Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Review of McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld by Mischa Glenny

I'm reading McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld by Mischa Glenny. The book is about organized crime in the aftermath of the Soviet Union, not just in the former USSR but everywhere, and the book has this really . . . weird narrative about capitalism. Basically, while describing the horrors caused by the plutocratic and criminal states that arose post-USSR, Glenny chalks it all up to the necessary growing pains of an emerging capitalist society.

The crazy thing to me is that . . . at the time of this dude writing this book, the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries are still total nutcases. The book was published in '09 and it takes about a year to go through publication, so it was probably submitted in '08, which means the bulk of the writing probably went on before the Great Recession. But it wasn't like '07 was some stellar year in Eastern Europe.

While it is true that the criminal elements in Russia are weaker, now, power in Russia has been replaced with Putin's dictatorship – which one might say is at least as criminal as the crooks it replaces. And Russia and most of the Eastern Bloc is experiencing rates of poverty that made the Soviet Union look downright affluent. Sure, now the stores in Eastern Europe have stocked shelves . . . but only an incredibly wealthy elite can buy anything. An improvement for the rich, but not so much for the tens of millions of Russians cast into abject poverty. Not to mention the one sterling communist education system is in shambles (not to mention the flight of the intelligentsia from Eastern Europe, draining the education system further), lack of health care where once everyone got it, so forth and so on.

But the most damning numbers, for me, come from life expectancy. In Russia, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, men could expect to live to 72 years of age. It's now . . . 59. Capitalism has shortened male Russian lives by thirteen years, replacing communist longevity with violence and alcoholism.

I'm not going to say that if the USSR had continued to exist that things would be better than they are, now. There's simply no way to know that. It's a facile game to make those kinds of predictions. But Russia seems yet to have repeated real, material benefits of capitalism a full generation after the fact. There was always an elite who lived luxurious lives, does it matter if they were communists or capitalists? It seems to me that it was under the communists that the Russian state did bettter – lower rates of crime (even including the state's brutality), longer lives, better educational and employment opportunities for the overwhelming majority of people.

If Gorbachev had put his considerable intelligence and energy into invigorating communism than with perestroika, well, who could possibly say what would have happened? Perhaps things would have fallen apart even worse, though I have trouble imagining how without there an all-out war. But this is what we do know – for tens of millions of people in the former Soviet Union, life is worse now than then. They have worse education, often no access to medical care, certainly no form of retirement. For many others, life is more or less the same in terms of quality of living. And for a tiny few, things are a lot better as they are living the capitalist fantasy of tremendous wealth. You'd think, since this is the case, that maybe constantly cheerleading capitalist as the means away from poverty might . . . not be a clever thing to do. There seem to be many more signs that capitalist is a Russian curse and not a blessing.

But, nope. The narrative is set. The crime and corruption, and now, I suppose, tyrannies of the former Soviet Union are the birthing pains of a better world. Even though those pains seem likely to continue indefinitely, that the birth may never occur (and, in general, that kind of dividing line is also facile – at this moment EVERYTHING CHANGED; usually it was an incremental process that doesn't resemble the neat narratives of historians and especially journalists). Even though the gulf between the rich and the poor is literally at the highest point since . . . the events surrounding the October Revolution.

Reading the book, though, it's clear that Glenny has very strong feelings about Russia. I mean, duh, his name is Mischa. I'm gonna read into things, here, and say he has a Russian background. When describing the Soviet Union, though, he talks about how gray and dreary it was. When describing post-Soviet Russia, well, now it's a very lively place.

I think this is because for Glenny, it is a far, far more lively place. If you're a reasonably affluent Western journalist flying into Moscow, I'm sure that things have improved pretty dramatically for you in Russia. Glenny says as much, talking about the clubs, cuisine, girls. What he seems to entirely miss is how, sure, now Eastern Europe has all of these things, including billionaires, but it has had a very, very dramatic cost to the people who weren't the winners of the capitalist lottery.

Not just the gangsterism (though that is hard to ignore), but the way the former communist nations have ravaged educational and health care systems. The way that critical services have been obliterated with no hope in the next couple of decades of something to replace them. Not to mention how Eastern European nations, once at full employment, are now burdened with very high rates of joblessness.

More broadly, there is this notion that capitalism brings wealth. I've said it before and I'll say it, again – while it's undoubtedly true that the richest nations in the world are capitalist, so are the poorest. Glenny seems to buy into the reasoning that if we only give capitalism a chance in Eastern Europe, things will get better. It's only been twenty years!

There are two flaws in that reasoning that . . . I don't think one can easily dismiss. The first is that after twenty years, there's no way to say what would have happened if communism hadn't fallen. Now you're in the realm of science-fiction, trying to compare alternate time lines. It has all the difficulty of trying to imagine what would have happened if the Confederacy had succeeded in gaining independence. Many interesting scenarios could be imagined, but none of them have the least basis in fact.

Second and this is the doozy, there are poor countries that have been both very capitalist and very poor for a very long time without a lot of hope of things improving in the near future. While I certainly hope that Eastern Europe turns itself around, there's no reason why it shouldn't go the direction Bolivia or Haiti or, well, pretty much all of Africa.

South America and the Caribbean are a very interesting test bed. Not only is much of the area capitalist, it is more conceptually capitalist than places like the United States. In much of the region, there is almost no regulation (or if the regulation exists, it's pretty notional with the states so weak that they can't enforce it – which is why so much cocaine somehow manages to escape Columbia so consistently). If you describe a capitalist's idea government, it would sound a lot like Columbia – where the central government is so weakened that businessmen can do as they please. And they are. But what doesn't happen is the wealth is distributed to the poor. Indeed, as the coke barons grow in power, the lot of people in their territories diminishes to the point where much of the country is in virtual slavery. I suspect the only reason it isn't actual slavery is that if the coke barons owned the workers there might be some sense of obligation towards the people they oppress.

There's no reason to assume that Eastern Europe won't go in that direction rather than, y'know, becoming a bunch of Japans and South Koreas – the Slavic Tigers. All through South America and Africa are countries with abundant natural resources, countries that are conceptually quite capitalist, but since the minerals extracted from those places enriches foreign companies and a tiny local minority, one does not see a rise in quality of life for the people of those nations. Frequently, they're worse than before, because you have armed thugs demanding that they engage in those businesses (diamond mining, cocoa production) that serve the wealthy elite and their foreign masters instead of businesses that would provide them with a growing economic base (developing local industries, a tax base capable of supporting universal education and health care, stuff like like). There are plenty of examples – the main bulk of capitalist nations, really – that say that the kind of economic chaos that Eastern Europe finds itself can endure . . . indefinitely. Longer than communism, certainly.

But people who challenge the narrative that capitalism is unvarnished good all the time don't tend to sell many books.

Also very interesting is that, in every case the author makes about the rise of organized crime internationally, is that a big part of it was fiscal deregulation. Glenny's narrative goes, “Well, you had these countries like Israel and India with strong collective social traditions but then deregulation and government privatization came into vogue and mob violence broke out in a big fucking way.”

So it stands even more remarkably that such a strange intellectual lacuna should exist – Glenny repeatedly refers to gangs in the former USSR and Eastern Europe as providing private security services that the police could not handle, those necessary handmaidens to capitalism, but the deregulation and privatization of government that happened in the 90s and has been one of the persistent goals of capitalism. When they finally got what they wanted (in part, I feel, because after the fall of international communism they had no ideological rivals and did not need to soften their rapacity for fear of a communist uprising in poor nations), it lead to the Great Recession and a large rise in the number of gangs and the level of violence. Yet, at no point does Glenny suggest that maybe this is a structural problem with capitalism, itself. Which is strange because, y'know, he does everything by blame capitalism by name – he simply lists the facts but without the least bit of indictment of the organizing principle behind those facts. In short that the deregulation of business and privatization of government has been driven by capitalism.

If the book took an entirely apolitical stand – simply describing the facts and letting the reader infer them – well, I wouldn't like that, either, but at least it would have the air of neutrality. But Glenny isn't neutral. He is repeatedly capitalism's cheerleader in a book that describes the very horrors of capitalism, itself.

He eventually does mention, briefly, that this crap does threaten the foundations of globalization. Glenny mentions that everyone knows how money is laundered and some countries, like the US, could really curtail money-laundering havens by putting sanctions on those countries, or the world could get together and create international banking regulations including the teeth to enforce them.

But licit business also uses these havens to avoid taxation. There is tremendous pressure from the business interests that fund elections and control economies to allow various tax havens – and, thus, money laundering – to continue.

I think he shies away from the horror of it, though: the capitalist ethos is incompatible with any restrictions on what can be commodified or the manner in which markets are acquired and kept. In the perfect capitalist world, anything goes. Gangsterism is the fundamental model of capitalism: anything to make money. That's what they think they want. Glenny doesn't want to say that, no one does. They have this fantasy where a system built on human greed and personal ambition finds some kind of rational boundary. That they will “learn” to moderate their greed and ambition to avoid the social chaos created by murder and mayhem as normal business tools. They'll put them away because it's bad for business.

Sure, it's the rational actor fallacy, but it's also the capitalist fantasy – that people will see, as we do, not to do business that way.

I wonder if the book will move into a discussion of the violence of licit businesses, y'know, how mining and oil companies are really big on murder and always have been, not to mention the arms business, or the chocolate business which is built on slave labor. Not even stuff like the horrors of forced immigration and the coyote trade, where business turns a blind eye, but the acts of violence perpetrated by the businesses themselves. That is what really ties it all into one package for me – that businesses are quite willing to kill and enslave quite directly if they can get away with it, in ways no different from any organized crime ring . . . except, I imagine, a little more plausible deniability created by a larger number of intermediaries speaking a more rarified language. You won't catch too many oil men saying, “Kill that sonofabitch” but merely opining to their security professionals that it would be great if that Nigerian tribal lawyer went to a place from which he would not return. Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest!

While McMafia is an interesting book, I think it is inherently flawed by the author's inability to address the structural problems of capitalism even as he describes many of them. Insofar that the rise of international gangsterism is linked to capitalism, it is only capitalism's “growing pains” until the nations that have embarked on this capitalist adventure learn to deal with their new system of government. This is true even in countries that have been conceptually very capitalist for as long as the United States. Because it is Glenny that brings up capitalism's role in crime, his inability to analyze capitalism beyond mere boosterism for it rankles quite a bit. To understand gangsterism requires, I think, an understanding that gangsters are the epitome of capitalism – everything is a commodity, even life and death. Slaves are a commodity as are assassins. You sell what you can, for as much as you can, without any limitation on the products you sell or the techniques employed to acquire those goods or secure your markets; violence is certainly permissible. To this you would need to add the realization that businesses behave in the same way when they can – that the mobster mentality is alive and well in corporate boardrooms all across the world who have no qualms about corrupting governments, using mercenary killer to enforce company policy, lie, cheat, steal and kill. They can and are doing all of these things, except they have offices in Maryland. Without that kind of analysis, the book is entertaining but ultimately hollow.

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