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 political 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.