McMafia: Crime Without Frontiers, by Misha Glenny

Overdrafts in the global underworld
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The Independent Culture

Postwar Japanese politicians, in the belief that fewer lawyers make a harmonious society, decided to restrict the numbers that could graduate each year to 5,000. This remains the case. As a consequence, the enforcement of contract law, the collection of debts and the resolution of property disputes are impossible to conduct through the legal system.

Nonetheless, debts must be collected and disputes resolved. It is here that organised criminal gangs – the Yakusa – found a permanent and lucrative place deep in Japanese society. Providing this alternative revenue and judicial system created the platform from which the Yakusa were able to profit from the wild addictive desire for illegal pachinko gambling. In the 1980s, they furnished the banks with the muscle required to create building plots during Japan's property bubble and profited mightily from huge loans that they never paid back.

Organised crime requires human venality and flourishes where politicians and police forces are corrupted by it, but, as Misha Glenny argues so convincingly, this is not the mainspring. What drives organised crime are real social needs and unhinged human desires; in particular, the need for functioning contract systems where the state cannot provide them, and the demand for illegal pleasures and cheap consumption.

For the most part, Glenny argues, the Yakusas remained a strictly national organisation. Now the consequences of globalisation are coming closer to home. As Japan's youth demographically shrinks but grows richer, the Yakusa have resorted to contracting out the most violent operations to low-wage Chinese immigrants.

In the last two decades, organised crime, like almost every facet of human society, has undergone an intense period of globalisation and expansion. In McMafia, Glenny brilliantly maps the social infrastructure of this global underworld and the narratives of its garish winners and brutalised losers. He estimates that the shadow economy is around a fifth of world economic output. The losers, from the trafficked women of Moldova to Britain's cockle pickers, pay with their dignity, their souls and their lives.

As a correspondent in Eastern Europe during the fall of communism and the Balkans wars, Glenny is well placed to chart these networks. The ex-Soviet zone exemplified how the collapse of states during the transition to capitalism created a vacuum that organised crime rapidly filled. The Balkans demonstrated the ingenuity of criminal networks in moving illicit goods and people.

Making money is only half the trick; the problem arises of what to do with all the cash. Our misfortune is that the explosive growth of this shadow economy coincided with the deregulation and globalisation of financial markets. Glenny's account of the naivety of Israeli banks and the selective amnesia of Dubai's point to a hair-raising level of negligence and corruption in the system. His visit to British Columbia shows how, even in the rich North, drug smugglers are one step ahead of the state. His visit to Colombia shows how, in the South, drugs, money and gangs can dismantle states.

On every page Glenny lays bare human mendacity and greed, failing or failed police forces and judicial systems. But, just as surely, he takes us to the insatiable maw of the North as consumer of cheap labour, cheap sex and cheap drugs. He makes us see a grotesque irony of globalisation; that the very people made rich by the global economy return to its illegal shadow to sate the insecurities and neuroses of their opulence.

David Goldblatt's 'The Ball is Round' is published by Penguin

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