Thursday, April 10, 2008

Governing Corporate Crime

The editors of the New York Times this morning highlight one of the most glaring contradictions in the entire culture of control and fear in which Americans have come to live: the flagrant pattern of "leniency" toward deviance and even crime at the level of corporations. See, Going Soft on Corporate Crime.

The Bush administration, with its existential commitment to certain punishment when it comes to downwardly mobile criminals, has shown an unmistakable zeal to compromise when it comes to corporate malfeasance. Bush is hardly alone. The US Supreme Court, which has taken a very deferential approach toward interfering with the power of juries to hand down death sentences and long prison terms toward human criminals, has become increasingly aggressive in intervening to limit unjust punishment of corporations through "punitive damage" awards by juries.

While this pattern would seem consistent with a rather economistic Marxism (state as the central committee of the ruling class) or a descent (as the NYT editors suggest), into a new kind of patronage politics) there are a few more general patterns worth noting.

Governing through crime has been most limited where particularly strong organizational power counter-balances the general growth in law enforcement power. A good example is the Catholic Church which continued to exercise leniency toward sexual abuse by priests long after the general society was having a moral panic about sex abuse.

Governing through crime has been more limited where other regulatory structures have created a different model of dispute resolution that resists assimilation into the logic of crime control. The learned professions and organized labor continue to enjoy vigorous forms of non crime oriented regulation. The world of the severely mentally ill, in contrast, was largely abandoned by civil regulation in the 1960s and has come largely under the domain of crime control leading inordinate numbers of those suffering such illnesses to end up in prisons and jails.

Most importantly, resistance within the federal government to heavy prosecution of corporate crime reflects the heightened sensitivity that both class and patronage have given politicians and lawyers when it comes to understanding the enormous collateral consequences of crime control. Indicting a corporation can lead to a financial meltdown for its employees, creditors, customers, and in the general community. No wonder US Attorney's do not want to be known locally for brining down large local employers.

The real questions we should be asking include the following:

Where are the robust forms of civil regulation that the New Deal gave us to control corporate greed?

How can we extend the same sensitivity about collateral damage toward the poor and middle class communities governed through crime?

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