Criminals of the Upperworld

The «White Collar Crime»
Or How To Mock Society While Still Being Classy

Philadelphia,1939. On the occasion of the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting, sociologist Edwin H. Sutherland gives a Presidential Address, which far from being a sort of a remedy for contemporary etiological theories of crime -as ironically described by himself-, turns out to be a virulent accusation regarding the illegal behaviour of “those of respectability and high social status committing crime in the course of their occupation”. Thus was the expression ‘white collar crime’ first coined, in order to denounce the inner contradictions of the criminal justice system, as punitive law was being applied selectively and therefore the dark figure of crime was being perpetuated.

After ten years of further research into the phenomenon, Sutherland managed to publish an exhaustive monograph, The White Collar Crime (1949), in which devastating documentation was offered to prove how America’s 70 largest private companies and 15 public utility corporations had been responsible for the perpetration of crimes with insulting impunity. According to its theory, both social and personal pathologies such as poverty, broken homes and disturbed personalities were no more to be blamed as reasons for criminal misconduct, since old prevailing theories were backed by statistics based on slanted population samples. As a matter of fact, traditional hypothesis obviated that statistics were being doubly vitiated given that the upper classes were liable to avoid the reach of Justice due to powerful economic connections, and that the partiality of the Administration of Justice concerning laws being applied exclusively to business was negligent. Thereby, according to Sutherland, it might have been considerably difficult to both media owners and Government staff to be critical about these misdeeds, whereas they parallel attempted to keep their income level.

It goes without saying that Sutherland’s work produced great puzzlement within the American society of the middle third of the twentieth century. A brief wave of research into the topic was soon followed by a policy of disregard which came at the hand of a politically conservative climate that spread across the United States. Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s ‘Witch-Hunt’ conveyed a message disseminating the idea that disagreement with capitalist orthodoxy, apart from being subversive and unpatriotic, represented a solid ground for professional excommunication. Massive rejection of the Vietnam War,  the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement and the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s led back to distrust concerning those holding the reins of power.

Sutherland’s contribution to the debate on the aetiology of crime intensified controversy due to the fact that the concept of corporate organizational-crime was germane to the idea of white-collar crime as then understood. Hence, it was emphasized the distinction between those criminologists in favour of the application of etiological theories to corporate criminal offences, and those who strongly disagreed. In contrast to the current jurisprudential practice in both the United States and Great Britain, the truth is that most of European and Asian countries have shown reluctant to companies being put on trial until recently, that the validity of the old Latin aphorism Societas Delinquere Non Potest has begun to crumble.

Even though Sutherland’s theory has been subsequently reconceptualised and now it remains almost as a mere historical benchmark, it is a truth generally acknowledged that his complaint is liable to reach beyond technical points and discussions on doctrinal criteria to become the cornerstone of some of today’s incandescent moral debates. Corruption, antitrust violations, fraud between financial institutions, bribery, embezzlement and tax fraud (leaning on indulgent tax systems) seem to be the order of the day at the present time. The widespread attention aroused by recent corporate scandals reflects the reinforcement of a public opinion demanding fair commercial practices. After all, Aristotle would say that the biggest crimes were caused rather by excess than out of necessity.

Iceland made lately his former Prime Minister become the first world leader to face criminal charges in relation to the global financial crisis. Whom are we demanding accountability?

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Derecho y sociedad, Penal |