Monday, June 28, 2010

The Pirate Dystopias

The crash has laid bare many unpleasant truths about the United States. One of the most alarming, says a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is that the finance industry has effectively captured our government—a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market crises.

I'm reading McMafia, an account of how the fall of the Soviet Union brought on the rise of transnational organized crime syndicates. This is a lifelong interest of mine. In the 90s, I remember reading about the Dieciocho, a criminal gang based in Los Angeles and El Salvador. Illegal immigrants raised in bad LA neighborhoods got involved in gang crimes, got deported back to El Salvador, got their hands on military-grade weaponry there, and brought it back to Los Angeles with them. I also remember that a lot of London music took on issues of gun culture after the late 90s; at the time, London suddenly flooded with guns, because the economic crash of 2001 killed the British appetite for Ecstasy, and the Eastern European smugglers who had built gigantic fortunes on smuggling Ecstasy into Western Europe had to think of something else they could use those smuggling networks to make money with. (By the way, I think this is the strongest argument against the War on Drugs; it is not wise to set up compelling financial incentives for the development of international smuggling networks.)

There's a quote in this book which alarms me:

The Croat, Bosnian, Albanian, Macedonian, and Serb moneymen and mobsters were truly thick as thieves. They bought, sold, and exchanged all manner of commodities, knowing that the high levels of personal trust between them were much stronger [due to shared Soviet-era connections as members of the KGB's gigantic system] than the transitory bonds of hysterical nationalism. They fomented this ideology among ordinary folk in essence to mask their own venality...Tribal nationalism was indispensable for the cartel as a means to pacify its subordinates and as cover for the uninterrupted privatization of the state apparatus.

What alarms me about this is how much it sounds like American conservatism. It's easy to spot the "tribal nationalism" inherent in anti-immigration rhetoric, and Tom Frank's essential book The Wrecking Crew documents "privatization of the state apparatus" as the primary ideological and tactical goal of American conservatives since Reagan. In a nutshell, the right wing took on a strategy of staffing government agencies with activists who had campaigned for the destruction of those agencies, and did so deliberately in order to destroy those agencies. American conservative lawmakers create political corruption deliberately because it nets them their political goals, accomplishing with passive-aggressive sabotage what they cannot not achieve with honest legislation.

During the Bush years, the Minerals Management Service, the agency in the Interior Department charged with safeguarding the environment from the ravages of drilling, descended into rank criminality. According to reports by Interior's inspector general, MMS staffers were both literally and figuratively in bed with the oil industry. When agency staffers weren't joining industry employees for coke parties or trips to corporate ski chalets, they were having sex with oil-company officials. But it was American taxpayers and the environment that were getting screwed. MMS managers were awarded cash bonuses for pushing through risky offshore leases, auditors were ordered not to investigate shady deals, and safety staffers routinely accepted gifts from the industry, allegedly even allowing oil companies to fill in their own inspection reports in pencil before tracing over them in pen.

Many aspects of modern life match a police state perfectly.

Nonviolent protestors rushed by Toronto riot cops yesterday

I'm from Chicago, where ordinary people say the phrase "the cops are just the biggest gang" every day with the same air of stating the obvious that people use for the phrase "what goes up must come down" in gentler parts of the country. These days, in the former Soviet Union, "the government is just the biggest gang" is absolutely true in the most literal way possible, and American conservatives are working hard at making it true of this country as well. Science fiction warned us about the police state with countless dystopian fantasies, yet outside of Philip K. Dick and Pat Cadigan, I can't think of any sci-fi which prepared us for the possibility of a police state run by mobsters - which seems to be where things are actually going.

This is why the Internet is so important. Consider: how differently would the Founding Fathers have structured our country, if they had started today? How would you organize police forces and the legal system, if you had a blank slate and a population who nearly all carry cameras with them, every day? How many opportunities for crime that American politicians have used to destroy their government, and Croatian politicians have used to build theirs, would not be opportunities in the first place, in a world which fully made use of the new and powerful technologies available cheaply and in abundance to ordinary people?

These are the questions raised (or at least strongly hinted at) by Clay Shirky in Here Comes Everybody, which is why I'm really fucking looking forward to Amazon delivering his new book, Cognitive Surplus, which I should receive tomorrow.