The Humiliation of Exclusion

26 08 2010

For Merton (1938) crime was an alternative route to the American Dream and this prognosis was developed by Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin, so that for the citizen cut off from legitimate opportunities and where illegitimate chances were readily available, criminal behaviour was as normal as going out to work. The rich subcultural tradition that followed Merton represented today by theorists such as William Julius Wilson (1987, 1996), carry forward this analysis presenting forcefully the notion of crime occurring where there is ‘social isolation’ from the world of work. Loic Wacquant’s hustlers, for example,

do not … experience … rejection from the labour market as a major trauma. This is because holding a stable and well paid portion, a ‘legit job’ liable to guarantee a modicum of security, has never been part of his horizon of expectations: where marginalization becomes part of the order of things, it deprives one even of the consciousness of exclusion. (1998, p. 13)

Anyway, legitimate jobs simply do not compete with the criminal.

What good would it be to take the ‘legit route’ when the resulting rewards are so meager and almost as uncertain as those more immediate and palpable even if they come at high risks, offered by the street economy? (ibid., p. 14)

Contrary to this, I have argued throughout that marginalisation does have an impact. Philippe Bourgois’ crack dealers in East Harlem, for example, were far from unaware of the world of legitimate work. They were ridden with self-doubt about their exclusion, had fantasies about being a ‘normal working nigga’, had been in work, and had been humiliated by the world of work – simultaneously wanting to be legitimate and despising it, but far from being oblivious of it (see 1995, Ch. 4).

It is this humiliation that leads to the transgressive nature of much crime, however utilitarian its core. It is this transgression which means that although crime may be a substitute for work, it is rarely like work as many theorists would like us to believe. For example, it is not just the psychotropic qualities of cocaine that make cocaine dealing an erratic, violent and irascible affair, nor do the international aspects of its trade make them cartels like the corporations that deal in margarine or aluminium.

The ‘crime as work’ metaphor is one that is hopelessly overburdened. In its higher echelons organised crime has always involved the brash, the brazen and the extravagant. Dick Hobbs, in his excellent obituary of John  Gotti, the New York Mafia boss, cites him as saying to his underlings, ‘You got to go in there with your suits and your jewellery … Put it in their face. When people go to the circus, they don’t want to see clowns. They want to see lions and tigers, and that’s  what we are’ (2002, p. 18). And lower down the pile anyone who believes that cocaine dealers are lower managers of a distribution company and that their guns are just there to enforce contracts  because of the lack of legal protection, are suffering from an acute dose of neo-liberalism. Just go to the right club in Dalston, East London, or Brixton in the South, look at the gold, the jewellery, watch how the action mixes with the ragga and the jungle, look at the swagger, listen to the patois: the guns are not just instruments they are sexy, his is not a job, it’s excitement, this is not an alternative to work, it is a sensual riposte to labour. Jack Katz in an exemplary passage cites Robby Wideman,

Straight people don’tunderstand. I mean, they think dudes is after the things straight people got. It ain’t that at all. People in the life ain’t looking for no home and grass in the yard and shit like that. We the show people. The glamour people. Come on the set with the finest car, the finest woman, the finest vines. Hear people talking about you. Hear the bar get quiet when you walk in the door. Throw down a yard and tell everybody drink up. … You make something out of nothing. (1988, p. 131)

Wideman must have had Merton in mind, Katz notes ironically, and adds:

The aspiration is not what is advertised on television. Robby Wideman was not incapable of identifying what drove him; it was to be a star – something literally, distinctively transcendent. (ibid., p. 315)

Jock Young – The Vertigo of Late Modernity