Blog | Non-Fiction

Misha Glenny: McMafia

. 2 min read

I only write these reviews and blogposts to organize my thoughts or to get rid of some ideas. So this is not really a proper review of McMafia, this is, in case you want to read the review that made me want to read this book.

On the cover of my copy of McMafia it says that “anyone with even the smallest interest in how the world really works should read this book”. I’m not really sure whether this really is how the world really works, but it sure is an eye-opener. What I found most revealing was how the shadow economy of organised crime and the regulated economy have become intertwined, often with the complicity of the authorities because they have other, larger political priorities. According to Glenny, as long as they needed Montenegro in their battle with Serbia the United States prevented European countries from taking action against the illicit trade in cigarettes between Montenegro and Italy, which cost countries in the European Union an estimated 4-6 billion GBP annually in foregone tax revenue. But when the war with Serbia had been won it was made clear to Montenegro that it should do something about the hundreds of speedboats crossing the Adriatic sea every night. And so it did.

Newspapers only report the most notable facts and events. I for one didn’t know cigarette smuggling was such a big business or that for many years until 1991 Dubai had been a centre for gold smuggling to India. But it doesn’t have the same news value as drugs smuggling and human trafficking. Misha Glenny shows how all these various facts, big and small, fit together. He shows how numerous wars could not have been fought without the smuggling of weapons, which could not have been financed without some other illicit activities. But he also shows that sometimes criminal networks fill in the gap left by a dysfunctional police force by keeping the streets clean of petty crime.

Compared with McMafia the average James Bond movie seems thoroughly lacking in imagination. McMafia is also a sobering read. Wherever the market for some good is curbed through government intervention, organised crime networks will step in to serve the market. Bad news for the sturgeon and for tropical hardwood.

McMafia also convinced me that all the current talk about the end of capitalism and capitalism 2.0 or 3.0 is nonsense. Capitalism thrives in the informal economy. Academic economists and economic commentators don’t so much ignore the informal economy, it seems as if they are completely unaware of its existence, let alone its size and impact.

In an epilogue Misha Glenny argues that a lack of regulation in some markets, especially the financial markets, and over-regulation in other markets, particularly the labour market, have contributed to the global rise of organised crime.

So what of the future? Having recently read McMafia and Gomorrah, Roberto Saviano’s account of organized crime in the area around Naples, I doubt whether the current trend can be reversed. Authorities tend to focus on fighting criminals, instead of asking what function these organised crime networks fulfil and which demand they meet.

By the way, each edition of McMafia appears to have a different subtitle, mine is "Seriously Organised Crime", but other editions have "Crime without Frontiers" and "A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld" as subtitle.