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Banking frauds: the failure of liberal-left criminology

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In his 'Moral standards in the city', Colin Sumner is right to point out the impunity with which the current banking oligarchs operate. In his recent book Inside Job, Charles Ferguson furnishes us with a thick description of the sheer fraud that has been at the centre of the deregulated banking industry since the 1980s, which led up to the credit crunch, quantitative easing that did not produce lending, deficit panic, austerity, unemployment, the Eurozone crisis – you’ll be sick and tired of the whole dismal story, I won’t go any further.

We seem to be moving towards some sort of hi-tech Dark Age feudalism and there's nothing we can do about it. Sumner uses the example of Bob Diamond, recently in the UK news, and his attempts to manipulate lending rates. Diamond is small-fry - recently the Oracle CEO Larry Ellison bought Lanai, a Hawaiian island , for $600 million whilst the USA and Europe are slashing public service budgets.

However, I'm not sure that Sumner is entirely right when he says that criminology simply 'focuses on working-class crime'. For sure, conservative criminologists have no qualms about demonising the workers (and ex-workers), but the problem with the large field of criminology that represents the centre-left position, and which is dominant in academia, is that it hardly focuses on crime at all; it mutated into what Jason Ditton called 'controlology' a long time ago.

Thanks to Foucault, Cohen and others, criminology is now so relativistic and obsessed with authority and control that crime itself, and the harm that underlies it, has been neglected for some time now. We've been conditioned into thinking that crime is nothing more than the ideological product of a 'moral panic'. The slightest whiff of condemnation is censored by the human rights technicians who dominate the discipline, just in case the innocent get caught up in the groundswell of disgust and anger. Human rights technicians do a valuable job, of course, but liberalism operates with a very minimalist version of the category, the ‘avoidance of mistreatment’, as Alain Badiou once said. We can’t ask for rights above that, of course, such as the right to economic participation – it might upset the markets!

We can condemn nothing, really, because we still live in the shadow of the political catastrophes of the 1930s and 1940s. The foundation of our post-war thinking is that real politics will inevitably lead to totalitarianism, the Gulag, the secret police and all the rest of it. Because it sits right at the forefront of what could be ethical condemnation, criminology has been more heavily policed by liberal catastrophists than most disciplines. The political effect of this anti-aetiological negativism is that whilst it takes the condemnatory heat off the working class it also takes it off the powerful.

Mike Levi tells us in his otherwise excellent and seminal work on fraud that 'the powerful' don't exist because they don't share identifiable common interests. Really? You could have fooled me. When it comes down to condemning the new oligarchs and exercising political forces against them, we have nothing in our armoury, because we have unilaterally disarmed ourselves. It's time for a sea-change in criminological theory and research, part of an overall return to politics and social dialectics. Liberal-leftism is finished as a political force, and, as the unashamed forces of late capitalism take us to the edge of a socioeconomic abyss, some revived dialectical force had better take up the reins… before the hard right do.

Steve Hall is professor of criminology at Teesside University's, Social Futures Institute. He has recently authored Theorizing Crime and Deviance [2012 Sage) and edited, with Simon Winlow, New Directions in Criminological Theory (2012 Routledge).

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