Volkswagen: a routine case of corporate-state harm production

Steve Tombs, Prof of Criminology, The Open University

On 18th September, the US EPA revealed that Volkswagen (VW) had been using software and practices to cheat emissions-testing on almost 600,000 cars in US – marketed and sold as part of a major ‘clean-car’ initiative. The effect is that these cars will, on the road, emit nitrogen oxide pollutants up to 40 times above legal limits. Dubbed the ‘emissions-testing scandal’, or the ‘diesel dupe’ – but, just to be very clear, not crime – the days and weeks since the revelation have seen a classic case study of corporate crime unfold. For students of corporate crime and harm, the processes will be familiar. They involve denial, lies, obfuscation, blame-shifting, and scapegoating, attempts to neutralise and reframe the offence at issue, while evidence is rapidly revealed which undermines virtually all of these tactics – which is not to say that they do not proceed without varying levels of success. State officials are, of course, quick to voice their public condemnation – notwithstanding a history of collusion,  and pro-industry, behind-the-scenes lobbying and a raft of state support and  subsidy, again all often unremarked upon characteristics of much corporate crime and harm production.

Thus, in the immediate wake of the allegations, senior management at VW denied all knowledge of the offence. Indeed, it continued to sell the affected products even after the ‘scandal’ broke in the US – cars with the “defeat devices” remained on sale in the UK, for example. Meanwhile, the scale of the fraud grows greater day-by-day: recalls soon spread to the UK, Italy, France, South Korea, Canada, Germany, Australia and China; by the first week of October, VW stated that 11 million of its diesel cars worldwide have such software and will need to be recalled.

All-to-predictably, VW senior management have denied and continue to deny all knowledge of the offending, rather suspending and investigating four engineers. That said, one slightly unusual aspect of this case was the quick decision of the company’s CEO, Martin Winterkorn, to resign on 23rd September – if this is a rare example of the head of an offending corporation taking some personal responsibility, it is worth also noting that, having departed whilst still denying knowledge or complicity, he is reported to be in line for €3.2m severance pay-off as well as a €1m (£740,000) annual pension. However, evidence continues to emerge and circulate about senior level knowledge of a systematic fraud: reports have stated that VW technicians had warned about illegal emissions practices in 2011, and that the parts-supplier, Bosch, had written to VW  in 2007 about the possible illegal use of Bosch-supplied software technology.

Further, and again as is generally the case with such ‘scandals’, evidence continues to emerge that VW is not a rogue company – in fact there have long been claims that the systematic falsification of emission-tests is standard practice across the industry, on the basis of a series of widely-known techniques. Moreover, it is not the first time that VW has engaged in cheating emissions tests: “As far back as 1973, VW had been fitting defeat devices to cars. The company was pursued by the EPA and eventually settled out of court with a fine of $120,000 (£78,500).”

As I write, and no doubt for months and weeks to come, further revelations will emerge. But experience of recent corporate scandals should provide a guide to the future. VW is the second-largest car maker in the world, after Toyota, with almost 600,000 employees. It is part of a global  oligopoly in which five car manufacturers produce over half of the world’s cars. Given its dominance in an oligopolistic market, it is likely that damage to share price and sales will be relatively short-lived, with little or no long-term damage to VW reputation nor sales. That said, what damage there is to the company will not be borne by shareholders – their returns will recover, while limited liability insulates them from any legal or financial responsibilities in any criminal or civil cases. Similarly, most of the senior management will be protected – though one or two bad apples may be given up. By contrast, workers will pay the price as the company gathers funds to recover the costs of the recalls, compensation and any fines – early on, VW warned its workers that recovery from the scandal “won’t be painless”, which foreshadowed an announcement less than four weeks after the ‘scandal’ broke that the company planned to cut investment by €1bn a year. And of course there is the inestimable damage to peoples’ health already inflicted, that will never be causally linked to the 11m VW cars on the world’s roads, emitting life-shortening NOx and diesel particulates, under intentionally-false pretences


Volkswagen and Audi have returned 2009 and 2010 Green Car of the Year awards


And there’s the rub. The consequences of falsified emissions testing, dismissed in 2014 by the company as a “technical” issue, is a form of killing, via industrial-scale exposure to diesel pollution.  Here, we are in the classic corporate-crime realm of estimates, but the numbers are daunting:

Particulates are harmful to the lungs, particularly to those most vulnerable to breathing difficulties, such as people with asthma, the very old and the very young. Nitrogen oxides can generate ozone, which also intensifies breathing difficulties. It is estimated, by the European Environment Agency, that air pollution contributes to at least 400,000 premature deaths a year in the region.”

The WHO has recently called air pollution the “single biggest environmental health risk”, linking “indoor and outdoor air pollution to around 7 million deaths a year – more than double previous estimates”. Of course, not all, even the majority, of these are linked to diesel emissions; but hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, are, and VW has just added to these deaths whilst marketing its diesel cars as ‘green’ and contributing to environmental protection. Some chutzpah, to be sure, but hardly peculiar in the corporate world of greenwash.

Indignant governments have already, and will continue, to stand up to condemn and call VW to account, rhetorically at least. But therein lies another aspect of the corporate production of crime and harm – it generally proceeds with state collusion, even facilitation. Governments had championed the development of diesel cars, often via subsidies and tax breaks; then-Chancellor Gordon Brown unveiled such support in the UK back in in 2001. In the same spirit, the European Investment Bank has granted loans worth around 4.6bn euros (£3.4bn) to Volkswagen since 1990. More generally, many western Governments had offered significant financial support to car firms as part of their post-2008 drive towards economic recovery; for example, the US and UK provided various forms of assistance to the automobile industry, ‘including subsidies to firms and direct involvement in industry restructuring plans’, as well as varieties of car-scrapping schemes to increase sales. At the same time, albeit below the radar, European Governments – notably France, Germany and the UK – had long lobbied the European Union to retain loopholes in emissions-tests. At the same time, regulators of such tests are often closely tied to industry – in the UK, Vehicle Certification Agency receives the bulk of its funding from the motor vehicle industry, through a fully marketised testing regime. In short, VW is a typical case of corporate harm production. And as a typical case, it is necessary to look beyond the surface level of ritual condemnation, to discern the hand of the state at work to maintain and support the criminality of the ‘free’, autonomous corporation.


Pushing the boundaries of prison ethnography

Deborah Drake1, Rod Earle1 and Jennifer Sloan2

1The Open University, 2Sheffield Hallam University

Stories from a prison for young men in Ghana, a women’s prison in north-east England, a Dutch men’s prison full of Belgian prisoners, and reflections on over twenty years of researching Russian prisons:  all this and much, much more are to be found in the recently published Palgrave Handbook of Prison Ethnography.


Stories are an important part of the book but the 25 chapters gathered by the editors do more than tell tales. We, the editors of this collection – Deborah Drake, Rod Earle and Jennifer Sloan – wanted a book that presented graphic accounts of prison life, told by people fully immersed in the strange world of metal gates, mesh fences, concrete cells, officers, uniforms, fenced compounds and locks. This world of pains imposed and freedoms denied is also the confusing world of hopes and fears, human hearts, tenderness, wounding, harms and healing. These prison places, rich in human life, are filled with some of their societies’ poorest people. Some of them have done terrible things to other people, and many have had terrible things done to them. For us, ethnography is a crucial tool to raise better understanding of these strange and unsettling places, and how we have come to tolerate their explosive growth in modern society.

We are worried that the growing use of imprisonment in almost every country of the world is the symptom of a spreading sickness rather than a sign of progressive modernity. This book reflects the complexity of the challenges prison growth poses. Ethnographic research is needed, we argue, to widen the range of questions that can be asked about prison. Ethnographic research can, we suggest, help bring it out of the social shadows that cloak its presence in society.

The book is the direct result of a symposium held at The Open University in September 2013. ‘Resisting The Eclipse: An International Symposium of Prison Ethnographers’ brought together an impressive range of prison researchers who challenged Loic Wacquant’s dismal diagnosis of the imminent extinction of ethnographic prison research. Wacquant’s challenge was thrown down with characteristic eloquent and graphic force, but the symposium itself and the Handbook reveal resistance to this decline.  In the book’s Foreword, Professor Yvonne Jewkes is careful to qualify the optimism generated by the symposium. The chilling effect of an eclipse may simply have been gathering pace, she cautions, before embracing the renewal of ethnographic engagement she finds in the book.

Editing a major international collection of papers on prison ethnography involves wrestling with the porous methodological boundaries of ethnography. The Palgrave Handbook of Prison Ethnography reveals a diversity of both prison form and ethnographic method. Collectively the chapters demonstrate what ethnography can do and why it is such a highly valued form of sociological inquiry. The authors tell stories of prison life with vivid detail gathered by a determination to remain sensitive to the little things that reveal a lot, and that are often missed by other forms of qualitative inquiry.

Despite including accounts of prison research carried out in Russia, France, England, Norway, Ghana, Uganda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, India, Belgium, Canada, and The USA, there are none from South America. One of the criticisms levelled at the grandiose sweep of theorists like Loic Wacquant and David Garland is that they present a picture of globalizing trends in neo-liberal penality that fail to address the S.American experience where radical and socialist governments, elected on popular mandates, have refused to align themselves in the global currents of neo-liberalism they describe. In S.America complex penal politics arise from dynamics that are far from neo-liberal, and the absence of ethnographic accounts of them in this collection is to be lamented. It is all the more regrettable in light of the fact that two such accounts were given at the symposium in 2013, by Sacha Darke and Chris Garces but could not, for various reasons, be included in our edited collection.

In other respects however, the collection succeeds in displacing the concentration of Anglophone penal scholarship on the prisons of the richer countries of the North and the West. The Palgrave Handbook of Prison Ethnography gives the reader glimpses of other worlds through their prisons. In many cases the writers have drawn from longer, richer and more detailed accounts – their full ethnographies. These must not be neglected. Ben Crewe’s ‘The Prisoner Society’, Mahuya Bandyopadhyay’s ‘Everyday Life in a Prison: Confinement, Surveillance, Resistance, James Waldram’s  ‘Hound Pound Narrative:  Sexual Offender Habilitation and the Anthropology of Therapeutic Intervention’ Deborah Drake’s ‘Prisons, Punishments and the Pursuit of Security’ (2014, Coretta Phillip’s ‘The Multicultural Prison’ and Thomas Ugelvik’s ‘Power and Resistance in Prison’ are examples of the real thing, the genuine article: prison ethnography in full effect. They must not be eclipsed by this collection, wonderful as it is.

Here, from Adam Reed’s, ‘Papua New Guinea’s Last Place: Experiences of Constraint in Postcolonial Prison’, is another glimpse of a story from another full ethnography, another writer, another prison:

‘This is the last place’, he muttered, ‘the very last place in the country’. The convict paused and surveyed the compound yard around us, as if to confirm that he was indeed talking about the prison. ‘Here’, he continued, ‘everything is left behind. There is no beer or tobacco, no women. You cannot see your forest, your rivers, mountains and rocks. You cannot see your children. In this kind of place you are abandoned.’ These sad thoughts were followed by silence.

Click here to buy a copy of the book.

Historical abuse: witch-hunt, scapegoat, moral panic?

Dr Johanna Motzkau, The Open University.

Dr Nick Lee, University of Warwick.

panic photo Panic.jpg
The scale of the historical child abuse committed by some individuals is startling. The fact that this abuse went unprosecuted for decades raises the question of how that could happen. Many people, us included, are struggling to make sense of it all.

How the issue is framed in popular culture, in policy debate and in academic life will have serious consequences both for further investigation of individual cases and for wider inquiries. We are concerned about the recent use of a cluster of terms in attempts to frame these events: witch-hunt, scapegoat and moral panic. Very recently Harvey Proctor accused police to be conducting a ‘gay witch hunt’ against him, a claim cited again in coverage about sexual abuse allegations against Paul Gambaccini being dropped.

These terms can all too easily frame normal processes of criminal prosecution and legitimate inquiries into past abuses as irrational and disproportionate. We can see why commentators would reach for these terms. Historical child sexual abuse is a very complex issue that raises doubts about children’s safety in the past and in the present, and about adults’ failings in their moral and professional duties to nurture and protect them. This is why responses are so often sought with urgency. Given this, readily available framing devices have a strong appeal. They are tools to help us make sense. But what kind of sense do these terms make? Each in its own way ends up minimising the reality of historical abuse and, just at the point where survivors are being heard, suggests we stop our ears once again.

The critical force of the term ‘witch-hunt’ rests on there being a consensus view that there are, in reality, either very few or no ‘witches’ at all. Further, a ‘witch-hunt’ would be conducted using deeply suspicious methods of gathering and testing evidence (including ‘witch dunking’). It is remarkable then that the term is used in the context of successful criminal prosecutions that have established that crimes did indeed take place. For example, the term had been bandied around by the media and commentators in June/July 2014 after Rolf Harris’ conviction.

In what sense could a proven sexual offender be understood as a ‘scapegoat’? Perhaps the idea is that as we go about judging the actions and mores of previous decades by our own contemporary standards we select individuals to carry a disproportionate load of blame for our culture’s historical shortcomings. But the actions in question were just as criminal decades ago as they are today.

‘Moral panic’ is, perhaps, the most sophisticated of this cluster of terms. It derives from the work of criminologist Stanley Cohen in the 1970’s. The basic idea was that when a given group of people share the sense that they are losing social influence, they may try to regain their status by campaigning against a putative moral or behavioural trend or event. So-called ‘moral entrepreneurs’ who lead such campaigns can benefit. It’s a strong idea and generalizes well beyond 1970’s UK criminology. Campaigns against nuclear weapons, abortion and GM crops have been just as much shaped by these processes as complaints about swearing on television and banning punk rock gigs. But there is a strong consensus in the UK that sexual offending and sexual abuse of children are wrong. This is not a domain in which moral entrepreneurs can distinguish themselves. Further, the sexual abuse of children comprises activities that are already criminal offences and has done for many years.

To call the current focus on historical sexual abuse a ‘moral panic’ may be intended as a call for a sense of proportion. Historical child sexual abuse cases certainly sell newspapers and generate website ‘clicks’. We would suggest, however, that we are currently witnessing processes of criminal prosecution that are normal and proportionate (if delayed), along with other normal forms of public accountability. The legal system does not get it right all the time. It never will. It is particularly stretched and at times baffled by these cases, and there is consensus that more can be done to improve procedure; but this is indicative of the complexity of these cases and of legal reform, and not a result of moral panic.

It is indeed important to highlight exaggerated and unhelpful reactions by the media, and to remain sceptical towards ‘quick fix’ policy-making that monopolises isolated issues (e.g. child sexual abuse in public institutions) only to divert attention and resources from longstanding problems at the heart of child protection (e.g. poverty, inequality, neglect and intra-familiar abuse). But this can be done without referring to moral panics as for example Featherstone, White and Morris show in their recent book. The fact that in the past the pendulum of concern has swung steadily (and repeatedly) from ignorance to alarm does not mitigate the seriousness of the problem of sexual (and other) offences against children; and while it seems impossible to control such pendulum swings, this should not be taken to demean the motives of those committed to do something about child abuse (historical or recent). We might reasonably consider this period of heightened sensitivity an occasion to learn and improve.

Once terms like moral panic, scapegoat and witch-hunt are in play it is difficult to maintain a differentiated view of ‘what really happened’. Talk of witch-hunts and scapegoats implies that all those at the centre of attention are innocent or that no findings could be legitimate or safe. Talk of moral panic stymies analysis by conflating issues and closes down debate, as contributors have to hedge against being seen as moral entrepreneurs.

Declaring a moral panic in this context is ultimately a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even if this is clearly not intended, it provides traction for those who are indeed keen to play down the problem, conflate issues and point out that there’s ‘nothing to see here’. This does not add transparency or a sense of vigilance and proportion. It takes us straight back to the no win situation, where the voice of actual victims is just as difficult to hear as that of those falsely accused.

If you heard allegations that child sexual abuse had taken place in your workplace, wouldn’t you want to know whether, and if so, how that happened?

This article was originally published by at