The Phantom Capitalists

by Mark Rowe

Author: Michael Levi


Review date: 29/02/2024

No of pages: 346

Publisher: Heinemann

Publisher URL:

Year of publication: 17/11/2017



£(second hand)

Mark Rowe continues his series of articles looking back, in this case through a vintage book, to the recent past.

It makes you think, or at least it makes me think, that the playground at the back of my infants’ school had air raid shelters during the Second World War (removed by the time I was there, and grassed over, since built upon). When I was a pupil there, the 1939-45 war was nearer in time than my childhood is now. Likewise part of the use of criminologist Michael Levi’s 1981 book, The Phantom Capitalists, sub-titled The Organization and Control of Long-Firm Fraud, is that it looks back at previous decades, while we can supply experience of what has happened since. In short, fraud is still going on merrily, except in different ways unimagined in 1981.

Levi is now a professor, still at the University of Cardiff, and publishing – in fact with a few clicks you can read his latest scholarly articles, on transnational bribery, and cyber-fraud, other things not dreamed of in 1981. How you react to the book may depend on your personality – does the smell of old paper bring out a Proust-like smile, or a rash? Does the sameness of the crime, generation after generation, make you laugh at the human comedy, or does it depress you? Certainly the titles of other works in the series are either quaint – no more borstals, and whatever we call offenders, we don’t call them ‘delinquents’ – or haven’t changed a jot (‘the crisis in the English penal system’; where would we be without that?).

To turn to the last chapter, titled ‘some issues for the future’ (he means us!?), some of Levi’s points are depressingly familiar. Sentences don’t deter the ‘white collar’ fraudster, and in any case few cases ever go to court: ‘… the amount of time that ‘professionals’ spend in prison is remarkably small in relation to the amount of money they obtain from long-firm frauds’ (briefly to define it, a bogus firm obtains commercial credit). Some did, and still do, the fraud, because they are going out of business and find themselves on a ‘slippery slope’, trying to keep trading; some just want to steal. Levi quoted from Gulliver’s Travels, which shows that fraud has long been with us.

Something striking for the 21st century reader is that fraud has become ever more democratic. I mean that ever more people can do it; even foreigners. Levi aired the theory that long firm fraudsters were predators on the ‘capitalist body’. The police, and courts, did not divert enough ‘manpower’ (Levi’s word, now old-fashioned) for the investigations and trials. Levi wondered aloud if ‘we might even de-criminalise fraud, on the grounds that the careful businessman and the general public should not have to subsidise those businessmen who are too greedy or mean to carry out proper commercial credit enquiries’. That principle is happening. If your business suffers a data breach, the ICO regulator will fine you, probably far more than courts will punish the hackers (if they find them, which they almost certainly will not). In the December 2017 issue of Professional Security, I reported Lord Harris of Haringey who asked whether a business that did not give its people enough ‘duty of care’ protection in a terror attack ought to be liable under corporate manslaughter law. As data hacks show, anyone (with a working computer and internet connection) can do a hack, and carry out fraud. In Levi’s book, a fraudster was already telling him that punishment for stealing from Woolworth’s (who would have guessed in 1981 they would disappear from the British high street?) was worse than for a fraud. You’d be foolish to still do physical robberies, though fools are still around. Far better to do frauds from Russia, Nigeria and so on, countries that British police will never enter to put handcuffs on delinquents (as the police ever so grudgingly admit). What on earth will the equivalent book have to say in the year 2055.


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