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Criminocracies: The state of the state and criminal activity


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Sometime during the mid-1990s I took for a break from studies. I had completed a research project on state failure, and of the post-state economy in Somalia. I needed, for once, to get as far away from the library as possible. I went to Sicily.

Before I left London, I bought a book which, I figured at the time, would keep me sufficiently far away from state failure, from reading about systemic criminality, and the parasitic relationships that grow between states and criminal activities. At the time I referred to these, at least in my own mind, as ‘criminocracies’, a fusion of the state and criminality, with an attendant permissibility of corruption and extortion.

The book had a rather enchanting title, Midnight in Sicily. I recall, now, that when I first saw the title, it had something to do with food. As it turned out, the book was about more than that. It was also about state failure, of a kind, in the sense that it dealt with organised crime in Italy, and how it had hollowed out the state, and elided the differences between lawful and unlawful conduct among politicians, bureaucrats and citizens. In some parts of southern Italy, criminal activity had become culturally assimilated, as it were.

Midnight in Sicily started my almost 15-year interest in organised crime in Italy; not the romanticised and dramatised version we see in the movies, but a deeper, more sociological and political economic interest. Of particular importance was the way in which deregulation, especially, in southern Italy, gave Neapolitan crime organisations space to effectively take over the political economy, to the extent that criminal organisations controlled everything, from sweatshops to real estate and financial services, across the region. All of this was done in the absence of regulation and more crucially, of effective enforcement. The police and prosecuting authorities could no longer be trusted; they were, themselves, criminals or beholden to political power. The state, provincial and local authorities simply made way for criminals to capture the governance machinery. Local delivery of public goods and services were either non-existent, or the public had to pay bribes for municipal services.

For instance, the only way that a bridge or a building could be built was to give politicians and organised crime groups a share of the funding. The role of agents in the criminocracy did not end there. In some cases, infrastructure was built at sub-standard quality, and was expected to last for, say, five to 10 years (criminal groups sometimes have great entrepreneurial vision) so that the contract for maintenance or reconstruction could be re-issued – invariably to the original syndicate. This low-intensity, but high-impact corruption, a topic for another time, often occurs stealthily, behind a veneer of legitimacy. It is typically achieved through the cultural assimilation of criminal activities, and the blurring of lines between public service and criminal activity. This reference to ‘culture’ has nothing to do with notions of race, admixture, genetics, nor with perceptions of ethnicity, or geographic specificity… It has to do, simply, with what is considered to be acceptable conduct, customs and practices.

One of the best developed examples of this way in which criminal activity has been assimilated, culturally, and how it has eroded public service delivery may be found in post-war Italy. I should say, in haste, that it is unfair to generalise about a country as large and historically significant as Italy. I agree with the understanding that Italy’s political failures are an outcome of its persistent search for models of effective government and attempts to improve the public service delivery system, since at least unification of Italy in the 19th century. Nonetheless, what stands out from the broad, more serious, literature on organised crime in southern Italy, is the pervasiveness of a set of customs and practices that are cultural, in the sense that it is considered to be the ‘norm’. Perhaps the most dangerous of these practices is the permissibility of corruption.

Consider this. Claims of corruption are usually quite rapidly followed by an ethical outcry. In other words there is almost no time-lag between the act and the outcry. Over time, however, the delay becomes longer; ethical outcries arrive late, and eventually, they peter out. At the latter stages, there is no outcry, and then resignation, tolerance and permissibility becomes the norm. The criminal propaganda machinery goes into overtime. The public become inured to crime and corruption.

For their part, agents in the criminocracy would dismiss accusations of systemic unlawful conduct as myth-making, lies or conspiracy theories. In Sicily, for instance, one stock response was that there was no such thing as a mafia, and anyway, it was not possible, they usually claimed, to arrest one person for something that everyone else in town did. It was in Sicily where I came across the phrase tuttu colpevoli, nessuno colpevoli, which can be translated into ‘if everyone was guilty, then no-one is guilty’. You cannot possibly arrest the whole town now, can you?

Another standout feature of a criminocracy is that criminals and politicians assume the role of victims. This assumed position of innocence is held together by an impassioned pleading of ignorance, a crude sanctimony and self-righteousness, and a type of mantra: ‘admit nothing, deny everything, and make counter accusations’. When politicians or bureaucrats are caught in the act, the first response would be to deny everything, admit to nothing, and accuse opponents or observers (especially the press) of having a vendetta against said politician, or of being unpatriotic.

When one considers the way that political appointments are made in cornerstone institutions of the state, there is a grave danger looming for the future of any society. Consider the case where, in Sicily, during the 1980s, the line between the state and organised crime was dissolved almost completely when dodgy characters with serious ‘credentials’ ran the island’s revenue collection, and made a healthy profit by skimming off the top.

The capture of media institutions can be significant in a criminocracy. In parts of Italy, there exists, for instance, a pact, between the sectors of state and organised crime. This pact has been described by the press as ‘La Trattativa’, in terms of which the state undertakes to reduce arrests and detentions, and criminals reduce their activities. Elsewhere, and not dissimilarly, pacts between various state organs and criminal syndicates are shaped by a culture of do ut des, shorthand for the Latin equivalent of ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’.

Again, we should be careful not to generalise. It is also somewhat racist to claim that there is something (primordially) inherent in Sicilians that makes them criminals. There is no primeval mentality at the base of the Sicilian mind that predisposes them to crime. The idea of cultural assimilation may be explained by a general helplessness among the townspeople and villagers, many of whom may well give in to extortion because state or local government fails to provide community safety in the first place.

Nonetheless, it is generally accepted, correctly, that specific claims of criminal activity have to be accompanied by evidence. In a criminocracy, where there is little qualitative difference between the state, the security establishment, the judiciary, the media, corporations and political formations – all of which have now been ‘captured’ or rendered compliant – prosecution becomes impossible, or, at best, a charade. Under these conditions, the state may be verging on failure, or, at best, serve only the interests of a specific part of society. DM


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