Lessons From the American Inferno
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Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System, by David Skarbek.
The Lords of the Underworld
Why this is Hell, nor am I out of it.
-from Doctor Faustus (by Christopher Marlowe)
In Social Order of the Underworld David Skarbek lays out The economics and game theoretic logic of prison economies and politics, and quite plausibly argues that prison gangs arise, especially in the mega-prison environments of Texas and California, out of practical necessity.
The vast scale of mass incarceration in America makes the old informal social structure of prisons practically impossible. The Shawshank Redemption or prison shows like Orange is the New Black accurately capture the reality of prisons... from 40-60 years ago. A few hundred inmates with their own informal social structure, a community: it has interpersonal squabbles and the personalities aren’t the best, but there are old timers who’ve been there forever and who know everyone, and the reputational economy kind of keeps everything in line well enough. If a new guy came in and started smashing faces or started trying to run a protection racket on the smugglers or started maiming, everyone would know, and a conspiracy to deal with the problem would naturally form out of the more respected members of the community.
In a modern American prison in California or Texas you might not even notice a shark was amongst you until it was your skull they caved in. The modern super prison exceeds the Dunbar number by an order of magnitude, sometimes close to two. With 5-10k inmates in a single prison even knowing what’s going on or who the major players are becomes a nightmare. The annual or even monthly in and outflows alone exceed the number of people Andy, Red and Piper would have to keep track of during their entire stay...This is the major cause of the rampant racial segregation: its a natural division that can’t be faked, thus a white or black trouble maker can’t just slip in amongst the Mexicans and start stealing shit, the way they could if you used a non-visual division. This naturally allows the number of people an individual prisoner might have to track to be reduced from all 5-10k prisoners, to maybe 1/4th or 1/5th that, once everyone’s divided into Black, White, Latino, Asian, etc.
This however necessitates introduction of formal race based prison gangs. Because its only your race you can realistically keep track of and punish (if that), any group of enterprising aggressors from one of the other races could profit by stealing from you or fucking you up, and you’d never even be able to identify them... thus you need an armed structure amongst your own race to retaliate if members of another start aggressing, thus the racial division immediately becomes a race-gang cold war.
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These gangs are not pleasant. Despite multiple cycles of rebellion, breakaway gang formation, and formal written constitutions being drawn up to prevent the abuses of the past The natural political economy of prison seems to preclude a more than minimally desirable governance from these gangs.
The Libertarian-ish dream of competitive government is immediately ruled out. The natural environment almost grantees you’ll have one, and only one, gang that will govern you. You enter a prison you don’t choose, you have a race you don’t choose, and the gang that runs your race will govern you for the entirety of your stay. If you are white and don’t get along with Aryan Nation say, there is not another white gang you can can run to and seek their governance... you’ll have to learn to get along with Aryan Nation... or you’re just fucked.
The black and Mexican gangs won’t take you because that immediately compromises their security. If white guys are coming and going, All of a sudden all black inmates would have to go from keeping track of just the few hundred to few thousand black inmates, to all the inmates to know which whites are cool and which aren’t... something they can’t do in a super prison of 5-10k... they’d just be robbed blind. They won’t welcome random white guys who double triple super insist they aren’t racist and hate Nazis... that’s not the point.
They, probably, wouldn’t even kick your ass if you tried. as that might cause an inter-racial incident... they’d just yell at you to GTFO and go back to your own, then the people who look like you would kick your ass.
Similarly multiple gangs of the same race must inevitably be unstable and cause conflict. The ability to know who everyone is governed by at a glance, since they can’t divide governance geographically, is invaluable... a divided racial rule would not only be bad for the gangs but also for the contraband trade... if you don’t know who’s paying up to who or who to report a bad deal to, you have to enforce it yourself. Thus if any race is unclear about who the gang in charge of them is, it’ll inevitably devolve into universal war on them by all the other gangs as such a race could neither collectively negotiate peace and enforce it amongst their members, nor predictably protect any of their members.
Thus the natural tyranny of the racial prison gang, and why Gangs which can’t depend on racial identifiers go for elaborate body covering tattoos even on their faces: Such as you find in the El-Salvadorian MS-13 trying to distinguish themselves from Mexican gangs (with Russian and Japanese gangs you also see elaborate tattoos but I’m less clear of the dynamic there since they evolve out prison systems very different than the US, and I’ve yet to start reading my book on Russian prison tattoos)
Now this natural monopoly on governance is rife for abuse. A gang needs a mechanism of brutality to keep trouble makers (of which there are many in prisons) in line, or in hospital. But as soon you have such a mechanism: collections of core gang members sworn to secrecy on pain of death, various hangers on and owers of favours who’d gladly maim or kill for favour amongst their rulers or to pay off a debt... it become trivial to use those same mechanisms for personal vendettas or because it would clear up a business interest, or just because you’re feeling spiteful that day.
The various attempts to solve this through formal written constitutions, coups against corrupt and tyrannical gang heads, schisms and brutal gang wars, are all explored through-out the book, but a combination of practical realities as well as human nature (sane and psychotic) leave the problem unsolved.
Now this would maybe be a curiosity... a tale of bizarre and unnatural governance structures in bizarre and unnatural environments. Except for a concerning fact I had certainly not known before reading Skarbek:
Prison gangs are at the pinnacle of the criminal underworld.
I want you to picture an old-school organized crime hierarchy. Something you’d see in an old-timey cop movie borrowing from Shakespeare, the feudal pyramid of tribute and loyalty made manifest in the modern era.
The Mafia had 70k plus members at its peak. The Yakuza over 200k. And this widely cast net of associates worked with and payed up to local bosses, who paid up to a regional bosses, who paid up to a major underbosses, who paid up to a family head.
These famous groups were never fully unified into one hierarchy the five families of New York and the various Yakuza syndicates all maintained their independence from each-other, often violently...
But the hierarchical logic was clear. Whether you were a boss or mere associate, you paid tribute up the hierarchy, and violence and orders came down the hierarchy.
Now that violence and those orders might be welcome... if you’re a good earner you’ll be happy to have violence from the top keeping everyone in line, killing snitches, and backing up your precarious ownership claims on illegal goods with the threat of death... dispute resolution is a valuable service crooks and normal people are happy to pay for... or you might chaff at the restrictions and forced payment of tribute... but that’s the hierarchy: money goes up without trade, violence comes down without reciprocation.
Thus by that standard Vast swathes of American crime are functionally ruled by the prison gangs, and far from the dreams of the 80s, the decimation of the mafia and mass incarceration might have, if anything, centralized crime.
The vast majority of Street gangs all expect large percentages of their members to spend years in prison. Any individual gang might have multiple core members imprisoned at any given time... complete with all the sensitive information in their head. Thus being able to guarantee their safety and good standing on the inside is a major concern... both as insurance and security for gang members who never get picked up, as you need to ensure prison is not so horrible other members turn states witness to avoid a few years sentence, And Then there’s also the necessity to snuff out any who do try to snitch. It was an economic inevitability that payments between street gangs and prison gangs would already be occurring naturally. A great deal of useful and violent services were there for the purchase.
Of course as with the mafia before them, these voluntary market exchanges for dispute resolution or muscle quickly became compelled hierarchical political relationships.
Currently almost no street gang refuses to pay tribute to their respective prison gangs. Skarbek details the history of a few who refused to pay the tribute and openly bragged about their defiance of the prison gangs... things did not end well for them. Obviously those who were arrested and sent to prison did not enjoy, and regularly did not survive, their stay. But the curious case is those on the outside. Most all the other street gangs immediately went to war with them, and what few members survived the initial onslaught almost immediately laid low or went into hiding.
The gangs on the outside were more than happy to commit violence on the prison gang’s behalf to curry favour or in place of missed tribute.
The gangs wholly in prison were perfectly safe from these free street gangs which might try to defy them, they had countless concrete walls, guards, and a horde of associates with shivs answering their beck and call... but the free gangs, the unconvicted? Ironic. They could not reach into the prisons, but the men in their concrete cells could reach out and kill them with a whisper.
This pattern replicates in a self similar manner. Within the prison system, membership of the prison gangs, like most other gang memberships, are tiered. Obviously there are mere members, captains, and gang leaders... but on the periphery there’s an entire formal structure of member vs. prospective member vs. mere associate who’s not a member, has little protection, but is expected to take orders (if you, dear reader, go to prison in Texas or California, or other gang run prisons, you’ll probably be immediately either defaulted to associate, or some sub-associate rank depending on how useful they think you are... obviously not following their command is not an option).
This structure should be familiar to anyone who has followed the sagas of the American Mafia or the Hells Angles... this structure is very common for gangs, though their effective governance of a captive population is an interesting twist.
What is unique however is how all the metaphors of crime become literal in the prison environment.
The ritual and codes for becoming a full member of the Mafia or Hell’s Angels or Yakuza involves tons of talk of being members for life, loyalty to the group and leaders before ones own wife or mother “If the boss needs you and your wife is dying in the other room, you go with the boss”, being a member of the group first and foremost in all things, etc.
Stuff almost no member is ever called upon or ever intends to do.
But amongst prison gangs this takes on a horrifying literalness...
One of the major codes of all gangs, but prison gangs especially, is if another member of the gang is threatened or under attack you must join the fray on their side... similarly if your leadership orders you to attack you must obey... now in street gangs these rules are largely ceremonial. Sure occasionally you’ll get a hell’s angels event that turns into a riot because a hell’s angel took a swing at a drunkard, or a drunkard the angel...and then every HA in the place has to respond and the bar gets destroyed... but largely if someone’s attacking your fellow gang member you’re either 3 towns over or if you’re close enough to respond, they’re attacking you too and you’ll fight back out of pure self preservation. Similarly your bosses have designated enforcers and hitmen they rely upon for aggression... famously wannabe toughs almost competed in the mafia to get assigned hits so they could advance or expand their clout “There were never enough hits to go around” was a common complaint.... the odds some quiet guy, who just wanted to earn off some numbers scheme or profitable scam, would be commanded to do a hit he didn’t want to do is laughable.
In prison gangs however it is relatively common for mere associates and peripheral members to be called on to shore up a violent fight, or illegally exploit a jailhouse job or privilege so as to kill or maim a target...
Full members of prison gangs swear on for life, and there’s pretty-much no escape once they do. They’re often expected and ordered to brutalize or kill... in prison. The sheer odds they’ll be caught, or that the only means to commit a hit will involve being completely exposed to security cameras and guard observation is enormous. Yet they have no right to refuse.
Thus the oath to life in the prison gang can easily equate to accepting life in prison.
For the obvious reason above , almost no one not already committed to a life of crime would ever want to join a prison gang as a full member, indeed even those who are committed to such a life probably wouldn’t because they’d much rather build their dream criminal career on the outside.
There are many currencies in different businesses. Cash obviously... but also reputation... various commodity goods... power... information... access to famous people, or members of the opposite sex... violence.
But The most powerful currency prison gangs seems to operate on is Ruin.
Going to prison only to kill a fellow inmate, is the story of utter ruin... what might have been a few years sentence is now almost certainly a life or at-least decades long sentence... even brawling or common violence can add years before parole, or additional charges resulting in additional years, as well as movement down the layers of America’s infernal system of punishment: From cozy minimum security up to Maximum or SuperMax “administrative segregation” along with the additional loss of human decency entailed.
However, for inmates who are already staring down decades in prison, or whose lives are already ruined on the outside, or who expect to have additional charges piled on at any moment... their ruin becomes a commodity they can trade for prestige, power, and security... they can perform hits on the inside, or partake in violent conflict, or swear on for life to these gangs... sure they’ll almost certainly wrack up years and move down into higher security settings... but they’ve done an assessment of their life and they’ve been offered a deal with the gangs and they’re willing to make that Faustian bargain.
This is a true hierarchy. All the dynamics are largely self similar. The same way the street gangs pay tribute and live in fear of the prison gangs, so do the minimum security sub-factions live in fear of the higher security sub-factions. The junior member or mere associate who winds up running a minimum security prison knows that sooner or later he’ll wind up in a higher security prison, and that the street gangs on the outside even are controlled by the prison gang and if he screws up, or doesn’t earn, or doesn’t pull off the necessary hits, he won’t live long enough to make it in either direction, the senior prison gang members can order hits through their connections in other prisons as easily as they can on the outside... similarly this pattern replicates down through the dimmer darker prisons of America until we reach the pinnacle of the criminal underworld: The men who collect tribute from all, and return nothing but cold command.
The bosses of the prison gangs almost universally reside in SuperMax or some version of administrative segregation. They spend 23 hours in their cells and 1 alone in the grey concrete yard per day... and by and large they are there for life... unable to do... almost anything.
Yet their few necessary orders escape, which aren’t many, since their machinery runs itself... occasionally a more free gang head will be caught embezzling from the gang or conspiring against his “Brothers” and need purging... but those are the bosses in medium or high security, or the few who occasionally walk out... a prison gang head in the open world... the bosses in SuperMax are largely beyond that. Their machinery runs itself.
Their tribute accumulates in their secret hiding places, their trusted confidants still following their orders, they still have one or two avenues to get messages out, at some expense and some effort... but if they want someone dead, a crooked guard or lawyer can relay a short message, or they can slip a sheet of toilet paper to another inmate the 1-2 times a week they see them.
And thus they sit, alone, buried in their cells, maybe the slightest 2-4inch window to let in light but no view, their rare visitors mostly lawyers who files lawsuits trying to define their solitary confinement as torture... and in those dark stone cells they lie... the lords of the underworld.
And on the shining coasts amongst their mansions and yachts, amongst good friends, and pricey women...men who by all accounts live the gangster’s dream, lie awake and shudder, that those buried men might dream of them.
Aristotle’s ideal form of government was Aristocracy or “rule of the best”, “Aristos” being the Greek word for best (its shockingly hard to get a straight answer as to whether it is also named for him, or if its just a happy accident). Now Aristotle and his contemporaries were painfully clear that while the formal structure of governance could be the same, or indeed identical, the actual hierarchical positions could be held by those who were not the best, then being a mere Oligarchy or Monarchy (depending on how fine a point the pyramid of power comes to).
But in either a true Aristocracy or merely a form of Oligarchy or monarchy, the superior positions within the hierarchy remain desirable to those below, the peasant farmer would be quite pleased to see his son become a knight, the knight: a lord, the lord: a king... similarly its a staple of American success stories and folklore that a poor child can grow up to become a successful businessman, or senator, or governor, or even president. Indeed some of America’s most beloved movies revolve around just such a spectacular rise, whether it be *Mr. Smith Goes to Washington*, *Citizen Kane*, the numerous “average man gets rich” movies, or the rather surprising number of “Average man becomes president” movies and tv shows.
The desirability and attendant fantasy of holding a higher spot in either the formal or informal hierarchy is a staple of our culture from the tale of the nobody of mysterious parentage drawing a sword from the stone, or the Horatio Algiers stories of poor boys saving old bachelor millionaires and being either literally or socially (and financially) adopted by them.
These stories inflect everything from *The Beverly Hill Billies*, to *The Princess Diaries*, to *Scarface*, to *Aladdin*. And as we approach spring high-school students across America are anxiously awaiting acceptance letters to universities, hope and fear intermingled in the intergenerational dream that their acceptance to a better school might move them up the hierarchy of American life, and the quiet hours of their evening haunted by the nightmare that they might not be accepted anywhere good, and instead move down. The personal virtues they feel they need to exhibit, the wealth they hope to reap, as well as the status and importance they hope to feel... all joyously and nerve wrackingly intermingled. Simultaneously hoping they’re smart enough to be made rich and important, while also hoping they’re rich or important enough to be made smart. The entry requirements and rewards seeming to switch about in each telling. So subtle and multifaceted is the virtuous cycle of education.
In a prison gang almost no one wants to move “up” the hierarchy in relevance, importance, and command, just as no one “wants” to “ascend” to a higher security prison.
Prison gangs share all the characteristics of any other hierarchical org chart, whether monarchical or oligarchical... but whereas other org charts are properly and traditionally visualize as a pyramid with those entry level serfs at the bottom and the CEO or king at the top, the visualization embodying the aristocratic endeavor it aspires to be, a prison gangs are more properly visualized as a funnel or pit, with those entry level souls nearest escape while those in positions of commands most buried in its depths and held down by the press of the criminals they order above them, and the weighty realities of what they’ve done to achieve command.
**Cocytarchy** is derived from “Cocytus”, one of the 5 rivers of the underworld, less famous than The Styx or Acheron, its name literally translates as “lamentation”, and was said to be a river of wailing, whereas the other underworld rivers had their own characteristics Lethe: Forgetfulness, Phelgethon: Flames, etc... It was the name Cocytus that Dante used in his *Inferno* for the Ninth Circle of Hell.
Dante tells us the great river turns into a lake at the bottom-most layer, and that both are frozen solid, the warmth of hell’s fires unable to sustain themselves that far from the light of God. It is in this most frigid and darkest layer that the most wretched of the damned reside. In various states of submersion in the solid ice, rest the souls of traitors, betrayers, and kinslayers. Dante even depicts still living persons residing so low, the pure evil of their infamous betrayals instantly damning their souls out of their still living bodies, their earthly fresh remaining alive only for demons and imps to operate it in a pantomime of life.
And of course at the center of the ninth circle Lucifer himself resides submerged, The greatest betrayers in history, Judas Iscariot and Marcus Junius Brutus (Dante was a Caesar fanboy) being knawed in his twin mouths, and in this blackest pit, this coldest hell, in company almost as bad, the great traitor dwells.
Trapped, and yet not.
For he is also the Prince of Hell, the ruler all the devils and damned obey and fear. His voice whispers that which only drunkards hear, appearing in moonlight rays at midnight crossroads, and in shadows cast cross scholars studies.
He has fallen farther than any ever could, yet not so far he can’t snare others to tumble as well, and exact terror and tribute under that threat.
Aristocracy is the rule of the best. And naturally it is quite desirable to be such a ruler.
Cocytarchy is the rule of the worst. The rule of the damned. The rule of the Ninth Circle. And as such only the most defective, desperate and damned have the misfortune to rule in such a system. The rare relative innocent who completes such a descent and “rises” to high power in such a system being a Faustian tragedy of the darkest telling.
Dante’s geographical metaphor of the descent through its layers exactly following its structure of rule. Whereas heaven and the godly secular monarchs are always visualized as a pyramid hell is always visualized as a pit.
the two systems perfectly identical in function… yet could not be more different in form.
That such a system can exist is curious, indeed even a hundred or so years ago the idea that even the criminal world could be so horrifyingly ruled would have been unthinkable. Figures such as the great pirate captains free and king-like still echoed through the imagination, and when imagining the modern criminal mastermind writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle imagined figures like Holmes’ nemesis Professor Moriarty “The Napoleon of Crime”.
The strange blend of infernal and Kafka-esque we find in the modern prison gang and by extension a vast swath of American street crime is something remarkable.
You see a similar dynamic in the cartels where at various points they have been ruled by imprisoned leaders and where you’ll read interviews with retired local crime lords who describe working hard to NOT advance with the cartel structure, knowing the rarity that anyone above a certain level survives into old age outside of prison.
However you do find this dynamic in the more fantastic and myst shrouded parts of history You see this during the dark and middle ages where “Dynasties” of European kings would enter decades or even century long periods of conflict and civil war in which being a noble 40th in line to the throne might have actually been a far safer and more comfortable existence than being 5th in line.
Heavy Rests the Head that Wears the Crown
This dynamic is of course immortalized in Shakespeare. His 8 play history of the hundreds years war and war of the roses (recently filmed by the BBC as The Hollow Crown) is a bloodbath with kings and princes slain well out numbering those who survive to old age, and the Plantagenet male line being wiped out entirely by the end. Shakespeare following the history more or less accurately.
Likewise Shakespeare immortalized a similar historical period with Macbeth, depicting the chaos of the Scottish throne between 843 and 1300 when over 32 kings and 12 defenders of Scotland claimed dominance at various points...averaging just over 10 years on the throne each... a number that seems a lot smaller when you notice several such as Constantine II and William I ruled for over 40 years and are really dragging up the curve. Many such as Aed, Duncan II, and Lulach... ruled less than 1 year.
This paranoia and death spiraling inevitable fall is immortalized in the raw number of kings the play features. There are 4: Duncan, “The Sick”, at the beginning; Macbeth, “the Red King”, who slays him and steals the Throne; Malcolm ( Malcolm III “Big head or “great chief”) son of Duncan who leads the force which overthrows Macbeth; and Malcolm’s younger brother Donalbain (Donald III, “The Fair”) who on Malcolm’s death waged war on Malcolm’s son the already mentioned short reigning Duncan II, “the Unnicknamed”, who was born shortly after the events of the play.
But even then Shakespeare is simplifying because there is another king in there: Lulach. Macbeth’s stepson, Lulach, “the Unfortunate”, ruled for just a few months after the death of his stepfather before being assassinated by Malcolm.
None of these four err…Six kings meet peaceful ends. Duncan is killed by Macbeth. Macbeth is killed in battle by Malcolm’s forces. Lulach is assassinated by Malcolm’s men. Malcolm was ambushed and killed over an entirely unrelated dispute with the Earl of Northumbria, Duncan II was killed after battle and “treachery” with his uncle Donald III. And Donald III survived to old age, which was kinda a problem for him: having no sons the vultures started circling and, with the assistance of an English army, Donald was captured, "blinded, and doomed to eternal imprisonment" by the future king Edgar.
Pictured: Me trying to keep Scottish kings straight
(Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth is a gorgeous film, breathtaking soundtrack too… Read my Article on the Film Here)
We could go on.
This isn’t even mentioning the most famous family line from the play, that of Banquo: “lesser than Macbeth, and greater” who “…shall get kings, though thou be none”. While Shakespeare sanitizes the history for reasons that will become obvious (the historical Banquo was a co-conspirator with Macbeth to overthrow Duncan I), there was really a Banquo and his son Fleance would be forced to flee Scotland to escape the wrath of Macbeth. Fleance settled in Wales where he married the daughter of the last prince of Wales… their son Walter would then return to Scotland to be appointed royal Steward, from which the house of Stuart is said to descend. and from which they claim a line of descent from king Arthur… because you know, welsh princesses are all just dripping with the blood of pendragon.
But focusing back: “Heavy rests the head that wears the crown” is an old insight… similarly the Sword of Damocles is a tale told from before Christ. My question is what kind of selection effect does that put on a system of governance?
What kind of leadership do you get when the primary qualification is having murdered the last king? Well according to Shakespeare you get tyrants, men who burn the family of rivals out of fear or have their friends assassinated… Men who’d murder their own nephews. And as for the good men from good families who are so charming they just naturally seduce Welsh princesses with Pendragon blood… well they reasonably flee and don’t return for a generation or more.
You get a feedback cycle where the horrible conditions guarantee only the worst will rise to rule which guarantee the horrible conditions. With the good having to choose between getting out of the way, getting crushed, or getting corrupted in turn.
Often those affiliated or close to power wind up drawn into the fray out of mere survival need. Caesar famously was forced to invade Rome and start the next cycle of civil wars because staying under arms was the only way to avoid prosecution by his political rivals, a process that was recurring throughout the late republic.
The American Inferno
I set out to write this little theory of prison gangs, The 9 Hells, and Scottish Kings mostly as a literary and aesthetic curiosity… however as I wrote i wrote it and had conversations I started noticing bizarre trends. For example i read a personal piece on burnout in lawyers and how the yuppie career of prestige university → prestige law school → prestige law firm often ends in mind numbing 100 hour weeks as junior associates tear each-other apart in an intensifying race to get one of the few partner track positions, with even the few lucky senior partners never quite seeming to get the leisure such a position might lead one to expect. A show I watched featured a plotline about a teenager trying to get accepted to Westpoint, the US army’s primary officer training program… as a Canadian who once considered going to the Royal Military College (didn’t want to sign a contract and cost of schooling isn’t a problem in Canada) I was shocked.
West Point requirements are maddening by comparison to anything I looked at with RMC. You need nomination from your congressman or senator to attend (and last I heard each is limited in the number they nominate (better hope you don’t come from a military heavy area)) while they aren’t quite official there are major extracurricular and volunteer requirements, you have to interview with with a former officer, and that’s all before you hit grade and fitness requirements. Effectively a successful candidate would have to be preparing years in advance making the decision to attend at something like 15 and then living like a politician until 18. Also if you’re pregnant, married, or legally responsible for child support you can’t attend… If however you get an abortion, successfully surrender custody, or pay-off the girl under the table you’re in the clear… so all kind of horrifying from a gender discrimination and family values perspective… (Also interestingly having custody of a kid does not preclude you from attending… merely being the parent without custody).
Then successful applicants spend 4 years in WestPoint or other service academy, successful graduates then go onto to complete specialized courses (ranger school being the big one for an army officer’s career) then they put in 16 hour days on some deployment across years or decades of a career and then of course these are the people form the upper echelon of the military. pretty-much none of them leave and comeback, and if they do it permanently damages their career prospects. Those who become commissioned while attending other universities through an ROTC program are effectively discriminated against when comes to advancement, at least according to every tale I’ve ever heard… So this is the story of pretty-much every single senior officer in the US military.
No unusual experiences, no foray’s from the assigned path, from well before the age of 18 or even 16, a politician perfectly molded and self molding to a uniformed and uniform existence. Unlike America’s celebrated military leaders like Washington or Grant who both lead private sector careers for a major part of their lives, Grant in particular struggling significantly… there might not be a single American General at present who's ever even held a private sector job. The idea of the citizen soldier, celebrated in films like Saving Private Ryan where Tom Hank’s character reveals he was a school teacher prior to the war at a major character moment… are vanishingly rare in the modern officer corp. Before they were officers, they were at service academies, before that they were teenagers trying to get into service academies… before that grade-school.
Who aspires to that? Military families and kids from truly desperate situations.
Is that good for the country? for the entire military leadership to be controlled by a caste of people increasingly uniform in personality, experience, and values (including helping each-other’s uncles get government contracts?) Its certainly not a life most if any of the upper-middle class wants for their kids, nor do their kids seem to want it, judging by how little I’ve heard of this compared with every single other thing to do with higher ed. instead it remains seemingly confined to military families and kids who wouldn’t be able to go to college any other way.
We see this also in politicians who wear suites instead of uniforms. Being a congressman it seems is a pretty miserable existence. While one might naïvely think their days are spent considering policy or reading bills of making strategic decisions about how to position themselves… the truth is your average politician spends most of their days as a glorified telemarketer, spending hours calling through donor lists begging for money or attending events begging for money. When Rand Paul proposed a bill mandating sufficient time be allocated to actually read bills it was regarded as an absurd stunt and earned him the ire of Washington insiders… largely because party heads are able to keep congressmen and senators in the dark and voting on whipped party line votes by keeping them drowned in fundraising activity and only granting access to 2000 page bills mere days before a vote. And of course Chuck Schuemer and Mitch McConnell don’t actually read these bills, they merely trust that the lawyers of the lobbyists who write them will do as their masters bid.
We see this also with Civil servants, which though more opaque, seem to select primarily for not giving a shit about object level organization missions, while viciously defending bureaucratic turf. The response of the US national parks service to a government shutdown was instructive. Rather than sending administrative or support staff home to match their newly limited budgets, people who wouldn’t be missed, they sent all the volunteers at the actual parks home and closed all the roads into the the parks… despite the attraction being mere nature, something which requires no staffing for travelers to enjoy. They went as far as even putting up traffic cones and barriers so the public could not drive by or through parks.
Put otherwise They chose to fail at their main objective (having parks for Americans to access) 100% rather than cut any of their bureaucratic excess. This phenomenon is well studied, bureaucrats in the US respond to budget cuts or threats to their wasteful spending by purposefully failing at their jobs and objectives as a way to create pain to the public and lobby for a renewal or increase to their funding.
The same way prison gangs selected for damned souls who have no hope for life on the outside or mere peace, and the Scottish crown selected for murderers and assassins, the US government it seems selects for careerists who don’t give a shit about the objective issues their department addresses and indeed seem to actively work against the explicit goals of the organization by their affiliated social problems worse in pursuit of greater funding.
or to quote Conquest’s third law of bureaucracy: “The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.”
These trends all are seemingly worsening in a self -selecting competitive descent… Until we reach a point where the National Parks Service is the force ensuring no American’s can enter a public park, or Congress itself is revolted at the prospect of being expected to read and debate the bills they vote on… until “Civil servants” see the public as a potential enemy to be contained or controlled.
You see this in the private sector where companies are increasingly viciously insistent employees return to the office instead of working from home… in-spite of there seemingly being little evidence this improves efficiency, yet it being undeniable such large office spaces are massive drains on company resources. The major theory I’ve seen propagated being that middle managers, admin staff, and executives find it vastly harder to justify their salary managing remote workers when all their management activity is digitally trackable and verifiably do nothing, as opposed to being hidden in the opaqueness of face-to-face interactions.
Or you could look at the startups where the funding seems increasingly a function of its box-checking and ability to produce social media buzz, as opposed to the technical talent and vision of the founders. The debacles of WeWork or Theranos for example raising questions of not so much how they scammed people… but how people could have been scammed. Neither Nuemmann nor Holmes being at all technical figures who one would expect to form a successful startup, nor either of them having any proprietary breakthrough or magic that would at all justify the multiple billions investors were willing to burn on their altars. Yet sophisticated private equity investors were willing to throw money at them… seemingly not because they had something tangible, but because they didn’t… and thus the shell game of private equity could move vast amounts of cash and influence peddle without having technical issues interfere. Both Nuemann and Holmes, being poor in technical skills but rich in connections to major movers and shakers, Neumann in the Israeli government and business world, Holmes in big name US officials such as Kissinger, James Mattis and the Devos family.
And before you think to yourself “Ok but its not as bad as the Scottish kings” Remember that the most dangerous job in America… more dangerous than even lumberjacking by a factor 30, Is President of the United States.
4 out of 46 have been assassinated, just under 10%, a further 4 have died in office. And that’s not getting into the presidents who were merely wounded such as Teddy Roosevelt, who gave a speech after he was shot, or Reagan who quipped that he “forgot to duck”, or the presidents who have been shot at but remembered to duck such as Ford, Truman, or FDR… Or Andrew Jackson who had a man jump out in front of him and fire two pistols at him, point blank! Of course Jackson being Jackson, and thus not a man but a demon in human form, both pistols misfired and so the president took his walking stick and proceeded to beat the man within an inch of his life.
The Death of Caesar, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1867)
I’m still not sure why Cocytarchies occur, how institutions and systems of rule seem to self select for the opposite of their stated terminal goals or the very worst amongst them for high leadership…
but if I had to draw out one factor that all these examples share: they’re all remarkably stable.
The thing Skarbek comes back to over and over again in his assessment of prison gangs is that very uniquely in the criminal world they’re predictable and stable. On the streets gangs go to war with each-other or overthrow each-other and take turf, men change sides in a subtle dance of daring and betrayal… not in prison gangs.
the gangs are safe behind their walls, the illicit trade in drugs, contraband, cellphones, etc. guarantees enforcement is always needed, and the tense racial dynamics guarantee there will be one, and only one, top gang per race in any setting. Even the gangs themselves struggle to overthrow leaders who turn crooked or betray the gangs codes. The same dynamic that makes it nigh impossible for street gangs to strike back against prison gangs makes it doubly hard for prison gangs to strike back at dishonored generals (name for prison gang heads) who embezzle from them. In more than a few instances Skarbek cites gangs that managed to organize to dethrone a stealing leader via formal methods… so they could stop paying tribute… but yet (almost uniquely amongst prisoners) could not kill them, the layers of security between them and the darkest recesses of supermax guaranteeing that they could not assassinate him… but if anything had gone wrong in their plotted coup, he could have merely whispered and had all the conspiring mutineers killed.
We see this with the Scottish Kings who, uniquely amongst European dynasties, had only one nation that could threaten invasion of them, and who even then struggled to exert control for centuries after the medieval period. By contrast dynasties you usually consider quite blood-splattered and treacherous, such as the Borgias or Medicis were fiercely loyal to each-other, similarly the Romanovs at one point almost had the exact opposite scenario of the Scottish brother killers, where brothers rushed to abdicate their claims on the report of a Tsar’s death, at one point causing momentary confusion as both suspected claimants had abdicated in favour of the other… only for them to quickly conspire to ignore one of the abdications. The Tsars of course were beset by external enemies at all times, communists, assassins, French invaders, German invaders, English designs on Crimea, Japanese designs on the east, the list is endless.
Likewise ephemeral startups seem to burn through investor money at a shocking rate… but even at the height of the power struggles between the McDonald brothers and Ray Kroc the restaurants themselves remained wonders of cashflow and consistent burger preparation… Lest of course a competitor displace them and there be nothing to fight over.
The American civil service might be a horrifying nightmare beyond parody… but the old pre-war British civil service was widely regarded as one of the most efficient institutions in human history, engaged as it was in a multi-polar contest for dominance with contingency plans for war with every possible actor from the Germans, to the French, to the Ottomans, to the Americans… as well as potential regional conflicts as far afield as China, Iraq, South Africa, or Ireland.
Skarbek might call this market competition for governance, an Italian futurist might say “War is the hygiene of the world”, a musician might say a rolling stone gathers no moss, a survivalist that the quickest stream is the freshest…
But the phenomenon remains. the devil reigns in hell… because where else are you going to go?
Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System, by David Skarbek (Amazon Associate Link)
Follow me on Twitter: @FromKulak
fucking brilliant. synthesizes a lot of the thoughts I was having while reading Social Order of the Underworld.
efficient trust & cooperation is the cornerstone of making any organization function. & this can only be achieved initially via *rewards* and not punishment. You can't emerge from a state of anarchy by punishing defectors and free-riders (because there are far too many of them), only by rewarding those who cooperate with you. The optimal mindset for rising up to the top in such an organization is "greedy" but extremely "non-envious" -- motivated heavily by rewards like money status fame but happy to engage in positive-sum trade that gets other people what they want to.
but if there are no rewards to give -- like in prison where all you can reward people with is smuggled cigarettes, drugs, or male prostitutes -- you can also "reward" people by burning down the commons and offering them respite from the damage you caused. prison gang leaders have no power to make the lives of their followers (or even their *own* lives) better; they "reward" their followers by exempting them from the random murders and acts of violence that they themselves cause.
similarly, politicians have no ability to make the lives of the average citizen they rule better -- they're not smart enough and social problems are far too intractable to solve by the machinery of the state. but they can create problems and then offer temporary solutions to their interest groups, which keeps them in power.
the optimal mindset for rising to the top in such an organization is "selfless" (i.e not motivated by personal reward, which is actually kind of monstrous when you think about it) and envious / spiteful -- willing to cut out one of their own eyes as long as someone else is losing two. the James Taggarts of the world (to channel Rand for a second here). Petty, small-minded, miserable bastards all of them.
your final conclusion is the standard libertarian one, that stability breeds dysfunction, while "creative destruction" keeps organizations healthy and seeking to create value rather than destroy it. i'm not quite sure I buy it though. stability is the *consequence* rather than the cause of the dysfunction. Prison gang leaders rot in supermaxxes because no one who isn't locked in solitary confinement wants to be a fucking prison gang leader. 90% of Congress incumbents win reelection, despite the 15% approval rate, because no one who isn't absolutely despicable wants to be a politician. (even if a rare honest, decent man or woman does get into DC they're certainly not running for a second term, it takes a certain level of depravity to do that.)
so I don't think stability is the issue here. but I don't know quite what it is that makes some organizations ruled by the best, and others ruled by the worst
Beautiful. A lot to chew on in here, but I particularly like your dichotomy of Aristocracy as a pyramid of power and reward VS Cocytarchy (Or Cocytarcy? Still uncertain which I prefer...) being a literal open-air pit of concentric rings of power and suffering. Stark, evocative, and it feels instinctively right, in the way that only the greatest sense-making metaphors do.
As well, your thoughts here remind me of the old Slate Star Codex musings on Moloch. IE, why do systems designed to do good end up becoming nightmare abominations devouring human hopes and dreams and spitting out horror, ugliness and pain? Being part of the "public servant" kayfabe myself, I can say that your observations on bureaucracy and public institutions are spot-on. You have no idea (or maybe you do) what debasements I have been forced/seen forced/seen others be forced to submit to over the years solely to maintain inflated budgetary powers in localized fiefdoms desperate to have more, always more. Soul-deadening stuff.