Putting Corporations Behind Bars

February 24, 2015
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Putting Corporations Behind Bars

The HSBC scandal – involving wide scale tax evasion and money laundering, among other activities – is yet another example of how large, powerful institutions have come to believe that they can do whatever they like, regardless of the law, and can act unethically with perfect impunity; at least until now (and that’s before it all blows over again and shady business once more returns to abnormal). Fake moral outrage from the political classes aside, the behavior of HSBC – and probably everyone else in the financial sector – is hardly surprising given that the last 30 years or more have been utterly given over to non-democratic corporate interests and the neoliberal economic policy of deregulation (and all the others), which all but sanctions criminal activity in pursuance of the great god profit.

It is clear to many of us that this economic system is flawed and that large corporations and institutions cannot be trusted to police themselves, as they have been allowed to do. Just think about that concept for a second, about business policing itself, and then imagine applying that notion to the individual, like this: “I’m sorry, your Honor; I know I’ve murdered three people. I regret it. I sincerely do. But don’t worry about locking me up or punishing me in any meaningful way, because I’ll take care of that myself. I promise I’ll put in mechanisms to help prevent me from murdering more people in the future…” Such a concept of social justice is patently ridiculous… unless you’re a multinational business, that is, in which case murder is probably grounds for a bonus.

So perhaps it is time to try out something new, to take advantage of the HSBC scandal and the accompanying public scrutiny to propose a different approach to deterring corporate malfeasance. What I suggest is this: in just the same way that the state would imprison an individual citizen for a certain period of time in response to a criminal act, any company that has been involved in one form of illegality or another would also find itself in state custody for a specific period of time. All employees, at least those not involved in facilitating a company’s criminal enterprises, would remain in their jobs and receive their wages, but for the duration of the ‘sentence’ all other profits would go to the state – including those profits destined for the pockets of company shareholders, an act which might make them rather more conscious of best practice – to be funneled into areas such as housing, health and education.

Until now, or so it seems, companies have enjoyed the unfettered, unregulated liberty to ride roughshod over very important civil liberties. The idea of impounding a company’s profits for a judicially imposed custodial term might prove to be a very popular one. In fact, it is a notion that could take off in the United States, where free market ideologues have done their utmost to ensure that companies are afforded the same status and rights as individuals. This they have done, of course, to entirely benefit themselves, but it is a move that can feasibly be turned against corporate elites whenever the state invokes that other aspect of societal inclusion: penal incarceration. Since it is logistically impossible to put a company building or mission statement in prison, there is a certain moral logic to appropriating the profit. You could look at it as a long term fine. When push comes to shove, the bottom line is that what companies and corporations really care about – the only thing they care about – is their bottom line. It’s all about the money; and so that is how you punish the illegal actions of such an institution, by taking the money away from them.

Now, I recently put this idea out there to some friends of mine – both friends who are used to my bouts of leftist righteousness and others who find it annoying (I’m a socialist, so even my opinions are evenly distributed). Very quickly, I was accused of coming up with “a recipe for Putinist politicization of the justice system, and the use of the courts as a weapon in commerce.”

This immediately irritated me beyond belief. Leaving aside the fact that courts are already weapons in commerce (weapons that are set to become even more deadly if the purchased puppets currently populating global governing bodies succeed in pushing the corporatocratic TTIP through and consequently destroy any final vestige of true democracy forever), there’s nothing inherently “Putinist” about simply believing that when it comes to wrongful activity, companies and corporations should be held to the same standards of behavior and bound by the same system of law as the rest of us.

Like I said above, you can’t actually put a company in prison, as you can an individual, but you can make it subject to the same social device of making amends, of paying dues to the state and society. As we’ve seen time and time again, profit is the one thing business cares about (at the expense of absolutely everything else; people, the planet, ethics, fairness, justice; the list is endless), so we can at least impound the profit. It increasingly seems that this is the only way of punishing corporations for whom a slap on the wrist – usually consisting of a bit of bad press and a nominal fine easily paid with no fuss (other than the sulky fuss of a six-year old child with a crate of cookies who’s been told he has to give just one of them away) – is just a joke.

To call a desire to have a few regulatory legal standards applied to a sector of society that currently enjoys none “Putinist” is a glib nonsense; an easy – but erroneous – analogy: ‘Oooh, communist dictatorship!’ But here’s the thing: the neoliberal economic project is the real communist dictatorship, with the 1% at the top dictating how wealth is distributed (and, in case you were wondering, it’s not towards the other 99%). The free market is Putin.

Plus, Putinist – certainly the way my friend intended it – really implies a permanent sort of state control, whereas what I’m proposing is a temporary measure, exactly like a prison sentence. The idea is for the threat of profit-loss to act as a deterrent, one that hits where it hurts. Simply put, if it makes sense that the highest punishment an individual in a free society can face is the loss of freedom, then it makes equal sense that the highest punishment for those whose existence is predicated on the accumulation of profit should be the loss of profit.

The fact of the matter is that as things currently stand, the justice system is already politicized. It is politicized by free market ideology, with the law dictated by corporate stooges (and dictated in their favor) and a political class all too willing to sell democracy for its own personal gain, which is why the likes of HSBC thinks it can act the way it has been (and how all the other banks and financial institutions and multinationals, you can be completely sure, are still happily carrying on while HSBC pulls all the nasty focus).

Allowing this stupid myth of self-regulation to continue is not going to change anything. It hasn’t, it doesn’t and it won’t. The state has to intervene. The law needs to be applied. To everyone. “I’m sorry and I promise not to do it again,” just isn’t good enough. With people still suffering the consequences of a global financial crash – the result of the unchecked greed of free market neoliberalism – with people being forcibly removed from their homes for missing a rent payment; with entire nations, such as Greece, being made to bow down before a large-scale institutional loan shark, or blackmailed by the likes of Philip Morris International into dropping laws that adversely affects its people-killing profits; with all this going on, the danger is that everyone else will start to think the same, and twisted corporate lawlessness will become ungoverned social lawlessness.

Social cohesion depends on equality and fairness and justice. Margaret Thatcher, the Holy Virgin Mother of Neoliberal credo (which probably makes Ronald Reagan its Joseph), famously told us, “there is no such thing as society,” and while one section of the modern world is allowed to do as it will without fear of reprisal (let’s call that corporate immunity), while the other is policed to an almost insane degree (and sometimes, literally, to death), then the mean old Handbag herself is right.

It is not “Putinist” to demand that we are all treated the same and that nobody receives special treatment; it is not “Putinist” to demand that corporations exercise the same social standards as individual citizens and face the same consequences when those standards aren’t met. What is “Putinist” is making sure that there’s one rule for some and another for everyone else. What is “Putinist” is greed and the pursuit of wealth and power as an end in itself.

I don’t want a totalitarian state. I don’t want to be brought down beneath the yoke of a blind economic hegemony or have the state dictate my every move. We already have that, thanks very much. No, what I want is for the over-privileged to inhabit this world; what I want is for arrogant, sociopathic corporate gasbags to quit laughing in or faces. Basically, what I want is for a bunch of puckered blowholes to stop getting away with it.

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