Written by Mark Kirby
Typically, when we think of crime and the harms it may case, we think about people being attacked or murdered or having their goods stolen. In the 1970s classically there was an emphasis on mugging which led to crime being seen in a classist, racist way with the intention of enabling a more repressive response from the state. (Policing the Crisis, Hall et al, 1978)
Hall et al point to key economic, political and ideological changes taking place and the way moral panics over crime were whipped up to provide legitimation for a more authoritarian form of policing. Central to this was the way the state was to be used to crisis manage capitalism: “The state has come to perform new functions at several critical levels of society. It now has a decisive economic role, not indirectly but directly. […] Needless to say, this ‘corporate’ style of crisis management, in which the state plays an active and principal role on behalf of ‘capital as a whole’, and to which, increasingly, independent capitals are subscnbed, represents a major shift in the whole economic and political order (Hall et al, Policing the Crisis, p.318-9)
The state, often dismissed as a problem in classical liberal theory and the freedom from was the basis of the expression free market as espoused by liberals, came instead to be something to be captured and used to restructure the terms of exploitation un/der neoliberalism.
Obviously since 1978 we have experienced this rather continually from the riots in the early 1980s to the Miners’ strike in 1984/5 to the experience of Austerity under the Tories and their Lib-Dem lapdogs in the period since 2010.
In all of this, resistance is defined as criminality and ideological struggles as described by Hall et al in 1978 undoubtedly took place (even if we do not buy into the whole notion of Thatcherism).
The key significance here is the way they point to the new ‘corporate’ model of crisis management in which the processes of the state are removed away from public service and into the profit motive with an emphasis on economy and efficiency. These ideas have indeed served to restructure society and we must seek to do likewise by emphasising the harmful impact of the rise of this corporate style and the importance of its legal form, the corporation.
Contrary to the classical liberal dislike for the state, state regulation and state intervention, neo—liberals and ordo-liberals call for a market economy based on the rule of law enforced by a state. So, states become market enablers through practices such as privatisation and competitive tendering. In so far as things are provided by the market this enables those with greater economic resources to have more power, thus undermining the democracy of public sector provision where decisions are made by democratic vote on the basis of one-person, one vote.
New Labour merely echoed this promotion of the market and were said to be intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich (as long as they paid their taxes) but of course at the same time, the rich were finding ways to shift their money overseas away from prying tax authorities but nonetheless still be able to use the money to earn profits from. However it should be noted that while inequality rose during this period, largely because of those at the top enriching themselves, there were policies that significantly reduced child and adult poverty rates thus to some extent shielding the most vulnerable from the inequality of the marketplace.( https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/6738)
This however all ended with the Conservative and Lib-Dem governments since 2010 and their austerity policies.
“Austerity has been accompanied by law-sterity to enforce this move to private sector hegemony: “modern-day austerity has been accompanied by an intensification of legal intervention into politics. The aim of these legal interventions has been to minimize popular control over the economy and oblige governments to implement austerity measures. This ‘law-sterity’ has occurred at the international, regional and domestic levels.” (Cooper & Whyte (eds) 2018, The Violence of Austerity, p.181)
As we know the effect of the Tory and Lib-Dem governments since 2010 has been massive cuts in public spending justified by economic claims about the negative impact of excess deficits later found to be based on wrong figures and therefore having no validity.
In local government, we have seen cuts of around 40% to the councils who deliver many services such as Social Care, housing, street lighting, roads and rubbish collection as well as social worker support and adoption services.
A classic way for central government to try to push the blame onto others, and recently given an outing by Priti Patel in the 2019 Election. It is also a way to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable in society suffer the most. While overall the cut in local government grants from central govt has been 46% on average, councils in the 10 most deprived areas in GB lost £782 per household on average, while those in the 10 richest areas lost only £48 per household on average. ( https://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/aug/25/councils-poorest-areas-biggest-cuts-labour-says). The extremes of this are that Hart council in Hampshire (the least deprived council) lost £28 ph while Liverpool (District B0 the most deprived area) Lost £807 ph. As can be seen the cuts hits the poorest more than 28X as much. Obviously, this will feed into greater inequality and possibly greater numbers of excess deaths.
As has been pointed out many times the effect of this level of austerity has been absolutely devastating. The effect is clearly summed up by the publication in the British Medical Journal of research showing that excess deaths linked to austerity measures since 2010 total about 120000-130000. Specifically there are two distinct studies which have looked at this. The BMJ study ( https://blogs.bmj.com/bmjopen/2017/11/15/health-and-social-care-spending-cuts-linked-to-120000-excess-deaths-in-england/) found that “Spending constraints, especially PES (Social Care), are associated with a substantial mortality gap. “
The second study was concerned with cuts in Public Health Spending by IPPR (www.ippr.org/files/2019-06/public-health-and-prevention-june19.pdf) and the impact of this on Preventative health. It found: “Over half of the disease burden in England is deemed preventable, with one in five deaths attributed to causes that could have been avoided. The UK has made significant progress on this agenda in the past but we appear to have ‘hit a wall’ with limited progress since 2010.[…] A decade of austerity has resulted in cuts to public health, prevention and mental health budgets in the NHS, and wider national and local government services which help drive better health. “
The former report talked about 120,000 excess deaths and the latter mentioned a figure of 130,000. Banners hung in Manchester while the Tory conference was taking place in October 2019 alluded to this situation:
The cuts to public expenditure were a choice because even if you accept there was a need to cut the deficit the fiscal situation of the state as made worse due to tax cuts which decrease state revenue and therefore increase pressure for public spending cuts. Again, if we look at who benefits from tax cuts, we can see clear levels of unequal benefit.
Research by the Resolution Foundation found that looking purely at tax and benefit changes since 2015, the richest 20% will gain on average £390 while the poorest 20% will lose on average £400. (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/oct/30/budget-income-tax-cuts-to-overwhelmingly-benefit-the-rich). Since 2015 the IFS point out that changes to personal allowances on income tax:” have benefited most basic-rate taxpayers to the tune of £160 a year, while higher-rate taxpayers have gained £380 a year. “ https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/9164)
THE TORIES MAKE THE RICH RICHER AND THE POOR POORER SHOULD BY NOW BE OBVIOUS BUT WE NEED TO KEEP DRILLING THESE FACTS HOME.
The sheer scale and uniqueness of the austerity measures on public spending in post-WW2Britain can be easily seen from this graphic from the Resolution Foundation report, Rounding Up (https://www.resolutionfoundation.org/app/uploads/2019/09/Rounding-Up-briefing-note.pdf)
As well as rich individuals benefiting directly from these changes to income tax, they have also disproportionately benefited from other key government changes implemented since 2010.
• Corporate tax rates have been lowered significantly. Corporation tax rate went down from 28% in 2010 to 17% in 2020. The main beneficiaries of this will be owners of companies which tend to be the richest people in society (but also pension funds)
• Capital Gains tax rates have been reduced. From 18% to 10% on the main rate.
• Inheritance tax rates have been reduced effectively by doubling the couple’s allowance.
• The policy of Quantitative easing helps the rich more. This operates by the government buying back government debt. This increases demand for government bonds which increases their price. This means the yield you gain from them reduces due to their fixed level of interest. Since this makes bonds less desirable to hold, it was expected this would lead investors to shift their investments to shares and away from bonds and insofar as this has happened, the rise in share prices will overwhelmingly benefit the richest as they are the one who own shares.
In 2017 Labour claimed that these changes amounted to a £70bn giveaway to the rich by the Tory and Lib-Dem governments (https://labour.org.uk/press/the-tories-70bn-tax-giveaways-to-the-super-rich/) and this combined with the austerity cuts impacting on the poor led to a much more unequal society where the poor were shouldering the burden of the effects of the financial crash of 2008/9 while the rich were doing quite nicely thank you.
You might therefore think that since the rich have been doing quite nicely, they might not need to seek further gain with the potential problem of imposing social harms on the rest of us. But this would in fact seem to be the main purpose of corporate structures and therefore if we look at crime from a social harm perspective and look at those bodies who cause the most deaths or the most financial loss, we will find that there is one overwhelming finding. The most harmful things in society are corporations. This harm needs to be clearly recognized by the criminal law and when Police and Crime Commissioners are then seeking to provide a public point of view and make the police accountable to their local communities they should seek to encourage them to carefully monitor and regulate the activities of corporations since doing this will provide the greatest way to stop harmful effects on society. The evidence for this is quite clear:
Who Causes Deaths in UK Society
In 2017 there were 723 deaths from murder and 6639 deaths from suicide. All entirely regrettable and clearly creating harms, however while the first of these will no doubt get mass press coverage, the actual deaths from murder pale into insignificance when compared to other causes.
Approximately 13000 people die from occupational causes of one sort or another, 12000 from lung disease, 29000 from air-borne pollution and we have already mentioned the number of deaths associated with austerity.
The main organizations causing death are therefore those that cause occupational related deaths and since these organizations will also be the ones that most contribute to the pollution that causes lung disease and deaths from air-borne pollution we can say that corporations are the main cause of deaths in the UK.
Despite this there is very little comeback. Between 1994 and 2009 only 8 convictions for work-related corporate manslaughter and all of these were small companies.
Since the introduction of the 2007 Act up to 2017 there had been 25 prosecutions and of these 4 companies were acquitted. Most of those prosecuted were small companies.
That it is in fact the big companies causing harm is shown by the research underlying the question of climate change and the negative impact on the environment. Using the start date of 1965 on the basis that by then it was absolutely clear to business and political leaders that there was an issue with climate change and measuring the proportion of carbon emissions since then, the report in the Guardian shows that one-third of climate change harm is caused by just 20 companies, who are all fossil fuel companies. (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/09/revealed-20-firms-third-carbon-emissions)
At the same time as we have seen concern over this rise, the actual regulation of the harmful effects of corporations has been reduced, partly because much of the regulation is overseen by local government which as we know has been devastated by cuts.
Health and Safety Inspectors have been cut from 1483 in 2004 to 980 in 2016 and Local authority Health and Safety Inspectors have been cur from 1140 in 2004 to 711 in 2016.
Unfortunately, this was also partly encouraged by New Labour. The 2004 Hampton Review set up by Gordon brown has the remit to reduce the regulatory burden on business and when it reported in 2005, he summarised its approach as being: “not just a light touch but a limited touch”
As we now know, this limited touch regulation be enabling the climate which allowed banks to engage in risky activities which culminated in the Financial Crash in 2008/9 and for which UK taxpayers had to bail them out, as well as cuts to regulatory services more generally such as health and Safety inspectors outlined above.
Due to the large number of deaths associated with corporate activity we clearly do need to ensure that these potentially harmful organisations are very heavily regulated and inspected.
It is however not only deaths but financial loss that they cause
If we look at the recent behaviour of the corporate sector, we can see clear instances where their actions have led to millions of pounds of loss for millions of victims.
The Pension misspelling scandal was estimated to have cost 5 million people £11bn losses. The Endowment Mortgage mis selling is estimated to have cost 5 million people approx. £7bn in losses. The mis selling of PPI was estimated to have cost 4 million people £14bn in losses.
These are massive sums of money and massive numbers of victims and while in some cases companies have been forced to compensate victims, surely it would be better if they were stopped from causing these harms in the first place by much stronger policies of regulation and inspection.
Obviously in recent years one of the most enormous losses caused by corporate action relates to the Financial Crisis of 2008/9. The estimated cost to the Uk taxpayer of bailing out the banks from their own arrogance and stupidity was estimated at £137bn which then became public debt leading to some claiming this show the bad financial record of states.
In the USA, there was not only the direct cost of about $77bn to bail out the US banks but the Federal Reserve also coughed up $5 trillion in liquidity loans and guarantees for large non-US banks and another $10 trillion to other central banks via currency swap arrangements. While most of these guarantees and loans were actually paid back or not needed, this did place government institutions in a position of risk for some considerable time.
It also affected the balance sheets of most European economies and provided even more pressure of austerity measures.
So, we can see that if we allow these large corporate beasts to retain their limited liability protections and if we only regulate them lightly the effect will most likely be more massive social harms.
It is not as if this is the first time this has happened.
The east India company used torture, decapitation and living burning of their competitors as part of their strategy to get ahead. In WW1 General Butler estimated that it created over 21,000 new American millionaires and billionaires.
In WW2 General Motors of the USA manufactured German tanks and ITT ran Hitlers telecoms system. Standard Oil (now Exxon) carved up the oil and gas market with IG Farben.
In Chile in the 1970s ITT provided $1 million to the CIA to help destabilise the socialist government of Salvador Allende.
In Iraq 200 companies from 21 countries sold parts for weapons systems to Saddam Hussein. It is possible they also sold weapons to the armies who needed equipment to overthrow him later.
Nor is this something which has not been known to socialists.
Fred Engels developed the term social murder to cover those situations where people dies due to planned and systematic activity:
“When one individual inflicts bodily injury upon another such that death results, we call the deed manslaughter; when the assailant knew in advance that the injury would be fatal, we call his deed murder. But when society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live – forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence – knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual; disguised, malicious murder, murder against which none can defend himself, which does not seem what it is, because no man sees the murderer, because the death of the victim seems a natural one, since the offence is more one of omission than of commission. But murder it remains. I have now to prove that society in England daily and hourly commits what the working-men’s organs, with perfect correctness, characterise as social murder, that it has placed the workers under conditions in which they can neither retain health nor live long; that it undermines the vital force of these workers gradually, little by little, and so hurries them to the grave before their time. I have further to prove that society knows how injurious such conditions are to the health and the life of the workers, and yet does nothing to improve these conditions. That it knows the consequences of its deeds; that its act is, therefore, not mere manslaughter, but murder, I shall have proved, when I cite official documents, reports of Parliament and of the Government, in substantiation of my charge.” Engels, Condition of the Working Class in England, Chapter 7, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/condition-working-class/ch07.htm)
His approach was later used by Ellen Wilkinson writing about Jarrow in her 1939 book, The Town that was Murdered. Her account of the lives of those who went on the Jarrow March and the clear responsibility of the government for it remain a classic:
Wilkinson wrote that the death of Jarrow: “”is not a local problem. It is the symptom of a national evil” (Wilkinson, 1939, p.283). Shamefully when the marchers reached the Labour party conference, Wilkinson was attacked for:” “sending hungry and ill-clad men across the country” (p.204)
Wilkinson was right and we need to recover that ability to analyse the condition of the working class as the result of deliberate and intentional policies of government.
Certainty we can agree that the austerity governments of the Tories and Lid-Dems since 2010 have been a national evil. We can also hope that the response of the labour party to working class struggles today will be much more positive and that it will lead to manifesto commitments to clearly regulate companies to limit the harms they do.
Obviously, we also need to tackle the way Tories use government both national and local to pass business-friendly and therefore potentially harmful laws and regulations.
The most shocking symbol of the harms of austerity at the present time must be the burning Grenfell Tower where working class people were burned to death in their own homes due to the cost-cutting and non-responsiveness of the council in the richest borough in England in the 5th richest country on earth.
We could say never again but as I have tried to show the history of harmful impact goes back a long way. Socialists need to have these memories to provide them with the fire needed to ensure we can seek to try to ensure things like this never happen again. Even as this election was getting started, a fire at a Student Residence in Bolton showed that two years after Grenfell, the lessons are still not being learnt. Social Murder is still doing its deadly work.
However we now have a Labour Party prepared to talk out about this with John McDonnell making a clear use of the term ‘social murder’ when challenged about Grenfell https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jul/16/john-mcdonnell-says-grenfell-tower-disaster-was-social-murder and social murder being considered in depth as part of a new Open University Criminology course which has enrolled over 2500 students and has won an award for its coverage of the issues around Grenfell Tower.
Socialists must act to amplify these voices. Understanding crime as a social and structural phenomena is thankfully now well-entrenched in the Labour Party reflected in the following quote from the 2019 Labour Party Manifesto:
“Crime rates reflect the society we live in. Conservative cuts to services have eroded the
fabric of local communities. The rate of school exclusions has increased, as has social inequality
– crime rates are driven by both.” (p.42)
Corporations are at the heart of driving Tory policy and as we have shown harming the lives of ordinary people in ways both legal and illegal. We need to expand the scope of criminology into zemiology, the study of socially created harms and we need to act to remove harmful influences from society.