Marxism and Corporate Crime in the 21st Century: Interview with Frank Pearce

In the face of the massive and ongoing social, environmental and financial devastation and destruction caused by (increasingly) multinational/transnational corporations, and as Western capitalist states continue to support and advance capitalism’s imperialist tendencies, Steve Bittle interviewed Frank Pearce (author of the influential Crimes of the Powerful: Marxism, Crime and Deviance, The Radical Durkheim and (with Steve Tombs) Toxic Capitalism: Corporate Crime in the Chemical Industry) about the changing relevance of Marxist scholarship for interrogating crimes of the powerful.

Below is a Shortened Version of the Interview.

SB: It’s been almost 40 years since you published Crimes of the Powerful: Marxism, Crime and Deviance, in which you used Marxist theory to clearly demonstrate how criminology and sociology have failed to study the state and the related activities of the ruling class. Could you provide some context for the development of this work and in particular what led you to commit yourself to Marxist theorising?

FP: In answer to your question about the context for the development of Crimes of the Powerful: Marxism, Crime and Deviance, here I give some sense of the continuity and changes that can be identified in the intellectual, social and political realms in which I was personally immersed. My world moreover in its broad outlines is similar to that of many of the people involved in the critical criminology movement in Britain from its beginnings in the late sixties. In 1950s Britain there were only a few sociology departments and sociology and sociological criminology were as often as not taught in social work or law departments. They were taught in a way that it was hoped would facilitate the workings of the courts and render less intractable the more deviant of the social worker’s clients, particularly those families with no interest in education. Sometimes this showed a Fabian sensibility but it was generally theoretically unselfconscious. The exceptions to this rule were primarily influenced by American structural functionalism.

At that time only 6% of each age cohort of young people went to university, i.e. for every eighteen year old who became a university student there would be fifteen others who had finished their education between their fifteenth and eighteenth year. Women were under-represented, while obviously being approximately 50% of the population they made up only 25% of university students. Furthermore at that time most of those who attended, 75% of these students came from the 25% of the population who were middle or upper class; 25% were from the 75% of people who were working class; for every middle class person who went to university 5 did not; for every working class person who went to university, 50 did not; the working class student was 10 times less likely to be at university than a middle or upper class student. In the late 1960s enrolment increased in Britain and Sociology, as a new discipline, in particular, benefitted from this increase.

Because of Keynesian policies and a somewhat Fordist economic regime, the universities continued to expand in the 1970s and while the class based comparative advantage remained there was still an increase in the number of working class students and an intensification and generalization of primarily working class youth cultures, which created greater confidence in the value of these non-dominant cultures, legitimating the skepticism about consensual theories of society, felt by many working class students, including myself.

As radicals became more and more aware of the structures of dominance and began to think through how class privilege and class exploitation worked, individually and collectively many turned to Marx’s account of class exploitation. There was a tremendous increase in the knowledge of his writings and a new awareness of, and some reconnection to, a long revolutionary tradition. This inevitably had consequences in the academy. The Symbolic Interactionists were criticised for being at best, radical pluralists. The Weberians were challenged for their avoidance of Weber’s marginalist economics and his authoritarian and nationalist politics. Let it not be forgotten that in January 1919, Weber denouncing the Spartakists, asserted [Karl] “Liebknecht belongs in the madhouse and Rosa Luxemburg in the zoo.” There is little doubt that his comments contributed to the poisonous atmosphere, which contributed to their murder the following week.

I have no desire to make exaggerated claims for Crimes of the Powerful, but I do believe that its orientation was far from typical at that time. What the book made unusually available was the theoretical grounds for the position that it argued. Its object was the corporation in a global corporate capitalist economy and required a theorization of the nature of the state, economy and society relations both nationally and internationally. Corporate capitalism, like all capitalisms, is based upon the extraction of surplus value but it is much more efficient at doing so than family businesses or those based upon partnerships. There is also an impetus to become large vertically integrated economic actors, which collectively become oligopolistic.

The book was a tentative beginning of analysis, which could be built upon to develop more comprehensive accounts of State(s), economy (ies), society (ies) and ideology (ies). In the book correlations between the ways that these institutions worked were taken, quite reasonably, as indicators of causal relations, but this was a hypothesis that required additional and more detailed explorations of the mechanisms that might explain these correlations. This would require further empirical and theoretical work.

SB: Subsequent to writing Crimes of the Powerful your own work seems to have shifted in that you have explored theoretical issues relating to Foucault, Althusser, Durkheim and Mauss. In what ways has this work influenced your own thinking about the place of Marxism in social scientific explorations of social and societal entities and relations? What sorts of empirical and theoretical issues have these lines of inquiry opened-up for you?

FP: I was well aware that while retaining the theoretical gains that Crimes of the Powerful had made possible, it was necessary to go beyond it. This proved a much greater and more interesting task than I expected. I taught Social Theory for many more years, reading Marx, Gramsci and Althusser, carefully and critically, but also reading Durkheim and Foucault in the same way. Eventually I moved on to, what I believe to be, a relatively undogmatic, stucturalist and poststructuralist articulation of Marx, Gramsci, Althusser, Foucault and Durkheim. But I was not tied to anybody else’s orthodoxy. I have never deviated from my belief that it is a correct premise of much Marxist thought that a socialist revolution requires the seizure of the means of production by the proletariat, which it should continue to collectively control just as much as it needs to nullify the coercive state.

The government in Britain in the late 70s was a lack-lustre Labour one, the Party was in office but hardly in power. This became evident when the Prime Minister James Callaghan and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey, seeking some support from the IMF were offered a loan but only if they changed from their then current policies and accepted the IMF’s agenda. This they did and, moreover, they failed to make any defence of their own previous policies, which involved efforts to limit wage increases while engaging in a somewhat ad hoc mix of Keynesianism and some timid redistributive policies while still providing many services through nationalized industries including the provision of health-care services and welfare. The IMF demanded measures to lower wages and to drastically cut government expenditure particularly in the area of welfare. In fact this exacerbated class conflict and the Labour Party became more and more a right wing party.

After the so-called “Winter of Discontent” in 1979 Margaret Thatcher managed to gain power. People on the left knew that her pre-Keynesian ideas and policies would undermine equality of opportunity, exacerbate poverty and cause crisis after crisis, but few anticipated how different was her idea of a successful society from even Liberal Welfarism nor how much she would silence any critical assessment of her policies or opposition to them.

Nevertheless at least until the late 1980s, this was a period of great intellectual ferment. There were, of course schisms in Marxism but fortunately for us we had not yet been misled by the faux radicalism of the postmodern versions of post-structuralism. It was not in its beginnings a time of defeat, of resignation or fearfulness. The same was true in the U.S., at least politically.

SB: I think a great example of how your work shifted somewhat following Crimes of the Powerful is evidenced in your rather different book Toxic Capitalism: Corporate Crime and the Chemical Industry written by you and Steve Tombs? This was written some 20 years after Crimes of the Powerful and in it you and Steve critically interrogate the chemical industry, particularly in relation to the devastation caused by Union Carbide in the Bhopal chemical disaster. What does this work reveal about the nature of corporate power and the inability (unwillingness?) of states to regulate corporations?

Yes, in late 1984, there was a dramatic and tragic event that forced me to sharpen my focus and to try and make sense of the complex processes that lead to a completely avoidable “accident”. In December of that year, the population of the city of Bhopal was devastated by the release of a cocktail of gases by Union Carbide India Limited, a wholly owned subsidiary of the American Multinational Union Carbide Corporation.

The Bhopal gas disaster, within days, led to the deaths of 7,000 Indian men, women and children and subsequently the deaths of another 18,000 or more. The victims were mainly, but not exclusively, the poor and defenseless. When I first realized that such a tragedy was unfolding, I hoped that, like some Tsunamis, it was the unpredictable effect of capricious natural forces. I did not wish on anyone the terrible responsibility for what occurred. But, a careful examination, interpretation of, and theorization of, a great deal of evidence made available by victims, medical personnel, scientific reports, and by investigative work by researchers, media reporters and by activists lead Steve Tombs and myself to the unequivocal conclusion that this was a completely avoidable disaster. The actions that led to it were imbricated in capitalistic, imperialistic, elitist, scientistic, and neoliberal practices and were the consequences of what are often represented as “morally neutral” or “amoral” calculations by a wide range of social actors; these include corporate executives, engineers and investors, politicians, and members of regulatory agencies and academics, in the USA, India and internationally. They’re indifferent and knowing neglect of attention to the likely catastrophic consequences of their actions means that far from being amoral they were culpably immoral. Coming to this conclusion has required the deployment of political economy, sociology, criminology, and legal discourses.

Toxic Capitalism is only one of the places where Steve Tombs and I have explored the issues raised by the Bhopal tragedy; another one of these is our recent e-book, Bhopal: Flowers of Profit and Power (2013), and, most recently, the special issue on “Bhopal and after: The Chemical Industry as Toxic Capitalism,” Social Justice December 2014, in this case I co-edited the special issue with Tomas Macsheoin, and Steve Tombs and Dave Whyte, contributed to it a powerful article on the human cost of dangerous workplaces in this moment of globalising capital.

SB: Changing topic somewhat, in recent years you have spoken and written about notions of sacrifice in terms of understanding modern capitalism and its seemingly endless capacity to overlook the harms that result from the pursuit of profits. Can you speak to the concept of sacrifice in your own work? Does it fit in with your work on Bhopal?

FP: My work in this area is very grounded in the reworking of Durkheim and Marx to be found in my book, The Radical Durkheim. Its first edition was published in 1989, and the second edition was published in 2001 and in 2012 Red Quill published an ebook edition. My goal has been and remains to critically work upon Durkheim’s texts to produce a rigorous and potentially fruitful Durkheimianism and then similarly work on Marxist texts to produce in its turn a rigorous and potentially fruitful Marxism and to then forge new non-eclectic syntheses. One aspect of this re-theorisation is my ongoing work on sacrifice.

Now, in a brilliantly named book, Sacrifice Zones: The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure in the United States (2010) Steve Lerner demonstrates once again that in the name of progress the racialised, the poor, the marginalised are still paying the price of America’s “Manifest Destiny”. According to an article in the October 31, 1988 issue of the New York Times, at a number of Superfund sites decommissioned nuclear laboratories and plants had been left to rot. “Engineers at the Energy Department have privately begun calling such contaminated sites “national sacrifice zones” The term “sacrifice zones” has been taken up by environmental activists. It is used to dramatise how in the routine production, reproduction and development of the American economy, which supposedly benefits all, the most dangerous production processes, and the most likely dumping ground for the most toxic waste are the zones where live the racialised poor. While they are subject to the risk of great harm to the health of themselves and their children, the wealthy white corporate elite monopolise the safer and more ecologically sound locations, both in the USA and internationally. But America has long represented itself as a meritocracy and as subject to the rule of law. The racialised poor have little chance of bettering their situation but are expected to make an equivalent contribution to the society as the average citizen with the implicit promise equal benefits. Globally, the same is true, many more have been, and continue to be, sacrificed, in regions of other countries and continents.

One example of my attempt at a critical understanding is the article, “Obligatory Sacrifice and Imperial Projects” (2010). In this I use the work of Durkheim, Mauss and Hubert on the sacred and sacrifice and I use Marx’s discussion of social formations to see what, if anything, contemporary American military ventures have in common with Aztec military adventures, which involved human sacrifice. I am including some extracts from the article plus additional commentary to indicate the direction of the analysis thus far.

Read Frank Pearce’s Obligatory Sacrifice and Imperial Projects

Briefly, I argue that successful imperialist societies always impose great sacrifices, including death and physical injury, on their victims, the members of the societies that they dominate – one only has to pay attention to the mass killings engaged in by Belgium, France, Britain, Spain, Germany, and the USA – but, in the process, they also are careless about the lives and well being of many of their own members. While the first of these is generally understood to be suffered involuntarily, and a matter-of-fact consequence of war, the latter is represented as a quite voluntary choice of patriotic citizens. But, if so, it is often only formally so.

SB: As a final question, I’d like to return to the role of Marxist thinking for interrogating crimes of the powerful. What are your thoughts about the state of Marxist scholarship today as it relates to this issue? I’m thinking particularly about the recent upsurge in Marxist commentaries following the 2008 global financial meltdown. While this work has produced considerable insight into the contradictions of capitalism that helped generate the economic crisis, there seems to be an almost begrudging or qualified acceptance of this work in broader academic circles – that it has its place in understanding the nature of the problem but only in these ‘extreme’ cases and only to the extent that this way of thinking does not lead to socialist struggles. Perhaps this is most clearly reflected by the fact that state responses to the 2008 crisis have been, for the most part, more of the same and few academics appear interested in a truly Marxian resolution to the contradictions of capitalism.

FP: I think that the place to start is to consider the role of hegemony. Hegemonic ideologies limit the ability of those caught within them to move there thinking beyond their received wisdom. This is even true when the mismatch between how its crowing cheerleaders represent capitalism and its observable inability to delivery on its promises become glaringly obvious; these promises include a generalized shared prosperity, and a society that is essentially meritocratic. Members of such societies reflecting upon their own experiences and what they hear and read – even when much of it is framed in terms of conservative ideologies – find these promises increasingly difficult to reconcile with these experiences. We need only look to the implausibilities associated with the growing disparity between the extremely wealthy minority versus the majority who suffer the consequences of this increasing concentration of power and resources and the failure of these elites to do anything about the problem of global warming. This creates a problem for all whose horizon of possibilities is limited to versions of capitalist economies and compatible legal and other institutions. Thus, if we look at the corporate crime literature, we see a long tradition of pluralistic thinking. And when these pluralist theorists are confronted with clear contradictions in capital, and when there are dramatic crises as we saw in 2008, then there may be recognition of the need to broaden their thinking.

There is a definite lack of serious debate. Marxism has a reputation for criticizing other views and so it should. One aspect of this is identifying confusions, incoherences and contradictions in one or more theoretical discourse(s) but, if possible, to then move beyond them by a transcendental synthesis of what is valid in each. Such critical readings need to be scrupulously accurate in their account of the discourse, including its tacit assumptions, and carefully cite the evidence that justifies negative judgements. This can produce counter critiques and an agonistic relationship may develop. This kind of challenge is intrinsic to intellectual development and the current tendency to avoid serious engagements can only particularly limit the robustness of theories not willing to engage with critiques. Without challenge and exchange theories and theorists are likely to become more and more tautological. In this context there is a sort of endless revisability to discourse that allows pluralists not to address the contradictions that Marxism so clearly demonstrates.

There’s a final point that I’d like to make here, and it relates to the work of Antonio Labriola who noted that the beginning of the 19th century marked the emergence of the proletariat. It was a time when labour became disembodied from the community; the idea that basically certain propertyless and unrooted people were for all intents and purposes replaceable, one with the other, and their individuality was a matter of indifference. Workers were together out of a contingent necessity and neither formed nor represented any community. They were alienated. Labriola goes on to say that Marx and the other communists were writing at a unique moment historically – they were witnessing the creation of abstract labour – and their interpretation of this played a key role in the self-consciousness of workers. The Communist Manifesto is a prescient document that catalogued a key moment, but what I think is really important is that there is nothing essential about this outcome, it is all contingent. It was within this context that both Labriola and Gramsci clearly stressed the necessity to organize and change people’s consciousness to challenge the non-essentialist reality of abstract labour.

So, if we return to my work in Crimes of the Powerful, I’ve always found it peculiar that it is seen by some as being reductionist or economistic. Its actual underpinning assumption is that the social world is a creation of social beings in relationships, but people do what they can with what they have within the particular social relations and discourses. It’s about how capitalism comes through societies and relations to produce economic reductionism, not that the analysis is reductionist. Capitalism is a force, not a planned or automatic outcome. We therefore need to remember that there are examples of capitalism failing and we should note that there has been a failure to date to resolve the contradictions made manifest in the financial crisis of 2006-2008.






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