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Crimes of the Powerful and Insurgent Resistance: an Introduction

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This column is concerned with those activities of powerful institutional and individual agents that significantly harm individual citizens, communities and, indeed, the very social fabric of our societies. Some of these acts are, in theory at least, subject to the criminal law. Others may be sanctionable by administrative or civil law. Yet others, while not currently illegal, may violate clearly enunciated moral norms that inform the legal ideas behind existing law. There are many instances in which advocates of greater social protection have shown convincingly how such legal principles could be elaborated and existing laws widened to subject the conduct of these privileged agents to the equivalent degree of control exercised over the average individual. That such changes rarely occur is more to do with the political influence of those that they might “interfere with” than with the potential of the law itself.

When we write about crimes of the powerful we think of the pillaging of pension funds, the fleecing of investors, misleading advice and fraudulent contracts, the poisoning of communities, the maiming of workers and the selling of dangerously defective goods to consumers. Typically, the perpetrators of these acts are business enterprises and in the contemporary world these are usually limited liability corporations.   But they are by no means the only culprits, the military has left a swathe of destruction and poisonous waste across massive areas of often pristine countryside - weapons production and testing leaving contaminated land and animals and humans.   Military personnel, their allies and their enemies, often unbeknown to themselves, have been, and still are, exposed to damagingly high levels of intense radiation. Given that state agencies are the key actors in these areas, these are accurately defined as state crimes, a subgroup of which – given the symbiotic relations that exist in “military-industrial complexes” - may be further specified as state-corporate crimes.

There is another obvious sense in which states may be implicated in crime, namely through aggressive relation to other states and to other peoples. There already exists sets of treaties, and court systems which have developed an international law and, in particular, have adjudicated on war crimes, genocide etc. It is true that some major states have refused to sign relevant treaties but an elaborate and sophisticated corpus of law already exists. This is an invaluable resource for investigating state crimes, and one which will provide a backdrop to discussions in this column. The shameful and deceitful manipulations used to justify the second Iraq war are the tip of the iceberg and sadly there will be much to discuss. The “war against terror” will inevitably be an important focus, not least because it has been used and continues to be used to subvert democratic aspects of our political systems including legal protections of our rights to think, organize and act collectively. This has led to a revival of popular and academic interest in states of exception and martial law and it will be addressed here.

This raises a second major theme of this column: insurgent resistance.   We anticipate that descriptions of particular crimes of the powerful will both pay careful attention to the needs and demands of their victims and alert us to how we can offer practical help to them. We wish to highlight and give voice to those struggling to right the injustices they have suffered from crimes of the powerful. We can not only learn a great deal about dignity and courage but also about new strategies of resistance, new diagnoses of how and why these harms are inflicted on the vulnerable, and what needs to be changed to end these outrages.

We invite submissions and we look forward to a deepening of our understanding.

Frank Pearce, Professor of Sociology, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada. To contact Frank with submissions or ideas for a contribution, e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Steve Tombs, Professor of Sociology, Liverpool John Moores University. To contact Steve with submissions or ideas for a contribution, e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Frank Pearce, Professor of Sociology, Queen's University, Canada, and Steve TombsProfessor of Sociology, Liverpool John Moores University.

For Part 1, click on Flowers at the Altar of Profit and Power: the Continuing Disaster at Bhopal.

For Part 2, click on Flowers at the Altar of Profit and Power Part 2: Explaining the Disaster at Bhopal

For Part 3, click on Flowers at the Altar of Profit and Power Part 3: Was the disaster at Bhopal "unforeseeable"?

For Part 4, click on Flowers at the Altar of Profit and Power Part 4: the Bhopal "Settlement

For Part 5, click on Bhopal: criminal, immoral or the cost of business as usual?

Click on References for the extensive bibliography on the Bhopal disaster used in this article and the series to follow. The series makes use of ch. 6 of Frank Pearce and Steve Tombs' Toxic Capitalism: Corporate Crime in the Chemical Industry, 1998, Ashgate: Aldershot; paperback version, 1999, Canadian Scholars Press, Toronto. See also: Tombs, S. and Whyte, D. (2007) Safety Crimes. Cullompton: Willan.

Support CrimeTalk by buying these books through the CrimeTalk Shop.

A FREE pdf copy of Toxic Capitalism can be downloaded at Frank Pearce's website here.

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