Corporate crime

Tombs, Steve (2013). Corporate crime. In: Hale, Chris; Hayward, Keith; Wahidin, Azrini and Wincup, Emma eds. Criminology (3rd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press., pp. 227–246.



Not least in the wake of the financial crises which erupted across many of the most advanced economies from 2007 onwards, evidence of immoral and illegal practices on the part of corporations seems ubiquitous. That said, political and popular responses to corporate crimes almost never take the form of calling for a ‘war’ or crackdown—as has occurred with illegal drugs or ‘anti-social behaviour’. In this we see mutually reinforcing links between popular understanding of crime and criminality, the distribution of power in capitalist societies, the proclivities of political elites, and the differential responses of criminal justice systems to different kinds of offending and offenders. Thus, albeit discussing white-collar crime rather than corporate crime per se, Levi argues that several factors mitigate against the development of the kinds of moral panics which are periodically generated and sustained in relation to some forms of conventional offending:
Most questionable corporate practice and personnel are able to maintain a subterranean existence characterized by low visibility to outsiders. In this, they are aided by the ‘softly, softly’ approach of the enforcement agencies, media averse to the genuine risk of libel suits, and governments and public almost superstitiously afraid of meddling with the market. ( Levi, 2009: 49 )

Moreover, even where folk-devils, moral outrage and panic emerge, there often remains a chasm between what are recognized as immoral and illegal practices and real ‘ crimes with the requisite “mental element”’ ( Levi, 2009: 50 ). This is signalled by the words we use in relation to corporate crimes: mis-selling, scandals, and so on. As argued at length in this chapter, a rather impermeable, if not absolutely unbreakable, tautology emerges: corporate crimes are not real crimes and do not need treating as such; because corporate crimes are not treated as real crimes they are not real crimes.

This chapter is explores this impunity, a product of the fact that corporate crime remains relatively free of critical political, popular and (still) academic scrutiny. It begins by examining the emergence and nature of ‘corporate crime’, before focussing on its various dimensions, its relative invisibility, diverse aetiologies, and issues in its effective control. The central aim is to mark out corporate crime as a legitimate area of criminological concern.

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