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Gangs and the Militant State

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overfloater Posted: Sat, Jan 5 2008 1:18 PM

In researching and interviewing for an article concerning Montgomery County's gang problem, I struggled to find a parallel to any familiar phenomenon. The arbitrary tribalism of gangs, their incestuous violence, their codes of discipline within the larger context of lawlessness all seemed to describe a paradigm quite foreign to me. Their members and former members regret belonging to such organizations, because in addition to their compunctions about the crimes they may have committed they feel the sanction of a hostile society, but the strength of camaraderie and the mortal taboo against any perceived betrayal speak to the strong, supportive social cohesion of the organizations.
After asking all the wrong questions of all the right people and being guided away from my misconceptions about gangs, I came to an understanding that invites an analogy to another in-depth article I wrote for my school paper last year, in which I interviewed military recruiters, recruitees, and the director of a DC-based anti-war veterans' organization.
Before I describe this analogy, I will outline the misconceptions which I corrected by talking to law enforcement and gang members. Firstly, assuming the personal risk of drug smuggling in exchange for exorbitant profits is not the fundamental function of a gang, because gangs are not economically rational organizations at their cores. Secondly, the profile of a typical gang member is not necessarily that of a struggling inner-city minority, but rather more of an individual who was prone, at one time, to make the mistake of joining, which they now regret. Thirdly, gangs are not anarchic or belligerent in their activities, but rather, centrally controlled and subservient to orders and laws emanating from a national hierarchy. The logic of the external world, and the logic of personal inclinations, violent or docile, is made obedient to the logic of a self-preserving authority and the service of tribal honor and integrity.
This being said, I have seen nowhere in my experience a closer analogue to the modern street than in the US military. The primary purpose of both gangs and the US military is to protect a "territory" defined by national, or the case of gang, "street" politics. Both organizations are rife with technical vernacular, opaque to outsiders, used for describing and controlling the activities of their members. Of paramount significance is the fact that both gangs and the military equip their members and order them to engage activities which are generally condemned by society, but prove necessary by the internal logic of the organizations. Stabbings and shootings between rival gangs are a social microcosm of the violence perpetrated in conflicts, generally elective in nature, of the American military hegemony.
The fundamental difference between the two types of organization is the societal sanction of their ends. Gangs ostensibly collectivize self-defense on the streets of America, claiming a monopoly on the use of violence over their chosen territories. Society normally doesn't recognize such claims to local sovereignty, choosing instead the claims to the monopoly on force and violence laid by law enforcement, and not without good reason. In countries such as Brazil, however, where the police force is thoroughly infiltrated and corrupt, gangs sometimes provide local security with more efficacy and less collateral damage than law enforcement, and are therefore recognized as legitimate by the local population despite their crimes against public order and the rule of law.
One gang member described the concept of a "mission," a violent expedition designed to maim an opponent with weaponry and overwhelming force, doubtless followed by a speedy withdrawal. Such a "mission" is inevitably ordered by superiors, and refusal to participate is tantamount to complete and total insubordination. In both organizations, refusal to participate in violence under the banner of the group is essentially a repudiation of the nature of the group itself, and is punished accordingly. In addition to the core dictate, the order to perpetrate violence, there are laws aimed at preserving the organization.
Members are required to be loyal to their brothers in arms even when captured and interrogated. They are required to be honest with their comrades and superiors, and to abjure senseless crimes against noncombatants, although accidental damage is often accepted as a cost of doing business. Uniforms are used to distinguish friend from foe, but can be abandoned when the need for covert action arises. Snitches who are discovered in gangs and those who baldly betray the interests of the military may technically both face death under their respective systems of justice, which are simplified and centralized versions of the analogous civilian system.
Gangs require regular meetings, absence from which may trigger suspicion or corporal punishment in the more violent gangs. This is a close parallel to the concepts of Absence Without Leave and desertion, both of which, in the military, are prosecuted with irregularity but occasionally trigger severe punitive action.
Lastly, we come to the psychological profile of a gang member as compared to that of one who joins the military. While superficially gang members display a more anti-establishment mindset than those who join the military, they similarly require a social organization to lend them personal discipline and often benefit greatly from the effects of such discipline in their theretofore unregulated and aimless lives. They may find their own families insufficient for their emotional needs, and join organizations which emphatically describe their interpersonal connections as familial in nature. Additionally, both gangs and the military relieve their members, to varying degrees, of responsibility for the trivia of life.
The choices associated with social life, the decisions about how to occupy one's free time, and sometimes the choice of vocation are removed from the individual sphere and assumed by the collective. Members may describe eschew petty crime, appreciate apparently gainful and purposeful employment, and ameliorate their lack of personal identity upon joining either organization. The social taboo against gangs diminishes but fails to entirely eradicate these beneficial psychological effects. Ex-gang members and veterans may both express regret for their actions within the organizations as they return to the values of a peaceful society, and in while still serving in the organizations they sometimes turn to substance abuse to blunt the trauma of acting outside of the norms of peaceful cooperation.
Gangs and the military operate partially outside of the laws of supply and demand. By an excess of power, or the ability to perpetrate force or violence, there is generated within the gang or military a desire to engage in expeditionary action which the general population has no practical use for, for whom it may in fact may be harmful and expensive.

TL;DR version: I did an article on military recruiting, and one on street gangs. They're pretty similar paradigms.

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 You might find this interesting and it fits in pretty good with your topic...

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The Anarchists are simply unterrified Jeffersonian Democrats. They believe that 'the best government is that which governs least,' and that which governs least is no government at all.
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 Firstly, assuming the personal risk of drug smuggling in exchange for exorbitant profits is not the fundamental function of a gang, because gangs are not economically rational organizations at their cores.


do you have evidence or argument about this that you can share? 

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