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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Monday, June 30, 2008
    Embroiled in the global underworld
    A captivating review in this week's LRB, by Neal Ascherson, of Misha Glenny's McMafia: Crime without Frontiers:
    [Glenny] is prepared to be shocked by the brutalities of organised crime, although it takes a lot to shock an experienced, war-scorched reporter like him. But, more important, he is prepared to admit uncomfortable truths. He makes clear that mobs, mafias and global rackets are often performing useful and occasionally vital social functions that no other institution – governments, legal systems, the police, the economy itself – is capable of providing.
    It’s usually assumed that organised crime is a network of unqualified evil: murderous, recklessly greedy, the enemy of all human values and all hopes for better lives. Glenny’s book is a warning against such a simple view. No, big gangsters are not nice people: they get what they want through the threat or ultimate use of violence and blackmail. And it’s obvious that their operations can wreck the lives of millions through addiction or – as in the Balkans or Colombia – through the equipping and financing of local wars. But are the mobs and mafias really Public Enemy Number One? It would be shrewder to call them Government Enemy Number One: they are formations that deprive a state of revenue, of the monopoly of violence and law enforcement, and sometimes of international respect. The public, by contrast, may find them less dreadful – often, in fact, less dreadful than the governments that are supposed to be serving and protecting their citizens.

    For centuries, pamphleteers have played with the fancy that the greatest thieves and murderers are not those dangling from the gibbets but those who sit on thrones or send armies into battle. Reagan’s War on Drugs, as total a failure as George W. Bush’s War on Terror, may indirectly have led to almost as many deaths – by destabilising Colombia, for example. It would be hard to think of any organised crime outfit responsible for a fraction of those two butcher’s-bills, in spite of all the murders of rivals and massacres of disobedient sub-gangs. Consider a monster like Ilya Pavlov, criminal emperor of Bulgaria in the 1990s; or dapper little Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar, who slaughtered hundreds in Mumbai with his bombs in 1993; or Viktor Bout, the globetrotting Russian who is the world’s most dangerous dealer in illegal weapons. These men are mere retailers in death. Governments, as the late Tiny Rowland used to say, are death’s wholesalers.
    Glenny's analysis struck me as transferable to a couple of other things currently on my mind.

    First, the latest TV 'expose' of gun crime among Liverpool youngsters - I bracket the word 'expose' because really BBC's Panorama was little more than a show, with nothing approaching the deep structural analysis of a Misha Glenny. Do our local gangsters provide useful social functions where other institutions fail (discuss...)? How do the guns get to our ten-year-olds and at what stages are government and corporations involved (they will be)? Detail the certain links between gun crime and growing UK poverty and inequality ... etc etc...

    And second, the launch of a very welcome campaign by Christian Aid, challenging corruption in governments, international banks and corporations which greases wheels, lines pockets - and transfers vast amounts of money from the poor to the rich. Bold of Christian Aid to at last get to the heart of the evils sustaining poverty (like tax dodging, a topic addressed in their recent report Death and taxes), just as it's bold of Glenny, one of our last great reporters, to embroil himself in the global underworld.