By Misha Glenny

There are a lot of things to dislike about the modern capitalist industrial system – its inequities, its unsustainability, its destruction of the human and natural environments – but given how a consumer economy operates, it’s hard to complain. There’s a reason that abominations like McDonald’s exist: people actually buy those billions and billions of burgers. It’s the same global demand that has led to the growth of the McMafia. And so, for example, if you want to know why the Balkans have become an “ideal transit zone for illicit goods and services from around the world” one has to look to “the most affluent consumer market in history – the European Union”:

Organized crime is such a rewarding industry in the Balkans because ordinary West Europeans spend an ever-burgeoning amount of their spare time and money sleeping with prostitutes; smoking untaxed cigarettes; snorting coke through fifty-euro notes up their noses; employing illegal untaxed immigrant labor on subsistence wages; stuffing their gullets with caviar; admiring ivory and sitting on teak, and purchasing the liver and kidneys of the desperately poor in the developing world.

The line between an illegal and legal economy can, in other words, be hard to draw. Who are the real criminals? The Balkan gangsters, or the ordinary West Europeans? Or, lest we start to feel too smug, the “perhaps millions of solid, conventional, and often upwardly mobile citizens – lawyer, businessmen, students, government bureaucrats, politicians, policemen, secretaries, bankers, mechanics, real estate brokers, waitresses” and others who, according to Time magazine, made cocaine America’s chic drug of choice in the early 1980s. Many criminal enterprises exist only to feed appetites, and isn’t the customer always right? Black market shopping might even be cast as a patriotic duty:

The main street in the Sao Paulo district, Iphigenia, reveals the extent to which counterfeit goods are available to the consumer. Outside the shops, young men stand in front of boards pinned with CD-ROM covers – there is not a computer program in the world not sold here, all of them pirated, and I am able to buy for two dollars a copy of the forthcoming Windows OS, Vista, long before it is available on the licit market. Delighted by my interest, the vendor starts chanting in Portuguese, “Don’t be an American slave, be a patriot and buy fake goods!” This commercial anti-Americanism helps to sustain popular support for the trade in illicit goods in Brazil and, indeed, throughout South America. Other than the police and lawyers involved in the struggle against piracy, not a single Brazilian to whom I spoke considered the trade immoral.

And anyone who has downloaded free music, or bought a fake Rolex from a street vendor, will have a hard time judging them. McMafia is crime tourism, a globe-hopping expedition through the world’s underground economy. Along the way reporter Misha Glenny develops a pair of theses: how it is the international demand for illicit goods, especially in first-world “consumer countries,” that is in the driver’s seat, and how it was the collapse of the Soviet Union that was “the single most important event prompting the exponential growth of organized crime around the world in the last two decades.” The two are related. Consumer countries provided both the model and the market for the “chaotic scramble for riches and survival that saw virtually every citizen [of the former Soviet-aligned countries] sucked into a vortex of violence . . . a deadly environment” run by “a new class of capitalists.” The same process repeated itself in China, as the tight lid that Mao kept on the triads was released and that new class of capitalists took over. Capitalists like the snakeheads, who, in turn, are only feeding the labour market in Europe and North America (consumer countries consume people, too). It’s all rather depressing. This is what the end of history looks like? A more intense and violent cycle of exploitation? I find it worth noting that in his book on the 2008 financial crisis, I.O.U., John Lanchester blames the slide into unregulated, casino capitalism on the fall of communism too. It seems that our victory party is coming with a terrible bill. Notes: Review first published online August 16, 2010.

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