Guilhem Fabre: Les prospérités du crime — Trafic de stupéfiants et crises financières dans l’après-guerre froide

Guilhem Fabre’s study is presented as a contribution
to a UNESCO project under the auspices of the MOST programme (Management of Social
Transformations). The project, entitled “The Economic and Social Transformations
Connected with the International Drug Problem”, is designed to “set
up a centre of expertise and comparative studies, a network of research institutions,
researchers and consultants” for studies on “the illegal supply of drugs
and the social transformations that go with it” (p. 169). It is organised
around seminars attended by teams from Europe, Asia and Latin America to analyse
the progress that has been made in this domain.

The first chapter (The Mirror of History) is clearly presented
as an attempt to explain the question of drug trafficking in terms of historical
factors, and in particular, to demonstrate the direct involvement of the colonial
governments in this traffic. The story is familiar: it is a mixture of economic
interests on the part of the most powerful countries (mainly England), a desire
on the part of some political circles (especially in the United States) to promote
moral values and a voluntary effort to keep populations under control. Fabre also
points out the importance of the alliances between representatives of the colonial
states and local gangs, especially in Shanghai. Here, we see not only a fact of
colonial politics but also, more generally, the ever-present temptation within
the state institutions to use organised crime as a factor limiting the consequences
of what one might call “disorganised” crime (1).

The second chapter (Drugs and Post-Communism: The Case
of China) is much richer in information and original analysis. It is a synthesis
dealing with drug traffic and consumption in China. We learn, in particular, that
the official figures put the number of drug addicts in China at approximately
520,000, but also that “one report estimates that the overall population
affected by drug addiction is ten times that number” (p. 36) and that “the
consumption of hard drugs has therefore become the main factor in the spread of
AIDS, which may affect 20 million Chinese by the year 2010.” (p. 39)

At the same time, the drug culture has been developing
nearly everywhere in China, including the suburbs of Shanghai (2). The main route
for drug traffic starts in the border region between China and Burma and continues
via Yunnan and Guangdong. Fabre describes how the fight against drugs has clearly
gained force since 1994, with new drug policies and the increased use of capital
punishment. He also demonstrates the complexity of the situation in the Shan states,
where control over the production of drugs is the catalyst for alliances and battles
between the former Burma Communist Party militia members, groups supported by
the SLORC, ethnic militias and Chinese drug dealers. At the same time, the privileged
relations that have been established between the Burmese authorities and the Chinese
government, on the one hand, and the Chinese presence in Burma, on the other,
complicate Peking’s anti-drug policy.

What is perhaps lacking in this chapter, in order to fully
satisfy the reader, is an analysis of the role of the local bureaucracy—especially
in Yunnan—in the drug economy. We are often told about the involvement of
the customs and the armed police in drug traffic, but are we talking about widespread
involvement of the local bureaucracy or is only a part of it implicated? Are we
looking at power struggles between cliques for control of this lucrative activity?
What has been set up locally to testify to the central government’s claim
(which is only partially transformed into reality) that it intends to fight against
this traffic? As we all know, in order to analyse the world of Chinese politics,
it is now crucial to build up numerous “case-studies” on the ways in
which state policies are applied or diverted. The drug economy is certainly not
spared the problem of ever-more complicated political structures, where local
interests, the interests of cliques, social interests, national policies and provincial
interventions mingle and conflict.

The third chapter is devoted to examining the social and
economic stakes involved in the drug traffic growing out of money laundering.
This chapter deals with the author’s main theme (we will return to this later),
which emphasises the connection between the development of the drug economy, financial
deregulation and corruption of politicians through the system of money laundering.
“The boundaries between the white zone of the legal economy, the grey zone
of corruption and tax evasion and the black zone of the criminal economy are thus
blurred by a convergence of interests between the mafias, some financial circles
and some politicians” (p. 75). In this way, offshore positions—which
Fabre defines very loosely as financial centres that receive “foreign currency
funds from non-residents and places them with other non-resident borrowers”
(p. 76)—plays an essential role. Within this framework, Switzerland and London
capture more than half of the global offshore market and are far ahead of the
famous tax havens in the Antilles.

In the fourth chapter (Japan: The Yakuza Recession), we
leave the world of drugs to enter that of organised (indeed, very organised) crime.
Nothing new is said on this subject, the main point being to remind us once again
of the “close connection between the top levels of administration, the private
financial sector and the political system” (p. 101). Obviously, we would
be tempted to follow the author along this path, were it not for the fact that
he goes too far and seems to consider (the title of the chapter is clear on this)
that the Yakuzas are mainly responsible for the Japanese financial crisis. We
gradually move from the criminal activities of these authentic and official “criminal
enterprises” to descriptions of services rendered to the big bosses (especially
by means of inflicting terror upon shareholders’ meetings), then to the moment
when the financial bubble burst; and yet the connections of cause and effect do
not seem totally convincing. Finally, the fifth and sixth chapters (Mexico and
Thailand respectively) return to the question of drugs, exposing in both cases
the often close connections between dealers, the governing powers and the real
estate and financial markets.

Apart from the criticisms we might make about this or that
point of analysis in this volume, the problem with this book lies in its central
theme, which Fabre describes from the very outset in this way:

“The mirror of history thus reflects the six levers
controlling the traffic and consumption of drugs in the 1990s: the expansion and
diversification of access to drugs; a crisis of values caused by the shock of
social and economic mutations and the loss of those points of reference that have
traditionally linked the members of a society; the globalisation of trade; economic
interests depending upon the rapid accumulation of capital and changes in the
terms of trade; the involvement, direct or indirect, of government (finance being
the sister of power); and the increasing number of minor conflicts. These six
elements are self-maintaining: increasing conflicts and government debt give birth
to exceptional financial needs that can favour the growth of drug production and
traffic within a context of expanding trade” (pp. 28-29).

This thesis is appealing in that it tries to impart a global
meaning to the drug economy. However, we may well ask whether, in trying to connect
everything (the social and political crisis, the legitimate and illegitimate economy,
budgetary difficulties and the crisis of values) the explanation does not lose
much of its force. Faced with this functional analysis, where everything affects
everything else, this sort of super-capital that rules states, honest people,
criminals and financial leaders alike, we can only wonder where the power really
does lie, and which lever we should pull to bring about a change. With no internal
contradictions, with no differentiation between rival forces, we cannot imagine
anything carrying any weight against this new Leviathan. Does this mean that the
world economy has become a totally integrated system that is auto-regulated?

In order to escape from this rather apocalyptic vision,
let us return to the main statements the author puts forward. First is the question
of the role of history in these developments. The dubious relationship between
the state and crime is not new, nor is the formation of mafias. Likewise, and
contrary to what is generally claimed, nothing proves that corruption plays a
greater role now than in the past. We often confuse two things: on the one hand,
the actual facts of corruption, and on the other the visibility of this corruption.
Indeed, corruption is a crime without an apparent victim and never comes to light
unless there is a declaration of the political will to sanction it. It is a political
production, and its staging reveals fractures between different groups in power
as well as intense social contradictions. In other words, when the political actors
are united, gathered into a single group, when the society is not subjected to
strong tensions, nothing is revealed (3). Conversely, the question of corruption
emerges—or re-emerges—when the political and social consensus disappears
(4). It is true that corruption can become systematic (or systemic, as they say
today), but in this case, by becoming a system its very nature changes. Thus,
in speaking of Africa, Jean-François Bayart does not speak of corruption
but of “politics of the belly”, in other word, the mobilisation of all
social resources by people at the top as well as the bottom, in order to obtain
the means necessary for survival (physically and politically) (5). When it becomes
generalised, corruption is no longer a transaction but a norm, a particular aspect
of social behaviour (6).

Similarly, there is little evidence that allows us to claim
that illegal money and various forms of traffic play a more important role today
than they did yesterday. For example, the activities for which the Swiss banks
have been criticised are not recent, as we saw when the story of Jewish money
from the Nazi era came to light. Likewise, money laundering is an old industry.
And we could also mention the colonial period, which might be analysed entirely
in terms of systemised trafficking. It is obvious that the management of dirty
money is being modernised, but after all, is it not, by its very nature, inclined
to adopt new techniques and to explore new legal boundaries?

The second problem with Fabre’s book is precisely
the author’s refusal to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate economies.
Of course we must agree with his argument that the borders between the two are
hazy, but at the same time, we must recognise that this distinction is a constitutive
part of the study itself. If drug dealing is made legal, then the whole drug economy
will come out of the closet, including money laundering. This is exactly what
happened when prohibition was abolished in the United States. There are no activities
that are illegal by nature, unless one applies moral criteria. In fact, Fabre
enters this terrain of morality when he proposes another distinction—between
real and speculative economies, but this is a terrain full of traps. The defence
of production versus speculation, creative capital versus predatory capital, has
inspired fantasies both on the extreme right (finance that betrays the nation)
and the extreme left (finance that destroys the workers). But this distinction
rests upon a rather fragile premise, one that sees labour as the only generator
of value. Hannah Arendt’s studies (7), starting in the late fifties, as well
as more modern works (8), have demonstrated that this principle is simply an axiom
invented by the modern age that, in the end, will have had only a short life span.
When one considers the ever diminishing role that labour plays in valorising capital
and transforming labour into simple activities, and the degree of integration
of finance and production in most large multinational groups, one cannot help
but question the validity of this distinction. Should we then return to the period
when triumphant labour was accompanied by salaried slavery? Even if the “financialisation”
of economies can have unfortunate consequences, the production economy was not
immune to crises either.

The development of “financial markets” is not
the only tendency involved. Contrary to what Fabre claims, we are not living in
a time of deregulation alone, but also in a period of new regulation. The theme
of government impotence is very much undermined by the increasing importance of
financial regulation, by the interpenetration of government strategies and those
of large companies (9) and by the adherence to a strong logic of state involvement
in economic policy (10). Even if governments do not look favourably on the decline
of the “real economy”, it is not for moral or economic reasons, but
simply for political reasons related to the decline in employment. As a matter
of fact, Fabre points out several times that the IMF and the World Bank, supposed
instruments of deregulation, are also fighting forever more stringent rules. As
he says, “the contrast between the actual criminalisation of drug consumption
and the quasi-immunity bestowed on money laundering in the traffic of narcotics,
is not a result of lax legal measures” (p. 155), but rather of their cross-border
applications. One is tempted to draw a parallel between the author’s repeated
expression of confidence in the law (which appears to be the only defence against
the chaos of the market) and his defence of the good governance of which the World
Bank and the IMF are the standard bearers.

It is very tempting to fall back on the law, but the law
only hides more controversial realities concerning both effectiveness and political
consequences. There is nothing that guarantees that the rule of law will be an
effective rampart against corruption. By pointing an accusing finger at France
in certain affairs, Fabre himself indicates the limits of this effectiveness.
Of course, one can argue that the judicial system is not institutionally independent
in France. But the example of those countries governed by Common Law shows that
the absence of institutional dependence on government does not prevent informal
dependence. Resources such as friendship, common interests, kinship and political
networks—in short, everything involved in corruption—makes it possible
to get round the law, no matter what the country. Think of the proud declarations
pronounced by French politicians or political science experts who declared twenty
years ago that corruption was a problem of under-developed countries and that
Western countries no longer had to deal with it! As such, the judicial system
cannot fight corruption (11) if there is no political will to fight it and if
deep social contradictions do not come to the surface politically. It is contradictory
to do as Fabre does and point at the corruption of the state, on the one hand,
while on the other hand asking the state to solve the problem, unless one sees
the state not as a unit, but as an institution riddled with enormous contradictions
and diverging interests. In this case, the fight against corruption is one of
the issues at stake in political battles, which explains the necessity for an
analysis of the political strategies involved in the drug economy, as I emphasised
earlier in the section about China.

For the observer, the minimal effectiveness of the state’s
battle against “the profits of crime” is not generally associated with
the impossible independence of the national judicial system, but with the gap
between cross-border crime and a national judiciary. This explains the demand
for international law and good governance. But there are a series of problems.
In terms of principles, such a reference is based on a desire to normalise behaviour.
As with totalitarianism, though using different means, it is a question of separating
the social aspect from the human aspect, by tracking down everything that does
not conform to an outside moral norm. Clearly, we can congratulate ourselves when
international law fights effectively against the drug barons, but why stop here
when this supra-national logic could be further applied to determine the rules
in matters of behaviour and political organisation? What is more, on the practical
level this time, we can see that international law is no more independent of political
considerations than is national law. It is driven by the logic of power. One only
has to compare the very different plights, as far as the defence of humanitarian
principles are concerned, of Tibet and Kurdistan, on the one hand, with Kosovo,
on the other, to be convinced of this, no matter what one’s opinion may be
about independence for these countries. In any case, these are not considerations
of law that are being set forth, but political aims. There is nothing surprising
about this, because the purpose of the law is “negative”—it defines
what is forbidden without establishing any political principles.

Translated from French original by Dianna Martin

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