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TJ English and the Political Economy of Crime

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In “Whitey’s Payback and Other True Stories: Gangsterism, Murder, Corruption, and Revenge” TJ English reports on a “vast ecosystem, a parallel universe to the social and economic system we observe in the upper world on a daily basis.”

Strip away the desperation, the violence, the punishment, in the end, crime is a pretty basic undertaking, a single component in the larger matrix of commodity relations. That’s what jumps to the fore in a certain reading of Whitey’s Payback and Other True Stories: Gangsterism, Murder, Corruption, and Revenge, TJ English’s compilation of crime writing over the past 20 years. English’s new book reprints writing from the 1990s up to today on such things as the Witness Protection Program, the marketing in human labor, the framing of a black youth in ’60s New York and recent writings on the capture of the notorious Boston gangster and longtime FBI informant, James “Whitey” Bulger.

English is not a true crime sensationalist in the manner of Nancy Grace, Geraldo Rivera or Greta Van Susteren. Such journalists, all protestations aside, make it their job to turn human horror stories into the grist of gossip and Manichean judgment. It is crime reporting as a peculiar form of entertainment. English is going for something else, in his words, the “vast ecosystem, a parallel universe to the social and economic system we observe in the upper world on a daily basis.”

Take the example of undocumented immigrants from China’s Fujian Province working in New York’s Chinatown. Smuggled into the United States by Asian gangs, we learn they are at the bottom of a pauperized hierarchy: “Dominican illegals might work months to pay off his or her debt, an alien smuggled in from Hong Kong, Taiwan or Mainland China will work up to five or six years.” For the privilege, they endure the most awful conditions – the brutal voyage, crushing work regime, and for the women, the violation of sexual abuse. In the words of a senior immigration agent, “What some of these aliens go through to get here would turn your stomach.” All this goes into the clothes you wear, the shoes you walk in. It is suffering as a by-product, or in the words of Karl Marx, the “faux frais” [incidental operating expenses] of capitalism.

Or look at the horror of the Mexican drug cartels that have so pierced our consciousness recently. English tells us what ought to be obvious: The market that drives this is firmly within the US borders, filling the demand of the North American drug consumer. He presents the compelling argument made by the Mexican newspaper El Diario that the Al Qaeda-like tactics employed by the cartels – including the brazen execution of two US Consulate employees in 2010 (one a pregnant woman) – were an effort by the Barrio Azteca Gang – whose origins by the way are in the Texas state prison system – to force the United States to intervene, the aim being to undermine the power of the Sinola Cartel, which currently has a certain level of official government support. In this telling, it is Clauswitzian, “War is merely the continuation of policy by other means.” In this case, it is the striving for greater influence over the circulation of drug commodities.

As for the dark underbelly of how the criminal justice system works, it ought to make anyone think twice before instilling it with any confidence. First there is something of a lesson in Criminal Justice 101. “Cops are rewarded for high numbers of arrests, and so they invariably go where those arrests are easiest to make – poor communities primarily populated by people of color.” Yes it is racist, but crucially, it is systemically so.

Then there is, “Crime and Punishment 102,” the nuts and bolts of convicting people. This generally involves someone from law enforcement and usually someone trying to dodge jail by turning informant. The result is a lot of people copping pleas because the odds are better than going to trial – guilty or not. That is because the one-two punch of law enforcement corroborating an informer’s story usually means a conviction. Yet, as former DEA agent Michael Levine tells English, “I can’t tell the number of times I’ve heard fellow agents, cops, training instructors and prosecutors say, ‘Mike, never trust an informant.’ But I have never once heard a prosecutor say that to a jury.”

In that respect, the Bulger tale is curious. The FBI allegedly had Bulger as a confidential informant for decades while he went about the work of being the most powerful, and murderous, gangster in Boston. It was a situation where the line between cop, prosecutor and criminal blurred beyond definition, and it went on for decades. The Bulger tale is odd because, according to English, it “violated one of the most basic tenants of information cultivation: The proper strategy with informants is to get someone mid-level who can help take down the boss and therefore the entire organization.” The fuller story of why that tack, along with the larger chain of contamination in the Bulger story, may never come out.

Early in the book, we hear the tale of woe of one Connecticut cocaine dealer-turned-informant who entered the Witness Protection Program. The man is wanting to hear from prosecutors that “He did the right thing.” He and others in his situation are looking for moral approval and absolution and are astonished to find themselves abandoned into the regardless system of witness protection. English tells us, “To believe the government would ever truly concern itself with his welfare required a kind of wishful thinking of which only truly desperate men are capable.” True enough, but what they seem to miss most is that they are only a cog in a larger machine. Or in the words of Michael Corleone, “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.”

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