I have just read two excellent volumes on organized crime in the UK, one by Alan Wright (Organised Crime: Concepts, Cases, Controls, 2006) and the other by Dick Hobbs (Lush Life: Constructing Organized Crime in the UK, 2013). Reading the last novel by Ian Rankin in the long John Rebus series, In a House of Lies (2018), I was struck by the idea that the main villain, Edinburgh’s top gangster ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty, is quite an independent operator. He is very different, despite his remarkable power, from the classic godfather figure first named in Mario Puzo’s novels on the Corleone family (and which Francis Ford Coppola famously adapted). Wright and Hobbs confirm this suspicion that there is not such a thing as a shadow crime syndicate with a rigid criminal hierarchy but, rather, a fluid, chaotic predatory business environment that appeals to violent patriarchal men. And that thrives with the complicity of consumers willing to purchase illegal goods.
Wright is a former officer with the Metropolitan Police in London, who later became a lecturer at the Institute of Criminal Justice Studies of the University of Portsmouth. Dick Hobbs is an urban ethnographer, and a native London East-Ender who, his web presentation claims, ‘came to academic work late having worked as an office boy, labourer, dustman and schoolteacher’. Although they come, then, from radically different positions–even possibly from enemy lines–Wright and Hobbs agree that we need to be cautious about the widespread idea of organized crime. Wright, who participated in the investigation of the crimes committed by the infamous Kray twins–whom Hobbs mocks as ‘marquee gangsters’–warns that ‘Because of the contested nature of the concept, the sense of organisation of each group needs to be understood within its specific social, political and economic contexts. Simplistic or one-dimensional theories simply do not work in this field’ (in interview with Woodiwiss & Telford 115). Hobbs goes much further, arguing that, basically, the only organized crime is the one being committed by liberal capitalism since the 1980s-1990s when it started destroying the industrial labour that allowed the working classes in Britain, at least for a very short time between the 1950s and 1960s, to maintain the illusion that a prosperity disconnected from illegality was possible.
Wright’s book is written from the side of the law and, though he is very much aware of how distorted notions of organized crime may even obstruct effective policing, he offers what Hobbs might criticize as a conventional, typically bourgeois view of criminality, in which the working classes are demonized. I must stress that Wright has also written extensively on what is usually called ‘white collar’ crime and that he more generally calls ‘business crime’, meaning the offences committed from inside the legal system. Bankia and the Gürtel scandals in Spain show, as we all know, that the higher your social position is, the bigger your chances are of committing massive fraud and theft. Since this kind of crime leaves in its wake much personal suffering, including suicide, but is not connected with bloody violence, the general public tends to downplay it, showing greater alarm in cases at a much smaller scale which do affect specific individuals as victims of physically harmful crime. At any rate, the downfall of Rodrigo Rato is useful to explain why organized crime as such does not exist; rather, criminal organizations are formed ad hoc, opportunistically, to take advantage of certain new chances of making an illegal profit. In Rato’s case this came though the exploitation of uncontrolled areas of banking; in others far more often stereotyped as organized crime, a positive change may bring in new criminal opportunities. For instance, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 created an immense new market for drugs in Eastern Europe, closely connected with new patterns of conspicuous consumption. This meant an enormous expansion of the global drugs trade, which progressed as demand grew and not on the basis of a prior business strategy.
There are so many challenging ideas in Hobbs’ volume that it is hard to know where to begin. Perhaps with my surprise at the class-related seething rage that inspires the author who, while using an implied Marxist discourse, is also writing from the heart of his personal experience as someone born and bred in a working-class family–as I was myself. Hobbs is deeply annoyed that the in-your-face criminality of capitalism is not acknowledged as the breeding ground for the predatory (his word) behaviours so heavily surveilled by the police, the Government and the media. And he has a point, though I feel that Hobbs tends to downplay the harm done to specific victims who needn’t see their lives ruined by that kind of constant criminal predation.
Hobbs is very specific about when and why the phantom of organized crime was raised. 1991-2001, between the fall of the U.S.S.R. and 9/11, ‘was the decade when the internationalization of American law enforcement found favour after the cessation of the cold war had opened up political and security space in Europe, and organized crime began its rapid assent [ascent?] in importance within political discourse’ (24). American paranoia, the nation’s penchant for alien conspiracy theories, its racist xenophobia and ‘the conflicting moral orders of urban America’ (35) gave rise to the consolidation of the concept as a way for the USA to ‘attempt to establish a global hegemony in which law enforcement became little more than a front for a government-backed central casting agency, stereotyping both heroes and villains’ (37).
If you see Hobbs’ drift, it is also hinted that the establishment of terrorism as a common global enemy after 9/11 follows a similar pattern: the US Government casts whole nations and associations of rogue individuals in villainous roles that merit universal contempt, without looking at its own role in building the global policies from which the resentment expressed through the bombings emerges. And I’m NOT justifying terrorism any more than I would justify the violence of the intensely patriarchal world on which urban crime thrives. Here lies, actually, the main source of my disagreement with Hobbs: while I accept that it is wrong that classing ‘the transgressive tendencies and hedonistic drives that lie at the heart of so much urban life (…) into the emotive and politically charged category of organized crime implies a coordinated threat far more powerful, ominous, and extensive than is justified’ (38), I totally fail to see why we must put up with the brutal violence of illegality. Whether the threat comes from a world-wide mafia, supposing it exists, or from the individual mugger or rapist, the problem is the same: we live under the constant shadow of violence caused by the patriarchal endorsement of a sense of entitlement over bodies and minds which is not being addressed at all. The same applies to high-level corporate business.
Hobbs speaks of the ‘banal entitlements’ to the ‘lush life’ as the hypocritical source of much common criminality: the more affluent individuals promote ‘the ambiguity that is central to the urban milieu’ with their ‘demand for cheap goods and contraband, whether it be drugs, cigarettes, sex, or somebody to pick up the kids from school and do a little light dusting, that drives illegal markets, rather the administratively convenient demonic catch-all of organized crime’ (235). Having been an au-pair in Britain I know a little about the sense of entitlement to a good life that drives the not-so-affluent middle-classes to exploit others below them. Yet, I should say that there is an enormous difference between exploiting the craving for escape of drug users and forcing women and children to sell their bodies and be enslaved for that. A problem, then, which Hobbs does not address are the specific traits of the consumer market–in which exploitative men (not ALL men, but a certain kind) play a major role.
Hobbs claims, rather disingenuously, that although criminal culture is based on a clear machismo, women are also active in drug-dealing because it does not require the strength of other more violent types of crime (though they need to be protected by henchmen) and because the flexibility of the market makes dealers ‘unlikely to be lodged into a permanent niche of some rigid patriarchal hierarchy’ (155). Yet, he traces a very clear line of descent from working-class normative masculinity to post-industrial predatory patriarchy. In the past, when Britain was mostly white, East End ‘youth’ (not men) could enter normative working-class life ‘as a reward for ending their brief dalliance with deviant subcultures’ (126), and be absorbed into a ‘parent culture which offered, via local and familial networks born of long-standing settlement, unionized manual work in dock-related employment, in local wholesale markets, in the building trade, or any of the multitude of proletarian options over which the local white population had acquired come measure of control’ (126-7). Now that this safety net is gone, the macho cultures ‘integral to traditional work cultures’ do not fit the ‘low-paid, non-unionized, post-industrial service sector’ and are, thus ‘ideally suited to predatory illegal trading cultures’ (127).
In this sense, Hobbs’ strategy to defuse racism also falls into this paradigm of presenting working-class masculinity negatively. Before post-industrial Britain was born, with Thatcher’s mandates (1979-1991), the preferred concept was not organized crime but the ‘underworld’, ‘a construct commonly used to describe violent parochial networks of working class men active across a range of illegal markets’ (59) between the 1930s and the 1970s. Incidentally, this is a concept very much alive in Ian Rankin’s novels and which even ‘Big Ger’ uses. The ‘underworld’ was a mainly white, native milieu whose ethnicity was not commented on because it was assumed to be a non-issue. In contrast, Hobbs explains, each new wave of foreign migration has been connected, since the 19th century with the Irish, to ‘a contamination of indigenous purity whose degraded origins lie far away in a dangerous and unfathomable “Otherstan”’ (48), a racist strategy which disregards how native demand shapes illegal trade. When the different white ethnic groups (Irish, East European Jews, Italians, the Maltese and even the French) were replaced by non-white migrants (Asian, Caribbean, African) the same pattern was repeated, but with the addition of an increased racism. This was, of course, made far worse when the second and third generations, born in Britain, found themselves made socially doubly redundant by the post-industrial job scarcity. Their opportunistic criminality was then read (from the early 2000s onwards) as a sign of the re-organization of crime along imported, threatening youth gang lines.
Hobbs, then, strenuously defends that since the early 1990s the Machiavellian corporate market forces constraining British society have ‘enabled the normalization of individualistic and predatory relationships, and a whole range of illegal trades has thrived as a means of acquiring and transacting capital in the void left by legal employment, organized labour, and the enabling institutions of industrial culture’ (234). The criminal networks are not master-minded from above but, rather, formed on the basis of a common ‘general entrepreneurial habitus’ (166) needed to operate in the realm of ‘unlicensed capitalism’ (Hobbs 232); actually, the ‘fluid parameters’ of illegal trade follow ‘the chaos and fragmentation of deindustrialization’ (Hobbs 232). It’s, to sum up, a patriarchal Darwinian world at all levels, from corporate CEOs to teen street drug dealers.
I am then more than willing to accept that ‘organized crime’ is, like ‘global terrorism’, a convenient fiction articulated by authorities around the world, following the US example, to increase citizen surveillance. What I wonder is why both Wright and Hobbs, who show such great acumen, fail to see the elephant in the room: what lies behind the efforts to legally dominate and to illegally exploit persons all over the world is the same patriarchal sense of entitlement. This is not, I insist, common to ALL men, but to the minority that rules by means of legal and illegal violence, with the complicity of many women.
If, Hobbs argues, there is a direct link between the admiration of physical strength in working-class male culture, which connects the past respectability of the industrial worker and the present glamour of the young street gangster, this needs to be examined in depth. I would admit that the brutal violence perpetrated by the CEOs that have sent whole generations into the ‘no future’ announced by 1970s punk is the cause of the survival strategies implemented by those who live by illegal trade. But since I am not aware of any all-female criminal networks that traffic with male sex slaves, perhaps it is time to consider the issue of gender, most particularly the predominance of male patriarchal individuals in criminal circles.
Unless, that is, men are content to see working-class masculinity so generally equated with rampant violence, whether organized or chaotic. I hope not, for this is an insult to the many non-patriarchal good men in working-class families all over the world.
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