I would build...an alternative to the corporation

Professor Steve Tombs argues for a bolder approach to dealing with corporate social harm

By: 
Professor Steve Tombs
Date: 
Monday, 20 April, 2015

The corporation is an amoral, essentially destructive entity which causes far more physical, social and economic harm than the incivilities upon which criminal justice systems overwhelmingly concentrate. It cannot effectively be held to account through criminal, administrative, regulatory nor company law. It needs to be replaced.

This is not to say law can achieve nothing – but progressive reform is unlikely to be found via the criminal justice system per se. One much more fruitful site of reform is through public policy. For example, the delivery of a range of services should be nationalised and taken out of the for-profit sector. The governance of national and local government procurement must be changed to develop effective forms of contract compliance, excluding recidivist companies from tendering to undertake work. Further, via radical reform of company law, stakeholders must be empowered, not through weak reforms to corporate governance but through building collective organisation with rights inside companies – for example firms with legally-protected, effective trade union safety reps and safety committees have half as many recorded injuries as those where these counter-vailing sources of power do not exist. Consumers and local communities should be so empowered. And, in the realm of criminal law, we can still identify reforms which might radically undermine the legal protections which corporations currently enjoy – laws which pierce the corporate veil, for example, so that the relationships between the corporate entity and those who own and control it are exposed, and legal liability is not compartmentalised.

But there are wider challenges to be faced than legal reform.

We must also challenge corporate claims of efficiency, of freedom, of choice, of autonomy from (and superiority over) government, claims which are disproven for all of us on a daily basis, in ways that are so obvious that we almost become anaesthetised to the supporting rhetorics of corporate power.

We must recognise, too, that we have some – however limited – alternatives to indulging in the corporate fantasies of consumption, and that some of us have some greater choice over where we buy certain goods and services, albeit that this is differentially distributed, so that some of us have greater responsibilities than others.

We must seek out, document and evaluate experiments in alternative forms of delivering goods and services – they have long existed and continue to exist all across the globe. In this context it is common-place to turn to the example of the Mondragon co-operatives in the Basque, but there are numerous other, if less well known examples, of a variety of social and employee-owned enterprises, community-based public offerings and co-operatives which deserve our interest and should inspire imagination.

And imagination here is crucial. For the very first step in building alternative modes of delivering goods and services requires us to imagine a world without the corporation, to be bold in our thinking, to recall that the corporation is a relatively recent historical phenomenon and only exists through a complex political, legal and economic architecture of corporate welfare.

As Max Haiven put it recently, we need to develop a ‘radical imagination’, something which is not individualised but a shared landscape of possibility that “we share as communities ... which requires not just a future; it also has a present and a past”.

This radical imagination transcends the acceptance more or less that things cannot change so much; it can transcend the imprisoning realities of corporate power and existence; it generates a new terrain of hope and possibility. Only on these bases can the pressing task of the abolition of the corporation be furthered.

Haiven. M. (2014), Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power, London: Zed Books.

Tombs, S. and Whyte, D. (2015), The Corporate Criminal. Why corporations must be abolished, London: Routledge.


As part of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies' Justice Matters initiative we are inviting submissions to the 'I would build...' series. We want people to tell us their ideas and thoughts on how to build alternatives and transform society so that criminal justice institutions as they currently exist are no longer necessary. Email us with your ideas.