State-Organized Crime Part 9
William J. Chambliss
State-Organized Crime Part 9
Sun Feb 20, 2005 00:19

The impetus for the criminality of European states that engaged in piracy was the need to accumulate capital in the early stages of capitalist formation. State-organized criminality did not disappear, however, with the emergence of capitalism as the dominant economic system of the world. Rather, contemporary state-organized crime also has its roots in the ongoing need for capital accumulation of modern nation-states, whether the states be socialist, capitalist, or mixed economies.

Sociologically, then, the most important characteristics of state-organized crime in the modern world are at one with characteristics of state-organized crime in the early stages of capitalist development. Today, states organize smuggling, assassinations, covert operations, and conspiracies to criminally assault citizens, political activists, and political leaders perceived to be a threat. These acts are a criminal in the laws of the nations perpetrating them as were the acts of piracy in which European nations were complicitous.

At the most general level, the contradictions that are the force behind state-organized crime today are the same as those that were the impetus for piracy in sixteenth-century Europe. The accumulation of capital determines a nationís power, wealth, and survival today, as it did 300 years ago. The state must provide a climate and a set of international relations that facilitate this accumulation if it is to succeed. State officials will be judged in accordance with their ability to create these conditions.

But contradictory ideologies and demands are the very essence of state formations. The laws of every nation-state inhibit officials from maximizing conditions conducive to capital accumulation at the same time that they facilitate the process. Laws prohibiting assassination and arms smuggling enable a government to control such acts when they are inimical to their interests. When such acts serve the interests of the state, however, then there are pressures that lead some officials to behave criminally. Speaking of the relationship among the NSC, the CIA, and drug trafficking, Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics, and International Operations, pinpointed the dilemma when he said "stopping drug trafficking to the United States has been a secondary U.S. foreign policy objective. It has been sacrificed repeatedly for other political goals" (Senate Hearings, 1986). He might have added that engaging in drug trafficking and arms smuggling has been a price government agencies have been willing to pay "for other political goals."

These contradictions create conflicts between nation-states as well as internally among the branches of government. Today, we see nations such as Turkey, Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, Panama, and the Bahamas encouraging the export of illegal drugs while condemning them publicly. At the same time, other government agencies cooperate in the export and import of illegal arms and drugs to finance subversive and terrorist activities. Governments plot and carry out assassinations and illegal acts against their own citizens in order to "preserve democracy" while supporting the most undemocratic institutions imaginable. In the process, the contradictions that create the conflicts and dilemmas remain untouched and the process goes on indefinitely.

A U.S. State Department report (1985) illustrates, perhaps, the logical outcome of the institutionalization of state-organized crime in the modern world. In this report the State Department offered to stop criminal acts against the Nicaraguan government in return for concessions from Nicaragua. Three hundred years earlier England, France, and Spain signed a treaty by which each agreed to suppress its piracy against the others in return for certain guarantees of economic and political sovereignty.


My concern here is to point out the importance of studying state-organized crime. Although I have suggested some theoretical notions that appear to me to be promising, the more important goal is to raise the issue for further study. The theoretical and empirical problems raised by advocating the study of state-organized crime are, however, formidable.

Data on contemporary examples of state-organized crime are difficult to obtain. The data I have been able to gather depend on sources that must be used cautiously. Government hearings, court trials, interviews, newspaper accounts, and historical documents are replete with problems of validity and reliability. In my view they are no more so than conventional research methods in the social sciences, but that does not alter the fact that there is room for error in interpreting the findings. It will require considerable imagination and diligence for others to pursue research on this topic and add to the empirical base from which theoretical propositions can be tested and elaborated.

We need to explore different political, economic, and social systems in varying historical periods to discover why some forms of social organization are more likely to produce state-organized crimes than others. We need to explore the possibility that some types of state agencies are more prone to engaging in criminality than others. It seems likely, for example, that state agencies whose activities can be hidden from scrutiny are more likely to engage in criminal acts than those whose record is public. This principle may also apply to whole nation-states: the more open the society, the less likely it is that state-organized crime will become institutionalized.

There are also important parallels between state-organized criminality and the criminality of police and law-enforcement agencies generally. Local police departments that find it more useful to cooperate with criminal syndicates than to combat them are responding to their own particular contradictions, conflicts, and dilemmas (Chambliss, 1988). An exploration of the theoretical implications of these similarities could yield some important findings.

The issue of state-organized crime raises again the question of how crime should be defined to be scientifically useful. For the purposes of this analysis, I have accepted the conventional criminological definition of crime as acts that are in violation of the criminal law. This definition has obvious limitations (see Schwendinger and Schwendinger, 1975), and the study of state-organized crime may facilitate the development of a more useful definition by underlying the interrelationship between crime and the legal process. At the very least, the study of state-organized crime serves as a reminder that crime is a political phenomenon and must be analyzed accordingly.

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