Beyond the Law:


Crime, Counter-Crime and Globalisation



The rise of globalisation is occurring hand in hand with a rise in crime of various sorts, ranging from petty street crime through violent drug gangs to international terrorism. Rarely do we hear the question of whether they are connected. Yet if we look in detail at the connection between crime and globalisation, some surprising results emerge.


The end of the Cold War left the US as the world's only superpower. However, this has not ushered in a new area of peace - far from it. The US saw itself as the world's policeman, and soon got involved in wars against "rogue states" such as Iraq and Serbia. However, this was followed by a new phenomenon: an open-ended War on Drugs, consisting of a combination of police and security service operations in the U.S. with military operations in countries such as Colombia and Panama.


This in turn seems to have laid the ground for the US response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September. A permanent war on terrorism, with the same open-ended combination of police, security service and military operations is now taking place on a much larger scale than the "war on drugs". It is unclear if it will ever be possible to win the war, or even know if the war has been won. The US military budget has been increased to $396 billion and may be increased still further. With it, the military's share of the world's economy increases.


Yet it is not just a military operation, nor even a military-plus-secret-service-plus-police operation. The private sector is involved too. After all, private firms provide security guards to virtually all business sectors. Though they are often poorly paid and inadequately trained, it is private security guards who continue to provide most of the front-line security services, despite government moves to federalise security for airlines and some "sensitive installations" such as dams and nuclear power stations.


The dramatic expansion at the "sharp end" of crime prevention and investigation following 11 September 2001 stands in contrast to the gradual, almost unnoticed expansion of all the support services which they depend on. The growth of the prison industry, particularly privately-run prisons, has attracted some attention. However, the plethora of new laws and regulations which comes into force each year attracts very little attention, neither do the army of regulators set up to enforce these new laws. Indeed, with all the talk of deregulation, one might think that governments were busy repealing laws rather than passing new ones.


Other businesses that ride the security bandwagon include companies providing insurance against crime, manufacturers and retailers of security products, and indeed the media, who have a tendency to hype certain major crimes (the Washington Sniper phenomenon) while reporting little on thousands of "ordinary" crimes, or indeed on figures that some types of crime are actually decreasing. Finally, the entertainment industry wraps it all up by supplying an endless stream of cops-and-robbers series and films, often based on crime novels.


All this creates a background of fear, which is then used to justify repressive measures that restrict freedom of movement and speech. CCTV surveillance, the US Department of Homeland Security, the development of "non-lethal" weapons (which, as the Moscow theatre siege showed, are actually quite lethal)... it doesn't seem to stop.


Yet none of these new repressive measures was able to cope with crime of a different kind: the global accounting scandals which started with Enron and WorldCom. Indeed, "white-collar" criminals seem often to receive relatively light punishments for defrauding thousands of people of their pensions.


Enron and WorldCom is just the latest development in a long history of business outside the law. Businesses have often formed cartels and trusts in an attempt to boost profits by wiping out competitors and hiking prices. These cartels - often but not always illegal - have used a variety of tactics, ranging from predatory pricing to Mafia-style intimidation to maintain their grip on the market. Indeed, in some places even the Mafia itself has long been in on the act - decades have passed since Mafia bosses started using the proceeds of drug trafficking to take over and control entire sectors such as garbage collection in New York City.


There is alarming evidence that this is now happening on a world scale. Entire stages of the production chain that leads from raw materials to products on the shelves are moving outside the law. When subcontractors in export processing zones in Asia can only assemble consumer goods profitably by breaking labour regulations, breaking the law moves to a new level, making the world's economy dependent on crime.


There is also the economic question of why big business should be turning to crime, despite having a vast range of legitimate business expansion strategies at its disposal. This can be looked at from the perspectives of various economic traditions. A Marxist analysis, for example, might indicate that, as competition and new technology causes falling rates of return, big business is now turning to crime in a new, ultra-parasitic form of capitalism. A "green economics" analysis would probably claim that turning to crime is a response to being unable to cope with ecological limits to growth. A traditional capitalist analysis, however, might claim that it merely demonstrates the failure of two recent trends: "crystal-ball capitalism", in which vast amounts of money are gambled on future expectations of business performance, and the trade in derivatives and currencies runs ahead of conventional investments; and "financial engineering", in which re-arranging a company's finances makes it appear more healthy.


Yet, while big business sees crime and crime prevention as a source of profit, innocent people are being turned into criminals for having the wrong piece of paper. Asylum seekers, although not guilty of any crime, are shut up in prison-like detention centres while officials of the repressive regimes which they tried to escape from are treated like VIPs. Still, with enough money it is possible to "buy" the right to reside in almost any country in the world, illustrating how in practice "human rights" are often only granted to rich people.


As well as affecting the economy, crime has major social effects, so a sociological analysis of the criminalisation of big business and ordinary people is also interesting. It requires the abandonment of the classical sociological idea that criminal behaviour is a subset of "deviant" behaviour, because of the emergence of socially acceptable crime. This results in a new battleground between social acceptability and the law, and it is interesting to speculate on the possible outcomes of the battle.


At the same time, it is worthwhile examining whether it is possible to counteract the criminal influences in the economy, or at least escape their clutches. For example, when conventional investments turn bad because of corporate fraud, this might raise interest in social and ethical investment.