Predatory Democracy: Family, Bureaucrats and Gangsters

By Franciszek Wiktor Mleczko   


Democracy has been traditionally defined in relation to the notions of political power and participation in the processes of governing. For the purpose of the present study I offer a broader understanding of the term, namely the possibility of real impact by an individual or a group of people over all aspects of their lives. This includes both power over other people and power over oneself. The latter is understood not as mere self-control, but rather as self-knowledge, including an ability to analyze one’s environment and the factors conditioning one’s life, and to adopt proper means to achieve important goals or at least to minimize losses in case of failure.

The problem of how to ensure direct and effective participation in political processes is crucial to modern democracies. For members of small traditional communities, direct participation is hard to avoid. The more dense and complex the social structures, the less direct the participation of citizens. The increasingly low voter turnout in many countries suggests that fewer people today consider elections to be an efficient and effective way of influencing their future. Political scientists note that this opens the way for small minorities to determine elections and, consequently, the distribution of political power. They are particularly concerned to analyze why people refuse to vote. As a sociologist, I am more interested in studying how those who stay out of the electoral system nevertheless participate in the political process and influence its results. I believe that as long as there is this personally democratic alternative to institutional politics, no voter mobilization campaign will bring people to vote in large numbers.

Most citizens of modern democratic societies are much less interested in discussing systemic or ideological alternatives, which they leave to their political leaders, than in having an effective influence over matters related to their daily life. This was evident in the rapid onset of disillusionment with elections that occurred in the so-called post-communist countries of Eastern Europe. Under communism, when voting was perceived as endorsing scripted propaganda, the majority of Polish people were certain that free elections would have a positive effect on their lives and living conditions. Today, sixteen years into the democratic transformation, the political mood is no longer so optimistic. Only a small percentage of registered voters participate in local elections, and about 50% in the highly publicized national ones.  This is not in itself unusual, but in contrast to many western countries, many Poles are losing control even over their more immediate personal circumstances. The rapid growth in unemployment is a contributing factor. People who cannot make a living by working legally are forced to enter the illegal “gray” area, often to collaborate with gangs, to function in an alternative, unofficial political and economic system.

People can accept relatively easily an inability to influence “big” political issues. But when their personal choices are restricted, they become a threat to society and its political elite. In my opinion, most of us, both in Eastern Europe and in the West, have to accept that in the future we will be living, at best, in complicated, multi-systemic democracies, faced at every step of our lives with different, often conflicting systems of values and social structures. This is not a new phenomenon. Almost all citizens of developed industrial countries already live in two social systems: the family system and the bureaucratic one. Now, more and more of us will have to accept a third one. To participate in a social meal, we will have no choice but to sit at the table with gangsters. In my opinion the role of this new gangster system in our lives is already comparable to the roles played by family, state administration, and the Church. Such a comparison may seem frivolous, so I would like to introduce some important qualifications and methodological clarifications.

First, I distinguish between analysis of structure and of culture. Analysis of culture makes it possible to diagnose attitudes and behavioral patterns even when conclusions about the organizational structure have to remain hypothetical (mostly because of the classified character of any precise information on gangster activities).

Second, even if information were available, some organizational structures cannot be unequivocally classified because they were deliberately (or through trial and error) constructed as multi-system entities. The Roman Catholic Church is an example of an organization that includes elements of different systems. Both its nomenclature (“father,” “brother,” “sister”) and its functioning, especially at the parish level, show an analogy to the family system. On the other hand, the church as an organization is hierarchical and bureaucratic. At the same time, it requires of its members a degree of loyalty, discipline, and often also secrecy and ruthlessness comparable to the practice of gangster organizations. In my opinion, it is precisely this multi-system structure that accounts for the durability of the church as an institution, which seems to suggest the possibility of a similar basis of durability for multi-system democracy.

Given these points and what they suggest for comparing the family, bureaucratic and gangster systems, we can consider the relative strength of the impacts of each system on the lives of individuals. We are born into a family and then spend most of our lives under bureaucracy. At the same time, we are exposed to the influence of the gangster system, presented in mass entertainment or operating at least some of the most normatively compelling areas of our lives (e.g., professional sports). I use the term gangsterism to indicate a phenomenon as natural in social life as predatory behavior is in nature, and which encompasses attitudes and modes of behavior that support manipulation, force, and deceit without regard for risks or victims. In relation to social groups, gangsterism may also be analyzed as a subsystem (or counter-system) with a specific ethos and structure, and here obviously the comparison with nature ends. But despite the fact that the parallel between gangsters in society and predators in nature has its limitations, I still find the analogy useful. Nature assigns each species the role of predator or prey to preserve a certain balance. Human beings play such roles as well, and societies have been able to incorporate them into whatever unity is possible under the circumstances.

The integration of more complex social entities, including modern national and multinational states, requires both force and shrewdness. Gangster methods become the monopoly of the most powerful elites, who claim to represent society as a whole, determining the content of law, the limits of justice, and aspects of national ideology. Anyone outside of that power structure who tries to use the same methods is severely punished, typically with the approval of society as a whole.

The very same gangster or predatory behavior can be officially sanctioned when performed by ruling powers, and considered criminal when it is an action of groups or individuals not participating in the existing power apparatus (who may then be called bandits or freedom fighters, partisans or terrorists, depending on who is doing the labeling).  Both forms of predatory behavior (formal and informal) play an important social role and should be analyzed objectively in terms of the function they have played in human history. As such, neither can be considered purely negative—not only because very often the two forms overlap each other (e.g., the pirates of the British Crown, colonial discoveries and invasions, etc.), but also because the informal predatory activities create a necessary balance to the official ones. Without such balance, so-called social progress could be achieved only through bloody revolutions or wars and military coups. History may still follow this course, but the current development of our civilization permits us to believe that the dynamic equilibrium necessary to avoid such cataclysms can be achieved.

Modern history analyzed from the point of view of gangster structures and their influence over social development makes such a theory quite plausible. If we look at the importance of economic gangsterism in the United States, we can conclude that it not only contributed to the creation of a successful predatory capitalism, but also averted a bloody social revolution by providing potential revolutionary leaders with other options for social ascent. The moral and material costs of such practices seem to be smaller than costs of the October Revolution in Russia, which also used forceful informal methods to fight the existing system.

One of the burning questions after the events of 9/11 is whether the use of gangsterism (terror) against individuals and institutions will trigger, in response, the evolution of existing national and multinational economic gangsterism into a military state. It may be that the only chance for multi-system societies to function and develop is through acceptance of all the elements of the system, including the gangster element. This is by no means to glorify brute force and legal or illegal cruelty. It is only to say that no matter how much we may dislike it and may wish for a more ideal world, the fact must be faced that we have always lived among predators, and often acted as such ourselves. However simplistic may be the idea of survival of the fittest when applied to human society, our common idea of social progress is based on the notion of predation. It is a struggle in which someone always loses and someone wins.  The bitter experience of my generation (I was born in 1931) has been that only in times of great natural and social disaster do we realize the value of compassion and cooperation.  It is my hope that the current study will provide the reader with a better understanding of the difficult and complicated world we live in.

Three Systems of Work and Life

The world has not always been so complicated.  It is only over time that the family system, which served as a foundation of social structure in small communities, ceased to fulfill the new goals formulated by emerging states and by new organizational structures, such as armies and religious institutions. The new bureaucratic model did not eliminate the family system, but formed itself as an alternative, not only by creating a new type of social structure (no longer based on blood relations), but also by developing a new system of values and models of social conduct. New rulers and their hierarchies first seized political power and later waged an assault on all aspects of traditional social life. Since then the family system has been steadily losing its original functions, some of them quite recently. For example, it was only after the industrial revolution that the family ceased to be an independent unit of production and only at the beginning of the 20th century that it lost its role as main provider of financial security. The evolution of family and bureaucratic systems is beyond the scope of this article; therefore I will refer only to those aspects of it that are vital to my analysis of modern multi-system society.

The new bureaucratic system could function effectively only if the family was no longer a self-sufficient entity. Therefore it was crucial to seize control over the most important thresholds in the life of every individual: birth, death, and rites of passage. Family no longer introduced the newborn to the world; this came to be done by priests and registrars. Parents have become auxiliaries in ceremonies of baptism, first communion, or bar mitzvah. They can give permission for marriage, but the act itself is typically performed by religious or bureaucratic personnel. However, before such a compromise was reached, the new structures introduced numerous rules regulating family life, such as the interdiction of marriage between close relatives (long before we had any scientific knowledge of genetic consequences). The political character of such an interdiction is clear if we take into account that it usually did not apply to the ruling families but did apply to other powerful, even aristocratic, ones for whom familial intermarriages were necessary to their economic and social status. In 16th- and 17th-century Poland, powerful noblemen could escape such interdiction only by obtaining a papal dispensation or by converting to a different religion. In our modern western culture, even parental permission for marriage has lost its significance. Gaining power over the individual’s passage through life, and at life’s end, not only provided the new bureaucratic structures with means of control over society but also became a profitable business, at the expense of families.      

Thus, for thousands of years there were two parallel systems of organizing human life which coexisted and competed: family and bureaucracy. In my opinion, the struggle and final domination of the bureaucratic system over the family in shaping the life of an individual can be considered the greatest revolution in the history of humanity.

The struggle against family and tribal structures or against tribal tendencies within the bureaucratic system was often ferocious, and not always victorious for the bureaucracy. Things became even more complex when gangsterism came into being as a system. Traditional sociology, since Max Weber, has treated bureaucracy (praised or criticized) as a norm, and all deviations from it as pathology. In this regard, gangster activities were typically identified with organized crime or the temporary rebelliousness of juvenile gangs. Scientific research on mob culture was often limited to the analysis of such apparently unique phenomena as the Sicilian mafia (with an emphasis on cultural conditions), and there was usually some reluctance to acknowledge the importance of gangster economic activities in the functioning of society. In Central Europe today, however, these activities have become so explosive a force that the most important events in the region cannot be understood without considering their role. The fall of the USSR can serve as an example. The Soviet Union that emerged from the October Revolution and the Second World War was a state defined as socialist in terms of its official ideology, but it was bureaucratic in its struggle to transform the traditional family structures, and it acted according to the logic of gangsterism, both internally and abroad. It is one of the best examples of the new social system where, alongside family and formally legalized bureaucratic structures, a new informal structure emerged that became an important factor in the life of the individual.

Modern gangs and their activity can be seen as a new form of efficient organization born in the process of both breaking with the traditional (moral) norms of the family system and rejecting the onerous procedures of the bureaucracy. The new gangster system could function with more flexibility, power and efficiency than previous systems, and it became the foundation of a new ethos. This should not be misconstrued as an apotheosis of the gangster system or a justification of its crimes—although often it was no less “moral” than the bureaucratic and family systems that we hold in higher esteem but that were just as capable of committing crimes against individuals and communities. It is a fact that modern man lives no longer in just one or two, but in at least three, social systems: family, bureaucratic and gangster ones. In my opinion, each presents a coherent answer to existential questions, including those about the goals and meaning of life and the appropriate means of achieving success and happiness. It follows that to live successfully in a multi-system democracy, we have to understand each of those systems in the entirety of its ethos.

The Family System: The Traditional Peasant Family

The family system of organization of life and work – system of mutual support – has been in existence for thousands of years. It is based on the natural needs of the human species, which require the parents to care for their offspring for a very long time, until they learn how to lead an independent existence. In most cultures, the family system of work and life functioned in harmony with available technologies, using mainly the energy of living organisms (people and animals), and simple tools and machinery. The organization of labor was mostly based on small units working side by side, as opposed to teams working according to the conditions of specialization within a division of labor. Under such conditions, every attempt to introduce a new organization of work had to be imposed from above, as with the work of galley-slaves or builders of pyramids.

In modern Poland, such a system still exists, mostly in agriculture based on small private farms, and to some extent in artisanal production and small-scale sales and service outlets. However, to some extent we are all conditioned by the family system in our perceptions of the world and the place of the individual in it. Every family still operates as an economic and social unit, and this social fact imposes a vision of individual happiness on all members of society subject to that culture. We can call a family system pure when it includes only members related by blood or marriage. It can be called extended when it also includes people employed by the family (apprentices, servants, house slaves, etc) or otherwise associated with it, e.g., clients of rich noblemen. Interestingly enough, in Japan, the relation of patron to client is occasionally referred to in familial terms, as a relation between father and son (oya-ko kankei). For the purpose of clarifying the family system I use a model of the peasant farming family that was typical in the mid-20th century in Europe (with the notable exceptions of England and the USSR after collectivization). In Poland such peasant families are still common but this may change with Poland entering the European Union, as it seems to worry both local and EU bureaucrats.

The typical family farm flourishes during times of continuous original ownership, and deteriorates when that continuity is disrupted (due, for example, to the aging of the old owners, lack of experience on the part of the new ones, divisions of property after death, etc.). The situation of the family, however, always remains directly related to the situation of the family farm. The personal and professional life of every member of a farming family is defined by his/her age, gender and position in the family structure, and only then by external factors such as level of education, military service, and participation in political or social organizations. Belonging to a family structure is a natural result of one’s birth, and promotion comes routinely with age and experience. Marriage means not only starting a new family, but also starting a new economic unit.  The life of the individual is always part of a coherent system, both socially and in regard to understanding one’s place in time and in nature. Everybody is socialized through processes of working and living in the family and community, internalizing values that are, ideally, deep and constant. The traditional family system consists of small units (farms, small firms, or shops) where every aspect of activity is open to all the members who have vested interests in their success. This makes it possible to cultivate such values as honesty, loyalty, trust in others, and respect for authority. Cooperation requires communication if members are to be motivated to act in the interest of the whole group.
How did humanity move from an emphasis on the family system to an emphasis on bureaucratization of the division of labor? Anthropologists and neuroscientists may eventually provide us with a better understanding of what changes the human brain and memory had to undergo in order for this to occur. For now, it is important to acknowledge that the roots of modern bureaucracy may be as deep as the first delegation of tribal power. The introduction of the parallel powers of tribal chief and shaman was probably the first step toward democracy, but also toward the bureaucratic and gangster systems.

The Bureaucratic System

Initially, bureaucracy did not replace the family and its functions. It simply introduced restrictions on the capacity of the family to perform its non-biological functions by creating parallel solutions which represented possibly a new type of social structure. The nucleus of this was based not on kinship but on different values, modes of behavior, and referents. For this new type of structure to consolidate its power, the family system had to lose its self-sufficiency. As mentioned before, this was possible only if supervision over such basic matters as birth, marriage and death shifted to the bureaucracy. Modern bureaucracy carries this process further. State and/or religious institutions now provide childcare, education, and security. This has been widely understood as the effect of industrialization on the values associated with social and family life. Compared to the family system, bureaucracy offered new solutions to the problem of integrating society that, at least initially, seemed to bring more efficiency to production and more democracy to the body politic. However, to begin life in a bureaucratic system, seemingly separated from the family one, the individual needs the sorts of support networks that make role performance possible.

The very hierarchical structure and specialized division of labor characteristic of the bureaucratic system minimizes the probability of advancement based on habits consonant with family life and values. In its emphasis on merit, the bureaucratic system introduces an aspect of democracy, namely fair access based on the results of competition. This is only an aspect, however, because bureaucracy cannot insure against abuse of authority.
In the traditional family system, all activities of the firm are undertaken on a small scale and presuppose everyone’s involvement and personal investment in the firm’s overall success. The bureaucratic system, on the other hand, usually operates on a large scale, where antagonism among various interests and groups is a given. Therefore there is no place for a free exchange of information and for trust, whether among the employees themselves or between the employees and their superiors. The system motivates (or disciplines) individuals in various ways. Among these are material rewards, including financial bonuses, penalties, and access services. There are also threats that arise from the nature of the system itself, including the possible loss of employment due to fluctuations in the job market and changes in career prospects due to conditions that expand or narrow the upper levels of the hierarchy relative to lower levels. Finally, ideology plays a role in encouraging identification with the firm in such a way that employees come to feel that their fate depends on the success of the company. In this regard, bureaucracy relies on the sort of self-discipline typical of the family system.

The bureaucratic model and its methods are quite effective in many areas of life. But in others, such as domestic life and farming, the results are less impressive. It seems, however, that every social system which comes to dominate a society strives for exclusivity.  We thus witness the detrimental impact of bureaucratic regulation on family life, economy, or nature, as in the destruction of the small family farm. The fight for systemic monopoly means competition, in the past mostly with the family system, currently also with the gangster system. It almost seems that this state of struggle for multi-system equilibrium has become the basis of a new social environment.

The Gangster System

Gangsterism (social predation) as an attitude and a method is as old as humanity. Not so gangsterism as a social system. While the family and the bureaucratic systems have been well studied over the years, current knowledge about the gangster system seems to be based mostly on literature about the Sicilian mafia and on media coverage of crime in post-communist Europe. But even if we look at the core of the gangster system, characterized by the application of hard or soft mechanisms of coercion, its historical roots are quite obvious.

There are many examples of societies in which plunder and piracy are common, and whose very existence depended on a constant state of war. Most societies, however, evolved a balance between aggression towards other groups and a relatively integrated internal order capable of sustaining reasonable levels of productivity and innovation. So, in search of precedents for the modern gangster system, instead of looking at ancient belligerent states, we should rather turn to certain extra-legal activities sanctioned by the rulers of modern Europe, such as the pirates of queen Elizabeth, the expeditions of conquest by Christopher Columbus or Francisco Pizarro, and secret police activities that span the eras of modern society and that were designed to operate at the margins of society against threats of agitation and rebellion.

In view of current political developments in the Western world, it is crucial to remember that, especially in times of war, the hard methods of control prevail over the soft ones, although the latter have been indispensable as well (e.g., bribery, restrictions on political participation, etc.). Acts of terror are examples of hard methods. They have been used by all partisan and guerrilla movements, as well as standing governments (witness the extraction of confessions by torture, the killing of witnesses that might betray a group to its enemies, etc). However, a distinction should be made between two types of gangsterism. The first involves banditry, robbery and plunder that do not transform society but merely modify local distributions (though this may have wider effects depending on the responses of power structures). The second type involves a more systematic reliance on force and coercion, intended to affect society as a whole.

The ruling government can often justify hard methods of control by an appeal to law or legal process, whether on the books or yet to be enacted. Neither the use of such measures by governments, nor their use by groups to advance their special interests, signify the emergence of systemic gangsterism. More is required, including the legitimation of governmental reliance on such methods of societal regulation and the emergence of societally oriented groups who operate beyond the limits of institutional politics. These conditions seem to be ripening within modern democratic societies, while in so called post-communist countries the same process is more accelerated and takes place on a much broader scale. For the time being, the gangster system is still competing with the family and bureaucratic systems, but there are already symptoms of fusion between the two or even an integration of the three systems.

Defining the modern gangster system presents the sociologist with numerous obstacles. There is a tendency to identify gangsterism as a species of social pathology, and research is not yet free of the stereotypes imposed by the media. Even the most prominent gangs and mafias of the past were only partially open to research, because secrecy was a cornerstone of their very existence. Taking into consideration all these difficulties, I will nevertheless attempt to analyze the modern gangster system in contrast with past varieties.
The best-known historical example of the gangster system is the Sicilian mafia. It begins with the beginning of industrial revolution and the invasion of traditional family-based communities by the new bureaucratic structures of modern industry. At the turn of the 20th century, the inhabitants of European villages and small towns lived almost exclusively within the boundaries of family and community. After paying its dues to government and church, every community had the power to regulate many of its internal affairs. Conflicts were not resolved by courts but by local authorities (who may or may not hold official positions). Punishment, including death, was also administered locally, often on the occasion of a festival or wedding. What to strangers might have looked like the uncivil behavior of drunken peasants was usually a fairly effective method of restraining feuds and redressing transgressions. Whenever state authorities tried to intervene, an unwritten law forbade community members from testifying. This practice of settling local matters locally (called omertà in Sicily) functioned also in Poland long into the 20th century. During the Nazi occupation, it enabled partisans to keep the details of their movement hidden from the occupiers. During Stalinism it enabled whole villages to resist collectivization.

With the growing impact of industrialization, the new bureaucratic structures needed to facilitate the migration of labor from rural areas to the cities, and to find ways of superseding traditional authorities (heads of family, priests, masters, landlords) in favor of bosses in factories and other industrial enterprises. The threat posed by modern industry to farming, crafts, and community-based organization led to acts of resistance. Sometimes this took the form of paramilitary operations, as in Sicily and to some extent also in Poland and the Balkans, where the anti-fascist partisan movement included strong peasant armies, motivated by both patriotic and social causes. Similar social conditions—and similar goals of protecting small private owners in times of social and economic crisis and political chaos—also contributed to the flourishing of secret societies in China and grassroots cooperative movements in many parts of Europe. While cooperative movements tended to operate within the institutional order of the state, mafias relied on extra-legal methods. But both were looking for a solution to the socio-political crisis engendered by the contradiction between the bureaucracy and the family system, as was the socialist movement which opted for revolution.
The intensification of immigration from Europe to America brought all types of social organization, including the gangster system, to the United States. The application of ruthless methods to the most profitable areas of the US economy opened new possibilities for the development of the system itself and society as a whole. And for those individuals or groups of immigrants who could not otherwise advance, gangs offered an alternative to both family networks and bureaucratic systems.  The robber barons and new American industrialists often used similar methods to those of the mafia and Chinese gangs. But there was a growing understanding that such activities can be successful on a large scale only in times of crisis, while legitimation, even of the most ruthless types of action, offers almost limitless possibilities (e.g., Joseph Kennedy who made his fortune through the application of clearly gangster methods during Prohibition, but made sure that his sons gained high government positions).  American bureaucracy was never as rigid as its European counterparts. Because of this, it gained a tremendous momentum by incorporating gangsterism during times of crisis. The numerous scandals and political assassinations that accompanied this transformation were an unavoidable byproduct.

In Europe the situation was different.  Already in the 19th century it became clear that the bureaucratic system was prone to degeneration because of its tendency to reinforce social inequality. The European reaction to this took various forms, including the cooperative movement and the mafia. But the main opposition to the degeneration of the capitalist state and its bureaucracy came from the socialist revolutionary movement. The revolutionaries believed that after overthrowing the bureaucracy and its socially debilitating effects, they would be able to build a new social order, more responsive to the needs of the majority and, at the same time, more efficient. Unfortunately, due to complex internal and external factors, the reality brought into play by the socialist revolutions in Europe (including the October Revolution in Russia) was very different from what was initially intended. In extreme cases this meant destruction of both the family system and the bureaucracy in favor of a new state. The ensuing chaos proved to be a fertile ground for the development of gangster structures, which in Russia eventually permeated the entire society. The gains in efficiency were obtained at a high and often inhumane price.

In the United States the family system was sufficiently strong and well enough organized to resist excessive bureaucratization (especially in less industrialized and/or more isolated areas of the country). Moreover, bureaucracy was not as unyielding as in Europe. Therefore, the gangster structures that accompanied the new immigrants did not threaten the reigning social order as a whole. They played an auxiliary, though important, part in creating a new form of gangsterism, more efficient than its European predecessors because it offered better control over its members (relying to some extent on aspects of the family system), and had few limitations in utilizing hard methods (from bribery to murder) to bring the bureaucracy into line. In this way the new predatory democracy came into being.

The highly mediated form the gangster system took in the US allowed it to develop and ultimately to fuse with the other key systems. By providing ambitious members of the lower classes, including new immigrants, with alternative avenues for social advancement, it limited the pool of potential revolutionary leaders, and thus stunted the progress of socialist revolutionary activism.

These differences from the European experience make it possible to understand how the American gangster system could achieve its fullest form without turning into state communism or fascism. On one hand, as mentioned above, it had very different opponents. American bureaucracy was more flexible and open to change than its European counterparts, and the American family system was represented by individual farmers and landlords rather than by masses of peasants with a long history of villein servitude. On the other hand, there were two other social factors that made such a “civilized” transformation of the gangster system possible. First, American society was culturally ready to accept diverse means of achieving goals (including illegal and brutal ones), as long as they were perceived as efficient. After a long history of wars against the Indians, the war of Independence, the Civil War, and vigilantism, ruthless gangster methods were well known and accepted by the majority of the population. Second, American social conflicts were far more diverse than in Europe, where traditional national conflicts came to be overshadowed by class struggle. In the United States, conflict reflected a large number of dimensions, including national origin, class, race, religion, and recency of immigration.

The combination of the informal economy and gangster structures provided newcomers with a possibility of rapid integration into their new society, but was not strong enough to transform the society as a whole. Gradually, a new synthesis was born – a multi-system democracy that provided a reasonable degree of freedom of life-choices which, in time, proved to be very appealing in post-communist Eastern Europe.

In all post-communist countries, despite the continuing formal domination of bureaucratic national structures and vocal public support for law and justice, gangsterism increased its hold during the period of systemic transition and so called “restructuring.”   In Poland, as of today, the gangster system is still not fully developed: it lacks clarity and self discipline, and participants often do not understand its organizing principles, its hierarchical forms, and its codes of behavior (including penalties and rewards); nor has it developed the ability to reproduce its structure. It nevertheless plays so important a part in social life, politics, and the economy, that it cannot be overlooked by anyone trying to analyze the events taking place in this part of the world. For example, many experts claim that investment in Eastern European countries is risky because of the instability of their economies. While this is certainly true, there are also more important reasons. Under the conditions of parallel economies, where the illegal structures are guided unpredictably by constantly changing unwritten rules, only speculative investment aimed at quick profit can function effectively. Serious investors, even if they accept the necessity of informal connections and bribes, have no guarantee that the person they bribe today will not be replaced overnight, or will not come back tomorrow to ask for more money. In other words, one has to deal not with old-style organized bureaucratic corruption, but with a new gangster style of “corrupted corruption.”

Only time will show if such a disorganized gangster system can develop into a more “civilized” form of multi-system democracy. Every social system has been predatory and greedy in its early phases. It is usually considered mature when it becomes self- regulating without losing its dynamic character. The voraciousness of 19th-century capitalism was legally restrained by Bismarck. A similar role was later played by Roosevelt with social programs imposed from above, both in answer to demands from below and with the aim of saving the system from itself.  It is difficult to predict how the current gangster system will develop in post-communist states, where it has already been generally accepted as an inherent part of social life, or in countries such as China where it has been operating for centuries, though in a different form from Europe.

Three Systems of Everyday Life: Dilemmas and Choices

The fact that a growing number of countries in various regions of the world seem to be evolving toward multi-system democracy with the gangster system as one of its main components, forces us to take a close look at the reasons why this component has become indispensable to modern societies. In my opinion, the answer lies partly in the fact that we are living in times when many members of the society have become superfluous, even in the most developed nations. New technologies, more efficient methods of land cultivation, and global economies of scale are among the most obvious causes. All this means that agriculture, industry, commerce, and even the military need much less manpower. The only institutions that seem to need more are state and local administration, as well as special services and the prison system, which provides physical isolation as an answer to the social and emotional isolation affecting growing groups of people, who not long ago belonged to tight local communities. At the other end of the social structure, those who can afford it also tend to isolate themselves behind the fences of their wealth. Thy neighbor becomes just a passerby, a non-entity, eventually a potential object of exploitation. In social and economic conditions that foster criminality and lack of empathy for others, random violence is usually perceived as most threatening. So, when the state can no longer guarantee the expected level of personal safety, even law-abiding citizens may accept with relief the emergence of gangster structures that offer protection.

If we take an honest look at ourselves and at people around us, we must recognize that even though for most of our lives we have functioned predominantly in one system (be it bureaucratic, family, or even gangster), still, each of us has had many encounters with the two other systems. Even the most principled member of a family can be forced to behave like a gangster to protect it, while an insensitive legalistic bureaucrat or a cruel gangster may still act as a loving family man toward his relatives. In the economic reality of Eastern Europe, the law-abiding president of a company may have to act in the grey zone between legal and illegal structures if he wants to save it from bankruptcy and protect the livelihood of its employees, while the official bureaucratic system encourages him to destroy it for the sake of “modernization” (and personal gain).

For many years, as a sociologist, I analyzed the world in terms of a fundamental distinction between formal and informal structures and its implications for the reproduction of social order. However, the transformation of Eastern Europe at the end of the 20th century, especially in Poland, made me realize how inadequate this approach was to the new socio-economic reality, where the neoliberals deem it necessary to destroy ostensibly weak or struggling enterprises, no matter what the social cost, and gangsters eliminate even well-functioning ones to gain power. Under such circumstances, every member of Polish society has to function simultaneously in three different social systems that form a dynamic entity so complex that its values and structures often appear to be contradictory. It is a strange and—from the point of view of the individual—incoherent mixture, similar to the most popular Polish dish called bigos, so rich and diverse in its ingredients that it may seem indigestible.1 Polish society, like its culinary counterpart, contains many elements that can be both beneficial and detrimental to the health of its consumers.  For it is not easy to function as a conscious, self-respecting person in a world of conflicting values and messages. One has to learn to analyze, after the first bite, what particular combination of ingredients is contained in every serving of life’s bigos, and one must carefully choose the right ones, even when the options resemble the menu in a bad student cafeteria: eat what’s being served or go hungry. The most difficult part for many of us is the necessity to share one’s meal with gangsters, something we are beginning to realize we have already been doing for years.

Some social and professional groups are faced with more paradoxes and dilemmas than others. One such example are the officials of the Roman Catholic church, who have to function at the same time as bureaucrats, spiritual “fathers” of their communities, and sometimes even as gangsters bullying straying brothers into submission or secrecy. Another example is provided by the profession—new to Eastern Europe—of sports managers and agents. The way players are acquired and traded bears some resemblance to the traditional transaction between the father of the bride and the bridegroom, but to “deals” between pimps and “their” prostitutes. A Polish soccer agent often “buys” a player at a very young age and has unlimited power over his professional future. In each case, the fiduciary aspect is compromised by considerations of utility associated with the logic of bureaucracy and implemented along the lines of the very different logic of gangsterism.

Family structures exhibit this same tension among incompatible values and between values and a practicality indifferent to all values. Media presents ideal typical images of gangsterism; school represents bureaucratic imperatives as conditions of rational choice. In this mix, the family system is bound to be relegated to a merely residual function. The average person, who cannot afford to favor one system over the others and cannot evade the impositions of bureaucracy and gangsterism, is then forced to learn not only how to navigate those murky waters without losing a sense of self, but also how to keep such self-consciousness secret. The individual must show a degree of surface adaptation that cannot be sustained intra-personally. Even a preference for family structures founders in the face of uncertainties that make it impossible to trust others and to interact with them without suspecting hidden agendas.

For members of the post-communist societies, it is of the utmost importance to learn how to live in the same world with the gangsters, and this must begin almost at birth. That this is indeed our social reality seems to be broadly accepted. I have lectured on it in Poland to many and diverse audiences, including politicians and businessmen, students and social scientists, journalists and social activists. Not once did anyone dispute my claims about the existence and significance of the gangster system. Moreover, the questions I was asked were not purely academic, but clearly reflected daily experience and difficult choices.2
The results of my previous research, including an extensive survey conducted in 2002-04, led me to conclude that Polish society presents the full spectrum of possible attitudes toward gangsterism, which can be reduced to five main types: collaboration, isolation, struggle, search for alternatives, and play. Each type varies according to circumstances, e.g., whether the situation is controlled or routine, or is critical (as in emergencies). Those who chose collaboration with the gangster system did not necessarily consider it a free choice, but rather an adaptation imposed on them by circumstance. They reported being aware of both positive and negative possible consequences of their choices, but neutralized the moral import by casting reasons in purely material terms. Yet, the fact that collaboration can take many forms, ranging from active collaboration to coexistence, suggests that the psychology of accommodation is more complex than might initially appear.

Those who opt for isolation are usually principled believers in moral codes, who have faith in the final victory of good over evil, and, even if they consider splendid isolation to be an unrealistic dream on a social scale, still believe that it is achievable for them as individuals. According to the level of their optimism and courage, they either distance themselves from any possible relations with the gangster system, at any cost, or escape or withdraw from the world dominated by gangsters (including giving in to addictions, becoming workaholics, or submerging themselves in religion).

People who choose struggle usually justify their actions in terms of an absolute distinction between good and evil. They may resist gangsterism by joining the police, by working in other capacities with the law (e.g., as informers or whistleblowers), or engage in individual acts against specific instances of gangsterism. Those who choose search for alternatives also draw a sharp distinction between the good they favor and the bad they oppose, but they reject direct action (e.g., struggle) and attempt to manifest, by the way they live, a civil society based on adherence to socially responsible ethical values. Their approach is essentially idealistic and utopian.

Those who opt for play attempt to discern not only the rules of the various system-games but their loopholes. In this respect they are realists who lead a kind of double life in which they are at once insiders and outsiders, managing the tension implicit in a contradictory multi-system universe. For some, this means trying to find a viable space of relative freedom at a point of balance among the various system-forces—analogous to scavengers in nature. For others, it means using the rules of bureaucracy to personal advantage. With the changes in Poland since 1989, in which the balance has shifted in favor of gangsterism, adaptation requires skill in identifying strength and weakness, acting at the margins of the system of rules, and maintaining a public image of virtue despite an almost exclusive emphasis on self-interest.  

There is another subgroup of “players,” those who attempt to enter the game of managing system-tensions with a consistent set of values that vary from the norm. These are values that can be subjected to a utilitarianist calculus and, at the same time, be made rational for the greater society.  Members of this subgroup usually have a clear assessment of reality with all its complexity and ambiguities, but contrary to those who attempt to outsmart the system from within, they consciously choose an independent path, based on a sense of personal responsibility. This attitude is usually found among scientists and artists, and more among older than younger people. Surprisingly, I found that many younger respondents (mostly women) choose this strategic option. They see themselves not as missionaries promoting an idealistic vision, but as realists who understand the game well and hope to turn the tables or even change the rules, albeit on a small scale.

The attitudes or strategic orientations described above respond in different ways to the same complex social reality. While democracy may in theory guarantee an individual the right to vie for any position or role in society, the opportunities are always limited in practice. Every modern society contains insiders and outsiders, bureaucrats and gangsters, predators and caretakers. “War on crime” sounds good as a political slogan, but no rational politician really believes that it can be won. Calling for a world without crime means calling for a world not only without police and prisons, but also without many insurance companies or devoted social workers and charitable organizations that now deal with social pathology.

A social stew without elements that are slightly unsavory on their own becomes less tasty and interesting as a whole. History has taught us that the constant struggle among individuals, families or social groups for better positions in society has been a major source of dynamic development. It is therefore quite possible that the coexistence in our lives of different, often contradictory systems and values is not necessarily a negative phenomenon. In any case, it is precisely the world that members of any modern Western society encounter since early childhood. A few generations ago, when the future of an individual was more predictable, most parents did not have to face the question of how to prepare their child to function in a multi-system society. The question of personal and social identity bothered only philosophers or revolutionaries, while most people had realistic goalstied to the situation into which they were born. Moderns have a far more complicated task. In a multi-system society the questions “Who am I?” and “What do I want to become?” are without easy answers. Many parents raise their children to be honest and God-fearing in a traditional family sense, but at the same time push them to make careers in ruthless and competitive bureaucratic or even gangster systems. The conflict between goals perceived as feasible and the moral code transferred from a system of humanistic and traditional values can and must be addressed by everyone, but satisfaction is hard won—if it is won at all—and in any case cannot sustain an emphasis on the value of honesty.

Predatory Democracy and Polish Paradoxes

Different societies present different tensions and degrees of complexity in their development toward a multi-system democratic form. Any generalization must therefore be tentative. However, as a sociologist living and working in Poland for last fifty years, I have often been asked if my own society has produced any specific overall response to those challenges, and in particular to the necessity of dealing on a daily basis with the gangster system. In my opinion there is indeed a “Polish response” that is both original and relevant to understanding the changes that are occurring in all post-communist societies.

Since the early 1980s, Western social scientists, for whom Poland was at one time a favored research site, have noticed that the Poles seemed to have one ethic when working for themselves and another when working for others. The fact that they were more efficient when working for themselves was interpreted to the advantage of the principles of private ownership and the free market. The fact that they were also more efficient when working abroad was, in turn, explained by their receiving better pay for the same work. But to a Polish sociologist these are only superficial observations and simplified explanations. Work culture and political behavior in so-called post-communist societies were always much more complicated.

For one thing, since the end of World War II, the Poles have lived in a welfare state that offered fulltime and lifelong employment to everyone, yet the economy was never able to provide enough intensive and meaningful work. The same welfare state expected that in return for social and economic security, be it on a modest level, citizens would accept the official ideology and express gratitude for living under socialism. At the same time, the government actively tried to constrain, or even to suppress, entrepreneurship and private ownership, both of which were and remained, so far as I can tell, highly valued by the majority.

Under these circumstances, Poles, like the citizens of many other socialist countries, developed an acute sense of what activities were really important at the workplace and in daily life, and what were merely cosmetic, required to keep up appearances.3 This ability to live parallel lives came quite easily to people in the societies of Central Europe, who had a long tradition of satisfying the demands of changing systems and rulers, often culturally and ethnically foreign. Modern Eastern Europeans are now facing a prospect of social and political chaos that requires keen survival skills. It is absolutely necessary to know which of the fast-changing challenges are serious and therefore demand a direct or otherwise calculated response, and which are just false alarms that can be ignored. Such an approach may contradict Hegel’s idea that only work that is serious can return man to himself, but it doesn’t seem to have had a negative effect on the personal development of young Poles. One may venture the hypothesis that Eastern Europeans have learned to develop their humanism not only through work and by cooperating with others, but also through diverse forms of adaptation, including struggle and play. Isolation, or withdrawal, is by no means the norm.

Another characteristic Polish response has been heightened caution, in effect, hedging one’s bets. I owe this observation to my German colleague, Professor W. Gerer, who pointed out to me how differently Poles and Germans approach the same task. When asked to dig a trench of certain dimensions, most German workers will immediately and precisely fulfill the task. The Polish worker, by contrast, after some deliberation, will make the trench slightly longer, wider and deeper. For a German worker, raised in an efficient bureaucratic system, a precise command or instruction by an authority produces a predictable result and is not deemed worth a second thought. But for someone who grew up in a mix of family/rural system and inefficient bureaucracy, the follow-up to an identical command or instruction is much less predictable, as the exercise of authority itself is not deemed trustworthy.

The history of Central Europe that fostered the development of such attitudes goes far beyond the scope of this study, but some recent facts should be mentioned here. During the Nazi occupation, not only political activity but also many forms of work necessary for physical survival of the population (e.g., commerce, cultivating particular crops, etc.) were illegal and severely punished. Random terror being one of the forms of Nazi control, even those Poles who tried to obey all the rules could not count on avoiding arrest or deportation. Similar, even if less dramatic, uncertainty continued during the years of pro-Soviet Communist rule. Anyone could become politically suspect, and even if with time the punishments became less severe, the lesson was clear: one must be vigilant and never fully trust the authorities.

To test this hypothesis in the context of the current multi-system democracy I conducted a survey among longterm employees of (a) government agencies and (b) merchants operating in one of biggest semi-legal markets in Warsaw, recording their perceptions of their own influence over unpredictable events. The answer of the “bureaucrats,” without exception, was that they have no such influence whatsoever; some of them even considered the question to be a contradiction in terms. The merchants, on the other hand, were divided into three almost equal groups: one group basically agreed with the bureaucrats; a second sample mentioned their own reactions (e.g., keeping calm, responding quickly, etc); while the third group suggested that almost every seemingly unpredictable event is preceded by small signs or symptoms which one must learn to identify, in which case one can sometimes turn the most alarming situations to one’s advantage.4

I was able to conclude, tentatively, that the majority of the population I studied showed a high level of vigilance and sensitivity to possible threats to the individual and those around him. This may explain why the gangster structures in Eastern Europe are particularly efficient and difficult to detect. One aspect of the attitude of suspicion has to be particularly stressed: such vigilance and hedging one’s bets may be highly effective on a micro societal scale, but it does not necessarily bring about similar effects at the macro level, which may explain why post-communist societies quite easily lose out in global competition. On the micro and mezzo levels, however, it constitutes an original input into the development of modern predatory democracy. In my opinion this is precisely the system that we all live in (on a global level as much as at the level of any given society), and the crucial question is how to preserve a dynamic balance between its different elements in such a way that the society remains democratic, i.e., allows each of us to make decisions about our own lives, so long as we act in at least a slightly predatory manner. The necessary balance (at the individual or group level) is a result of constant struggle which, if it is to continue, must be renewed after each major crisis.

The situation after 9/11 is illustrative. After the gangster attack on Twin Towers many commentators stated that from then on, the world would never be the same. The world that indeed ended on September 11, however, was the imaginary world of Francis Fukuyama and others who equated the end of communism with a readiness to accept the Western model of democracy and economy. Many in the post-communist East, as well as in the West, believed for a moment that life could become merely a source of amusement and entertainment, and that although the free market might not guarantee social justice, it could at least provide relative prosperity for all. The awakening came quite fast. Polish society soon learned that the free-market economy and the particular form of liberal democracy developed as an alternative to state-bureaucratic socialism, may work well in rich countries, but offers less to those with medium wealth and virtually nothing to the poorest regions. A window of opportunity opened for a brief moment, bringing hope and a sense of new beginning, only to close with fast-growing divisions between the employed and the unemployed, the rich and the poor, the center and the periphery. Predatory multi-system democracy, applied to post-communist reality, meant that the division between those with and without a share of power grew faster than ever, marginalizing many whose prospects had initially appeared bright. 

One of the paradoxes of modernity is that the biggest threat to the power of the rich comes not from the poor, and not even from the deepening of differences in wealth. Rather it comes from the effects of marginalization—and the new politics which accompany it—on those who, because of their initial success, expected more than neoliberalism could deliver. Some political scientists perceive such growing class-like differences to be a natural outcome of globalization, with multinational corporations taking the place of nation-states. However, the members of newly marginalized groups and societies appear to have a radically different perception. They see their countries unable to pay interest on debts incurred decades earlier; they watch the erosion of the opportunities that the free market was supposed to provide, and they react with bitterness, frustration, and apathy, but also with anger. In order to deal with this new and unexpected reality, they often not only subscribe to gangster values and patterns of life, but also accept the hegemony of the gangster system in its entirety. In extreme cases they may become terrorists or provide a social base for terrorism. More often, they condone terrorism as the only way to cope with conditions otherwise beyond reform. There was thus, in many parts of the world, a psychologically ambiguous reaction to 9/11, where the same people expressed both deep grief for the victims and some sense of retribution inflicted on the almighty United States.

I cannot stress the point enough: we are not talking about poor desperate people who in order to survive always employed ruthless and unprincipled methods. Now similar attitudes spread to new social groups. Among disillusioned populations there is a new generation of young, energetic, and dynamic people from relatively well-to-do backgrounds, who no longer believe that weakened family values or the old bureaucratic system can satisfy their needs and those of their societies. They increasingly turn to the gangster system and its methods, not because they are exposed to it in the media, but because it promises a possible solution to problems that otherwise seem unsolvable. It is precisely because of this situation that we now find ourselves in a new revolutionary situation, only now it is a gangster revolution. What way out is there?

Those who, like Huntington, subscribe to the theory of an unavoidable clash of civilizations, claim that such a war can bring about a new bipolar stability and new channels for human creativity. Can it, however, solve the internal conflict of a system which creates more and more goods but also more dissatisfaction and poverty? Following September 11, the US government seems to have chosen a twofold approach involving, on the one hand, active military struggle against what it identifies as the sites of terrorism and, on the other, a restructuring of its own society along the lines of greater authoritarianism and less willingness to address the social problems that arise from the operations of a relatively unregulated market.

This seems to be a major shift from the traditional approach, when Western democracies, the US in particular, tried to provide conditions of economic success and political democracy, thereby creating a model for the American future and for others. But what if terrorism cannot be overcome by force? What are the possible outcomes of “disciplining” American society through fear and limiting personal rights and civil liberties? We have witnessed two extreme cases of such experiments in Germany and Soviet Union, which produced gangster states. Can this happen in the country whose government claims it to be “the greatest democracy in the world”?

The gangster system has certainly proven itself as a very dynamic model throughout American history. Its most skillful players attached themselves to official bureaucratic structures, infusing them with dynamism and ruthlessness, but also assuming some degree of social responsibility. But this was possible only because the bureaucratic structures still dominated the field of society as a whole. Modern post-communist countries can serve as examples of what happens when this is no longer the case. The gangster structures, with their links to the so-called grey and black economy, become so numerous that even their leaders are unable to join the established legal structures. They form instead a whole parallel structure, apart from the law, often as strong as the legal one and certainly interlocked with it.

It is quite possible that what took place in the post-communist countries might have occurred in other parts of the world as well. Many Arab countries that underwent rapid but unbalanced development seem to have evolved similar parallel structures, often including all three elements in a tense mix (family/tribal, bureaucratic and gangster). The beginning of the 21st century, marked by growing and often chaotic globalization, brought a new phenomenon to the development of gangster structures. Unable to integrate with the bureaucratic institutions and transform themselves into legal structures, they managed instead to gain more power over the grey and black sectors of imbalanced local economies and also to create their own multinational global structures.  This means that a “preemptive” strike against any state deemed “terrorist” can change only the particular regime; it cannot eliminate the gangster characteristics of the system itself, nor destroy the global network. Preservation of balanced multi-system democracy in the West may involve embracing certain aspects of gangsterism. But this approach is not being taken. To the contrary, we seem to be witnessing a battle for hegemony between the gangster and bureaucratic systems, with the family system reduced to providing supplies and soldiers. What possible outcome can there be to such a battle? 

One possibility is the victory of the gangster system: whoever wins the military, physical battle (be it the legal bureaucratic states and organizations or the illegal terrorist underground), the democratic societies would evolve—as some already have—toward the gangster mode of operation. This does not necessarily mean that it would use the methods of fascism or Stalinism. There are new technologies of control, and, even as we speak, new non-democratic ideologies are circulating and gaining popularity. But one thing is clear: societies in which gangsterism is hegemonic will, sooner or later, face each other in the most cruel and destructive of all wars.

There is another possibility. Multi-system democracy may survive and grow stronger, incorporating the gangster structures but keeping a proper balance between the predators and their prey, maybe even developing less corrupt forms of democracy or reintroducing aspects of the family system’s humanism. This scenario is possible only if people come to realize the importance of the multi-system society, including all three systems in equilibrium with one another—humanism, law, and power organized in a way that preserves the positive values of the first two and gives limited sway to the third. This requires an active struggle to support both the family system and the bureaucratic system at their best and most societally rational. But it also means that we may have to be open enough to admit that aspects of the gangster system have always been part of our social history, and that it was always most threatening and destructive when it was isolated and reduced exclusively to its most ruthless forms. Let’s not expect that these conditions are sufficient to bring about peace, justice, and rational optimism. Violence and social injustice will still exist, but societies would be healthy at their core, and we might prevent a possible global disaster.  — Translated by Ludmila Melchior

Notes1. Bigos is a stew prepared mostly of sauerkraut and cabbage, with many varieties of meat, venison, sausages, wild mushrooms, prunes, raisins, onions, red wine and spices, alternately cooked and frozen for several days in winter.

2. For example, employees of local self-government structures asked if someone brought up in the family system can successfully survive in a gangster one, and if there is any chance of return from the gangster system back to the family one. Leading Polish businessmen were interested in the image of gangster activities as compared to that of “common” thefts and robbery. Politicians suggested that research on the subject should be continued for “internal” use only, because it may be too confusing for the general public.

3. Mass participation in Mayday parades and other socialist holidays was an act of serious ideological allegiance only for very few participants. All others waved their red flags and paper flowers with a clear sense of performing a theatrical act of supposed loyalty to the system and the dignitaries on the podium. The same attitude applied to work in state-owned enterprises, where workers differentiated between “real” and fake performance.

4. This attitude was common in many pre-Holocaust Jewish communities in Central Europe, faced with sudden pogroms and persecutions. George Soros often mentions getting counsel from his Hungarian Jewish father about surviving in uncertain times—and then applying it to his own market-transactions.

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