Friday, February 18, 2011

St. Augustine, O.G.

[I wrote this back in November but never got around to posting it. The uprisings in Egypt and the confused right-wing reaction to it make it seem more relevant, somehow].

Gangsters are such a staple of movies and TV that I recently realized that I'm gotten sick of them. The recent film The Town may have pushed me over the edge -- I went to see it mostly for the Boston locale, but who cares about a bunch of Charlestown hoods? Plus I couldn't suspend my belief that said townies, not exactly known for brilliance, were capable of plotting capers worth of the Mission: Impossible team. The HBO show Boardwalk Empire is about the struggles of various factions in 1920s Atlantic City, and does a great job with the costumes and sets. But who cares which set of thugs gets to sell illegal booze? I like Steve Buscemi, but he can't make the story interesting for me. Glorifying gangsters is morally repellent. Even shows which attempt to undercut the mystique of the mafia (eg, The Sopranos) end up making heroes of them. And of course gangster-worship has been fucking up black subcultures for decades now.

Here's JEH Smith, of a generally anarchistic bent, complaining about the popularity of the mafia in the culture and contemplating its relation to the state. He's sort of right I think, in that the existence of the state is what makes non-state thugs possible, just as the grain-stores of civilization empower rats.

Yet maybe it is worth thinking about these people neither as romantic heroes nor as repellent thugs, but as just part of the human ecosystem, and one that has made possible some of the good things we take for granted now, such as jazz and birth control. I can believe that. Under this model, organized crime, despite its obvious failings, is actually in business, delivering goods that are not otherwise available. These goods are often not so good -- drugs, prostitution, gambling, violence. But people want them, the state attempts to ban them, and so entrepreneurs appear as inevitably as dew in the morning grass.

And if the state is just the biggest, most legitimized gang of thugs, as a standard anarchist trope has it, then it's not surprising that it has to deal with parties trying to horn in on its monopoly of violence. But the state is not (in general) just that, states have a magic property that lifts them above mere thuggery. What is that property? Legitimacy, maybe? The ability to institutionally embody social order and justice, no matter how imperfectly? I'm not sure,

Speaking of that: Since I have a rather poor education in the classics, I did not know that the "anarchist" equating of states with criminal gangs actually goes back at least to St. Augustine:
Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a vast scale? What are criminal gangs but petty kingdoms?

A gang is a group of men under the command of a leader, bound by a compact of association, in which the plunder is divided according to an agreed convention. If this villainy wins so many recruits from the ranks of the demoralized that it acquires territory, establishes a base, captures cities and subdues peoples, it then openly arrogates to itself the title of `kingdom', which is conferred on it in the eyes of the world, not by the renouncing of aggression but by the attainment of impunity.

For it was a witty and a truthful rejoinder which was given by a captured pirate to Alexander the Great. The king asked the fellow, `What is your idea, in infesting the sea?" And the pirate answered, with uninhibited insolence, `The same as yours, in infesting the earth! But because I do it with a tiny craft, I'm called a pirate; because you have a mighty navy, you're called an emperor."
Um, did I have a point? I think it was that armed gangs are an inevitable part of human society, whether they are respected states or savage thugs. Justice, accountability, legitimacy are devices to keep violence regimes aligned with the broader interests of societies, but they're highly imperfect. Revolutions are exciting because they get rid of a bad regime of violence, but of course scary because nobody knows what the new one will look like. But you need them, because there's no other cure for the tendency of regimes towards sclerosis.

1 comment:

TGGP said...

I thought Chomsky's quote of Augustine was pretty well known. There's even a schoolhouse-rock version.

Thanks for the JEH Smith link. My perspective is sort of the inverse of his: precisely because the family is smaller I prefer loyalty to it than toward the nation state.

I stopped watching Boardwalk Empire after the first few episodes, but mostly because there weren't enough killings and their attempts to distract with me with what-happens-to-this-character stuff was just annoying.

Switzerland & Sweden haven't had revolutions in quite a long time, and they seem to do alright.