Gangsters and Hobbes

At the recommendation of a friend, I recently began reading a book called “Gang Leader for a Day” which tells the story of a University of Chicago grad student who conducts research on gangs in Chicago, and does so by spending time at their homes in the projects, reviewing the accountant’s books (of crack cocaine sales) and observing confrontations between rival gangs. Like any normal person, reading about Chicago’s gangs immediately made me think of English philosopher John Hobbes.

In all seriousness however, I think Hobbes’ work The Leviathan very accurately portrays life in the projects. Hobbes argues that the natural state of man is “nasty, brutish and short”, and that due to a lack of security, man is constantly forced to fend for himself and worry about survival. The “Leviathan”, or government is basically the biggest baddy in town; the individual or set of individuals capable of ensuring security for the rest of members. In exchange for the security, the Leviathan is able to take the resources it wants, can decide what sorts of jobs the individuals will be engaged in, and in general controls most aspects of the individuals’ lives.

While I don’t think this is necessarily an apt characterization of most modern states, I do think it is a reasonable characterization of life for those in the projects. Living in a high crime area, with low incomes means that life is especially difficult. There are a lot of problems, and undoubtedly some instances where, given the lack of access to basic services, life is indeed “nasty, brutish and short.” This is where the gangs come in.

An element that surprised me is how much time the gang members spend ensuring the protection of those within their building. If two people are fighting, the gang members seek to resolve it, if someone is in danger, the gang members seek to protect them. The gangs even finance parties for kids, basketball tournaments, and the local Boys and Girls Club. However, in exchange, they are absolutely in control of all economic activity in the region. They tax the prostitutes, squatters, mechanics, and anyone else trying to hustle in the building. Furthermore, people are only allowed to do this work with the gang’s blessing.

Therefore, any attempt to label the gang as inherently good or bad would seem to risk oversimplifying the matter. There are undoubtedly some negative aspects of living under the jurisdiction of a gang, but these people also receive support and protection that they might not otherwise have. In a dangerous living situation, there is something to be said for that.

I think in many dangerous situations, people operate within this Hobbesian world. I’m reminded of Villa Flores, a slum in Buenos Aires that is also largely run by dealers of a cocaine product (known as “paco”). Or, in towns in Somalia that are controlled by Al-Shabab. My suspicion is that in places of instability, Hobbes’ depiction of politics does often ring true, and people concede rule of law to the biggest guy in town in exchange for protection and other basic services. Perhaps when I next hear about criminals or rebels who are effectively ruling an area, rather than question the logic of the ordinary civilians living there, I would do well to think about what Hobbes would have to say.

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2 Responses to Gangsters and Hobbes

  1. The Stork in Winterfell says:

    In the Middle East, there’s a similar dynamic with groups of young men in poor areas of unregulated housing called awlad al-balad (literally, the children of the country) or lutis (in Iran’s recent history)) who have a complex relationship with their community based on similar dynamics of trouble-making and protection. They also have territory they protect, for example in Tehran and Isfahan there were certain groups of lutis for each quarter of the city.

    In Cairo some groups of young men have also recently become influenced by Islamist politics and thinking. This leads to an adoption of moral policing of unregulated neighborhoods, and of gender relations.

    I think it’s valuable to remember that the state is always involved, particularly through its arbitrariness in slums and its ability to create a state of exception where the residents of unregulated or state housing live in suspense, fearing the state will kick them out of their housing, either for violating project rules or for simply living in unregulated housing. “The governmentality of informality” has been a recent thread in the literature, adapting Foucault’s thinking in an interesting way. It makes you think about how residents discipline their own behavior to avoid confrontation with the state. One way to do so is a performance of docility, whenever a police officer happens to come around.

    Another way the state acts on people who live in slums is by placing intense limits on their ability to leave, to enter other parts of the city. The urban infrastructure (routes of highways, light rail, public transportation, placement of bridges) plays an important role in maintaining a distance between a city’s under class and wealthy. Police checkpoints are a common feature across the world, creating no-go zones for a large number of a city’s residents.

    Returning to the Leviathan, such an God-like image (on the cover of Hobbes’ book is the famous image of the ruler holding a sword and a pastoral staff) is an aspect of state power. The state’s seemingly all-powerful aura stuns people and makes challenging a solitary expression of authority (like resisting a police officer’s demand for a bribe) seem too dangerous, out of fear of provoking the awesome power of the Leviathan-like state.

  2. jack jr. says:

    it’s been so long since last we met…..

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