From International Socialism, No.42, February/March 1970.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Organised Crime in America
ed. Gus Tyler
Ann Arbor Paperback, 25s
If words are to have any meaning at all Mayor Daley and Standard Oil should take their place in this reader alongside of Al Capone and Lucky Luciano. For they too are major exponents of organised crime: but perhaps their robbery is too organised and their violence so systematic that they are granted honorary exemptions.
For even if we are to accept the terms of reference of the editor and restrict our interpretations of crime to direct violations of the United States legal code we find that both the police and the giant corporations perpetrate more crime than the Mafia, L’Unione Siciliana and the Cosa Nostra combined. What is more they are infinitely more successful both in the profit-making and public relations fields. As an example of robbery what can be more blatant than the price-fixing ring led by General Electric and Westinghouse, which at the time of their prosecution under the Sherman Act was rigging and dividing a market worth $1,750,000,000 annually; as an example of illegal violence what more callous than the everyday beating up by the police of the politically dispossessed.
The most obvious significance of Al Capone in American history is that he, emulating the path of the corporations, began the integration and diversification of the crime industry in America. Thus he conceived of a national co-operation amongst criminals where before there was a feudalism of local squabbles and he enlarged their focus of activities from the perennial criminal preoccupations with drugs, gambling and prostitution to semi-legitimate activities such as within the stock market and real estate business. But there is a much greater significance of Capone and that was the amazing degree to which he was aware of the meaning of crime in American society.
‘Business,’ he once sneered, ‘those are the legitimate rackets ... They talk about me not being on the legitimate. Nobody’s on the legit. You know that and so do they.’
Organised crime represents the successful attempt of members of minority groups which are discriminated against to achieve the type of monetary and exploitative success which American values extol. They made their way, it is true, in a particularly vicious manner and they made it by supplying illicit rather than legal demands, but once they had arrived the pattern of organised crime changed rapidly.
The new-look gangster comes to resemble more and more the successful company executive. He disdains violence – it is bad for business, and he has discovered, just as the corporations have, that political and social power can be bought, that everyone has a price. Moreover his sphere of activities has vastly extended. The capital built up during the Prohibition period was ploughed back into legitimate business. They learnt ‘through their political ties’, as Tyler puts it, the ‘ABC of “honest” graft’, and rum-running gravitated easily into real estate where profits were just as high and risks relatively absent. They took over trucking companies, dairies, launderette chains and supermarkets. They were called in by firms to break strikes and by the unions to fight the bosses. But in many of the unions – The International Longshoremen’s Association, The Teamsters and The Union of Operating Engineers to name a few – they remained to take over control and are today a major menace to American trade unionism. Their methods are simple – to threaten the bosses with a strike, extort bribes from them to prevent this happening, and to pocket the takings from the deal. Any opposition within the unions meets with uncompromising violence.
There exists in law-abiding society a begrudging admiration for the gangster whose swashbuckling success would seem to counterpoint an element of adventure against the steadfast plodding of legitimate work. This is a myopia, encouraged by the various media from Hollywood movies to the colour supplements. The gangsters they idolise represent capitalism without qualms, free-enterprise minus the usual veneer of legitimacy. For modern criminal organisations have amassed capital, and play an entrepreneurial role which differs from the corporations solely in that they are less choosy in the goods that they will supply and a degree more secretive in their activities.
Organised crime exists under a patina of respectability, it is not contrary to the American way of life, it merely exaggerates a little the values of success and ruthless individualism which are the ethos of American capitalism. Capone saw through the hypocrisy of the ‘good people’ who assailed him.
‘Why,’ he said, ‘the biggest bankers and businessmen and politicians and professional men are looking to me to keep the system going.’
Tyler’s reader adequately documents this.
Last updated on 27.12.2007