Organized Crime and American Power: A History
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001
Subject, Methods, Database:
An historical study of the manifold relations between organized crime and politics in the United States.
'Organized Crime' is systematic criminal activity for money or power. The conventional history of organized crime centers around gangsters and Mafia-type organizations who infiltrate and corrupt the national and even international economic and political systems. This perception, which originated in the United States, is too limited, and this very limitation has led to misdirected and inadequate national and international policies to control organized crime. While organized crime has never been exclusive to any one race, ethnic group, class, profession, or gender, those with power, influence, and respectability in local, regional, national or international society have tended to organize crime more successfully and securely than those without.
The United States have a long history of protecting and sometimes even encouraging organized criminal activity. This has included the frequently criminal exploitation of indigenous peoples, African Americans, and other working peoples; the enactment of prohibitions that have fostered corruption and criminal enterprise; and the construction of a regulatory system for business that has not always considered business violations to be crimes. From the beginning, the U.S. legal and criminal justice systems were set up in ways that showed a great deal of latitude to certain kinds of organized criminal activity.
Chapter 1 details the systematic criminal activity involved in the establishment and expansion of the United States in the period until the end of the Civil War, including commercial crime and large-scale official corruption. Chapter 2 focuses on organized criminal activity directed against African Americans in the Southern States after the Civil War and alleges that racism and xenophobia set limits to the understanding of organized crime in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Chapter 3 details how American businessmen used bribery, corruption, and violence to break unions, beat off competition and steal national resources. Chapter 4 examines how 'organized crime' became synonymous with local political corruption between the 1890s and 1920s. Chapter 5 describes the emergence of a new understanding of organized crime in the post-Prohibition era that shifted attention away from defects in the system and towards the perception that organized crime was a separate association of gangsters. Chapter 6 surveys organized criminal activity in the labor and corporate sectors of the U.S. economy during the second half of the 20th century. Chapter 7 examines the illegal drug trade and the 'drug abuse industrial complex' that has emerged during efforts to control it and argues that the profits from drug trafficking long ago nullified the impact of honest law enforcement, while the anti-drug crusade has effectively been institutionalized as a never-ending project that seems to benefit few outside of the public and private professionals who administer it. Chapter 8 explores the relation between organized crime and U.S. foreign policy by focusing on the promotion of organized criminal activity in the interest of foreign policy objectives, and on the American war on drugs.
Organized criminal activity was never a serious threat to established or evolving economic and political power structures in the United States but more often a fluid, variable, and open-ended phenomenon that complemented those structures. Seen in this light, the wisdom of using the pretext of organized crime control to give extra powers to the officialdom that supports these structures should at least be questioned.
Michael Woodiwiss is not the first one to point out the inconsistencies, contradictions and hypocricy characterizing the conventional American perception of organized crime. But no one until now has presented a similarly comprehensive account of the conceptual, social and political history of organized crime in the United States. Woodiwiss looks at the subject from various angles: organized crime as an element of the political economy, organized crime in terms of illegal markets as an outgrowth of a specific political culture, the term 'organized crime' as a politically and ideologically motivated construct, 'organized crime' as an instrument of furthering the economic and political interests of America's power elite, and, finally, organized criminal activity and the concept of 'organized crime' as two instruments of U.S. foreign policy. Apparently it took a British author and a Canadian publisher to make such a book.
"Organized Crime and American Power" is well written and well researched, despite some minor inaccuracies, for example the claim that the political use of the phrase 'organized crime' "increased dramatically" in 1933 and 1934 (p. 236), when it actually almost completely vanished from the public vocabulary (see von Lampe 1999).
A less appealing aspect of the book is that Woodiwiss at times appears overzealous in trying to make his point, for example with regard to the structure of the Italian-American Mafia and its official perception. Like other authors highly critical of the official view, Woodiwiss refers to the LCN-structure only reluctantly and only in passing and concentrates on criticizing the government for depicting the Mafia as a centrally organized conspiracy of foreigners. By so doing, Woodiwiss is at risk of oversimplifying the official views on organized crime and also unduly neglecting the empirical evidence on the "Cosa Nostra". At one point, for instance, Woodiwiss quotes an FBN agent with claiming, in 1946, that the Mafia was a national organization who's leaders meet annually to agree upon policies for the control and correlation of their various criminal enterprises. In Woodiwiss' eyes this is the false allegation of a centrally organized structure (p. 244). On the other hand, he approvingly quotes a comment from Time magazine on the Apalachin meeting of 1957 in which the Mafia is characterized as a loose trade association of criminals in various cities who had matters of mutual interest to take up (p. 257). There is really not that much of a difference between the two assessments. In fact, against the background of the available data on the structure of the "Cosa Nostra", both statements are not very far from the truth. In the end, Woodiwiss' tendency to regard every government statement on organized crime as the expression of one specific politically motivated conception stands in the way of a better appreciation of the complex and contradictory processes involving various institutional actors with conflicting views that shaped the understanding of organized crime during the 1940s and 1950s and in later decades.
Michael Woodiwiss presents a stimulating discussion of the socio-political context of organized crime as a construct and as an empirical phenomenon, making "Organized Crime and American Power" a good introduction to the subject.
© Klaus von Lampe, all rights reserved.