally these crimes are related to the contradictions in global capitalism, the one condition that I think stands out in relation to the present state of crisis has to do with global warming and climate change.
For example, in the not-too-distant future, overcoming or succumbing to corporate and multinational pollution—from ecocide to global shortages of water to fracking to electronic waste disposal and so on—in the context of climate change and the need to abandon our dependency on harmful fossil fuels, regardless of the bottom-line profits that will disappear, or else face the possibility of human extinction, speaks to the necessity of reconstructing or reconstituting what corporations are as legal entities.
Replacing an unencumbered, privately controlled capitalism, and capitalist state, with an environmentally and democratically controlled public capitalism, and capitalist state, no longer driven by the irrational and unsustainable exponential growth of capital and consumption, is at the heart of the contradictory relations in both the routinization of licit and illicit behaviors of multinational corporations as well as capitalist states’ routinization of the noncriminal responses to these crimes.
TCR: What role do the media play in the lack of public awareness of unchecked corporate power?
GB: Let me just say that the major online newspapers in the U.S., including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Financial Times, Bloomberg, etc., do cover, report on, reveal and expose much of the unchecked corporate power in this world. There are those economic and business journalists that have and are connecting the dots. However, they are a minority of reporters and are up against a larger narrative, if you will, like the myth of Too Big To Fail, for example.
As for the lack of public awareness, I would say that they are not paying attention. If the public hasn’t figured it out after the implosion of Wall Street and the Organize Wall Street movement, after the ongoing high-end securities and financial frauds that have continued unfettered to the present day, and after Supreme Court decisions like Citizens v. United, I do not know what it will take.
TCR: In the last presidential election Wall Street’s unchecked financial power got a lot of attention. A year later, do you hear these debates continuing?
GB: I would say that there are discussions in the world of academia, in many online blogs, and in posted electronic mailings like nakedcapitalism, but less so in the mainstream media. Certainly, if folks are running for office and bring up neoliberal policy, it will be debated. After all, it is these policies that constitute most of our current crisis and facilitate unchecked corporate power. They need to be abandoned unless we want things to continue to decline.
TCR: Is there any hope for the creation of an international apparatus of regulatory control?
GB: In the short term, I do not believe so. In the long term, if we do not come up with some kind of democratically based apparatus of international and regulatory control of these ways of conducting business as usual, then it is highly unlikely that unchecked corporate power will wane in the future.
TCR: Do you see a possibility that federal prosecutors will return to pursuing difficult and prolonged cases such as Enron instead of negotiating fines?
GB: I do not see any indication of that, especially with the current administration. A first step for that to occur would require the creation of a Corporate Fraud Division within the U.S. Department of Justice.
TCR: I realize that a producer of independent films is not in the same category as the executives of multinational corporations, but I was struck by a parallel in the Harvey Weinstein case—of his ability to ward off criminal investigations of sexual harassment through a compliant press and corporate partner enabling—and some of what you outline in your book. Do you agree?
GB: In a way there are similarities, because these are mostly extremely wealthy and powerful men. The sexual abusers at Fox News had a lot of power over those people around them and there’s the fact that they have the money to settle, settle, settle, over and over, for their habitual misdeeds and to avoid the criminal law.
Nancy Bilyeau is Deputy Editor (Digital Services) of The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.