Skip to content
August 6, 2009 / Tom Hill

How often is disorganised crime a form of political resistance?

Regular readers may have noticed that my favourite aspect of this project is the conceptual nexus. Well here’s another one on this theme.

We tend to only really talk about organised crime here and on affiliated sites. Organised crime can often reveal itself to be explicitly political (think Mexico), and frequently its distinction from insurgencies is hard to make.  Augustine put it well: “If by accession of desperate men this evil [brigandage] grows to such proportions that it holds lands, establishes fixed settlements, seizes upon states and subjugates peoples, it assumes the name of a kingdom” (On the City of God). Mancur Olsen also argued that where you have long lasting and geographically “stationary bandits”, they will almost inevitably be compelled to develop systems of authority that should be described as state-building.

But by concentrating on organised crime we implicitly (and some times explicitly) hold that disorganised crime is entirely different; that if the boundaries between political and criminal get fuzzy with organised crime, they remain sharply distinct in any disorganised form. Aside from the question of how we classify organised and disorganised from each other with strict certainty, this is a big assumption. In Rian Malan’s now classic My Traitor’s Heart (a fascinating personal exploration of apartheid in South Africa, which I’ve been dipping back into recently), Malan describes the case of Simon Mpungose, a zulu who killed four whites with a hammer in separate incidents, and became known as the ‘Hammerman’. Mpungose ended up just handing himself in. One gets the impression that Simon was mentally not well. However, having suffered severely at the hands of the repressive, brutal, and deeply unfair apartheid system, these murders, while horrifically brutal and expressive, constituted an act of resistance against the system he was ensnared within. The implication of Malan’s narrative is that his acts, while personal, were highly political. Indeed, Simon explicitly stated in court that he did what he did because of what he had seen done to ‘black people by white people’.

This gets me thinking. How often is everyday, low-level crime a form of political resistance? It seems to me that engagement in such crime is often not just an act of desperation but a rejection of a system of politicaHoodie teasing Cameronl and social order. It can be a way of stepping outside a system that one rejects in preference for another code of social life. Can we, therefore, understand certain episodes of non-organised crime in our societies as forms of political and social resistance? We often talk about ‘cultures of crime’. Are these not , in some instances, actually ideologies of a kind, and therefore better understood as political phenomena? The implication is that they are not just subjects for the criminologists, and that those of us in conflict studies could find a lot to learn from such case studies.



Leave a Comment
  1. Aaron Weisburd / Aug 6 2009 18:06

    Is it a political phenomena? I think that is a reasonable explanation for at least some such crime.

    Is it “resistance”?

    That word is politically charged, and used by so many disparate groups and individuals to justify so many different kinds of actions, that I think it has lost meaning.

    To call it resistance plays into the hands of those on the Left who view the police as criminals, the criminals as victims, and the victims as collateral damage. At the same time to call it resistance plays into the hands of those on the Right[1] who are all too happy to label crime as insurgency in order to justify the militarization of policing.

    One could just as well argue that such crime is “oppression,” as it is surely felt to be that by the individuals and communities who are the victims. What else do you call it when people live in fear in their homes and dread going outside because of rampant disorganized crime?

    [1] In as much as “left” and “right” have any validity in describing contemporary political positions.

    • Tom Hill / Aug 6 2009 18:59


      You raise some very interesting points. Many thanks for sharing them.

      On resistance. I am less concerned by the potential connotations of the word “resistance” to such liberation organisations as, say, the French resistance. I think the term has so many applications in many areas of life that we don’t need to worry too much about it. It’s also a key term in a major area of political philosophy led by Foucault.

      Whenever using the term “resistance” we tend to mean in reference to a power that seems greater than our own (hence “resistance to temptation”). It’s not necessarily noble though (e.g. antibiotic resistant bacteria!). So I think we can use it as a dry analytical term, as long as we make it clear we’re not using it to support any particular political position, such as those that you mention. Hence, I also don’t think that terming a criminal organisation as a form of insurgency in some cases is necessarily to support a right-wing, militaristic position – that itself depends upon your strategic theory of how to deal with insurgency.

      But it just goes to show how careful one must be in discussing these issues – it’s so easy to fall accidentally into a political dichotomy poo-trap (like the ones you very interestingly raise) even when one has only an academic interest.


  2. vanderleun / Aug 6 2009 18:39

    Oh, puh…lease.

    • Aaron Weisburd / Aug 6 2009 18:48

      Thank you for the elevated comment. This is what makes blogs such a useful form of communication…

  3. kiers / Aug 11 2009 19:06

    this concept HAS been out in the zeitgeist for a LONG time. countless films have touched upon it. but at the disorganized level…what kind of statement is it when the “hoodie” relentlessly excessively kicks the daylightss out of an old lady and steals her purse.

    I think if you examined the brains of criminals (I think britain had a long standing program of archiving the brains at autopsy of noted figures???) you’d find an extremely large thrill seeking component driven by short term gain with no moral bearings whatsoever. Sure politicians may share some traits here…but cruelty is uniquely criminal.

  4. kiers / Aug 11 2009 19:18

    PS. you could ask this in reverse: “how many disorganized criminals would be predisposed to rail against ‘the [political] system’ “? I think most ciminals would be “anti system” by definition because they never work within the ssystem!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s