2022: ESC European Criminology Award acceptance speech

Mike Levi

Mike Levi

Cardiff University


2022: ESC European Criminology Award acceptance speech

In labelling theory reconsidered (1973), Howard Becker apologetically observed that he never meant to develop a theory:  he only meant to ‘illuminate things formerly obscure’.  That would be an achievement beyond many of us, let alone a reason to apologise.  I would be happy if that was my achievement.  I have a clear recollection of listening to Robert Mitchum’s comments after John Wayne got a lifetime Oscar – “Well John has been in the movie business for 40 years and this is the first time he has won an Oscar.  I think that speaks for itself.” I have been more fortunate than John Wayne in my awards (but not in my riches), but principally I have been fortunate

  1. First, in finding an area or, more accurately, a set of connected areas in which few scholars had worked before;
  2. second, in feeling free from my PhD subject onwards to pursue what interested me and might interest others (though for initial decades, few academics actually were interested); and
  3. finally, having supportive family and friends.

I feel fortunate too to still be interested by the still unresolved and perhaps unresolvable issues that stimulated me 50 years ago when I began my PhD – the ambiguities and overlap between white-collar and organised crime, both of them ‘floating signifiers’ in Levi-Strauss’ terminology; trying to understand how criminals organise themselves and develop their skills; and the evolving social, commercial and criminal justice controls that they confront, and how these impact on criminal behaviour.  I feel lucky even though the complexities of keeping up with these criminal and crime control landscapes keep me chronically over-occupied. 

The private & public sector components of the anti-fraud, anti-money laundering and anti-organised crime complexes, and how they vary over time and between societies are a suitable object of study in themselves.  But these ‘control waves’ also are (or should be) considered to be part of the routine activities model which ‘produces’ crime, and the interaction between controls and the variable supply of ‘motivated offenders’ to different sorts of economic crime continues to preoccupy me, though RAT (or as I prefer to call it, RAM - for Routine Activities Model rather than Theory) did not exist as a term when I started out and indeed started to use this ultimately commonsense set of concepts beautifully developed by Marcus Felson.

Many have argued that criminology is a rendezvous subject, which was meant to be condescending but can be rephrased as a multidisciplinary subject, which sounds a great deal nicer but is just the same.  Pre and within-covid, a range of criminologists got absorbed in trying to map the fall in crime and then the impact of covid on crimes of varying kinds. I have contributed to those questions too in relation to cyber, fraud and corruption in procurement.  But it remains challenging to work out the counterfactuals if covid and our concrete reactions to covid like lockdowns had not happened. This will be a good preparation for the next pandemic, which surely will come in my lifetime unless the ‘Ndrangheta get to me first for failing to show sufficient respect.

We criminologists find ourselves increasingly specialised, but I do not accept that being interested in situational crime prevention means you cannot be interested in whether more or fewer people try to commit crimes and why; or in what ideologies and practical interests drive those shifts in control, policing and sanctioning.  Everywhere, there are struggles between populist politicians and criminologists to get ‘our truth’ out there.

It should be the focus of more criminological comparisons that the EU focus on ‘proportionate, dissuasive and effective’  sanctions or penalties applies to Google (fine reduced last week to €4.1 billion from €4.3 billion, but still a small percentage of annual profits of $76 billion- in 2021, Google earned more than $61 billion in advertising revenue, mostly from online search and its video platform, while its cloud business grew to $5.5 billion in revenue) as much as it does to street and household crimes. But administrative Google penalties or the administrative, civil & more rarely criminal penalties of elite bankers and politicians are seldom considered by penal theorists, even though Google is a daily component of almost every household represented here at this ESC conference, and what bankers, industrialists and politicians do affects the environment and our energy prices, internal and transnational migration, et cetera.  Indeed, in Grande Stevens & ors v Italy 4 March 2014, the ECHR held that when deciding what is and is not a criminal penalty, sanction severity shall be considered, and serious sanctions shall be deemed to be criminal as far as procedural guarantees and ne bis in idem are concerned, whatever their formal label. (This avoids the issue of what a severe sanction is for a company or ultra-rich individual.) Though some governments mistakenly construct and persist with an image of ‘neighbourhood crime’ that excludes cyber-enabled frauds and Internet of Thing attacks, they are simply wrong in denying the bare necessities and routine activities of contemporary life.

One issue that continues to puzzle me is how we can rationally decide what constitutes proportionality (to what? Both harms and culpability?); to what extent and in what contexts there is a tension between dissuasiveness and proportionality of penalties, and the lack of specification in ‘effective’, at what?  So (assuming that what they did contravened EU Competition Law), what would it take as a minimum sanction or persuasive act to stop Google exploiting its market advantage? If that involved no jail or company liquidation, or some other ‘significant’ restrictions on doing business, would it be seen as fair and legitimate by us and/or by the general public? Likewise, with fines (plus civil compensation?) on Boeing for its disastrous homicidal speed in bringing the Boeing 737 to market without proper preparation and communication of risks. But we cannot focus on everything:  we need to look at the different species of trees as well as at the forest.

Of course, in the latter half of the 19th century, deception was nearly all offline (except via newspapers and by mail and magazine/poster advertisements). There were very few telephones, let alone VOIP or the sort of What’s App scammers who messaged me this month pretending to be my daughter who had had to change her phone number and asking me to send €3k to a West African name at an account which I worked out belonged to Barclays Bank.  I even received another text scam here from someone pretending to be my child. From the same source?  Who knows, and who will investigate? Who would have investigated if I had fallen for it?  That’s easy:  no-one, except perhaps in South Korea.

There is a huge spectrum from elite businesspeople and politicians, through Farrall and Karstedt’s ‘Respectable Citizens’, Paoli’s organised crime networks, blue-collar opportunists, and ‘professional enablers’ like company formation agents, lawyers and accountants who may not commit crimes themselves but consciously or far less consciously assist others to commit fraud, launder money, et cetera.  This is why those who would seek to control contemporary transnational organised crime soon run up against the structures that have been created to sustain contemporary global capitalism.  This does not mean that there are no longer divisions between white-collar crime, organised crime, cybercrime and money laundering:  but it does mean that the Venn diagrams of the denotation of those constructs need to allow for substantial overlap, and this overlap is a dynamic process over time and place. To the extent that the overlap is not dynamic, this is because the police (and some academics) do not develop intelligence sources much outside drugs, and they do not call specialist teams of fraudsters ‘Organised Crime Groups’.  Analysing their formal and informal control should keep me busy till I retire or die, whichever is the sooner.  US Senator Ben Wade was once asked his opinion on heaven and hell. Well,” said Mr. Wade, “I think, from all I can learn, that heaven has the better climate, but hell has the better company.” Appropriately, the first reference for this phrase I can find was in 1885, Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction!  Given my interest in charity fraud, that seems appropriate.  Perhaps an ESC in Malaga or Florence might combine both good weather and good company?

Perhaps the future requires a new lexicon, like ‘serious crimes for gain’, which I tried out a couple of times instead of ‘organised crime’ chapters in the oxford handbook of criminology but has not caught on – maybe because it lacks cultural bite.  We remain tribal – hence separate streams in criminology conferences like white-collar and corporate crime, organised crime, cybercrime, human trafficking etc.: these do represent gestalts in how we see our primary orientations, and we cannot attend all the sessions that we might be interested in, so we might use my category SERIOUS CRIMES FOR GAIN as a higher level organising principle.

‘Crimmigration’ is not my specialist subject, but on what rational basis  governments think that like King Canute, they can stop the tide of illegal migrants by communicating the message that if they fail to evade detection, they may eventually get sent somewhere else less desirable than Europe is an interesting example of the triumph of wishful political thinking over evidence.  Smugglers of migrants to the UK now sometimes tip off the police before the crossings start, as it makes the migrants safer!   Perhaps this is part of a rational harm reduction strategy on their part, in conformity with Greenfield and Paoli’s new book.

In my view, we need to follow George Orwell and continuously deconstruct & call out mis-labelling such as ‘modern slavery’ & ‘human trafficking’ to describe the high-priced smuggling of voluntary migrants to our countries unless they really are kidnapped or conned. (They may be seriously exploited afterwards even if they are voluntary migrants.) If people are financially or sexually exploited in a gross way beyond the routine levels prevalent in capitalist economies, then we should find another word to describe that, like ‘exploited’.   But few are involuntary migrants or modern slaves in the sense that Jews and others were in Nazi times, or the Uighurs are in China today.

We are in an era of ‘truth decay’ as well as mostly voluntary privacy decay, in which celebrities’ obsession with self-advertisement of their holidays (or wholly necessary public knowledge of soccer fixtures) help to advertise their absence from home, and may make high value burglaries and robberies more likely. Paid ‘Influencers’ are used to advertise dodgy cryptocurrencies and crypto platforms both on posters and social media, and regulators need to consider better ways of protecting the public from their own gullibility, unless we adopt a tough attitude to victim’s rights and to their own ‘victim precipitation’. At the moment, it seems to be mainly financial compensation by media outcry, which is not a consistent ethical basis for distinguishing between deserving and undeserving victims, though it makes it sociologically interesting.

I, Peter Reuter, Melvin Soudijn, Petrus van Duyne and some others present at the conference such as (alphabetically) Katie Benson, Nick Lord, Hans Nelen, Michele Riccardi, and Antoinette Verhage, have been conducting for some years a campaign to inject a more evidence-based logic into the actions of the Anti-Money Laundering complex.  (It sounds like a psychoanalytical construct, but thousands of lawyers, accountants and bankers benefit from rather than suffer from this complex.) So far it is not obvious what the positive effects of our efforts have been, other than to give more analytical voice to those from the political left and right who see it as a symbolic rather than instrumental enterprise of crime control.  But one thing I would highlight is the tensions this generates between unrestrained finance capital and national/transnational attempts to govern the crime-stimulating consequences of free movement of illicit capital; and also whether the sheer cost in money & civil liberties is worth the so far undefined crime control benefits and what could be done to reduce those costs without losing the benefits.  Once established, however, this constitutes a mass of jobs mandated or pressurised by governments and regulators, all of whose personal financial interests lie in the perpetuation of the system. 

Nicholas Taleb of ‘black swan fame’ argues that we should not take notice of academics and others who have ‘no skin in the game’.  This is a provocative but sometimes obnoxious position, since he does not acknowledge enough that those with ‘skin in the game’ might have a vested interest in keeping it going, and sometimes it takes people from the outside to tell the Emperor that his clothes are offering less protection than he claims and/or believes. 

The rhetoric around AML also leads in some countries to the use (mainly by the left, but also some law enforcement) of terms like ‘professional enablers’ to stand for a range of lawyer behaviours from willing or blackmailed accomplice/ ‘Mr.Big’ to simply doing their job in registering businesses. As someone who grew up in the age of labelling theory as a critique of the control of ‘crimes of the powerless’, it is intriguing to see the pro-transparency NGOs adopting similar tactics against the professions, and using simplistic activity measures like ‘too low’ (how high is enough?) prosecutions and regulatory actions/penalties to assert that they are doing nothing to stop money laundering or Grand Corruption.  If your professional activities are private, and there are professional secrecy obligations towards clients and people you reject as clients, it is hard to defend yourself against such allegations (though that does not mean they are unfounded).  So as you can see, there is plenty of quantitative and qualitative research and even thinking to keep us busy for some time.

I was one of the original founding group of the ESC and I am comfortable in being labelled as a traitor to Brexit, even though no one has hitherto applied that label to me. This award delights me both for itself (for who among us is truly without vanity?) and because the timing of it reflects 50 years of work since I started my PhD on the organisation and control of an obscure type of bankruptcy fraud that crossed both white-collar and organised crime.  I am one of the lucky ones who followed what interested me and continue to do so.

Of course, much of my working life, like that of many of yours, is also filled with less interesting tasks.  But compared with my father, who left school at 14 and either slept by the side of his tailoring bench or walked five miles home, and my mother, who got polio in the epidemic of 1913 aged 8 months and never walked unaided, my life has been pretty good, Covid notwithstanding. My father’s ancestors may have been driven out of this region by the Spanish Inquisition, and he was fortunate to be released from a camp and to get to England weeks before World War 2, unlike the rest of his family, who died in Germany.  Before coming to England, my mother’s parents fled poverty and pogroms in rural East Prussia and then what is now the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. So mine is a very European story, at least for a significant number of Europeans, even if, as David Baddiel has explored in Jews Don’t Count, Jews seldom feature in discussions of oppressed ethnic minorities today.  

As the first person in my family to have any higher education – I never met anyone with a PhD until I went to university - my parents (as well as I) would be delighted and not a little surprised at this honour. I remain legally and spiritually ‘European’ and it is a particular pleasure and honour for me to receive this European Criminology Award.  There remains much for all of us to discover, explain and – if we wish and can – to act upon. I hope I shall be around for a bit longer to contribute to those tasks, but I am very confident that they will outlast me.  Criminology in general, and the areas in which I have worked in particular, is a never-ending story.