Crime as governance: reorienting criminology
© John Lea 2001

This is a paper I gave at the 2001 Annual Conference of the German Criminological Association in Bielefeld. It is published in German as: ‘Kriminalität als Governance. Überlegungen zu einer Kriminologie des 21. Jahrhunderts’ in M. Althoff, P. Becker et al. (eds) (2004) Zwischen Anomie und Inszenierung: Interpretationen der Entwicklung der Kriminalität und der sozialen Kontrolle. Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlag. (ISBN 3-8329-0561-8)  

Recently (October 2005) I discovered a  translation of this article in a Hungarian journal called Eszmelet. It can be read here

As we enter the twenty-first century we need a new understanding of crime adequate to the new conditions in which we live. If we are to avoid the continual marginalisation of criminology we must be aware that the development of our discipline was based on particular historical conditions which are fast changing beyond recognition. Traditionally, criminology, echoing criminal law, presupposed a view of crime as

  • An exceptional event rather than a normally expected occurrence

  • A form of pathology, originating from and overwhelmingly located in, the marginalised periphery of society

  • An episodic, and frequently brutal, disruption of otherwise normal socio-economic processes.

  • An object, or target, of governance. Criminality is a phenomena to be regulated and reduced to manageable proportions by the resources at the disposal of the modern state and other social institutions. The role of criminology is to assist in this process of management and control.

This perspective was sufficiently strongly rooted that it seemed almost a logical contradiction to question whether crime had these characteristics. The perspective is still strongly entrenched in popular opinion and the working of criminal justice institutions. Nevertheless, for a number of years, critical criminologists have been pushing beyond the confines of this traditional view: not to negate it entirely, but to show that it is one aspect of a more complex and rapidly changing state of affairs.

Crime as normal and non pathological

For the last thirty years, until recently, in most societies we have witnessed rising rates of crime. As crime becomes more frequent it loses its status as an exceptional event and becomes "a standard, background feature of our lives—a taken for granted element of late modernity." (Garland 1996: 446) Crime rates recently have been falling slightly, but this only serves to underline the changed situation. It is no longer simply a question of the amount of crime but, more importantly, the change in its socio-economic role and function.

An aspect of this which has attracted some recent comment is the increasingly blurred boundaries both between criminality and other forms of risky behaviour to be avoided. There is a growing confusion between actual criminality and a diffuse feeling of the need to fortify oneself, one’s family and neighbourhood, against risky people, against the new ‘dangerous classes’, with the latter often taking on ethnic as well as class connotations. And as the other side of the coin, those who have money and property, and are members of groups with whom one has no social relations of trust and dependency increasingly appear as legitimate targets for crime. People who are not known or interacted with become the vehicle for suspicion and fear. This echoes the ‘society of others’ characteristic of early capitalism captured by Frederick Engels’ portrayal of urban life in the English industrial city in which

"(t)he brutal indifference, the unfeeling isolation of each in his private interest… The dissolution of mankind into monads, of which each one has a separate principle, the world of atoms, is here carried out to its utmost extreme." (Engels 1845: 329)

Various aspects of this theme have been reflected in criminology. Thus Sebastian Scheerer has written about the process whereby our image of the delinquent is undergoing a process of "decategorization in a fragmented society…" as a result of which there is a "fading or withering away of the clear-cut categories of ‘delinquent’…"(Scheerer 1996: 440). Georges Vigarello, in his study of the history of rape and sexual abuse in France observes how "…the degenerate on the social margins, has been replaced by the anonymous abuser… a culprit with no special features, socially integrated and professionally accepted…" (Vigarello 2001: 235). For Jock Young those people that we regard as risks are "…everywhere and not restricted to criminals and outsiders." (Young 1999: 66) The result is that the criminal justice institutions are joined by, and become integrated with, a variety of other discourses and strategies oriented to the management of risks.

The fact that crime becomes a normalised risk of postmodern life and the identity of criminal offenders becomes blurred, implies also, as its accompaniment, the normalisation of activities and motivations hitherto considered criminal. Crime becomes an increasingly normal activity to be entered into. There is a decreasing need for guilt, rationalisation or ‘techniques of neutralisation’ (Sykes and Matza 1957). Criminals are no longer innovators in the Mertonian sense, (Merton 1957) seeking status by deviant means, they are just doing what everyone else is doing. Crime is increasingly "…generated less by a deficit than a hypertrophy of opportunities… the effect of the gigantic and uncontrolled proliferation of ways in which status can be achieved…" (Ruggiero 1993: 135)

All these themes relate to a perceived process of social and economic fragmentation characteristic of ‘postmodern’(for example Bauman 1995) or ‘late modern’ (Giddens 1990) or ‘risk’ society (Beck 1992), with an implied weakening of the distinctions between normal and pathological, culture and subculture, moral and immoral. Twenty years ago this fragmentation could still be celebrated as the beginning of an epoch of postmodernity which "expands the potentialities and identities available to ordinary people in their everyday working, social, familial and sexual lives." (Hall 1989: 129) But now we are more aware of the dark side of this process. A collapse of the ‘organised modernity’ of welfare state Keynesianism (Wagner 1994) has led to expanding opportunities for those with wealth but only as part of a growing crisis of poverty and social inequality combined with a new aggressive ‘Americanised’ capitalism which is concerned only with profit taking and is decreasingly concerned to fulfil the requirements of social integration and solidarity. This tendency is fostered by two factors. Firstly, the increasing role of speculative finance capital in the world economy which, deploying purely monetary methods of profit taking such as speculation in currency and bond markets, has little interest in the sustaining social integration. Secondly, globalisation and the massive expansion of communications networks (Castells 1996) enhances the ability of manufacturing capital to move its labour intensive processes to low wage regions rather than sustain the wage and social welfare costs of a traditional ‘Fordist’ working class. One important manifestation of this is the progressive decline in taxation revenues from business corporations (Martin and Schumann 1997, Hertz 2001)

This brings us to a second aspect of the changing nature of crime. Behind the statistical and cultural normalisation of crime lies the process of structural normalisation whereby criminality—especially, but not only, economic criminality—increasingly functions as a mechanism for the reproduction of social and economic life rather than simply its disruption. This was foreseen some years ago by the Italian criminologist Umberto Santino who identified a transition whereby "…events formerly considered as ‘criminal ways to capitalism’, occurring in peripheral zones and in secondary social spheres, have turned into ‘the criminal ways of capitalism and contemporary society’." (Santino 1988: 232) We enter the epoch of a ‘mixed economy of governance’ in which criminality is no longer simply a target of, but itself a form of, governance: at the level of economic processes related to the accumulation of capital, the social processes of the reproduction of community life, and the political processes of power and rule. In becoming a form of governance criminality does not cease to be brutal and disruptive of civilised life. It is simply that this is the direction of development of social and economic processes in general. The increasing instability, risky, and even barbaric nature of social life in the twenty-first century, involves in some respects a return to forms of society that predated the development of modern industrial capitalism.

Crime and capital

The increasing blurring of boundaries between organised crime, corporate crime and legitimate business is well known (Ruggiero 1996, 2000). Organised crime is a branch of big business: it is simply the illegal sector of capital. It has been estimated that by the middle of the 1990s the ‘gross criminal product’ of organised crime made it the 20th richest organisation in the world and richer than 150 sovereign states (Castells 1998: 169). The world’s gross criminal product has been estimated at 20 percent of world trade. (de Brie 2000)

The structure of criminal enterprise no longer conforms to archaic forms of ‘family’ organisation such as characterised the old Sicilian Mafia. Rather, newer flexible forms of ‘entrepreneurial’ criminal organisation and methods of operation, highly adapted to fast moving global networks, achieve increasing integration into the legitimate economy through sophisticated money laundering techniques (see Carter 1997). The use of encrypted electronic mail, anonymous Web sites and the myriad of instantaneous transactions which constitute the Internet in general and financial markets in particular, render the legal and the illegal increasingly indistinguishable and where distinguished, beyond the reach of national law enforcement agencies. Criminality is normalised by the networks. (see Castells 1998: 202, van Duyne 1997)

Meanwhile legitimate business both actively seeks relations with criminal organisations and adopts methods akin to those of organised crime. Immigrant smuggling eases labour supply problems in a variety of manufacturing sectors such as clothing and food, construction and agriculture and in ‘dirty economies’ where semi-legal employment is interspersed with employment in more directly criminal activity. (Ruggiero 1997) Conversely, the global sphere of operations of multinational corporations enables the export of the most brutal aspects of cheap labour to convenient locations in the southern hemisphere where "…workers have to contend with thugs hired by the bosses, blackleg trade unions, strike-breakers, private police and death squads." (de Brie 2000: 4) Such brutal labour regimes in third world countries can then be presented as characteristics of the ‘lack of governance’ in these societies and nothing to do with the dynamics of global capitalism. In fact competition and the need to minimise production costs create a situation in which "corporations find it less and less possible to operate without engaging in criminal activity." (Bello 2001: 16, see also Mokhiber and Weissman 1999, Ganesan 1999))) The collusion of multinational corporations with various forms of violence evokes memories of an earlier stage of capitalist development such as the period of the American ‘robber barons’ (Sombart 1967)

The legal financial sector meanwhile, with an eye on the growing wealth of organised crime, may go out of its way to attract criminal investments. The closure of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International in 1991 gave a glimpse of the tip of an iceberg whereby legitimate private banks and investment traders openly tout for legal and illegal funds without making a fuss about the distinction between the two. (Kochan and Whittington 1991, see also Chossudovsky 1996, de Brie 2000) A further indicator is the fact that legitimate capital is turning to the same tactics as organised crime. The activity of drugs cartels laundering their profits through ‘offshore’ banking facilities (banks in states which guarantee zero taxation of deposits and absolute secrecy about the identity of investors) "…pales, however, beside the gigantic losses to the public purse that result from the legally organised flight of capital." (Martin and Schumann 1997: 63) In this way legitimate capital enhances its power over governments to reduce tax burdens not only with the threat to relocate employment but also by adopting some of the tactics and resources of organised crime. Indeed, criminal capital forces legitimate capital to compete with it to overcome the ‘burden’ of having to pay at least some minimal tax revenue. (Shelley 1998: 608-9)

Crime and community

The second arena in which the ‘mixed economy of governance’ develops is in the role of criminality as a social cushion against poverty and economic collapse. As a United Nations research report observed

"At a time of narrowing economic opportunity across wide areas of the world, participation in the illegal economy furthermore constitutes one of the few realistic options available to many families who simply need to ensure a basic level of subsistence. Illegality makes certain commodities or services unusually profitable. Thus the drug trade has become one of the central economic activities of the late twentieth century, drawing millions of people - from the peasant villages of Third World countries to the inner cities of the industrialized North - into networks of exchange which provide great wealth for some and a tolerable living for many who have limited alternative sources of income." (UNRISD 1994: 3)

Cocaine production acts as a counter to the impoverishment of thousands of Latin American peasant farmers, reducing the impact of falling world prices for agricultural products and raw materials in these areas. Attempts, usually financed by the United States, to eradicate coca production are periodically met with organised resistance (Thorpe 2000). Illegal imports of hard currency in Latin American drug producing states, usually in US dollars, may help counteract the effects of export of profits by foreign companies and investors. (Keh 1996, Santino 1988) The laundering of profits from the drugs trade helps sustain the growth of offshore banking facilities whose closure would have a devastating effect on already meagre living standards in the impoverished economies where they are located. In a similar way, drugs profits function, in both producing and consuming countries, as a source of capital and credit for legal enterprise, particularly small business, which also provide conduits for money laundering. (Ruggiero 1993, Ruggiero and South 1995) Meanwhile low wage jobs in poor communities do not enable escape from poverty into stable legal jobs but rather lead back into the criminal and informal economies. The networks of legal job search are often simultaneously those that yield information about criminal opportunities and the availability of drugs or cheap stolen goods. (Johnston et al. 2000) Widespread criminality in poor areas both brutalises and terrorises populations, but at the same time is a factor in social and economic survival.

However, just as criminality can no longer be seen as an economic and socially marginal parasite which simply disrupts legal activity, neither is it some beneficent force defying the logic of capital accumulation. Workers and producers in the illegal sector are not protected from the rigours of the market and employment insecurity. Drugs are generally carried across international frontiers by unskilled and low paid couriers, often young women from third world poor communities who are ruthlessly exploited and end up being coerced into prostitution in the country of destination, high levels of burglary to secure money for drug purchases disrupt poor communities. Coca leaf or poppy farmers in Latin America or Asia at one end of the production chain, and street dealers at the other end, are paid a pittance compared to the enormous profits made by criminal entrepreneurs. Profits from drug sales are increasingly less likely to be reinvested in local activities, either legal or illegal, than in global financial markets.(Hagan 1994: 96) As it expands its scope of activities, organised crime’s employment structure assimilates to that of legal employment with unskilled street workers facing scant chance of upward mobility. (Ruggiero and South 1995, Bourgois 1996)

Crime and power

The final dimension of the ‘mixed economy of governance’ is the substitution of criminal rule for that of legitimate state agencies. Criminal organisations, without ceasing in any way to engage in criminality and brutal violence, substitute themselves for a weak, distant legal authority and appropriate to themselves the role of punishment, dispute mediation, and the pacification of various social groups, usually the poor. In Europe we encountered this phenomenon in the form of the old Sicilian Mafia (Blok 1975, Arlacchi 1988, Hess 1998, Catanzaro 1992) and in the United States on a more localised level in the old Cosa Nostra regimes of New York and Chicago during the 1920s and 1930s (Abadinsky 1994). During the 1950s it was widely believed that the economic and social stabilisation inaugurated by the Keynesian welfare state was undermining the power of such organisations and reducing them to the status of simple petty crime. (Arlacchi 1988, Merton 1957, Bell 1961)

The demise of organised crime was a premature hypothesis which was falsified by the rise of new forms of ‘entrepreneurial’ criminality mentioned above, oriented to trading and the accumulation of wealth. These organisations are seen as having less interest in political control over territory. Their main interest is making money and, furthermore, they cannot possibly substitute themselves for the power of the modern state. They seek rather to neutralise the capacity of the state either by corrupting particular groups of state functionaries—judges, police, politicians—or by escaping, like nineteenth century bandits and robbers, into areas beyond the reach of the state. Some of these areas take a radically new form in the shape of the global electronic networks, sophisticated money laundering and complex financial disguises. The inability of national states to effectively police such areas, despite much celebrated international co-operation, is well known (Strange 1996, George 1999).

However, more traditional forms of sanctuary are of increasing importance. The dynamics of global capitalist development have lead to the reappearance of large tracts of territory which include parts of large cities and even entire regions in which governance by legitimate political or even commercial institutions is episodic or non-existent and which also function as effective sanctuaries for criminal organisation. During the heyday of the Keynesian welfare state, the 1950s and 1960s, such areas were seen as indications of ‘backwardness’, resistant to the modernising and socially inclusive tendencies of the epoch, but which would eventually be integrated into the mainstream by means of correct social and economic planning. But now such areas are expanding rather than contracting. The expansion of these derelict ‘wild zones’ of the city is increasingly as much a problem in Europe as in North America or the third world. We have already noted how globalisation is leading powerful sectors of capital to lose interest in providing funds for social integration. A particular manifestation of this process is the neglect of the city as integrating space. As the geographer David Harvey has noted

"In the past, capital regarded cities as important places which had to be efficiently organised and where social controls needed to operate in some sort of meaningful way. We now find that capital is no longer concerned about cities. Capital needs fewer workers and much of it can move all over the world, deserting problematic places and populations at will. As a result, the coalition between big capital and bourgeois reformism has disappeared." (Harvey 1997: 20)

Under such conditions criminal organisations oriented to trade and money making, in seeking sanctuary from the surveillance of the state in such areas, also find themselves embracing once again some of the older functions of mediation of conflicts and pacification of populations. Meanwhile we are reminded that traditional criminal organisations such as the Sicilian Mafia never converted to a purely entrepreneurial money making organisation nor relinquished its aim of territorial domination. (Paoli 1998, 2000) Rather than, or in addition to, corrupting and neutralising the existing state agencies to ‘make the world safe for crime’ criminal come to constitute brutal and violent regimes of governance from below (Stenson 1998, 1999). Needless to say, cities in the United States provide to most extreme examples with criminal groups

"…exercising extraordinary levels of quasi-legitimate coercive and commercial power in hundreds of housing projects, poor neighborhoods, and city halls all over the United States—those who dissent against them can be tortured, those who oppose them are murdered, those who accept them are exploited, those who openly embrace them can be served." (Luke 1996. See also Davis 1990, 1998)

Even such violent regimes are complex mixed economies of governance, involving alliances and forms of ‘political compromise’. Local government agencies, commercial entrepreneurs, political parties, ethnic organisations and police agencies even if weak in such areas, are still important sources of funds, real estate and protection for criminal activities. Add to this the dependence of poor communities on products of criminal activity—such as cheap stolen goods—and rather than a sovereignty of pure force we have rather complex dynamics of governance of populations; a state of affairs appropriately described by Manuel Castells with the term perverse integration. (see Castells 1998: 141-2)

The entire dynamic is repeated on a global scale in which "huge areas of the world already lie outside the jurisdiction of any state." (George 1999: 13) and provide sanctuaries for powerful criminal organisations, terrorists and warlords. These ungovernable chaotic entities, are to be found in many parts of Africa, East Asia and parts of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. They are characterised by

"…the state's inability to maintain control of its national territory and population. Whole sectors of the economy, towns, provinces and regions fall under the yoke of new warlords, drug traffickers or Mafia. Respect for law and order and the institutions of civil society evaporate. The people fall prey to armed groups, and then come to rely, not on government or national authorities, but on humanitarian organisations such as the International Red Cross, Médecins sans Frontières and Oxfam, and various branches of the United Nations." (de Rivero 1999)

In such situations what remains of the legitimate state apparatus may be simply pillaged and transformed into an instrument of such factions with the result that "no-one can tell any longer which parts of the state apparatus still defend the rule of law, and which have been contracted by one set of criminals to wage war on their rivals." (Martin and Schumann 1997: 210) In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the collapse of political rule into forms of criminal activity "…has become the dominant trait of a sub-continent in which the state has literally imploded under the combined effects of economic crisis, neo-liberal programs of structural adjustment and the loss of legitimacy of political institutions." (Bayart et al. 1999: 19)

Such chaos and violence frequently appears as the breakdown of all governance while in fact, as with the role of criminal groups in urban areas, quite complex forms of regulation are taking place, coherent strategies are being pursued by well organised groups. This can be illustrated with three examples. Firstly, in the area of war and political conflict criminal groups may be linked with terrorist or guerrilla groups in the fighting of the ‘new wars’ which have tended, in the period since the ending of the Cold War, to replace classic conflicts between nation states. Mary Kaldor, observing the wars in former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, describes the ingredients of new military machines as including "a disparate range of different types of groups such as paramilitary units, local warlords, criminal gangs, police forces, mercenary groups and also regular armies including breakaway units of regular armies." (Kaldor 1999: 8) This blurring of criminality and warfare results in a situation in which

"…no one knows who should be considered ‘as a criminal’, who are ‘the police’, and who are ‘the army’. Criminals become incorporated into formal control agencies and criminal behaviour is not only unpunished—it is even regarded as desirable as a strategy of inter-ethnic war." (Nikolic-Ristanovic 1998: 475)

Nevertheless behind the apparently chaotic nature of these new forms of warfare clear strategies are visible, relating to the consolidation of ‘ethnically cleansed’ territories and with even the interests of the major world states being reflected in such conflicts. Secondly, in many areas criminal groups may be serving the interests of powerful elites who remain distant from the actual sites of conflict. In nineteenth century Sicily the old mafia pacified the local population in the interests of powerful agrarian elites who were generally absentee landlords. The twenty-first century version is that of multinational corporations financing smugglers and mercenary armies to control diamond deposits and destabilise fragile African states to the advantage of western capital (Hart 2001).

The final example is the experience of Russian organised crime which by some commentators has been regarded for a time as a form of ‘transitional governance’ awaiting the stabilisation of more modern state institutions. Russian organised crime, expanding rapidly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, facilitated by large scale privatisation of state assets, has been portrayed by some imaginative commentators as a necessary transitional phenomena between the old Soviet system and a new dynamic capitalism. In this argument organised crime takes the form of an embryonic business class analogous to the nineteenth century American ‘robber barons’ who showed contempt for the criminal law but nevertheless developed the capitalist economy. Additionally, the weakness of the Russian state creates a situation, analogous in some ways to nineteenth century Sicily, (Varese 1994) in which the organised crime provides the only viable form of governance. From this standpoint

"Russia's criminal world… has become the only force that can give stability, that is capable of stamping out debts, of guaranteeing the banks repayment of loans and of considering property disputes efficiently and fairly. The criminal world has essentially taken on the state functions of legislative and judicial authority." (Leitzel 1995: 43, see also Williams 1997: 6-7)

The fact is however that at least some of the wealth of American ruthless capitalists like John D. Rockefeller or Cornelius Vanderbilt (see Abadinsky 1994) was reinvested under conditions favourable to sustained economic development. In Russia the irony of a group of criminals who have "…contributed nothing, produced nothing, risked nothing… who simply robbed what was there… manipulating the country's currency, destabilising its fragile economy, stripping it of its oil, gold, timber…" (Sterling 1994: 96-97) being taken seriously as a business class is that they indeed represent something, albeit in an exaggerated form, of the future for capitalism as a whole under present conditions. Capitalism is indeed developing apace in Russia but it is the type of capitalism which portends the future of the system as a whole: increasingly breaking its own rules of legality in order to maintain the short term rate of profit and the wholesale wrecking of national economies through the rapid export of large amounts of capital, by a mixture of legal and illegal means, to areas of higher profitability justified by an aggressive ethic of cynical self interest. Organised crime, rather than a parasitic capitalism, as a disruption of normal and efficient capital accumulation is, unfortunately an increasingly important tendency of the system as a whole. If unchecked, the end result of such a tendency will be a new form of barbarism, appropriately termed by Susan George ‘gangster capitalism’ which

"if it succeeds in supplanting legitimate business, traditional rules of competition would be blasted to bits while corporate terrorism would become the order of the day. Today's relatively predictable business climate would be replaced by durable anarchy and a Hobbesian war of all against all among individuals, firms and nations." (George 1999: 15)

Under such a nightmare scenario law enforcement would be recruited by powerful corporations as simply another weapon against competitors.



This is rather a gloomy point at which to conclude and it is necessary to emphasise that I have tried to give an illustration of tendencies at work, tendencies whose pace of development differs profoundly between countries, communities and types of crime. Such tendencies can undoubtedly be halted long before the type of ‘gangster capitalism’ described in the previous paragraph becomes a reality or before the disappearance of the utility of the concept of crime as an ingredient of the defence of human rights. Already there are new forms of opposition to these tendencies, now developing on a global scale both within and outside official institutions. What I have tried to underline is that the best contribution that critical criminology can make to such a movement is to firmly insist that our object of study is not the exhaust fumes of modern—or perhaps rather, postmodern—social and economic life but some of the most important components of its motor and steering mechanism.



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