Elite deviance is one of the most pervasive and persistent social problems in the world today. It consists of criminal and deviant acts by persons of the highest socioeconomic status employed by or for the largest corporations and the most powerful political organizations. Such acts violate generalized rules of appropriate behavior by perpetuating various social harms and by enriching persons or corporations at public expense. The global reach of elite deviance is currently demonstrated by the involvement of elites in the proliferation of international money laundering, the continuing evidence of global environmental pollution, and the subsidizing of illegal wars in which elites form strategic alliances with known drug traffickers, arms dealers, and global crime syndicates.
Elite deviance is produced by a system of political economy in which wealth and power are increasingly held by a small elite. This elite believes that its power enables it the right to construct its own norms or to evade culturally accepted rules of conduct in political and economic spheres of influence. It does not care that such self-constructed standards or evasive actions may run counter to societal norms or offend deeply held values.
There are at least three kinds of elite deviance: acts of economic domination, crimes of government and governmental control, and denial of basic human rights.
Acts of economic domination are crimes and unethical deeds committed by a single corporation or by multiple corporations in league with other organizations, including governments. Violations of antitrust laws, price fixing, false advertising, corporate influence peddling, fraud, and corruption are prime examples of such domination. The pervasiveness of this kind of elite behavior is represented by the phenomenon of corruption. Corruption is estimated to add up to 10 percent to the cost of doing business in many parts of the world; bribery alone has become a $1 trillion industry, according to the World Bank. Like most acts of economic domination, bribery persists because the benefits of the act far outweigh the minimal risks of apprehension and penalty.
Acts of economic domination also encompass business crimes such as the failure to correct unsafe working conditions and the deliberate manufacturing of a wide range of potentially hazardous products, including financial services products. The lack of effective government regulation of business in such cases makes the government a witting partner in the production or reproduction of such unsafe practices and products. For example, lack of government regulation played a substantial role in the events leading to the economic crisis of 2008. The financial services industry was deregulated in 1999 when the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 was overturned after strong industry lobbying. The act made it illegal for bank-holding companies to own investment banks and other financial companies.
Overturning this act deregulated the entire financial services industry, allowing banks and insurance firms to engage in risky ventures. At the same time, it enabled a virtual deregulation of the real estate mortgage industry. Consequently, a massive $1.5 trillion subprime mortgage market was born in which predatory lending practices allowed mortgage loans to be sold to consumers who were unable to repay them. These bad mortgages were bundled and basically hidden by the invention of some new investment securities, which also were invented thanks to deregulated markets, including $4 trillion in collateralized debt obligations or CDOs. CDOs are pooled groups of individual subprime loans that bore the original rating of AAA, but later were found to be in serious risk of default. These instruments were sold to school districts, cities, pension funds, banks, and foreign governments.
Crimes of government and governmental control are illegal actions by governmental agents that are performed in pursuit of broadly defined organizational goals and with the support and encouragement of a formal organizational structure. The crimes may permeate governmental institutions and may be deemed necessary for the survival of the bureaucracy’s agenda and mandate, and they may be considered critical for continuing the existing political economic order. For example, the obstruction of justice crimes of the Nixon administration during the Watergate scandal were committed in the name of national security to protect the nation from domestic enemies and to shield the political economic order from what was alleged at the time to be a radical takeover of the United States. Tamping down individuals and groups thought to be threats to national security may result in the civil liberties of citizens being violated. During Watergate, one of the articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon accused him of using government agencies to audit the tax returns of political enemies and of arranging for the electronic surveillance of opponents’ activities.
More recently, some Green activists in the United States, including animal rights and environmental activists, claim that their civil liberties were violated by the increased scrutiny they received following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. They alleged that the government used Joseph McCarthy-style tactics to accuse them of wrongdoing, and that animal, environmental, or peace activists were believed to be threats to national security just as communists were so perceived in the 1950s. Green activists claim that since 2001 they have been spied upon, harassed, threatened, jailed, and stripped of their rights.
Leading U.S. officials typically deny that America contributes in any way to a denial of basic human rights, citing the country’s support for the International Bill of Rights passed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 and its signing of the 1975 Helsinki Agreement. However, there is a growing body of evidence that the United States helped nurture some of the world’s most repressive dictatorships. The chief characteristic of such regimes is that they are right-wing, military dictatorships friendly to the profit seeking of multinational corporations. The United States has supplied foreign aid and military protection to many Third World regimes that in turn eliminated democratic practices and instituted brutally repressive measures, including kidnapping, torture, extrajudicial executions, and arbitrary imprisonment. For example, in Iran in 1953 the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was responsible for placing the shah’s family in power when it assisted in overthrowing leftist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in a violent coup. From 1953 to 1979 the Congress, the U.S. military, the CIA, and private corporations all rendered aid to the shah’s army and secret police. While the shah was in power, almost 1,500 people were arrested every month. In one extraordinary day 6,000 Iranians died at the hands of Iran’s secret police and the shah’s army. The 1975 Amnesty International report documented that Iranian authorities arrested and imprisoned between 25,000 and 100,000 political prisoners.
Since 2002, the 700 al Qaeda and Taliban enemy combatants housed by the United States at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have experienced treatment that is highly questionable from the standpoint of human rights. During the first year of operation, the detainees were not allowed access to legal counsel, nor were they permitted visits by friends or family. They were not informed about the formal legal charges against them and were denied the right of habeas corpus, an important foundational doctrine of Anglo-American jurisprudence. Additionally, reports surfaced that staff withheld food, deprived prisoners of sleep, forced them to kneel for hours while being chained to the floor, and subjected them to loud noise and frequent interrogations. Among the prisoners released some claimed being interrogated as many as 200 times. Elite deviance has become a built-in feature of the world political economy, with great costs to publics worldwide.
Western democracies, for example, are experiencing one of the most scandal-laden periods in recent history. In the United States, citizens are still reeling from the most devastating economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and they report some of the lowest levels of public confidence in government and corporations that pollsters have ever recorded. Despite this, it is almost certain that such deviance will continue, as elites are constantly on guard to maintain their formidable advantages and pass them on to the next generation. Elites are aided in this task because they operate in a cloak of secrecy that helps them to function with little or no public scrutiny. Corporate management and government officials are often shielded from boards of directors, the press, and government investigators by virtue of the power they possess over information.
- Best, Steve. “Dispatches From a Police State: Animal Rights in the Crosshairs of State Repression.” International Journal of Inclusive Democracy, v.3/1 (2007).
- Roebuck, Julian and Stanley C. Weeber. Political Crime in the United States. Westport, CT: Praeger,
- Ross, Jeffrey Ian. An Introduction to Political Crime. Bristol, UK: Policy Press, 2012.
- Rothe, Dawn and Christopher Mullins. State Crime: Current Perspectives. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011.
- Simon, David. Elite Deviance. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2012.
- Weeber, Stan. “A Generalized Stage Model of International Political Scandals.” International Review of Modern Sociology, v. 35/1 (2009).
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