Anansi, 2008, 375 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN978-0-88784-204-7
Even as a pimply know-nothing teenager reading well-above his intellectual capacities, I was never completely convinced by Francis Fukuyama’s End of History. For those who missed it at the time, it was a book-length 1992 essay arguing that since the Cold War had just ended in favour of Western democracies, history as we knew it was over: Democracy would prevail, and everyone else could just go home.
History, since then, has persuasively argued against Fukuyama’s thesis. If nothing else, the end of the Cold War has been the dawn of a far more interesting history than the frozen decades of the USA/USSR stare-off. Misha Glenny’s McMafia has no explicit links to Fukuyama’s book, but it serves as a pretty damning overview of a world unshackled by the end of the Cold War. A world dominated by organized crime, both outside and within the borders of the first world.
Glenny is no stranger to the subject: Having been a correspondent in the Balkans during the war-torn nineties, he starts his globe-trotting book in Eastern Europe, where he details the changes that took place in the vacuum left by the strong institutions of the Soviet Empire. Prostitution, smuggling, arms trade, protection rackets –the countries change as the book advances, but the criminal tunes remain the same. As Glenny circles the globe (touching the North America continent only long enough to talk about the drug trade), he delivers an alternate occult history of the past twenty years that makes a number of puzzle pieces fit together. Along the way, he discusses trends that seldom make mainstream news in the West: Nigerian scams (and how their perpetrators justify them), the emergence of a sizable Russian minority in Israel, the outsourcing of violent work from the Yakusa to the Chinese Triads, and scores of other gripping vignettes.
Glenny is an experienced journalist, and some of the best moments of the book describe the various troubles he had in researching his material, along with the people he meets along the way. McMafia is a mixture of high-level statistics and personal anecdotes trying to illuminate a subject that, by its nature, would rather stay hidden. It generally succeeds at portraying an unstable world where developing countries are in a race to outwit their criminal elements. It doesn’t help that the corruption of original institutions is most reliably financed by money coming from developed countries: Sex tourism, drug consumption and cheap caviar are only some of the way “good western dollars” are going to wreak havoc on countries with weaker social institutions. We, obviously, are all guilty of something.
Where McMafia is less successful is in finding a strong central thesis in its accumulation of criminal situations. For a book that pretty much literally circles the globe, it can feel scattered and flighty as it studies region after region. There doesn’t seem, thankfully, to be a super-organisation of organized crime (although market-sharing agreements come pretty damn close to such a thing), but the book occasionally feels more like a succession of TV programme transcripts than a coherent argument making its way to a specific thesis.
The other vexing issue with the book is the occasional nagging suspicion that some sensationalism has been slipped in the mix. The portrait of the drug trade between BC and the USA occasionally seems a bit too grandiose (100,000 people involved in that industry? Really? Does that count the gas station attendants where the traffickers fill up?) and there’s a good laugh in the second set of photos when the venerable Bank Street head shop “Crosstown Traffic” is captioned as “The blooming industry in Ottawa, the capital”. Crosstown Traffic as evidence of anything but aged Glebe hippies and pretentious college students? Really? Did you cherry-pick your arguments elsewhere, Glenny?
Still, the book is a great deal more convincing whenever it flies away from North America and describes in fairly intricate details the lives of Chinese organized criminals, anti-corruption officers in Nigeria, Eastern-European smugglers and all sort of other people taking full advantage of their form of globalization. What ultimately emerges from McMafia, paradoxically, is the portrait of an active, vivid globe where economic inequalities have opened windows of opportunity for the unscrupulous. I suppose that I’m more optimistic than other in seeing here a sign of emerging civilization, perhaps even a temporary phenomenon as more and more countries are working their way to Western-style modes of law enforcement. McMafia is the underground flips-side of those triumphant portraits of how the world is being dragged kicking and screaming into a twenty-first century that will belong to everyone, and not just the United States of America: Dangers ahead, but plenty of amazing things as well.