McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld, by Misha Glenny

Global organized crime has grown exponentially the past few decades primarily due to globalization and the collapse of Communism. When states fail or weaken, it provides a huge opening for organized crime to flourish. Among other things, they like wars. Chaos provides cover, the troops want prostitutes, and smuggling abounds.

Over and over again McMafia shows how states and crime are often intertwined. The Japanese real estate hyper-boom was fueled by corporations with access to lots of cheap cash who wanted to develop land where people were already living. Many didn’t want to move. Enter the Yakuza gangsters who forced people, often violently, from their homes at the behest of some of Japan’s largest corporations.

He sees the political-criminal nexus in China as all pervasive, with administrators of their police state engaging in massive corruption with the criminal underworld. Did you know there are entire towns in China where the primary industry is making bootleg cigarettes? Counterfeiting money is out-sourced to North Korea. He doesn’t think China will survive intact under such pressure. Neither do I.

The huge driver of organized crime is drugs. The consumers are primarily from Western countries and without their ravenous consumption, much organized crime would cease. It’s that simple. He favors legalization.

Amazon has a short video of Glenny discussing how Dubai is the money laundering capital of the planet. They don’t care where the money comes from or where it goes. Which neatly emphasizes the central thesis of McMafia, that globalization has greatly helped the spread of crime and national governments – the ones that aren’t openly complicit, that is – are often quite powerless to stop it.

Another thread in the book is that the birth of organized crime cartels is often due to poverty and discrimination. A particularly exploited group with no future finds that crime is a way, maybe the only way, out.

In the 1930’s, soon-to-be legendary organizer Saul Alinsky was working as a sociologist investigating the root causes of juvenile delinquency and crime.

He was assigned to research the causes of juvenile delinquency in Chicago’s tough “Back-of-the-Yards” neighborhood. In order to study gang behavior from the inside, Alinsky ingratiated himself with Al Capone’s crowd, and came to realize that criminal behavior was a symptom of poverty and powerlessness.

The Back-of-the-Yards neighborhood, setting of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, was an immense slum in the shadows of Chicago’s giant Union Stockyards, one of the largest factory complexes ever created. Its inhabitants were poor; they had no rights and no job security. In the course of one year, wages were cut three times. As Alinsky watched and decided that he could no longer stand by as a silent observer. He believed that widespread poverty left America open to the influence of demagogues and that the only antidote was active, widespread participation in the political process. Alinsky envisioned an “organization of organizations,” comprised of all sectors of the community – youth committees, small businesses, labor unions and, most influential of all, the Catholic Church.

He pulled it off. Back of the Yards was the birth of community organizing and an antidote to organized crime. So maybe that’s the lesson. People with something to do with their lives, who feel like they have power, aren’t nearly as likely to become criminals. But shaft a group of people continually, give them no hope, then don’t be surprised when they decide to get rich quick or die trying. And they sure don’t exist in a void, either.

From an interview with Alinsky.

Another thing you’ve got to remember about Capone is that he didn’t spring out of a vacuum. The Capone gang was actually a public utility; it supplied what the people wanted and demanded. The man in the street wanted girls: Capone gave him girls. He wanted booze during Prohibition: Capone gave him booze. He wanted to bet on a horse: Capone let him bet. It all operated according to the old laws of supply and demand, and if there weren’t people who wanted the services provided by the gangsters, the gangsters wouldn’t be in business. Everybody owned stock in the Capone mob; in a way, he was a public benefactor. I remember one time when he arrived at his box seat in Dyche Stadium for a Northwestern football game on Boy Scout Day and 8000 scouts got up in the stands and screamed in cadence, “Yea, yea, Big Al. Yea, yea, Big Al.” Capone didn’t create the corruption, he just grew fat on it, as did the political parties, the police and the overall municipal economy.


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