The endless fraud of the powerful

Drawing on his research on corruption and white-collar crime among the ruling classes, Pierre Lascoumes immerses us in the institutional mechanisms of fraud by those who hold political and economic power in France.

Why do lites engage in illicit practices?? How to explain that these practices continue over time? The work of Pierre Lascoumes is in line with his work dedicated to economic and financial delinquency and corruptible democracy, where he has already had the opportunity to shed light on the plural facets of elite illegalism. The elites discussed in this book are the people belonging to the dominant classes who occupy high political positions (deputies, ministers, presidents, mainly), and/or economic positions such as the CEO, business leaders, finance professionals. Although it is sometimes a question of women, the majority of cases analyzed by Pierre Lascoumes concern men, who are over-represented in these managerial positions.

Supported by materials collected during various investigations (reports and statistics from ministerial and judicial institutions, press articles and media interventions, among others), the author proposes here to shed light on the structural factors of the circumvention of the laws by the elites. The objective is to understand the workings of political and economic institutions favoring the trivialization of fraud by the ruling elites.

From distant lites to standards and sanctions

Asterix among the Helvtians
Goscinnny and Uderzo (1970)

The argument according to which the illicit practices of the elites can be explained by structural factors starts from the following thesis: the elites maintain a very distant relationship with laws and sanctions. In addition to the previous work of Pierre Lascoumes and his co-authorses, several studies show in fact the extent to which they see themselves as a separate, superior group, which authorizes itself not to respect the laws and values ​​applicable to others. Pierre Lascoumes supports this result in another way: he offers an organizational analysis and historicizes the games of alliance and support which take place between and within political and economic institutions, both public and private, which he sees as conditions for elite fraud.

He identifies three factors conducive to illicit practices. On the one hand, the elites impose rules on the governed while adopting exemptions that benefit them. On the other hand, they constantly justify these derogatory rules. Finally, the sanctions against them are very low. These three factors are the pillars of the two major organizational and rhetorical logics that Pierre Lascoumes threads throughout the work: moral economy and self-regulation. By borrowing the first concept from the sociology of the working classes, it designates the set of beliefs and solidarity shared by the dominant group, which help to unite and empower it. Moral economy is both cause and consequence of self-regulation, the second concept mobilized by Pierre Lascoumes to account for the power of definition, application and justification of rules specific to the dominant group, which separate it from public regulations thus becoming external to it. Because moral economy and self-regulation allow dominant elites to maintain their position of power, they structure contemporary social inequalities.

The conditions of fraud

Over the course of four chapters, Pierre Lascoumes analyzes these three factors of elite fraud in more detail. Firstly, it demonstrates that political elites self-regulate away from external authorities capable of inspecting and controlling their actions, taking two examples: the judgment of ministers and the finances of institutions. Today, ministers are subject to the particular judgment of a court of justice of the republic, part of which is made up of peers often in disagreement with the magistrates sitting there, making the decisions more favorable to the litigants. As for the financing of political institutions, if the activity of former deputy Ren Dosire in favor of the transparency of LYSE expenditures has borne fruit, opacity remains. In parliament, the work of ontologists lifts the veil on a certain number of expenses, while leaving other hidden expenses such as the use of employee credit in the shadows.

Secondly, this principle of self-regulation is analyzed in the economic field. The elites benefit from privileged measures to settle the disputes in which they are involved. For example, the commercial courts, governed by their own code, serve as exceptional courts granting great autonomy to commerce. Their inertia is all the greater as they are involved in arbitration, a form of internal conflict resolution where economic partners choose their judge, empowers national rights and is legitimate on an international scale. The economic elites are therefore not only protected against the hazards of the judicial system, but they also benefit from a form of community of thought based on pragmatism, efficiency and the search for profit, rather than on universalist and egalitarian considerations.

It is in connection with these ways of thinking about their actions and their place in a given political and economic system that the work focuses thirdly on the processes of justifying fraud by the elites themselves. When self-regulation fails to preserve omerta from illicit practices, the elites must justify themselves. They maintain their personal image at all costs and trust supposes binding them to those who praise their position. Four justification strategies are identified: denial, that is to say, affirming that no outrage has been committed; the controversy, which consists of asserting that everything is more complex than it appears; disempowerment, where third parties are blamed; and finally, trivialization, in other words, agreeing to deviance under the pretext that everyone does it.

Political and economic self-regulation and rhetoric of justification thus effectively contribute to euphemizing fraud, making it forgotten, minimizing its scope and the sanctions it deserves. Fourthly, Pierre Lascoumes shows that the reality of sanctions moves away from media scandals caricaturing the treatment of tax offenses and elite corruption. In fact, most convictions and sanctions are decreasing. Judicial and administrative control institutions have neither the means nor the legitimacy to punish crimes at their level. It is therefore a justice negotiated between the prosecution and the actors involved which is being deployed massively, with the main sanction being a fine. This is a discreet and rapid procedure where the economic criterion prevails over the legal criterion, to preserve the reputation of the company and its access to public markets.

Towards an analysis of divisions between elites

On a critical and denunciatory basis, the work as a whole presents a real explanatory power of the political and economic base of the elites by convincingly showing to what extent the institutions where they occupy positions of power contribute to it, to the point of resisting the reforms initiated from within or from outside who try to make them more transparent or fairer. By showing that speed (of action and decision) and discretion underlie the power of the elites, Pierre Lascoumes warns of the resulting threats to democracy, at the same time as he offers here one of the keys to understanding social inequalities, notably by their unequal relationships with institutions. If the working classes are not completely deprived of the resources to negotiate with public administrations, they cannot nevertheless handle the law as well and circumvent legal constraints. Euphmizing an accusation, speeding up the conflict resolution process, and ensuring that all this remains discreet and does not tarnish reputation, are indeed socially situated privileges from which the majority of the population is excluded. We understand all the better how these privileges work in practice as they are clarified in the work by numerous detailed accounts of business regulations concerning political elites, giving flesh to the concept of self-regulation that Pierre Lascoumes uses to describe the impermeability of a world where everything ultimately ends up being settled between -self.

This invites us to question in more depth the world of lites discussed here. Ultimately, there is little awareness of the possible oppositions and conflicts between all the actors involved, directly or indirectly, in the illicit practices described. We see that certain professional bodies are driven by divergent interests – notably those of defenders of the law, and those of deputies and ministers -, but the political and economic elites are presented as members of a rather united group. However, the example of MP Ren Dosire advocating transparency in public life while his peers are opposed to it, alone testifies to dynamics that thwart this solidarity. Could we not identify alliances and oppositions within the elites themselves, giving them differentiated means of defrauding?? The book offers the temptation to reflect, beyond the organizational system which entirely contributes to the self-regulation of the elites, to the variables which divide them. What are the effects of capital, of the position occupied in a network of mutual knowledge, or even of gender, on the conditions of illicit practices??

Assuming that all elites are not equal in the face of these practices and their treatment invites us to situate the work in the analysis of the social stratification of elites. By applying the concept of moral economy to the elite group, Pierre Lascoumes offers a relatively homogenizing vision of the elite class, a vision shared by a group of sociologists and economists specializing in social inequalities and capitalism, of which he cites several representatives. From then on, the question of the contour of this class remains latent: the term elites is not defined, even if we understand by the adjective leaders and by the examples covered in the work it is a question of those who occupy positions of political power and the highest positions in the private sector. But what are the boundaries of political and economic powers?? To what extent is public notoriety a criterion for defining the elites in question here??

Certain contemporary works produced on the very wealthy upper classes, and in particular, on new rich, relaunch discussions around the homogeneity/heterogenity of the elites, by inviting a detailed understanding of their ruptures. In this respect, the work offers a stimulating analytical framework for the divisions between elites: is there a porosity of illicit practices between several types of elites?? The links between ruling elites who benefit from institutional frameworks conducive to fraud, and other very rich but anonymous upper classes who do not hold political office deserve future research. Also, how can we think of elites who would truly be legalists for themselves in practice?? We know that certain sections of the richest classes also develop a concern to be morally worthy and be considered as normal like other citizens. It remains to be seen whether or not these rhetorics and practices overlap with fraudulent behavior, and whether they underlie other types of moral economies and regulations than those which define the ruling elites studied by Pierre Lascoumes.