Your Friendly Neighborhood Street Gang

March 20th, 2014   Submitted by Joshua Krause

GangI’ve been studying anarchist and libertarian thought for about six years now. In that time I’ve found that learning to compare the state to a gang in a very detailed and factual manner is crucial to the growth of anarchist thought. It’s often the one thing that brings folks from small government to stateless thinking. It’s no easy task to change someone’s beliefs about government. Sometimes the only thing you can do is simply lay out the facts, and the fact of the matter is that the state is a gang, not unlike any street gang or mafia. The evidence is obvious and abundant, if only most people had the courage to draw that conclusion. Nobody arrives at any stateless ideology without that final paradigm shattering realization.

You’ll often hear certain sayings thrown around such as “The government is a mafia” and “The government is a gang thieves writ large”. Those statements are not just figures of speech. They are undoubtedly true. My only grief with this language is that many folks don’t seem to look into the truth beyond skin deep. Beltway Libertarians and Minarchists are especially guilty of this. They throw these sayings around as a kind of meme and nothing more. They would strip the state to its bare essentials, leaving nothing but its monopoly on violence. The irony being that they still accept the forceful violent aspect that makes government a gang in the first place.

The best evidence for this occurred to me while reading about violent crime statistics in the United States. By all indications, violent crime has been dropping since the early 90’s. There are many theories for this, ranging from increased gun ownership, to lower lead levels in our bodies, to video games and entertainment creating some kind of harmless outlet for violent impulses. Though these theories may hold weight, one thing flies in the face of them all. Gang membership has exploded over the past 20 years. There are currently 1.4 million gang members in the United States according to the FBI. That’s a 40 percent growth over three years before that study was taken, and it reflects an overall explosive trend since the 90’s. What gives? How could crime be on the descent while gang numbers continue to mount?

With a little research I found only one source looking into this possible correlation. A research paper written by Russel Sobel and Brian Osaba titled “Youth Gangs as Pseudo-Governments” paints a totally different picture. Street gangs are not the core cause of violence. As a matter of fact, they’re not necessarily even a problem, so much as they are caused by a problem. What these two researchers figured out by looking at data gathered from the LAPD was that it’s the violence and crime that comes first, then the gangs start forming to protect themselves. People don’t join gangs just to deal drugs and make money. It always starts with people fearing for their lives in a violent neighborhood. While the gangs commit many acts of violence, the overall crime rate in gang controlled territory often decreases. In a nutshell, gangs fill a void that government services leave behind. When the government fails to protect the rights and safety of their citizens, the citizens will take it upon themselves. However righteous that may sound on the surface, they are forming nothing more than primitive governments.

When I make this case to some folks the reaction I often get is, “Oh ya? Well I’ve never seen a gang build a bridge, or a school.” Yeah right. I have. You just need to know where to look.

One of my first jobs was at a Pizza Hut. There was a bright young Mexican fellow I often talked to while he made the pizzas. Between orders, we’d often talk about his former life growing up in Mexico. Amongst all of his colorful stories, the one that always stood out to me is when he said the high school he went to was built and funded by one of the cartels. Truth be told, gangs and mafias frequently engage in acts of “charity,” just like governments do. I suspect they are for less than altruistic reasons. Often it’s to gain the trust of the population so that they won’t snitch, and they may provide hideouts from time to time. Just like governments, gangs can’t survive without some kind of support or compliance from the population.

You can find numerous other examples of this throughout history. After the earthquake in Kobe, Japan killed 6,000 people in 1995, it was the Yakuza that stepped in long before the authorities could. They utilized their privately owned helicopter fleet to deliver aid to the city. They did this again after the Fukushima earthquake. And just as a government wont do anything that isn’t in its own interest, the Yakuza allegedly takes a 5 percent cut of any construction work they’re involved in. Thus, part of the relief effort is also establishing contacts with the rebuilding. Al Capone did something similar during the Great Depression. He spent a fortune funding bread lines and soup kitchens in Chicago to build his public image. Though not a traditional street gang, Hamas is yet another example. According to Reuven Paz, a scholar on Islamic Fundementalism, “Approximately 90 percent of its work is in social, welfare, cultural, and educational activities.” They build schools, orphanages, mosques, clinics, soup kitchens, and even fund sports leagues.

What should you take from all of this? Whenever the government fails to deliver on its promises, and whenever it fails to protect its citizens, gangs always fill that void, and pick up the slack. Gangs often find themselves fulfilling all of the same duties governments claim to provide. Why do they do this? Because they are governments.

Gangs will put money into schools, into roads, and into hospitals (money that’s often stolen through robbery, fraud, and extortion. Sound familiar?). They will claim exclusive rights of protection over a given territory (turf). They will make treaties with each other. They will go to war with each other. The lower “soldiers” of the gangs will wear uniforms (colors), and have their own form of boot camp (initiation), however informal it may appear. Gangs will even set up charters and constitutions that dictate how members are supposed to conduct themselves amongst leaders, peers, and outsiders, including what their rights are in the gang. It’s been claimed that gang constitutions are often as sophisticated as those found in a typical Fortune 500 company.

Gangs even follow the same “story arc” as governments. When I read the history of any particular gang, it often reads like the history of any government or empire I’ve ever studied. It starts out with good intentions. Impoverished and persecuted people with the need to band together, so that they may protect themselves from the predations of their neighbors. They often start with a strict code of ethics allowing them to only fight against a certain group, or in a certain circumstance. Once they establish a firm sense of security over a given area, factions form within. The worst rise to the top of their hierarchy after a few generations. Before long their ethics and good intentions are nothing more than a mythology and propaganda they feed to their new recruits, as the gang turns into a predation machine that loots everything they can carry. As the focus of this machine is nothing but profit at the expense of every one’s freedom and enterprise, they no longer provide protection in any meaningful way. They leave a new void for the next start-up gang to fill. What starts with Robin Hood, always ends up being the new Sheriff.

There’s another reason Anarchists should study the gang to government comparison. It’s not just one of the most critical factors in convincing someone of the merits and truth of a stateless society. Understanding that comparison also opens the door to realizing how the state perpetuates itself throughout the millennia, always leaving a power void in its death throws for the next gang of thieves to fill. Only when we understand how this cycle perpetuates itself, can we finally break out of it.

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26 Responses to “Your Friendly Neighborhood Street Gang”

  1. Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

    This is a very good article. It leaves me with some questions though I hope you can answer.

    A lot of these gangs, or primitive governments, they protect the women and children of gang members, right? So, if somebody messes with a family member of a gang member, they’ll be afforded “protection” as well, right?

    Now, the next question I have might require a little bit more thought. Any evidence you can provide to support your answer would be greatly appreciated, if possible.

    Imagine, say, in New Hampshire, home of the Free State Project, once critical mass is achieved a new libertarian anarchist gang arises. Membership is voluntary. You can either be a fighting member yourself of the gang, or pay dues for protection. Would this be something ancaps like you and me should join? Is this not the defense agency we’ve been waiting for?

    Is the only thing that separates the libertarian anarchist gang from the Bloods and the Crips the fact that our gang wouldn’t violate the non-aggression principle?

    I’m just struggling to wrap my head around this a little bit. Are there any gangs in existence that strictly obey the non-aggression principle? And I’m not saying they’re not violent, because justice needs to be served against those who trespass against us. I’m saying, are there any gangs that exist right now that only protect those who voluntarily pay protection money, etc. and don’t harm innocents?

    How are we, as anarchists, ever to compete in the defense business without becoming a future government ourselves?

    • Joshua KrauseNo Gravatar says:

      As far as I know there are no gangs or mafias in existence that are strictly voluntary, though sometimes people approach them voluntarily. The classic example is the protection racket, where two business owners may approach the local mafia to act as a third party for them. They may want to exchange goods off the books, but since the exchange is outside of the law, one party may cheat the other, and neither party could approach the police since the transaction is illegal. So they pay the local mafia to oversee the whole thing and punish anyone who cheats. This is just one example though. Sometimes it’s as I wrote in the article. The police are lacking and people pay them to protect homes and businesses.

      On the other hand you have an extortion racket. The mob simply shows up to your business one day and says “you’re paying us X amount of dollars every month or we’ll burn your business down” (usually a bit more subtle than that). If you look at a city like Palermo, supposedly 80 percent of the businesses pay protection to the mob.( eo_index.html)
      With that many people paying, it appears that the mafia has established a true monopoly on the use of violence. They own the whole city, and if you want to do business there, you have to pay. I suspect they start out taking customers like any other business, but if they manage to take in enough businesses over a certain area, and they have enough money to pay off the cops, now they have a monopoly on violence like any other government. That’s when the extortion starts. They have a monopoly after all, they can do whatever they want.

      That said, I think competition is a big factor. If there are multiple rival gangs in an area, and few cops in sight, people will likely approach a gang that will best serve them. If the gangs go to war and attack each others customers, they’ll run back to the police. The free market is at work there. But how does this situation almost always turn into a government monopoly?

      I think if you looked at every sector of the economy, from manufacturing to healthcare, if one group manages to establish a monopoly of some kind then people can almost always find another way. Human ingenuity can find an alternative to that product or service, and that product or service can eventually break the monopoly. However, once a defense monopoly is established, there is almost no recourse. Finding an alternative means facing the barrel of a gun. And unlike other monopolies, this one tends to metastasize by using force to give their friends in different sections of the economy, their own monopolies.Maintaining competition is the only way I can see this process being prevented.

      If your theoretical defense agency were to arise, the only way it could keep from turning into a government, would be if it had a law, that could not be changed under any circumstances, that states that all dealings with it are voluntary, including membership in the organisation. If you look at any gang, membership is strictly a lifetime affair. I’ve yet to see any gang that doesn’t punish leaving the organisation, usually by murder. That’s ultimately what separates gangs and governments, from an ancap defense agency. And so long as it is voluntary, and is at risk for failure and exodus of its members if it doesn’t do its job, it would likely out compete any monopoly around.

      Decentralization of the agency would also likely be a key. Any corruption that arises would be localized, and a kind of checks and balances could be in place, with different chapters of the organisation keeping tabs on each other.

      Hope that helps. We shouldn’t have to worry about becoming governments ourselves if we maintain a voluntary organisation, no matter what threats or pressures fall upon us.

      • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

        Why then, have we not yet seen a libertarian anarchist gang pop up yet? Do you think we’ll likely see one once critical mass is achieved in New Hampshire?

        • HReardenNo Gravatar says:

          There are people in NH who see Free Staters as a gang. Particularly in Keene.

        • Joshua KrauseNo Gravatar says:

          I think critical mass is a good way to put it. If enough like minded people work together, I think something like the Free State Project can work. Whenever you have a large number of people ignore the edicts of their government, but posing no violent threat to the government, often times the authorities leave them alone. A good example might be the community of Freetown Christiania.

          Though I don’t know if you could call them strictly anarchist, it’s a good example. They pose no threat to the authorities unless they threaten to demolish a building, and even then they’ve never killed anyone in the government. There was a small riot in 2007 over demolishing a building, but they only threw rocks and such, nothing more than to prove a point. They only acted in a very limited self defensive way. And now their town is still there.

          It’s kind of like going to any concert or venue where you might find people doing drugs all over the place. Or how there’s certain neighborhoods in any city that no police force will enter. They know there’s a lot of “crime” going on, but if enough people ignore any law, authorities often throw their hands in the air and ignore it. There’s too many people breaking the law for them to ever effectively stop it, and trying to stop it would only bring attention to a situation they can’t control.

          I’m sure this doesn’t always apply. Some governments will react with violence at any non-violent resistance, but most wont. It may be a good strategy to nip at the heels of the government monopoly.

  2. HReardenNo Gravatar says:

    A good article. A person can change their own mind, nobody can change it for them. How do you know that nobody arrives at a stateless ideology without seeing the state as a gang? Pirates of the past (yes today too but I am referring to the ones in the 17th and 18th centuries) were gangs. They were often run democratically by the crew voting. The captain of a pirate crew in many crews could only give orders during a battle. The state owned ships had captains who could always give orders to the crew and the crew was not allowed to vote. The captains of state ships had dictatorial sway over the sailors in his crew.

    • Joshua KrauseNo Gravatar says:

      I suppose it is possible to reach that conclusion without seeing the state as a gang, but seeing the state in that light always seems to be inevitable. For me personally, it was seeing taxation as theft that brought me to this thinking, and then seeing the government as a criminal enterprise that really solidified this in my mind. Perhaps realizing stateless thinking isn’t always strictly linear, but contains several milestones that can be reached independently.

      It just seems to me that seeing the state as criminal in nature is a very significant aspect of any anarchist notions.

      And pirates sound like a pretty unique situation, with a lot of voluntary action going on with the crew. I’ve also read that after the collapse in Somalia, many foreign ships were free to over fish their waters, leaving their own fisherman destitute. Any ship passing through was free to dump waste and pollute all they wanted. The Somalian pirates were crucial in fighting off these people, thus they had become a kind of protection agency as well. At the end of the day though, they and other pirates throughout history seem to violate the nonaggression principle when they attack commercial vessels. That seems to separate them from Anarchists in my mind at least.

  3. jesse porterNo Gravatar says:

    The article makes the argument that the state is necessary to society; if there is no government one will grow in place. That does seem to be true. Some of us certainly hope it is not true, but no stateless societies seem to exist. Even Quakers develop mafias, apparently. If not, they only survive as islands in the sea of states.

  4. DaveNo Gravatar says:

    The closest thing to a non-aggressive “gang” are certain colonies of people – Amish and Hutterites, and maybe even some Mormons. Colonies that are somewhat closed, but interact with the outside world. They certainly promote peace and freedom (at least as they define freedom), and people can leave the group (although usually are not allowed back). They build schools and farms, have their own sense of order and justice, and are very much market and profit based. I think even in some of these groups the social roles and requirements, which could be seen as aggression (although you can always leave), are being loosened. Women and men play somewhat similar roles in certain groups.

    • HReardenNo Gravatar says:

      The Amish don’t aggress against outsiders but there have been former Amish who have said that there is abuse of children by their parents in Amish communities in the form of discipline. Also it has been claimed that some Amish men have physically discipline their wives. I would not say that people in Amish communities are free. Amish communities are in fact Theocracies and Amish people are expected to follow the rules and laws of the Amish religion and edicts of the leaders of the community.

      • DaveNo Gravatar says:

        I don’t disagree with anything you wrote. However, isn’t this about as close to anarchy as you can find? Some Asian communities operate the same way, with their internal “discipline” that may at times be harsh. Won’t there always be gray areas in any society, where discipline and order moves close to aggression? Are not societies like this better than governments because at least you can leave?

        • HReardenNo Gravatar says:

          Sure one could leave but why should they have to leave for others to stop aggressing on them? Leaving an Amish community is not easy for someone who has lived in such a community their entire life because the world outside that community is very different.
          It’s not like the average person who has lived in southern California their entire life moving to West Virginia but although people will tell you the cultures are different they are not nearly as different as moving from an Amish community to a non-Amish community.

          • DaveNo Gravatar says:

            Again, I don’t disagree. What I’m saying is that in any group of voluntarily-associating people, some system of rule and order will develop – much more minimal than we have now. Since we’re still talking about people here, won’t this system of order slowly grow bigger and bigger, unless people start to leave the group? Maybe I’m missing something here, but people tend to try to dominate others in every system. Someone tries to come out on top. I don’t know of another peaceful way to combat this than to shun the group and leave.

  5. jesse porterNo Gravatar says:

    “internal discipline that may at times be harsh”? A state by any other name still stinks.

  6. CynthiaNo Gravatar says:

    “People don’t join gangs just to deal drugs and make money. It always starts with people fearing for their lives in a violent neighborhood.”

    Grew up and taught in neighborhoods invested with gangs in both Chicago and Tucson. What you describe is the ORIGIN of most gangs. Later, many youngsters join gangs expressly to deal drugs and make money. The history that the oldest of the OGs know, is long lost to them. And the violence that gangs perpetrate against one another has to do with that. Once the early motivation for gang affiliation is lost, the turf wars become more and more senseless and vicious. And war over territory and real or imagined possession of property does sound like the government. But street gangs go to war over property they don’t even own and destroy the neighborhoods they profess to love or be protecting. More’s the pity.

    • HReardenNo Gravatar says:

      Some people are motivated to join a gang in order to belong to a group and
      feel wanted and have an opportunity to be someone important to those
      in the group.

  7. Don DuncanNo Gravatar says:

    Dave: One doesn’t have to leave an Amish community to escape the rules. The community boycotts the “infidel”. If nobody speaks or interacts with the social outcast, immigration is preferred to achieve social interaction.

    The rundown neighborhoods in Detroit have been served by a voluntary defense organization for a decade. No one has been killed. They do not carry firearms. And they are well known to the cops, who support them, more or less. Perhaps a documentary on this would be helpful in establishing a voluntary society.

    These neighborhoods are rebuilding at the grassroots level, with no fire, police, or other services. They even grow their own food. My only worry is that when they build enough wealth they will be attacked by the political parasites. Will the people realize they don’t need politics and refuse to allow the control masked as protection? If voluntarists educate them, they will.

    • DaveNo Gravatar says:

      Some of the comments to my article last year mentioned this very group, and one had a link to a YouTube video. Well-With-Private-Security
      And, what I pointed out in the article reinforces your point – for certain services, most people believe that the state has to do it. I know that with education this can change, but I don’t have to remind you of how far the other way we are.

      • Don DuncanNo Gravatar says:

        How far we have descended into the sewer of collectivism infects all of us. I found myself contemplating the economic viability of buying those abandoned houses for renovation. I was thinking how great it would be to start a libertarian society there. Then I remembered. No purchase of real estate is possible anywhere in the world. RE can only be leased, with the terms changed unilaterally by the owner, the govt.

        Libertarians could move to an uninhabited, unclaimed, unwanted, uneconomically viable island in the middle of nowhere, just to by free. If they made a go of it, states would lay claim to the island. Not so much for the wealth, but mainly because they can’t allow an oasis of freedom anywhere. They would be correct. It does threaten TPTB. It would be a living example to the enslaved world that freedom works, and govt. does not.

  8. Don DuncanNo Gravatar says:

    Detroit Assessment Management founded by Dale Brown is a successful para-military defense provider. It has 50 “Vipers”, 20 paid. They serve beaten women for free, offering a monthly service charge of $10 to home owners.

  9. Jack NorrisNo Gravatar says:

    First off I agree with you. second off, could someone please tell all the so-called “anarcho Marxists” on the Internet that gangs are most certainly not exclusively a “black thing”. I’ve always been low income or homeless and so me and my family have been attacked many times, more than half the time the gangster or thug attacking us is white, next time I hear the phrase “gang members pass oppression upwards” I think I’m going to cause destruction to a large amount of random people. Funny how you tell these people you’re a gang member and they worship you, (Much in the same way that mainstream society worships cops) but you tell them that you get attacked by gangs and they talk you as if the reason you get attacked in the first place is because you’re so so spoiled and rich and the gang members are seeking you out somehow.

    Nevermind the fact that you’re probably being attacked because your poor is crap and your homeless, oh but people who get attacked by gang members aren’t cool and gang members are.It’s a very mid-evil system in which poor people and homeless people and repeated crime victims are told that they deserve to be attacked by the very people who should be their allies, liberals and so-called anarcho-marxist.

    Yes I realize that most of these people I’m speaking of our very very middle-class, and so they are used to looking at inner-city issues by switching through the two lenses of hip-hop culture and redneck conservatism, in which poor people and black people are exclusively the perpetrators and never the victims of gang violence, don’t expect snobby hipsters to look beyond the TV and see that low income people attacking other low income people is nothing to Snark about, honestly I’d like to track down these people’s parents and siblings and cause great violence to them to show them what it’s like.

    Calling me a bigot saying the people attacking me and my family are doing so out of oppression, saying we are getting singled out because of our privilege which is not true, poor people get attacked by other poor people AS a punishment for being poor. These anarcho Marxists make it sound like being a rich white person in America must be so dangerous, they don’t realize that being a victim of Street violence makes you part of the oppressed because Street violence is almost exclusively a crime against poor people.

    Even if the people committing those crimes are oppressed. I just want to blowup this whole world right now. I hope you people here understand me instead of screaming at me like everyone else in the world does, listen I grew up in a single-parent household and my mom was always treated like scum for being a single mom even though she was really a good person. I don’t expect any of you to care. Snark on whatever. You all see me on the news one day. Violence begets violence and I have learned from the LA riots that 90% of society will always see poor people and black people as complete scum, the other 10% will respect you if you become violent.

    I used to just hate cops but now I hate the whole world. Especially so-called anarcho Marxists who call me a bigot just for standing up for the rights of homeless people who get attacked in the streets.

    Every so-called anarchists tells me the same thing gang members jump people because they are desperate and the people getting jumped are obviously super super rich or they wouldn’t be getting jumped. Yeah I’m so so super rich that’s why I live in this white trash neighborhood to begin with. That’s right I said white trash I’m not even talking about black people it’s everybody else who’s obsessed with race.

  10. Jack NorrisNo Gravatar says:

    It seems to me that these can go Marxists and right-wingers alike tend to have a false picture of the victims and survivors of Street violence, as if it’s a bunch of middle-class white people being attacked.

    It’s not my fault that most of these so-called anarchists have completely taken all of their stereotypes straight out of the words of Rush Limbaugh and Fox news, and that these people are completely unaware of Street crime or gang crime as something that hurts poor people, people have actually been brainwashed into thinking that the victims of these crimes are largely middle-class white people in order to gain false sympathy from conservatives and actual hatred from liberals.

    Do you anarchists think I’m cool yet? Or are you going to tell me I’m a bigot because I said the word gang? Gang violence is something that happens exclusively to low income people. My family is low income and always has been and we have been treated like slaves yes slaves for as long as I can remember, my female family members have been treated like meat from birth to death. Some of my earliest memories involve landlords loan sharks corrupt cops and yes gang members kicking down our door and having their way with my family and our own living room, and no we were not getting targeted for being white for middle-class and it had nothing to do with the desperation of those gang members.

    I hate these people for taking something that happens to poor people, and making it a mark of privilege, I should be proud to be a survivor survivors should be entitled to feel tough like they have survived something the way that hip-hop culture let’s gang members feel about themselves, hopefully I’ve gone on enough.

    Ignore the way I talk I’ve taught myself to speak middle-class. I’m actually not and don’t say I’m not allowed to talk about the subject because I’m not poor and black and from that environment. I am poor and white and from that environment. Since I’m from that environment I’m allowed to talk about It.

    Next time someone gets snarky with me I’m going to **** one of these anarchist girls yeah you heard me I’m gonna treat her just like the women in my family get treated.

  11. Jack NorrisNo Gravatar says:

    There are so many spelling errors in that I wish I could edit it I use speech recognition software so please don’t think I’m a troll or putting random words in there on purpose. and sorry if the language is so riddled with angst even though low income people shouldn’t be made to apologize for the horrors that befall us. it’s just that 90% of society seems to worship cops and the other 10%, the rage against the machine listeners, worship the neighborhood order that oppresses my people from within. growing up listening to rage against the machine I used to always think they were speaking up for me and my family but I guess not.

    I guess when I talk to people calling themselves anarchists I get a little bit hostile because I feel betrayed. I do realize there are some anarchists out there who aren’t afraid to criticize counterrevolutionary elements within low income culture which by the way is not black or African culture but is a mixture of Detroit and West Virginia alike. telling a low income person that they are not allowed to criticize low income culture because, race is really really dumb. I would like to give a metal to the writer of this article it is about time this subject was talked about from an honest standpoint that doesn’t worship cops and also doesn’t lionize the struggles of “gang members” (TM) while crapping on the experiences of pretty much every other low income person who isn’t in a gang the way that most so-called anarchists do. it almost feels like this is the first time in 10 years that someone has talked to me and all the other words were meaningless babble coming from people who were my enemies.

  12. Jack NorrisNo Gravatar says:

    Anarcho* not can go and for the record yes a low income person can afford a $200 desktop from Walmart and speech recognition software if said low income person was born having aspergers syndrome and their mental sanity depends on having a stable Internet connection. I wish I could edit some of my past comments on this page I’ve been trying for years to type out a calm coherent message but typing calmly and coherently just makes people forget how middle-class I’m not.