States and gangs

By Lorenzo

Having previously defined the state as (a structure of) systematic coercion requiring hierarchy to operate and revenues to sustain itself extracted from a given territory, an obvious question is: what about criminal gangs? They engage in systematic coercion, have a hierarchy which they use to extract revenue to sustain themselves from a given territory.

One objection might be that criminal gangs do not have a “territory” in quite the same sense. They extract income from individual acts of coercion within a given region rather than being “sovereign” over a specific territory. Sovereign as defined by the 1933 Montevideo Convention, which adopted the declarative theory of the state as:

a person in international law with 1) a defined territory; 2) a permanent population; 3) a government and 4) a capacity to enter into relations with other states.

Or, more simply:

as a community which consists of a territory and a population subject to an organized political authority; that such a state is characterized by sovereignty.

Which means a lot is resting on the notion of government or political authority, as gangs can have territories, even in a strongly exclusory sense. For example, the Swedish police have released a map of 55 “no-go” areas (via). (In France, they are known as Sensitive Urban ZonesZones Urbaines Sensibles or ZUS.) If the armed organs of the state cannot operate in specific areas, said areas might be within the official boundaries of the state, but not its effective authority. That would appear to rest with whatever gang is dominant in a given “no-go” area.

State authority contested.

There is likely some notion of legitimacy lurking in the above definitions to distinguish a state from, say, a criminal gang, but legitimacy is a dubious descriptive concept. Is the state just a criminal gang with pretensions? 

In a sense, yes. Both derive revenue fundamentally from coercion, from expropriation. Both are exercises in domination, nicely characterised by political scientist Xavier Marquez as:

asymmetrical relations where one party (“the dominant”) has an incentive to prevent the other party (“the dominated”) from exiting the relationship or meaningfully altering its terms, i.e., from resisting it, while the other party has a contrary incentive. 

But state and gang engage in domination on rather different scales. A criminal gang is about personal status and profit, often highly localised; there is little or no serious pretensions beyond that. A state claims authority in a much “thicker” sense. It might operate at its core as a protection racket (“pay us, or bad things will happen to you”) but states make larger, and very public, claims, when criminal gangs typically don’t bother. On the contrary, gangs operate much more in the shadows. Indeed, the more openly gangs operate, the more compromised the authority of the state–for, if the authority of the state was not sufficiently compromised, being too public just makes the gang members targets of state sanctions. 

Which does point to the ways in which states and gangs are competitors. Criminal gangs flourish particularly strongly when the state declares a range of (continuing) transactions as being illegal–i.e. not covered by the normal property rights enforcement and adjudication services of the states–such as prostitution, gambling, drugs. Gangs move into to provide such goods and services and have to provide their own property rights protection and mediation services, backed by private violence. Gangs are then providers of property rights protection and mediation services that the state refuses to provide. Thus they can also operate in areas the state does not bother with (e.g. Latin American shanty towns) or does so too incompetently (e.g. Bangalore property rights).

Creating disorder

So, by banning a range of continuing transactions (or being too lax or incompetent to deal with them effectively), the state creates social disorder into which competitors move. Which is the wider point made in James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling’s 1982 “Broken Windows” essay: subtitled, revealingly, “Police and neighbourhood safety”–that enforcement of social order is not merely a matter of law:

Though the police can obviously make arrests whenever a gang member breaks the law, a gang can form, recruit, and congregate without breaking the law. And only a tiny fraction of gang-related crimes can be solved by an arrest; thus, if an arrest is the only recourse for the police, the residents’ fears will go unassuaged. The police will soon feel helpless, and the residents will again believe that the police “do nothing.” What the police in fact do is to chase known gang members out of the [housing] project. In the words of one officer, “We kick ass.” Project residents both know and approve of this. The tacit police-citizen alliance in the project is reinforced by the police view that the cops and the gangs are the two rival sources of power in the area, and that the gangs are not going to win.

The state and gangs as competitors becomes very explicit in such circumstances.

But rather localised competitors. Which is part of the problem–the comfortable can largely ignore the consequences of policies they do not have to live with. So the Swedish police publish their map of “no-go” areas and it just disappears into the ether, since that (largely Muslim) migration to Sweden has resulted in such intense (if highly localised) social disorder is too confronting to progressivist comfort to deal with. The Baptist-and-bootlegger de facto alliance operated much the same way, as does the modern “war on drugs” equivalent.

Being public
States need public effectiveness, for if authority is going to “scale up” beyond the narrow and personalised intimidation of the criminal gang, habitual obedience is required to make the state work. Both within the hierarchy of the state and the wider populace. The notions of government and political authority used in the above definitions of a sovereign state incorporate a notion of sufficient control generating habitual obedience. But very public control and very public habitual obedience. 

Hence the importance of signalling for systematic coercive power. The more publicly a gang operates, the more it signals its power. The more people are surrounded by effective signals of state authority, the more habitual obedience is likely to be. Hence the aforementioned “broken windows” theory of crime. Hence also the “cosmological bluster” (to use James C Scott’s lovely phrase) of states, expressed in stone, ritual and public discourse. States require habitual obedience over much wider territory and areas of life than does a criminal gang. 

Exit, resistance and voice

The dangers to such habitual obedience are exitresistance and voice–ways of coordinating against state activities and authority. Not necessarily exit from the territory of the state–European states exported large numbers of people in the C19th without losing authority. The dangers are rather exit from its authority within its territory and public denial or contesting of its authority; either as a political community (the wish to secede: as seems a factor in the Swedish and French cases mentioned above) or as a current regime.

Leninist states famously attempted to block exit. While widespread wish to leave did undermine the cosmological bluster of such states–that they were the golden path to the future–at least as important an issue was the loss of people to expropriate from; given the level of expropriation such states engaged in. Hence, for example, East Germany “selling” people to West Germany. 

A wall to keep people in.

Leninist regimes also typically seek to drown out any alternative voices in public social space. Less total regimes are usually content with merely “pruning” the public social space.

So, the main difference between the state and a criminal gang is the scale of the operation of the state. Unless, of course, the state acts to broaden the benefits it provides. Which, of course, modern democratic states do. Indeed, the point of elections and representation is precisely to get the state to do that.

Which can then provide a strong positive-social-standing effect to what the state does, and does not do. For good or ill. The “war on drugs” and the “fight against crime” provide cover for noxious withdrawal of state coverage of transactions and inadequate police accountability respectively, to take topical examples. 

Community, state and regime
There is also some ambiguity between political community/society, state and regime. Partisan feeling can generate widely varying attitudes to particular office holders or governments. In the US, conservatives tend to be strongly attached to the US as a society & political community, but be rather more dubious about aspects of the American state. Conversely, progressives tend to be more positive about a wider range of aspects of the American state, but rather less enamoured of the US as a society & political community. 

The belief that the state can reduce “sin” in society has done much to increase the level of crime and the ambit of the state’s localised competitors, criminal gangs. Fear of said crime in a highly armed community has done much to undermine police accountability in the US. A bit more scepticism about what the state can do in stopping “sin” would go a fair way to reducing crime.

Ironically, it is the failure to extend basic operations of the state to a range of continuing transactions that gives its localised competitors such revenue opportunities and expands the ambit of crime, including theft and violence. Less hubris about what can be achieved and more coverage would work rather better. 

 

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

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