Systematic Crimes of the Powerful: Criminal Aspects of the Global Economy

By Mackenzie, Simon | Social Justice, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview
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Systematic Crimes of the Powerful: Criminal Aspects of the Global Economy


Mackenzie, Simon, Social Justice


The Criminological Contours of Global Poverty

AT THE G8 SUMMIT IN GLENEAGLES IN JULY 2005, LEADERS OF THE WORLD'S eight richest countries finally agreed to write off 100% of the debt owed by 18 of the world s poorest countries, totaling around $40 billion. Such apparent altruism gives us pause to consider the historical development of these international debts, and the political economy, which may help us to give context to the generosity of the G8. The agreement to write off these debts came under the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative, which links debt forgiveness to the implementation and maintenance of macroeconomic, poverty-reduction, and structural reform policies satisfactory to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In total, 38 countries are currently considered HIPCs; debt-relief campaigners argue that the total should be 62. It is difficult not to praise this debt relief, insufficient as it may be, knowing that it will save lives. As it is linked to the policy requirements of the World Bank and the IMF, however, we should ask whether these policies are themselves helpful in relieving poverty, and whether they have systematically beneficial outputs to poor countries, to rich countries, or are neutral in this regard. Or, more tersely, do we agree that "a man is benefiting his wife if he beats her up ever less frequently" (Pogge, 2004: 273)?

Almost half of the world's population (47%) together earn one-quarter percent of global income. Not one quarter of global income--which in itself might seem iniquitous--but one-quarter percent. One-fifth of the world's population exist in conditions of abject poverty (Kim et al., 2000). The harms caused by such massive poverty are manifold, and avoidable:

   We confront poverty statistics such as these: out of a total of
   6 billion human beings, some 2.8 billion live below $2/day,
   and nearly 1.2 billion of them live below the $1/day
   international poverty line. 799 million are undernourished, 1
   billion lack access to safe water, 2.4 billion lack access
   to basic sanitation, and 876 million adults are illiterate.
   More than 880
   million lack access to basic health services. Approximately 1
   billion have no adequate shelter and 2 billion no electricity. Two
   out of five children in the developing world are stunted, one in
   three is underweight, and one in ten is wasted ... Roughly
   one-third of all human deaths, some 50,000 daily, are due to
   poverty-related causes, easily preventable through better
   nutrition, safe drinking water, vaccines, cheap re-hydration
   packs, and antibiotics (Pogge, 2004: 265-266).

The analysis in this article begs two key questions. First, do we need to argue for the inclusion within criminology of some forms of currently noncriminal harm to conduct a criminological analysis of the global economy? That is, must we move beyond state definitions of crime to conduct a satisfactory critique of this type? Second, what is to be gained by arguing that harms consequent upon the workings of the global economy are or are not "crimes"?

Friedrichs and Friedrichs (2002) have addressed these questions in a criminological case study of the World Bank's building of a dam in Thailand. This study serves as the point of departure for the present inquiry, being as far as I am aware the first systematic attempt to analyze the actions of one of the International Financial Institutions (IFIs) as "a form of crime and a criminological phenomenon" (Ibid.: 13). In many ways, this approach is the natural extension of a respectable tradition acknowledging the artifice of the category of crime and its susceptibility to influence (including Sellin, 1938; Sutherland, 1940, 1945, 1949; Aubert, 1952; Becker, 1963; Geis, 1968; Schwendinger and Schwendinger, 1970; Cohen, 1972, 1993; Taylor, Walton, and Young, 1973; Reiman, 1979; Messner and Rosenfeld, 1994; Slapper and Tombs, 1999; Taylor, 1999; Christie, 2004-one could go on).

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