Book Review: Katherine Hirschfeld’s Gangster States: Organized Crime, Kleptocracy and Political Collapse

Katherine Hirschfeld’s Gangster States: Organized Crime, Kleptocracy and Political Collapse (2015) aims high. Inspired by noir fiction books, like James Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere, and using global examples of organized crime, Hirschfeld proposes “a new way to explain complexity, stratification and state formation in prehistoric as well as contemporary populations” by linking “archaeological research on secondary state formation with contemporary studies of warlords and failed states” (2015: xii). In review, she takes on the entire field of political economy, past and present, claiming narrow vocabulary and faulty models as limiting accurate descriptions of political power and its relation to the economy. The analytical gaze of economists, she says, is limited by a focus on the formal sector of democratic regimes where economic actors ostensibly have protection against organized crime and where accurate data collection is possible, leaving organized crime and racketeering unexplored. Criminologists are seen to offer no answers to the problem of organized crime and racketeering either, seeing racketeering as “deviant activity that undermines free markets and democratic government” (ibid.: 6). Neither are anthropologists, immersed as they are in ethnographic specificity. To understand and explain organized crime, racketeering, and violence, in “aggressively deregulated markets or in other quasi-stateless realms,” Hirschfeld turns to evolutionary biology, specifically behavioral ecology.

The opening sections of the book (particularly the introduction) outline the basic conceptual vocabulary, theoretical framework and claims, and aim to provide a unique and wide-ranging perspective on the evolution of economic crime and state formation. The following chapters are an endless discussion about definitions, polarizing conceptualizations and sweeping assertions, interspersed by descriptive, experimental, and narrative vignettes provided to prove her points.

In the Preface, Hirschfeld claims her methodological position, saying that, “The fact that this [book] developed out of anthropology means that it does not conform to current methodological norms of political science or economics” or criminology (ibid.: xi). Later on, however, she seems to distance herself from methods in anthropology as well, applying “models from behavioral ecology to predict the evolution of organized crime in systems of exchange and then explore case studies through primary and secondary historical research” (ibid.: 130). Given the primacy of ethnography over theory in anthropology, Hirschfeld seems to find the anthropological approach atheoretical. Instead of ethnography, she uses declassified criminal intelligence files, Bureau of Narcotics records, diplomatic correspondence, and other archival material detailing the intersection between organized crime, instability, and kleptocratic state formation in 20th century Cuba, supplemented by reading in post-Soviet studies, behavioral ecology, criminology, political theory, archaeology, and history, as well as journalistic and scholarly works from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Russia, Central Africa, Central Asia and Eastern Europe.


In chapter 2, the meaning of organized crime is explored, arguing for an economic rather than ethnic definition of criminal activities. This, she says, is to focus the attention on “the nature of the crime rather than the ethnicity or psychological character of the criminal” (ibid.: 29), emphasizing business conducted through the use of violence or the threat of violence. Racketeering is seen as a result of prohibitions in various systems of exchange. In chapter 3, the question of how rackets evolve is pursued. The answer she claims can be found in economic structures of aggressive anti-government deregulation causing rapid growth in racketeering and organized crime. The connection between fewer government interventions, freer markets, and growth in racketeering and organized crime – seen as lost to policymakers and invisible within the current framework of contemporary economic modeling – can be seen with tools borrowed from evolutionary biology and behavioral ecology. The result, she says, can be “tested with longitudinal case studies drawn from archival and historical research” (ibid.: 46).

Models from evolutionary biology and behavioral ecology are introduced in chapter 4 as a framework for exploring the evolution of racketeering in decentralized systems of economic exchange. Chapter 5 continues the historic journey of state formations, from Genghis Khan in chapter 4 to various stages of gangster-states in chapter 5. In chapter 6, things “fall apart…and rebuild,” indicating how states are “made and unmade by the same invisible hands: racketeering and organized crime” (ibid.: 109), in a “cyclical Darwinian rather than a linear or stepwise model of political economy and sociopolitical evolution” (ibid.: 126).

In as much as indirect methods can “advance knowledge and contribute to scholarly debates about the political economy of organized crime” (ibid.: 122), what they do not necessarily provide, however, is reality. The question is whether the world of crime as discussed in this book really exists in the real world or if it remains a fiction, like James Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere. Just as giving primacy of ethnography over theory in anthropology does not mean it is atheoretical, using tools and concepts from anthropology does not mean it is anthropology. Following Bruce Kapferer (his Keynote Address, 2006 Annual Conference of the AAS), it is through the reflexive deconstruction of the anthropologist’s own preconceptions in the fieldwork encounter that anthropological knowledge is gained. Fieldwork is thus a critical, deconstructive act whereby human beings construct or form their realities. The firsthand experiences of the anthropologist, used as a key instrument for the establishment of objective knowledge, does not make anthropology subjectivist and atheoretical. Rather, using mainly archives and secondary sources means that the experiencing and sensing body of the scientific investigator is subordinated or bracketed out as a key instrument for the construction of knowledge.

While a welcome addition to literature on the subject of organized crime, the weakness of the book lies perhaps in its ambition, aiming to explain the nature of state formations in widely divergent contexts and from early pre-state systems of exchange to contemporary formal systems of government. To a social anthropologist, the kind of global and historical perspective pursued in this book raises more questions than it answers. Besides, to anyone familiar with Machiavelli or Hobbes, the “invisible hand” argument, seeing racketeering and organized crime as the natural order of things, does not come across as particularly original. On the contrary, Machiavelli and Hobbes are the intellectual fathers of the related theory of protection (see Varese 2001; 2010; 2014, Lane 1958, Nozick 1974, Tilly 1985, Gambetta 1993, Olson 1993; 2000, Blok 1974, Volkov 2002), which, by the way, Hirschfeld largely ignores or dismisses as irrelevant. Thus, Hirschfeld is certainly not the first to see organised crime and racketeering as a pervasive mode of governance, but doing so without properly addressing the protection literature and in-depth ethnographic knowledge, seriously weakens the account.


Tone K. Sissener, Department of Health Promotion and Development, University of Bergen

Reviewed in this Essay:

Hirschfeld, Katherine. Gangster States. Organized Crime, Kleptocracy and Political Collapse. Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.


Blok, A. The Mafia of A Sicilian Village, 1860-1960. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 1974.

Kapferer, B. “Anthropology and the Dialectic of Enlightenment: A Discourse on the Definition and Ideals of a Threatened Discipline.” The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 18 (2007): 72-94.

Gambetta, D. The Sicilian Mafia: The Business of Private Protection. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Hobbes, T. Leviathan. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009 (1651).

Lane, F. C. “Economic Consequences of Organized Violence.” Journal of Economic History, 18 (1958): 401-17.

Machiavelli, N. The Prince. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988 (1532).

Nozick, R. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974.

Olson, M. “Democracy, Dictatorship, and Development.” American Political Science Review, 87 (1993): 567-76.

Olson, M. Power and Prosperity. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Tilly, C. “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime” IN P. Evans et al. , eds., Bringing the State Back In. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. 169-91.

Varese, F. The Russian Mafia, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Varese, F. “What is Organized Crime?” IN F. Varese, ed., Organized Crime: Critical Concepts in Criminology. New York: Routledge, 2010. 1-33.

Varese, F. “Protection and extortion” IN L. Paoli, ed., Oxford Handbook of Organized Crime. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. 343-58.

Volkov, V. Violent Entrepreneurs: The Use of Force in the Making of Russian Capitalism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002.


About Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Matthew Wolf-Meyer is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Binghamton University in the State University of New York system. He received his Ph.D. from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, specializing in medical anthropology and the social study of science and technology. He is author of the forthcoming book The Slumbering Masses (UMN Press), which focuses on sleep in American culture and its historical and contemporary relations to capitalism.

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