Conceptualizing Criminal Governance

Conceptualizing Criminal Governance

By Benjamin Lessing, University of Chicago

In informal urban areas throughout the developing world, and even in some US and UK neighborhoods, tens if not hundreds of millions of people live under some form of criminal governance. For them, states’ claims of a monopoly on the use of force ring hollow; for many issues, a local criminal organization is the relevant authority. Yet the state is far from absent: residents may pay taxes, vote, and even inform on gangs as punishment for abusive behavior. Criminal governance flourishes in pockets of low state presence, but ones that states can generally enter at will, if not always without violence. It thus differs from state, corporate, and rebel governance because it is embedded within larger domains of state power. I develop a conceptual framework centered around the who, what, and how of criminal governance, organizing extant research and proposing a novel dimension: charismatic versus rational-bureaucratic forms of criminal authority. I then delineate the logics that may drive criminal organizations to provide governance for non-members, establishing building blocks for future theory-building and -testing. Finally, I explore how criminal governance intersects with the state, refining the concept of crime–state “symbiosis” and distinguishing it from neighboring concepts in organized-crime and drug-violence scholarship.

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