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On Governments and Criminals

Posted by Josh Rothman  March 26, 2012 02:52 PM

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We tend to think that crime and government don't mix. On some level, the whole point of government is to prevent crime; on a deeper level, the whole history of government boils down to the creation of what Max Weber called a "monopoly on violence" by the state. Governments use violence to fight crime, which allows ordinary citizens live in peace.

That's a comforting picture -- but, according to a new issue of the Journal of Social History, it might be far too simplistic. In a special essay collection on "The Hidden History of Crime, Corruption, and States," a number of historian reveal the fascinating ways in which governments and criminals depend on one another. It's a codependence which has existed throughout history, and which continues to this day.


The infamous pirate Thomas Tew meeting with the governor of New York.

American history is replete with partnerships between governments and criminals. Douglass R. Burgess, Jr. offers the example of colonial Rhode Island, which was deeply involved in state-sponsored piracy. Pirates were regularly commissioed by the colonial government to set sail and return with plunder. The most famous was Thomas Tew, who returned to Rhode Island in 1693 with £100,000 of booty, much of it treasure captured from "a convoy of ships belonging to the Great Mughal" in the Indian Ocean. The goods were auctioned off on a Newport dock, and "a rush of potential seamen hurried to enlist for Tew's next voyage, drawn from the highest reaches of the merchant class down to lowly deckhands and even personal servants." The Deputy Governor of Rhode Island, John Green, commissioned Tew to set out in search of more. By 1696, Burgess writes, "the town of Newport, Rhode Island, had emerged as one of the foremost pirate ports of the Atlantic World" -- much to the chagrin of residents in Providence, which was less vibrant economically. All of this was done "legally," by redefining piracy as a form of treason. Since Thomas Tew wasn't plundering British ships, he wasn't really a pirate. Rhode Island residents, meanwhile, benefited from goods they couldn't have gotten through legal trade with Britain.

Governments, it turns out, often cultivate gray areas of semi-legality; this allows criminal organizations to take on much of the regulatory dirty work, and lets the economy as a whole reap the benefits of criminal activity. Eiko Maruko Siniawer highlights this dynamic in Japan, where the yakuza operate out in the open, imposing order on the illegal-but-allowed businesses in Japan's red-light districts. (Fun fact: After the 2011 earthquake, the yakuza were a substantive, and widely lauded, source of reconstruction aid.) And, Siniawer writes, "the story of modern states intertwined with mafias is not unique to Japan -- Italy, the United States, and Russia" have had and sometimes continue to have similar relationships. In general, governments seem to be quite comfortable allowing the use of "criminal" labor. Sometimes, that means illegal immigrants. In other cases, it means human trafficking.

If anything, the overlap between government and criminality is only increasing, thanks to the incredibly complex and globalized nature of modern markets. As Renate Bridenthal argues in an introductory essay, "global crime has exploded in the last twenty years." "Global deregulation of markets," she points out, "has involved respectable big banks in financial transactions for drugs, sex, [and] oil"; "if one includes abusive transfer pricing of commodities, tax evasion and dummy corporations, perhaps half of the world's money passes through systems designed to handle ilicit proceeds." To a degree, these gray-zone activities represent a classic, mercantilist partnership: a government makes the rules easy to bend because it wants to win the economic competition with other governments. But the rise of global shadiness also shows that governments, taken together, are getting weaker. More and more, any given economy depends upon shady activities done somewhere else in the world.

Ultimately, Bridenthal writes, rather than assuming an obvious distinction between legal government activities and illegal criminal ones, it might be more realistic to see government as a "mediator" between the worlds of legalality and illegality (a thesis reminiscent of Philip Bobbitt's important book, Terror and Consent). That's a dangerous and difficult position for a government to be in. Governments can too easily slip into criminality; partnerships which seem appealing, sensible, and controllable one day can quickly become entrenched and dangerous the next. That balancing act, Bridenthal argues, is just as much a part of our history as the more "sunlit" and "visible" story usually told about laws and legal institutions. As the world becomes more intricately networked, we can expect the "less acknowledged underbelly" of government to grow.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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