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Looking through Venkatesh's "Gang Leader for a Day"
While Sudhir Venkatesh was a sociology grad student in the early '90's, he wanted to study the life of inner-city Chicago: it was right next to his university's campus, but hardly any of his professors had taken a personal look.
After some initial unsettling experiences, the local leader of the Black Kings Gang, J. T. - flattered by the attention - took Venkatesh into his trust and let him observe virtually every aspect of gang life. He spent several years roaming the largest public housing site in Chicago, Robert Taylor Homes, studying gang life and the underground economy there. Venkatesh wrote his thesis based on this study, graduated, and then wrote up his experiences in the book Gang Leader for a Day.
Venkatesh says he came to see the Black Kings gang as a corporation. In many ways, that model does fit. It had regional management supervising neighborhood management (J. T., the leader who hosted Venkatesh) supervising usually-teenage street-corner drug salesmen, and it's undeniable that the gang was getting a lot of its revenue from selling a product to eager customers. But when Venkatesh sees the gang as a corporation, he's forced to ignore other aspects of gang business and gang-community relations. For example, the rest of the gang's revenue was coming from "protection money" from local businesses and "taxes" on people making money in the gang's territory. A normal corporation wouldn't do things like this - let alone occasionally send out armed men to shoot at other corporations' employees (i.e. members of other gangs). When I read his book, I realized we can gain even more insight into the gang by thinking of it as a government.
Once we think of the gang as a government, other aspects of gang life become clearer. They charged protection money from businesses in the neighborhood - analogous to taxes paid to a government, which pay for protection by the military and police. They also charged taxes from squatters in Robert Taylor Homes (where this branch was headquartered), and taxes on underground-entrepreneurial activity in the building (ranging from car washes to prostitution), and justify it as payment for protection - just like a government would do. The protection is somewhat real, too: in addition to protecting from rival gangs (analogous to foreign countries), they sometimes adjudicated disputes between residents (even residents outside the gang) and sent gang members to enforce their verdicts. The verdicts might not, of course, be fair; but they were accepted and enforced.
Residents of Robert Taylor Homes didn't call the gang a government (like Venkatesh didn't), but they act like it's a government. They pay the gang's taxes, however much they might grumble or try to evade them. They accept their court rulings. They accept gang fighting as an unfortunate matter of life, much like a medieval or early modern peasant might accept war even when it's near them. They tacitly acknowledge it to have at least a hegemony if not a monopoly of force. And, when considering moving (such as when Robert Taylor Homes was being closed down toward the end of Venkatesh's study), they thought of moving to another gang's territory as if they were moving to a foreign hostile power. The gang has equivalents to tax collectors, courts, police, military, and borders - all the necessary parts of a government.
This government might not be legitimate by many standards, but it in fact did act as a government. Political philosophers John Locke and Thomas Hobbes both agree that government is formed by an implicit social contract, to provide some form of order and protect people's life (and, Locke would add, liberty and property). By accepting the gang's authority, the people of Robert Taylor Homes were making this trade. Hobbes would be familiar with the unfair choice they were making: however unjust a government might be, he says, it's still better than the chaos that comes with having no government.
Of course, the Black Kings gang wasn't the only government in Robert Taylor Homes. There was also the actual Chicago city government, with police and public housing authority (and also, of course, the state and federal governments, but that distinction doesn't matter from this angle). The gangs were very conscious of this outside power which could in theory limit their "government" power or even arrest them at any time. Venkatesh records that J. T. was careful never to actually be in public with drugs, or even to carry cash lest the cops seize it. At the same time, in practice, the gang leaders and police enjoyed a tacit truce and comfortable coexistence. The gang kept its activities from being too visible in public, and the cops only arrested gang "foot soldiers." The cops knew who the leaders were, but they didn't arrest them - among other reasons because they trusted the leaders to keep things from getting too violent or unpredictable. Meanwhile, the cops (being corrupt) regularly took bribes from the gang, and occasionally shook them down for more money. This can be analogized to the relation between an empire and its client states: the client acknowledges the overlord's authority in some sense, keeps its actions within limits, and pays tribute. Meanwhile, the overlord lets the client keep on governing its own subjects.
But, someone might protest, the Black Kings gang isn't delivering the public services a government usually delivers. The public services that exist in Robert Taylor Homes are being provided by the "normal" Chicago and United States governments. On the one hand, this's a very modern view of government's role; pretty much no actual government was providing them to the public until the nineteenth century. Even the Roman grain dole was only given to citizens (a minority at the time) as a privilege. The only "government" providing actual public services was your own local village. Like the Jewish villagers from Fiddler on the Roof, you prayed that the larger government wouldn't notice you.
On the other hand, the Black Kings had another "department" to their unrecognized government in Robert Taylor Homes. The "building president", an elderly woman named Ms. Bailey who'd held that office for ages, nominally served as her own authority but in practice worked neatly enough together with the gang that she can best be understood as a different government department. She had her own authority; her title and a small wage were given by the Chicago Housing Authority upon election by the tenants of the building. According to the Housing Authority, her powers were to organize tenant activities and lobby for building maintenance. In practice, she only lobbied to fix maintenance issues when tenants bribed her - though when bribed, she had good enough connections to actually get things fixed. In exchange for this, she also demanded taxes from everyone making money in the building, in addition to the taxes going to the gang. Though she was reluctant to openly admit it, she worked closely together with the gang to adjudicate interpersonal disputes and sometimes provide point-level security to building residents. In recognition of this relationship, J. T. regularly assigned his members to do menial jobs for her. While Venkatesh comments that Ms. Bailey was one of the more powerful building presidents, he says she wasn't completely unusual as a building president.
This two-part unrecognized government was a load-bearing part of the community. Venkatesh acknowledges that, though he doesn't use those words. The "normal" Chicago government had more or less abandoned this housing project. Nobody even thinks to call an ambulance or police, because the ambulance won't come and the police will arrest random people if they do come. They hide children from Child Protective Services, because CPS will take them into far-away foster homes indefinitely. They might call in maintenance issues, but they don't expect any response unless they work through the building president. Venkatesh gradually, reluctantly, came to recognize all these views were warranted. He doesn't even speculate how this vacuum came about, the residents he talks with merely blame it on racism and classism, and I don't know well enough to speculate either. But, however it happened, this vacuum did exist and did leave real needs in this community - needs that're recognizable to any political historian. They need some form of social welfare. They need external defense from other gangs (foreign powers) and from CPS and police (perhaps these can be thought of as other foreign powers; perhaps as an "Empire" above the local government). They need courts to adjudicate local disputes, and magnates to throw festivals. The government of the gang and building president stepped in to fill these gaps. It may be unrecognized by larger society, but the people living under it did acknowledge its authority as a government even though they didn't use that word.
This means the neighborhood had a government that was also in business for itself selling drugs. On the one hand, this means the gang was clearly out for its own profit (even if they sometimes talk about "black power" and keeping money local). It had enough of a profit motive and sales organization that Venkatesh can see it as a corporation and totally overlook how it's a government. But, they weren't the first government to have a profit motive. Ancient Roman magnates and medieval European noblemen were also out for their own profit from taxes (in the Romans' case, even openly so). On the other hand, it did provide something for the government's retainers to be doing (selling drugs) which had more impact on the community than medieval Europe's military practice. Unfortunately, the impact was negative (even though it satisfies a felt need for drugs). On the gripping hand, however, it also provided an interesting disincentive for wars. As historian Bret Devereaux explains, through most of human history, wars were very profitable for the victor; but in the twentieth century, the industrial economy made peace more profitable than war. With gangs that're actively selling drugs - and customers who'll rationally stay away from gang wars, and police who'll frown on too much killing - the loss of drug sales provides a similar negative return from war. So, Venkatesh describes the gang bosses trying to discourage their "foot soldiers" from actual violence, and the police recognizing that and leaving the bosses free to help prevent violence.
Of course, this wasn't a good government. They demanded high taxes (for example, 15% of the revenue from a pop-up car wash, plus free washes for their cars; or 50% taxes on prostitutes' revenue) that varied unpredictably, held people back from moving into more prosperous society, and (not to forget) sold drugs, in exchange for comparatively little community benefit. Getting a better government could have helped the community. But this arrangement would be familiar to the people of medieval or early modern Europe, and - like European peasants - the residents of Robert Taylor Homes recognized how it was bad. For example, one prostitute lamented to Venkatesh how her life had gotten worse since the gang moved in in 1981 - but the gang leader "was a very violent man" so she "just gave up and let him have the whole" control. Perhaps, left to itself, the commoners would eventually rise up in a Peasants' Revolt. But, the gang was never quite as exploitative as European noblemen, and if they had been, the larger society's police might have cracked down.
But then, Robert Taylor Homes didn't have a good culture as a whole either. While reading Venkatesh's Gang Leader for a Day, I kept thinking of the infamous Charles Murray's Losing Ground. He blamed the bad culture on bad incentives from welfare programs; Venkatesh and Ms. Bailey (the building president) blamed neglect from larger society - but either way, the culture was in a bad state. To most people, "work" meant selling drugs with the gang. Apart from all the other problems, the low-level gang jobs paid under minimum wage on average, and were highly exposed to arrest or other sorts of violence. Some people had occasional "jobs" in the above-ground economy - but one woman's regular job at a fast food place was called out as something unusual. Most men regularly present were in the gang; other men were forced to dodge out of sight so as not to jeopardize their or their paramours' welfare checks (which, at the time, were much more for a single mother than for a couple living together). Yet, despite all this, many people loved the community of Robert Taylor Homes and similar places in the ghetto. Prominent gang leaders typically bought their mothers lavish homes in the suburbs, but (Venkatesh writes) they usually got lonely and regretted moving out of public housing.
Venkatesh, in his book, never considers how this gang might be functioning as a government. This isn't only a gap in his understanding; it probably shortchanged his study. At one point late in his time at Robert Taylor Homes, after spending some months talking to various people engaging in the underground economy, J. T. and Ms. Bailey asked him what he'd learned and how much the different people were making. Venkatesh happily told them. The next day, he was surprised to see people giving him the cold shoulder... because J. T. and Ms. Bailey had suddenly started taxing all the earnings he'd told them about. "I had no idea that they would use that information," he weakly explained. In contrast, Venkatesh was always very conscientious about not giving the police any tips, because he knew the "normal" Chicago government was ready to use any information against people. If he had thought of the gang as a government - rather than just a part of the community, or a business - he might have been more careful and better able to predict how it would respond.
Venkatesh stayed long enough to see the culture and unrecognized governments of Robert Taylor Homes perish: first to the Clinton welfare reforms that ended the no-questions-asked welfare checks to single parents which most of the residents had been depending on, and then shortly afterwards to the building being demolished. The Chicago Housing Authority promised to find residents other leases scattered throughout the city. Even if they'd kept that promise, it would've ended the culture (as residents grumbled), but as it was, they didn't. Mrs. Bailey the building president made sure to find a good house for herself, and she tried to do likewise for the people who bribed her - but even her influence wasn't enough to make good on the bribes. Meanwhile, J. T., seeing most of his gang and their "subjects" moving away, tried unsuccessfully to recruit in new neighborhoods before finally giving up, wrapping up his unrecognized government, and reluctantly getting a job in the normal economy as a dry-cleaner.
So what lessons can we take from modeling this gang and this corrupt building president as an unrecognized government? If this's a government, should we be more skeptical of governments? Should we join the anarcho-libertarians and abolish all governments along with gangs? In the modern First World, this gang is a very unusual government; most First World governments sell fewer recreational drugs and provide more public services without bribes. But this should remind us that not all governments are so good, even in the modern era. Perhaps a study of this unrecognized government could have better prepared people for the corruption and self-interestedness of (say) the Afghan or Syrian governments.
In addition, in our modern era, with decreased access to courts and calls to defund the police, this should provide us with a warning. Some central government services - defense and adjudication of disputes - need to be available. Robert Taylor Homes was theoretically covered by the normal Chicago government's courts and police... but in practice, they weren't accessible. This example hints that vacuums left unfilled like that will be filled in some way or another... perhaps (like at Robert Taylor Homes) by unsavory groups that nonetheless do in fact defend people and adjudicate disputes somehow. Perhaps we can engineer a better solution, whether the leftists' idea of nonviolent mediators, or the anarcholibertarians' idea of competing protection and dispute-resolution services, or some other solution entirely. But it would need to be engineered rather than forgotten, so we don't have unrecognized governments like the Black Kings filling the vacuum.
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