Lush Life: Constructing Organized Crime In The UK

Lush Life: Constructing Organized Crime In The Uk

Author: Dick Hobbs
Publisher: Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. 344p.
Reviewer: Daniel Silverstone | May 2013

Lush Life is a sustained, mostly incisive, occasionally ribald, iconoclastic attack on the shibboleth of (transnational) organised crime. During the last three decades Professor Hobbs has been the most insightful observer of British organised crime and stubborn in his insistence on contextualising his colourful cast of criminal characters and their often dastardly deeds away from the sterile reaches of positivist criminology and instead into the enlightening context of sociological theory. In Lush Life, he argues that the concept of organised crime is only to be understood within the context of political and economic change. In so doing, Professor Hobbs rehearses his previous arguments regarding the fracturing impact of deindustrialisation on the cultural and geographic cohesion of the working class and develops new arguments that reflect how global governance, unrestrained consumerism and cosmopolitism have created contemporary illegal trading relationships and a new culture of illegal practice which accompanies them.

The book is not only theoretically original but also empirically so. Although it draws on material from his previous studies with drug traffickers, drug dealers and bouncers it also retraces his early academic steps into the sinews of East London, the location of his childhood and his first seminal book, Bad Business, to uncover a very changed urban landscape, here given the pseudonym, ‘Dog Town’. Thus the book reads as an ‘insider’ account and though ultimately it is not clear if some of his more damming judgements concerning the ineptitude of law enforcement (see Chapter 2) or the worthlessness of approaching organised crime or at least the organised criminal as a distinctive area of study are entirely justified (See Chapter 11), as ever this is Versthen sociology at its most compelling and articulate. In answer to Becker’s question ‘Whose side are you on?’ There is no doubt that Hobbs is on the side of the underdog as “in a world where those responsible for global bankruptcy are rewarded with barely imaginable riches, shifting a few boxes or a van load of people across an invisible border, before distributing its contents to a clientele of eager consumers, seems positively judicious” (p 201-202).
Lush life is a constantly diverting read although such is the relentless and dense flow of his prose you can at times, feel as if under attack from one of the author’s violent respondents with the first substantive chapter setting the tone. Chapter 2 is a savage critique of the invention and social construction of ‘organised crime’ by law enforcement and other moral crusaders. Two key themes are introduced: first that the seemingly hierarchical and structured nature of organised crime is nothing but a typically modern attempt to impose order and rationality on activity which by its nature is fluid and chaotic, as it is made up of “contingent, transgressive groups and individuals” (p 39). This theme is reiterated in Chapter 6, where he documents how the British state is currently keen to impose organisation and hierarchy onto the new organised crime threat, the ‘gang’. Secondly, that the construction of organised crime as a threat, becomes most shrill, when, as it often does, it is merged with an “insidious version of globalization whose abstract nature allows it to be used as a conduit for alien conspiracy inspired moral panics”(p34) that imply a contamination of indigenous white British racial purity. This theme is apparent throughout, and the author often observes how the ethnicity of the organised criminal is paramount in determining how law enforcement and administrative academics perceive their level of threat.

Both themes are put into a fascinating historical perspective in Chapter 3 and 4 where the author retraces the early years of organised crime before the term was invented. Hobbs explores the less well known pre-World War Two period, where prurient interest by law enforcement and the press was fixated on the then outsider; the ‘Jew’ and the ‘Chinaman’ (as precursors of the ‘Yardies’ and the ‘Turk’). Then he revisits the very well known established golden age of the ‘Krays’ but from the standpoint of an insider, revaluating criminal reputations and explicating the linkages between this brief era of full employment and existence of criminal family firms which emerged from it.

In Chapters 5 and 6 he takes the reader back to the present and to ‘Dogtown’, where he explores the way the dramatic disintegration of post war full employment, deindustrialisation and the riches but also pitfalls of rising property prices, the right to buy, and its parasitic accomplice, the buy to let landlord, have led to both the fragmentation of working class neighbourhoods and the declining influence of the family firm within them.  In a series of savoury vignettes he outlines how the traditional family firm is no longer likely to reside in the East End but rather, in the suburbs of Essex. This has meant the end of the kind of parochial physical dominance they once enjoyed, but not the end of illegal trading. As the emergence of the drug market enables working-class crime to become “relocated more than ever within ad hoc, loose knit, flexible, adaptive networks whose scope exceeded circumscribed terrain and which were characterised by an ability to splinter, dissolve, mutate, self-destruct, or simply decompose in response to the uncertainties of the marketplace” (p 94).

Ultimately, Hobbs argues that the family firm, is far from obsolete and its role in generating and enabling criminal activity should be considered amongst “numerous collaborations whose identities are not dependent solely on hegemonic territorially” (p104) and he explores the construction of one such collaboration, the ‘gang’ in Chapter 6. Here the author treads a careful path, acknowledging the emergence of new street based organisations, reliant on the drug trade rather than protection or armed robbery as innovations to the urban landscape. Yet at the same time, is clear that “ encumbering young, occasionally violent street dealers with the full emotive weight of the organised crime brand, global or otherwise, as suggested by the Cabinet Office Strategy Unit in Extending Our Reach, is simplistic, and understates the complexities of territoriality, post-industrial urban identities and pervasive entrepreneurship, as youths seek to locate alternative means of constructing identity, and along the way gain status and respect, generate excitement, have fun- and make money” (p125). He sees in the construction of a rarefied and at times existential threat from the gang (as with the governments’ response to the riots), the work of an ‘othering’ racist logic employed in times of crisis by the establishment.

Chapters 7 and 8 are the most melancholy. The book traces the relationships between available employment and types of criminal specialism; he tracks the demise of the craft criminal, the safe-cracker and the demise of the idealised masculine qualities of the specialist armed robber and their policing equivalent, the hard drinking CID officer. He is almost wistful in lamenting the “sensual delights of irrational consumption singled out professional armed robbers from the mundane rhythms of working class employment and its attendant routines” (p 144). For Hobbs, these days have now ended with the advent of the super-grass, numerous situational crime prevention technologies and the decline of plentiful industrial work. The contemporary criminal is more likely to be active in the more violent but less skilled world of transit van robbery and also a participant within the more accessible but less flamboyant world of the drug market. According to the author “A highly flexible criminal equipped for entrepreneurial engagements, and committed not to a hedonist self-contained subculture, but to the manipulation of markets and the maximisation of profit“(p 148). The drug market provides increased physical and social mobility as illegal drug trading routes are likely to be global and drug consumers are situated throughout the class structure. Hobbs is rightly dismissive as “facile, any attempt to treat the drug market as a mechanistic entity devoid of interaction or cultural context” (p 154). And as one of the few sociologists to have interviewed drug traffickers his account of the drug trade contained in Chapter 8 and in a rewarding appendix, is a helpful addition to our understanding of the sheer diversity of their backgrounds and the roles and the methods employed.
The book then moves from the post-industrial global world of illegal trading to explain what motivates the new serious criminal and to outline how it is that the huge illegal markets in sex, cigarettes and illegal drugs are sustained. This is attempted in two original chapters, Chapter 9: A Sense of Order: Violence Rumour, and Gossip and Chapter 10, the Cosmopolitan Criminal. In the former he argues that illegal entrepreneurial culture is sustained not just by violence, but by rumour and gossip. He castigates “vernacular interpretations, like the criminal justice data discussed in Chapter 1 which tend to veer towards thematic simplicity, and such one dimensional narratives do not do justice to the complexity of lives whose richness is not diluted but often enhanced by transgression” (p 188) . Instead, illustrated by way of case studies, he shows how violence, rumour and the desire to make money are often juxtaposed within a person’s criminal career. However, it is the pecuniary imperative which dominates and he deploys a persuasive argument that most often, violence is intimated or utilised not in the creation or continuation of an abstract structure or a code, but to maintain the competitiveness of commercial enterprises. Continuing in this vein, Hobbs argues that rather than seeing the increasingly multi-cultural memberships of the criminal fraternity as being solely a result of migration; it is better to see a cosmopolitan community of illegal practice. Criminals have been far quicker than their law enforcement adversaries to jettison the little-Englander mentality of previous generations and embrace opportunities abroad. He maps out the mixed heritage of several serious criminals and their enterprises and also wryly documents that cosmopolitanism has multi-directional flows, with increasing numbers of British criminals migrating abroad in search of loot but also to lap up the sun in the insalubrious haunts of Pattaya, Marbella or Tenerife.

His conclusion is polemical: “The search for a blanket aetiology that covers the entirely fabricated amorphous concept of organized crime is doomed to reside forever in the self-contained irrelevancy of yet another academic maze” (p 228). Instead, the distinction between the so called ‘underworld’ and ‘overworld’ beloved of law enforcement and administrative criminologists has collapsed and what remains is just differing codes of practice. This isn’t good news, as for Hobbs, both worlds have alighted on a narcissistic materialism where the entrepreneurial ethic dominates but it would be a “grave error to privilege economic considerations over sensuality” as it is as “unwise to disregard hedonism as an aspect of illegal market engagement, as it would be to ignore the coke-addled helicopter riding lifestyles of hedge fund traders in a consideration of the occupational culture of financial service workers in the City of London”. Therefore although entry into illegal markets does not require any clichéd exotica in order to participate in, and large “bundles of cash rather than any honorific allegiance keep the whole pot boiling” (p 224), it is not a pot we should enjoy eating.

In any event, it is a pot beautifully served and he writes throughout with a novelist’s verve, describing one of the denizens of ‘Dog town’ thus: ”Broad shouldered with spam-textured forearms and hooded, permanently bloodshot, eyes, as long as he remains seated Benny presents a formidable figure…”(p 181) whilst the Krays “morphed into icons of the brief ‘golden age’ of the post-war era, epitomising a particular brand of photogenic proletarian hegemony” (p 77). More vexing is whether the pot is also over-cooked and in his eagerness to smash the established cannon does Hobbs also overlook continuities between the practice and organisation of serious criminals then and now. Of course , criminal culture and practice will be different in Peckham in 2013, than in Bermondsey in 1985, but even with the influence of the drug market, is it not the case that for a subculture of criminals, life is still being played out as a party? And though their efforts may be more pathetic and even more parochial than their predecessors, is it also not still the case that street based groups, often from an (ex)tended family and always drawn from what once were the working class, are still trying to assert territorial dominance? Equally, aren’t there still established criminal firms and organised criminals, whose reputation for violence and/or specialist criminal craft, make them enduring parts of the British criminal landscape able to live off and shape the development of some parts of the criminal market? Questions stimulated and hopefully still to be answered by the author of this scintillating book.

Dr. Daniel Silverstone,
Faculty of Applied Social Science, London Metropolitan University,
London, UK

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