Crooks with business skills

Bad Business - The Camorra
May 10, 1996

Some distinguished founders of the sociology of deviance have lamented that the scientific study of criminal behaviour has lacked solid data on which to base theories. Very few studies, they note, tell us in detail what delinquents do in their daily round of activity and what they think about themselves, society, and their occupation. Dick Hobbs has provided us with one such study, which is the result of a three-year period of interviews with retired, active and apprentice criminals.

The working lives of individuals involved in "bad business" are described in accessible language, devoid of the glamour and innuendos that make crime a leading entertainment industry. Hobbs starts off with the conceptual issue of what type of criminal behaviour can appropriately be defined as "professional". This definition, traditionally encompassing criminals with specific skills, should be extended to include those who are led to develop commercial ability by constant changes in the demand for illicit goods and services. To borrow from business semantics for describing crime need not sound too provocative: "Fraud and the drug trade in particular constitute generic engagements with the marketplace that suggest the merging of upper and underworld."

The types of criminal activity on which this book is focused are indeed better understood within the rhetoric of enterprise culture, which by now enables "the extraction of any irony from the professional criminal's claim on the status of businessman". However, the parallel between official and illegal economic practices does not suggest that all serious crime should be viewed as a highly rational activity. Hobbs's emphasis on the pursuit of pleasure implies that professional crime requires more compulsions and commitments than the mundane rhythms of legitimate employment. But it is perhaps to the mundane rhythms of many criminal activities that future studies should be devoted.

That professional and organised crime cannot be analysed without an understanding of the "unprofessional and disorganised" offences they foster is the implicit argument of Tom Behan's book on the Camorra, the traditional mafia-type criminal organisation operating in Naples. The unfortunate opening of the book did not discourage this reviewer from reading on. In presenting Naples and its problems one has a wide choice at one's disposal in terms of quotations: Goethe, Stendhal, Walter Benjamin, Benedetto Croce, or even Federico Fellini. Behan finds no one better to quote than a contemporary English journalist, renowned for his Northern League sympathies, whose articles exude the typical nervous acidity of those describing the south of Italy with separation from the north in mind. But as I said earlier, I read on, and my efforts were rewarded.

The book is very well researched and its important points are thoroughly argued. Behan gives a comprehensive account of the origins of the Camorra and the role it played, during the unification of Italy, as a surrogate police force. Successes and failures of this criminal syndicate are rightly examined against the background and development of the city. Such examination seems to suggest that the growth of criminal business in Naples ran parallel with that of legitimate business. The dramatic expansion of the camorra in the 1980s, for example, is associated with the increasing economic influence of local politicians and the unprecedented flow of state money destined for the reconstruction of the city after it was hit by the 1980 earthquake. However, far from being simply an elitist alliance between high-ranking organised criminals and politicians, the main characteristic of the Camorra resides in its capacity "to command a high level of mass social legitimacy due to its capacity to provide employment for tens of thousands of people".

When read in fast succession, these two excellent books may strike the reader as paradoxical. While Hobbs seems to overplay the role of violence in the "bad economies" he describes, Behan appears to underplay it. The former, in my opinion, underestimates how illegal economies may thrive thanks to the absence rather than the presence of violence. The latter fails to analyse, in a context where the murder rate is as high as it was in 1930s Chicago, how the variable violence is a "resource" among others that gives the Camorra its widespread social power. In order to avoid being puzzled, readers are warned to give themselves some time between reading these two books.

Vincenzo Ruggiero is reader in criminology and social studies, Middlesex University.

Bad Business: Professional Crime in Modern Britain

Author - Dick Hobbs
ISBN - 0 19 825848 8
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £14.99
Pages - 140

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