McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld
by Misha Glenny
Reviewed by Scott McLemee
National Book Critics Circle
Twenty years ago, as the Soviet Union began coming undone, a dissident intellectual named Boris Kargalitsky coined a useful expression, "kleptocrats," to describe those officials who were enriching themselves thanks to their power in what remained of the Communist state and economy. "Kleptocracy" means rule by thieves. The term was both useful and farsighted, and it's no accident that Misha Glenny uses it from time to time in McMafia, his guided tour of the world's black and gray markets.
The author, a British journalist who covered Eastern Europe for the BBC during the early 1990s, clearly is referring to the same people as Kargalitsky. The farcical pretense of the Kremlin to manage a "planned" economy had concealed a vast network of middlemen and trimmers whose knack for shady dealing kept the system running. Their skills gave them special advantages during the transition to an open market. Likewise with former Soviet bloc wrestlers. Too old for the Olympics, they could still find steady work as private security for the new breed of gangster capitalists.
Glenny's reporting for this book, which includes about 300 interviews, is not limited to the world of post-Communist wise guys, for his whole argument is that they became entrepreneurs within a global economy. The days when organized crime was primarily a local phenomenon, its transactions occurring within the shadows of a given nation-state, are long gone.
Different mafias might specialize in certain products -- caviar or cigarettes, heating oil or prostitutes. But their markets, and their links with other criminals -- and with more respectable forms of enterprise -- leave them indifferent to national borders. As Glenny charts the connections among mobsters throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, you get the sense of reading a much darker account of the world eulogized by Tom Friedman for its "flatness." (Glenny essentially treats gangsterism in the United States as a matter sufficiently chronicled elsewhere. But it's clear that our appetite for cheap goods and illicit services is a huge factor in the global black market.)
This is one of those rare nonfiction volumes that seems too brief given how much the author seeks to cover. Glenny examines the difference between Russia's old-fashioned "thieves in law" (gang-societies that have been around for centuries, known for their complex tattoos) and the breed of Mafioso that emerged under Boris Yeltsin, as well as the varieties of Baltic and Balkan thuggery. He reports on the new wave of Israeli syndicates, the Nigerian industry in scam-artistry, the lush marijuana crop of British Columbia (for export south, mostly) and the links between paramilitary and narcotrafficking groups in Colombia.
Glenny also considers the role of offshore banks in expediting free trade, corporate corruption and criminal money-laundering; the lines of distinction among them prove blurry. For organized crime, offshore accounts at banks in Dubai or the Cayman Islands provide such conveniences as "shell companies to disguise illegal activities," writes Glenny, "and freedom from prying tax authorities. The only credible reason for their growth and success is the fact that many corporations in the licit economy use them for exactly the same reasons."
Meanwhile, in the not-yet-post-Communist parts of the world, new experiments in kleptocracy are under way. The Chinese government has a definite "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward piracy in intellectual property, while their associates in Pyongyang are engaged in still twitchier forms of enterprise. "Renowned as the world's largest producer of virtually undetectable counterfeit $100 bills (the so-called supernotes)," writes Glenny, "North Korea also has a pharmaceutical industry that is primarily devoted to the manufacture of methamphetamines to keep up with demand in Japan."
Glenny's prescription for reducing transnational gangsterism involves less protectionism in the developed world, a reduction of the American and Western European craving for narcotics and sex tourism, and a bolstering of the rule of law in impoverished and fragile Third World countries. "This raises the awkward question," he writes, "of global governance and standards that might be compatible across the world."
Indeed, it does. In other words: Fuhgedaboutit.
Scott McLemee is an essayist, critic, and digital feuilletonist (rather like being a blogger, only it sounds more distinguished somehow). In 2008, he began a three-year term on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle.