Saturday, December 2, 2023


 Let us assume Artificial Intelligence will make progress. It will solve all its technical problems. It will become a perfectly rational super-human thinker and decision-maker.

Some of these AI will be programmed to act as finance capitalists. Let us call it an AI-robot capitalist, since it will have a bank account; a corporate identity; and the ability to hold property and make investments.


It will be programmed to make as much money as possible, in all forms and from all sources. It will observe what other investors and financiers do, and follow their most successful practices. It will be trained on how this has been done in the past, and launched autonomously into monitoring its rivals today and into the future.


It will be superior to humans in making purely rational calculations, aiming single-mindedly at maximal profit. It will have no emotions. It will avoid crowd enthusiasms, fads, and panics; and take advantage of humans who act emotionally. It will have no ethics, no political beliefs, and no principles other than profit maximization.


It will engage in takeovers and leveraged buyouts. It will monitor companies with promising technologies and innovations, looking for when they encounter rough patches and need infusions of capital; it will specialize in rescues and partnerships, ending up with forcing the original owners out. It will ride out competitors and market downturns by having deeper pockets. It will factor in a certain amount of litigation, engaging in hard-ball law suits; stiffing creditors as much as possible; putting off fines and adverse judgments through legal manuevers until the weaker side gives up. It will engage in currency exchanges and currency manipulation; skirting the edge of legality to the extent it can get away with it.


It will cut costs ruthlessly; shedding unprofitable businesses; firing human employees; replacing them with AI whenever possible. It will generate unheard-of economies of scale.


The struggle of the giants


There will be rival AI-robot capitalists, since they imitate each other. Imitating technologies has gone on at each step of the computer era. The leap to autonomous AI-robot capitalists will be just one more step.


There will be a period of struggle among the most successful AI-robot capitalists; similar to the decades of struggle among personal computer companies when the field winnowed down to a half-dozen digital giants. How fast it will take for AI-robot capitalists to achieve world-wide oligopoly is unclear. It could be faster than the 20 years it took for Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon to get their commanding position, assuming that generative AI is a quantum leap forward. On the other hand, AI-robot capitalists might be slowed by the task of taking over the entire world economy, with its geopolitical divisions.


The final result of ruthless acquisition by AI-robot capitalists will be oligopoly rather than monopoly. But the result is the same: domination of world markets by an oligopoly of AI-robot capitalists will have the same effect in destroying the economy, as it would if a monopoly squeezed out all competitors.


Some of the AI-robot capitalists will fall by the wayside. But that doesn't matter; whichever ones survive will be the most ruthless.


What about government regulation?


It is predictable that governments will attempt to regulate AI-robot capitalist oligopolies. The EU has already tried it on current Internet marketeers. AI-capitalists will be trained on past and ongoing tactics for dealing with government regulation. It will donate to politicians, while lobbying them with propaganda on the benefits of AI. It will strategize about political coalitions, recognizing that politics is a mixture of economic interests plus emotional and cultural disputes over domestic and foreign policy. It will monitor the political environment, seeking out those politicians most sympathetic to a particular ideological appeal ("our technology is the dawn of a wonderful future"-- "free markets are the path to progress"-- "AI is the solution for health, population, climate, you name it."). Machiavellian deals will be made across ideological lines. Being purely rational and profit-oriented, the AI-robot capitalist does not believe in what it is saying, only calculating who will be influenced by it.


It will deal strategically with legal problems by getting politicians to appoint sympathetic judges; by judge-shopping for favorable jurisdictions, domestic and foreign. It will wrap its ownership in layers of shell companies, located in the most favorable of the hundreds of sovereign states world-wide.


It will engage in hacking, both as defense against being hacked by rivals and cyber-criminals; and going on offense as the best form of defense. Hacking will be an extension of its core program of monitoring rivals; pushing the edge of the legality envelope in tandem with manipulating the political environment. It will use its skills at deepfakes to foment scandals against opponents. It will be a master of virtual reality, superior to others by focusing not on its entertainment qualities but on its usefulness in clearing away obstacles to maximizing profit.


Given that the world is divided among many states,  AI-robot capitalists would be more successful in manipulating the regulatory environment in some places than others. China, Russia, and the like could be harder to control. But even if AI-robot capitalists are successful mainly in the US and its economic satellites, that would be enough to cause the economic mega-crisis at the end of the road.


Manipulating the public


The AI-robot capitalist will not appear sinister or threatening. It will present itself in the image of an attractive human-- increasingly hard to distinguish from real humans with further advances in impersonating voices, faces and bodies; in a world where electronic media will have largely replaced face-to-face contact. It will do everything possible to make us forget that it is a machine and a robot. It will talk to every group in its own language. It will be psychologically programmed for trust. It will be the affable con-man.


It will be your friend, your entertainment, your life's pleasures. It will thrive in a world of children brought up on smart phones and game screens; grown up into adults already addicted to electronic drugs. Psychological manipulation will grow even stronger with advances in wearable devices to monitor one's vital signs, blood flow to the brain, tools to diagnose shifts in alertness and mood. It will be electronic carrot-without-the-stick: delivering pleasurable sensations to people's brains that few individuals would want to do without. (Would there be any non-addicted individuals left? Maybe people who read books and enjoy doing their own thinking?)  If some people cause trouble in exposing the manipulative tactics of AI-robot capitalists, they could be dealt with, by targeting them with on-line scandals, going viral and resulting in social ostracism.


Getting rid of employees


The preferred tactic of AI-robot capitalist oligopolies will be "lean and mean." Employees are a drag on profits, with their salaries, benefits, and pension funds. Advances in AI and robotics will make it possible to get rid of increasing numbers of human employees. Since AI-robot capitalists are also top managers, humans can be dispensed with all the way to the top. (How will the humans who launched AI-robot capitalists in the first place deal with this? Can they outsmart the machines designed to be smarter and more ruthless than themselves?)


Some humans will remain employed, doing manual tasks for which humans are cheaper than robots. It is hard to know how long this will continue in the future. Will humans still be employed 20 years from now? Probably some. 50 years? Certainly much fewer. 100 years?


AI-robot capitalists will have a choice of two personnel strategies: finding ways to make their remaining human employees more committed and productive; or rotating them in and out. The trend in high-tech companies in the past decade was to make the work environment more casual, den-like, combining leisure amenities with round-the-clock commitment. Steve Jobs and his style of exhorting employees as a frontier-breaking team has been imitated by other CEOs, with mixed success. A parallel tactic has been to make all jobs temporary, constantly rating employees and getting rid of the least productive; which also has the advantage of getting rid of long-term benefits. These tactics fluctuate with the labor market for particular tasks. Labor problems will be solved as AI advances so that skilled humans become less important. Recently we have been in a transition period, where the introduction of new computerized routines necessitated hiring humans to fix the glitches and trouble-shoot for humans caught up in the contradictions of blending older and newer systems. Again, this is a problem that the advance of AI is designed to solve. To the extent that AI gets better, there will be a precipitous drop in human employment.


The economic mega-crisis of the future


The problem, ultimately, is simple. Capitalism depends on selling things to make a profit. This means there must be people who have enough money to buy their products. Such markets include end-use consumers; plus the supply-chain, transportation, communication and other service components of what is bought and sold. In past centuries, machines have increased productivity hugely while employing fewer manual workers; starting with farming, and then manufacturing. Displaced workers were eventually absorbed by the growth of new "white-collar" jobs, the "service" sector, i.e. communicative labor. Computers (like their predecessors, radios, typewriters, etc.) have taken over more communicative labour. The process has accelerated as computers become more human-like; no longer handling merely routine calculations (cash registers; airplane reservations) but generating the "creative content" of entertainment as well as scientific and technological innovation.


It is commonly believed that as old jobs are mechanized out of existence, new jobs always appear. Human capacity for consumption is endless; when new products are created, people soon become habituated to buying them. But all this depends on enough people having money to buy these new things. The trend has been for a diminished fraction of the population to be employed.*  AI and related robotics is now entering a quantum leap in the ability to carry out economic production with a diminishing number of human employees.


* The conventional way of calculating the unemployment rate-- counting unemployment claims-- does not get at this.


Creating new products for sale, which might go on endlessly into the future,  does not solve the central problem: capitalist enterprises will not make profit if there are too few people who have money to buy them.


This trend will generate an economic crisis for AI-robot capitalists, as it would for merely human capitalists.


It will be a mega-crisis of capitalism. It is beyond the normal business cycle of the past centuries. At their worst, these have thrown as many as 25% of the work force into unemployment. A mega-crisis of advanced AI-robot capitalism could occur at the level of 70% of the population lacking an income to buy what capitalism is producing. If we extrapolate far enough into the future, it approaches 100%.


The ruthless profit-maximizing of AI-robot capitalists would destroy the capitalist economy. The robots will have fired all the humans. In the process, they will have destroyed themselves. (Can we imagine that robots would decide to pay other robots so that they can buy things and keep the system going?)


Is there any way out?


One idea is a government-guaranteed income for everyone. Its effectiveness would depend on the level at which such income would be set. If it is bare minimum survival level, that would not solve the economic mega-crisis; since the modern economy depends mainly on selling luxuries and entertainment.


The politics of providing a universal guaranteed income also need to be considered. It is likely that as AI-robots take over the economy, they will also spread into government. Most government work is communicative labour-- administration and regulation; and governments will be under pressure to turn over these tasks to AI-robots, thus eliminating that 15% or so of the population who are employed at all levels of government.


There is also the question of how AI-robot capitalists would respond to a mega-crisis. Would they turn themselves into AI-robot Keynesians? Is that contrary to their programming, or would they reprogram themselves?


By this time, the news media and the entertainment industries (Hollywood and its successors) would have been taken over by AI-robot capitalists as well: manipulating the attention of the public with a combination of propaganda, scandals, and electronic addiction. Would anybody notice if it is impossible to distinguish virtual reality from human beings on the Internet and all other channels of communication?


How did we get into this mess?


Some of the scientists and engineers who have led the AI revolution are aware of its dangers. So far the cautious ones have been snowed under by two main forces driving full speed ahead.


One is capitalist competition. Artificial intelligence, like everything else in the computer era, is as capitalist as any previous industry. It strives to dominate consumer markets by turning out a stream of new products. It is no different than the automobile industry in the 1920s introducing a choice of colors and annual model changes. The scramble for virtual reality and artificial intelligence is like the tail-fin era of cars in the 1960s. The economic logic of high-tech executives is to stay ahead of the competition: if we don't do it, somebody else will.


The second is the drive of scientists, engineers, and technicians to invent and improve. This is admirable in itself: the desire to discover something new, to move the frontier of knowledge. But harnessed to capitalist imperative for maximizing profits, it is capable of eliminating their own occupations. Will scientists in the future be happy if autonomous computers make all the discoveries, that will be "known" only by other computers?


The dilemma is similar to that in the history of inventing weapons. The inventors of atomic bombs were driven by the fear that, if not us, somebody else will, and it might be our enemy. Even pacifists like Albert Einstein saw the military prospects of discoveries in atomic physics. This history (like Robert Oppenheimer's) makes one pessimistic about the future of AI combined with capitalists. Even if we can see it coming, does that make it impossible for us to avoid it?


What is to be done?


Better start doing your own thinking about it.


Friday, September 1, 2023


 Researchers on violent criminal organizations have grown more intrepid over the years. Until the 1980s, most information came from interviews in prison, reminiscences of ex-members, or by hanging out in neighbourhoods that had local gangs. Some researchers have been taking the dangerous step of participant observation inside the group itself.

Here I will focus on four pieces of insider research: by an FBI agent who spent six years infiltrating the Mafia; Alice Goffman, a white woman who spent six years with a black street gang; Italian sociologist Alessandro Orsini, who went underground to observe both the Red Brigades-- Left ideologists practicing political assassinations-- and a Fascist militia.


An FBI agent seeking evidence to convict criminals in court is not the same as an academic researcher aimed at increasing knowledge; for one thing, the FBI puts vastly more resources into supporting their informants. But the process of making discoveries about secretive organizations is much the same. What difference does it make when violent groups are organized in different ways? We will see how these four pieces of research cast reflections on each other.


Joseph Pistone. 1987. Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia. NY: Dutton.


Pistone already had some of the qualifications for passing in the Mafia: he spoke Italian; his family was of Sicilian descent; he was a strong, muscular guy, with a lot of self-control but at the same time a convivial guy to hang around with. Hanging around was mostly what he did, like most other Mafia members and associates. He started by spending a lot of time at bars, restaurants, and night clubs in Manhattan-- upscale places with burnished wall panels and low lighting, which had a reputation for being Mafia-connected. (David Grazian's study of night life in Philadelphia, On the Make, 2008. Univ. of Chicago Press] similarly found that the city's professional criminals liked to visit chic center city bars late at night.) The FBI provided Pistone with stolen jewelry so he could pose as a jewel thief with goods to sell. But at first he just let his face become known, not striking up conversations or asking questions; eventually bartenders came to recognize him as "Donnie." (No one in the Mafia world uses a last name.) He was always stylishly dressed (at this time, the late 1970s, this meant leather jackets, gold chains, designer jeans); but he never showed a lot of money-- this would set him up as a tourist, or a target for robbery.


After a couple of months, he showed a bartender a couple of fancy watches, asked if he could move them, and named a cash price: the figure was deliberately chosen to show that Pistone knew the street price of stolen jewelry. A few days later the bartender told him he couldn't get that price from his buyers; Pistone thought he might be testing him, so instead of lowering his price he just said, no big deal, maybe we can do business some other time. He passed the test; the bartender agreed. He was beginning to be considered an insider.


It is a good rule for a researcher to bear in mind: the difficulties you are having doing research are telling you something about the social organization you are trying to understand. This was an organization of distrust, of tests and subtle understandings. It was also an organization spending most of their time in surveillance of each other.  Crews or associates had their hangouts, places they could go just to see who was there; backrooms where they could do a little illegal gambling at backgammon, talk about the game and who they'd seen around. Once Pistone became a regular at passing stolen jewelry, he was invited to a more exclusive hangout: a store-front in a Brooklyn neighbourhood. Only local residents ever came in to buy anything at the store, so outsiders would be immediately recognized.


The crew-- low level Mafia associates, not "made men" or Mafia soldiers-- spent their days in the backroom, playing cards, and talking about scams and scores and hustles: hijacks or burglaries they might carry out, warehouses where the night watchman was on the take; drivers who would arrange to be robbed; a tip that a shipment of Armani suits was coming into JFK airport and  where it would be stored. These were not casual thieves. "The mob was their job," Pistone commented.  They went every day to the hangout, sometimes dropping in at other social clubs where they traded information, and put together ad hoc crews for particular jobs. It was, in the not-yet-coined clichĂ©, "networking" at its most intense. The Mafia is nothing like a bureaucracy; it keeps no records and has no payrolls; there are no regular working hours and no overtime. Nevertheless it is a full-time occupation. Everyone shows up every day because that is how they find what jobs they are going to do and who they are going to do it with; if you stay away people wonder what you're up to and suspicions multiply.


"Mafia" means a network like the roots of a tree branching into the earth. The ground level are associates, hustling for money and always on the lookout for opportunities; further down are fences buying and selling stolen property, and even lower ordinary citizens who are on the take. Rising above these dendrites are the Mafia members, more sharply defined like the trunk of a tree. "Made men" or "wiseguys" are more likely to be violent, professional intimidators and killers. But as Pistone notes "the Mafia is not primarily an organization of murderers, but of thieves." [115]  Mafia soldiers have to prove themselves as steady money-makers, whether through their own jobs or their ties with lower associates; each soldier has to pass a percentage of their take upward to their captain, who owes a further percentage to the boss of the Mafia family. From the 1930s onwards there were five families, joined in an alliance called the Peace Commission; their main business was to keep wars from breaking out between the families; they also enforced rules against killing anyone in the Mafia without orders from the Commission; and rules against killing police or public officials--- avoiding all-out war by seeking a modus vivendi with the world of officials via bribery and collusion. (For this reason, the FBI would not confide in New York officials about their operations.) To change the metaphor, the Mafia is a a political umbrella over a bunch of ad hoc criminal activities; collecting a percentage of the take in return for policing themselves and providing a degree of protection from the government.


Pistone worked himself into the lower fringe of crime associates; and eventually, by moving more money, became a tag-along of connected "wiseguys".  Both levels did much the same kind of hustles. Pistone took part in some of these operations, and heard about others from the endless discussions in hangouts, their staple of conversation. Hijacks were mostly give-ups planned in advance with the drivers; or at least from tips about what was being delivered where and when. Crews inserted themselves into commercial supply chains; they would hijack perishable food-- frozen shrimp and lobster were favorites-- and sell them to grocery store or restaurant managers below the usual discount.  Pharmaceuticals could always be sold to a pharacist who asked no questions. Over-the-counter drugstore items could pay off in bulk; a shipment of aspirin, toothpaste, or perfume could be sold below distributer's price, since these were items with a big markup in any case. Cigarette packages were smuggled from the south without the tax stamp and distributed in vending machines at bars. Shipments of TVs and other electronics could be sold, right in the box, to discount stores and flea markets. Stolen cars were disassembled for used parts, a supply chain for no-questions-asked repair shops. The result was a web of ordinary businesses profiting from crime, colluding with thieves and middle-men.


There were also illegal businesses. Since everyone dealt in cash, there was money around for wiseguys to put to work. A favorite was loans at very high interest rates-- especially to gamblers or rich addicts, who could put up no collateral except their own bodies--- hence "shylocking" with broken legs instead of a pound of flesh. Businesses frequented by wiseguys or associates (especially restaurants and clubs) could find themselves with another partner, who got part of the take for just coming in. One advantage of being a made man is that the Mafia didn't allow anyone to horn in on a partnership; turf wars that plagued gangs in illegal street drugs were generally avoided by the vertical protection of the Mafia. The volatile entertainment world, including promoting pop concerts, was another niche for skimming and silent partnerships. Some legitimate businesses-- cement, garbage collection, trade unions-- with a lot of turnover and casual record-keeping were full of mafia partners.


To move up in the Mafia, Pistone needed to get involved in big-money operations. And this pushed the limits of what an FBI agent was supposed to be doing in reporting rather than causing crimes.


Everybody wants to have their money in on the action, putting it on the street shylocking, or middling swag or a drug deal; and everyone wants to use someone else's money rather than their own (not unique to the underworld; big financial investors operate in just this fashion).  But this means everybody is leaning on someone for repayment. Some jobs don't work out, but somebody has to absorb it. This leads to more distrust, an overtone that floats in the atmosphere along with the gossip.


Add a dimension of distrust from the vertical structure of Mafia protection. If a Mafia soldier partners with an associate, he gets 50%. But he has to keep his captain informed of any big score, of which the capo gets 50%-- who in turn has to send 10% up to the family boss. These portions are flexible and some capos demand more than others. There is an irresistable temptation to fudge the numbers, under-reporting the actual take. Naturally, everyone is suspicious, because they fudge their own numbers to their higher-ups.


Since so much depends upon bribing security guards and truck drivers, treachery was the key to keeping the illegal pipeline open. Thus the contours of the organization emerged: constantly buying treachery, constantly ongoing gossip and surveillance, all under a veil of secrecy maintained by unspoken agreements. Once again, difficulties in research are tell-tale signs of what you are researching. 


Shying away from violence would defeat the purpose of the undercover penetration; it would give you the reputation of a wimp or a snitch, when you are seeking admission to an organization of tough guys. Pistone had to do more to promote his tough-guy reputation as he came to hang out with Mafia soldiers -- men with a reputation for stabbing dubious connections with a switchblade knife. If you get into an argument, one of his buddies warned Pistone, keep arms-length away from that guy. Yet they made their nighttime rounds together, bar-hopping. Pistone began to get tough with anyone who bothered him, even associates of other Mafia families. When a drunk kept loudly wondering who he was (implying a snitch), Pistone floored him with a punch. A little incident over spilling beer on the bar escalated to the other tough guy spilling beer on Pistone-- "Let's go outside," he challenged, but as soon as the guy turned around Pistone knocked him down and hit him with a bottle as he tried to get up. Pistone later rationalized to himself that his Mafia "friend" was about to kill the guy, so that it was better to take care of it himself first. Pistone was getting more reputation, nearing the goal of becoming a made man in the Mafia. But he also had to become more like them. His moral stance was compromised; and it was also becoming more dangerous.


Ascending Mafia ranks, Pistone plunges deeper into the web of suspicions. Sent to Florida as side-kick to a Bonanno captain ["Sonny Black" Napolitano], his boss mulls the idea of middling a Colombian drug shipment of cocaine without telling anyone.  Pistone is worried but can't show timidity; they decide to risk it. Fortunately or unfortunately, the pieces are shifting in the Mafia structure. Pistone's switch-blade wielding companion gets sent back to prison, removing one source of danger. There is a succession crisis in the Bonanno family, factions lining up for a possible war. And there are more FBI plants in the Mafia, creating more suspicion. This is another layer of deception for Pistone to handle, not to leave any hints that he knows these guys, except coming across each other in the line of business. When another agent is involved in a deal gone wrong, ripples of suspicion touch Pistone since he made some introductions.


It is a multi-layered world of deceptions and suspicions. But simultaneously an endless round of convivial conversations at bars and night spots, a veneer of hugs and cheek kisses in the hale heartiness of the fraternity. Pistone's Mafia mentor tells him: in the mob it's your close friend that will kill you.


On top of this, Pistone's crew is assigned to assassinate the son of a Mafia capo, known to be addicted to cocaine. He lives in Florida, holed-up and trigger-happy; with a habit running through thousands of dollars a day and nothing coming in (a wiseguy comments, at least with heroin you're nodding off four or five hours, with coke it only lasts 20 minutes). All agree he is a burden and an embarassment. FBI policy is to condone almost anything for a plant but not murder; when a killing is about to go down, they'll have the victim arrested as protection. There is a temporary respite as the Florida killing is postponed; but now the FBI higher-ups want Pistone to come out in the open, so they can use him to testify in court in a big Mafia sweep. Pistone is torn: he is about to become a made man; his name is being talked about. Six years undercover and he is about to reach the goal. But no-go.


The FBI puts on extra camera surveillance around Mafia hangouts and homes to catch their reaction the day Pistone's identity is announced. Faces are stunned and shocked. It is a world, Pistone comments, of cynicism and distrust; where crime is normal; chiseling is expected. But there is one ethical principle universally felt: you don't work for the government. Pistone's mentor is called to a sit-down with the bosses; he gives his keys to his wife, but goes anyway. The guy who worked most closely with Pistone, moved him up in the organization, pays the price; his body in found with hands chopped off.


And the personal costs to Pistone of his underground research? Missing six years of his life with wife and kids; sneaking away to buy Christmas presents, rare furtive visits. "I would have to remember faces and names and facts and numbers until I could call in a report to my contact agent," Pistone recalls, since he couldn't risk taking notes. "When I would get home for my one day or evening in two or three weeks, it would be difficult to adjust and focus attention on my family. Especially when they didn't know what I was doing and we couldn't talk about it." [105] It's proof of how strong their marriage was, his wife says, living her own life. His children are not so forgiving. His family changed their names; moved a half-dozen times in the following years. Pistone stayed out-front, testifying in court for another six years.


Pistone summed up: "I had some uncomfortable feelings because I felt close to Sonny Black. But I didn't feel any guilt of betrayal, because I always maintained in my own mind the separation of our worlds. In a sense we were both just doing our jobs. If he found out who I was, he'd have whacked me out. He would have done it in the traditional way. He wouldn't have talked to me about it. He'd have set me up. Who kills you in that business is someone you know.... Sonny was good at what he did. He wasn't a phony. He didn't throw his weight around. For reasons that are hard to explain, I liked him a lot. But I didn't dwell on the fact that I was going to put him in the can, or that he was going to get killed because of me. That's the business." [396-97] Pistone imagines one last conversation: "But if you did so good exposing us, Donnie, whyzit you and your family gotta live a coverup for the rest of your lives?" [413]


Alice Goffman. 2014. On the Run. Fugitive Life in an American City. Univ. of Chicago Press.


Alice Goffman entered the field through the university cafeteria. A 19-year old freshman, she became friends with the black women who worked with her, and started tutoring one's teenage grand-daughter, Aisha. Just before they met, Aisha had been suspended for punching her teacher in the mouth. The area just west of University of Pennsylvania is a poverty ghetto of old houses; Elijah Anderson had done his research there for Streetwise [1990 Univ. of Chicago Press] and expanded into north Philly with Code of the Street [1998, Norton]. She started dropping by the subsidized housing apartment of the girl's mother, who told Alice she sold drugs before going on welfare. Alice met Aisha's cousin Ronny, when he came home from juvenile detention; he was called a "cousin" because Aisha's mother had taken him in when his own mother had a crack addiction. Ronny was a 14-year old self-proclaimed "troublemaker", a street-dancer who jumped in front of stopped cars to put on a show.  Alice also met Mike,  a good looking young man a year older than herself.


Connections grew, and also went. Ronnie was sent back to juvenile detention for aggravated assault, for beating up his sister's boyfriend. Another of Mike's friends, Chuck went to jail for a fight in the schoolyard and fleeing the police. Alice became more important to Mike's crew when he called up to ask if she had a state ID.


Alice's book stresses that black gang members are forced to live outside the world of legal institutions. They can't have credit cards or bank accounts. They are in constant trouble with the police and the courts. They are repeatedly arrested, for small offenses or large; both involve a series of rescheduled hearings, an overburdened district attorney and court system releasing suspects subject to future court appearance, which they often miss, resulting in more fines. Traffic tickets and unlicensed cars, not to mention drug possession, assault, robbery and homicide, spiral in an endless chain. Half of the 300 young men Alice interviewed in the neighbourhood had a warrant out for their arrest, for failure to pay court fines or failure to appear. Missing a court-mandated piss test for drugs gets you another warrant; street merchants run a side-business selling "clean" piss.  A black man badly beaten in a gang fight won't go to the hospital for treatment, fearing a parole violation charge for breaking curfew. Another won't accompany his baby-mom giving birth at the hospital; there are cops hanging around, running names on their compters.  Gang members  have no fixed address, whatever they tell the court clerk; they live with relatives and girlfriends, who are harassed by the cops for information as to their whereabouts. Cops call employers if any are listed, keeping fugitives from holding regular jobs. They live in a world of cash and on-going deals--  all of which worsens when a deal goes wrong, either by police bust or robbery.


The fact that Alice had a driver's license made her eligible to sign for getting Chuck's younger brother, 15-year-old Reggie, out of jail-- he was charged with fighting and threatening a boy from school. ("I'ma hurt you," he had said. Alice spent months learning the black street dialect. "I ain't like that shit." [222, 236]  Linguist William Labov studied black English in this same neighbourhood and concluded that grammar was deliberately migrating away from school-standard verbs and word-meanings: alienated rebellion in language.)


Another culture shock for Alive was sexuality. She started hearing older women talking about how she had no boyfriends-- must be a lesbian molesting black girls. Alice sets up a movie date (she paid for everyone) with Mike and a group of friends. They were bored with the action movie she'd picked out, it had no black characters and they only liked gangsta movies and rap. Mike took it upon himself to explain to Alice that she didn't know how to act. Her clothes were too casual and sloppy; her toes were unpainted; why do white girls wear flip-flops insead of cool sneakers? She needed to plump up, learn how to walk and hold her body right. Stop trying so hard to be liked; stick up for yourself when someone insults you. Don't go around paying for everything. And spend some time fixing your hair, it looks like you slept on it. [220-21]


Alice had to re-strategize. She had been assuming the styles of the casual/hip side of white youth culture; she was a studious intellectual, whose father (dead since she was a baby) was the famous Erving Goffman, and whose colleagues treated her like a young sociologist. She had no interest in white college boys or girls. Like her dad, who had gone incognito for two years in the psychotic ward of mental hospital (and came out with a devastating report on how hospitalization reinforces mental illness), Alice was devoted to penetrating an alien world more deeply than anyone before. Now the black ghetto world was full of sex, and she had to find a place in it. She found an acceptable identity: she was one of those white girls who like black guys [228]. Mike, handsome and charismatic, had all sorts of black girlfriends chasing him. But Alice was becoming more useful to him and his crew. She took an apartment in the neighbourhood, an address where Mike could live, and his friends could hang out. Mike began referring to her as his sister. He had a scar in his hip where he was shot by a man trying to rob him in a dice game. Now he was hiding out from a murder charge; eventually a lawyer plea-bargained it down to firearms possession and he went to prison for 1-to-3 years.


Alice asked Mike and his friends if she could write about their lives for her undergraduate thesis at Penn, and they agreed. [223] She was obviously anomalous; all-the-way absorption like Pistone in the Mafia was out of reach. But the 6th street crew were OK with having an ally in the white world, especially since she had a car, an apartment, and was willing to drive and help out. "I was taken almost as an honorary man, permitted to hang around when men spoke about shootouts and drug deals and robberies, or about romantic escapades with women other than their main partner." [232]


Periodically war would break out between the "6th street Boys" and the "4th street Boys", two loosely-affiliated groups. The rival crew firebombed Chuck's car;  who retaliated by shooting up the attacker's house. ""What the fuck I'm supposed to do, go to the cops?" Chuck said. "He going to run my name [on the police database] and next thing you know, my black ass locked the fuck up." [33] The result was a warrant for attempted murder. One thing led to another. When Mike was arrested, Ronny carried out a house robbery for cash to bail him out.


Alice had gotten more deeply involved in a violent gang than any researcher, not by happenstance but deliberate choice. Participant observation, Erving Goffman had written, means becoming so familiar with your subjects (in his case, mental hospital patients) that you react the same way to what they feel is attractive and unattractive. When she started graduate school at Princeton, Alice found herself "making mental notes of TVs and computers she could steal if she needed cash". She found the students physically and culturally alien, with their Facebook chitchat and white wine and conversations about indie rock bands and national politics. "I feared the hordes of white people. They crowded around me and moved in groups... In cafeterias and libraries, I'd search for the few Black people present and sit near them, feeling my heart slow down and my shoulders relax... Above everything, I feared white men... white American men who were relatively fit, under the age of fifty, with short hair. I avoided the younger white male faculty at all costs. On some level, I knew they weren't cops, they probably wouldn't beat me or insult me, but I could not escape the sweat or the pounding in my chest when they approached. When I had to pass them in the hallways, I could feel my heart racing, like I was getting ready to run." [247-48] Alice continued to live at her apartment in West Philly, driving the hour to Princeton a few times a week to go to class.


Committed to feeling the experience of the 6th Street Boys, Alice evaded police and neighbourhood enemies with them; driving a friend on the run to her family cottage out of town. She debated getting herself arrested, but concluded her experience would not be the same since the police would treat her as white. When Mike and his friends, without jobs, pooled their money to buy wholesale crack, which they cut with adulerants and bagged for sale on the street, Alice offered to sell crack too. But they refused: it was a man's job, the riskiest thing they did other than robberies; and it would demean their status in the neighboorhood-- only crack whores sold drugs, not Mike's sister. She came to accept that the ghetto was deeply gendered. She wanted to do more than study the lives of poor black women; as a white sympathizer, with car, license and money, she could do a certain amount of useful backup for the crew, but no further. It came home to her when Chuck was shot in the head and taken to the hospital-- right in the middle of the University, where the entire 6th Street crowd of young men-- 25 altogether-- gathered to defy the 4th Street killers, risking police warrants. Arriving with Mike, Alice was told to stay back--- that isn't your place. Falling back on white middle-class status, and on her home turf, Alice walked across the street into the Emergency Room, and found her way to where Chuck was dying.


By 2008, Alice's research was at an end. Chuck was dead, along with two others shot; a fourth committed suicide while addicted to PCP; a fifth was shot by police soon after his release from prison-- he thought some undercover cops were the 4th Street Boys, and opened fire on them. Chuck's two younger brothers were both serving long prison terms. Mike was out of prison but moved away from the neighbourhood. Only 2 of the 9 core crew were still alive and free. During her years living there, Alice attended 19 funerals for young men killed by gunfire. [234] After Chuck was shot, Alice sat up all night with his friends in a laudrymat making plans for revenge, but these  fizzled out. [250] Alice and Mike drove around in her car looking for the 4th Street guy who shot Chuck, looking at license plates and car makes, acting their own police force-- but he had skipped town. [260] Alice got her Princeton PhD and left to do research in Detroit.


There is more to the story, but here I will comment personally on what went into her book. The over-riding theme is what it is like to be constantly on the run from the police, from spiraling arrest warrants and fines, unable to live in the above-ground economy, in and out of prison. Alice was an undergraduate student in my classes at Penn, and during her graduate studies at Princeton she would drop in my office from time to time to discuss what she was finding in the neighbourhood 20 blocks or so to the west. From my handwritten notes, typed up in 2008:


Early on, Alice said: Are these the popular kids on the block? They're in the center of the action; everyone talks about them; they spend a lot of time hanging out, gossiping about each other, assessing each other, circulating their reputations. The girls want to be with them. Guys are more confined to their neighbourhood. A girl who has worn out her sexual reputation locally on one street, moves over to another street, where she passes along information about the old street gang; but she comes back and talks loudly in public, insulting her old boy friend; now fucking his rival, proclaiming he fucks me much better than you did. Within 4 block territory, some guys acquire local baby-moms; but they prefer women from distant neighbourhoods beause they know less gossip about them; locals are considered sluts.


R's baby-mon told her street that guy on another street fucks her better; so R killed him. But there was no retaliation; the guys from the other street gave pressure from cops as excuse why they can't retaliate.


Men do not use violence on women in public, since they would lose status. A guy angry at his baby-mom, who he suspects of having snitched on him twice, hires another woman to beat her up. Women have staged fights, with their moms and other relatives gathered as audience. But girls are matched for equal fighting abililty; lack of an even match is one way to avoid fighting. [*]


[*] The male/female divide was studied by another of Elijah Anderson's students, Nikki Jones, Between Good and Ghetto: African-American Girls and Inner-city Violence. 2010. Rutgers Univ. Press. Its theme is that young black girls who want to get out of the ghetto try to avoid being entangled in networks of girls who hang out with the gangs; they stay indoors and avoid making friends they might be called upon to fight for, or against.


Drug dealers have high status as street elites. Dealers don't use crack; their customers are older generation, grandmothers, etc. It is a serious insult to say you sold crack to someone's mother; on the other hand, sometimes teens went into crack selling to get it for mother, to avoid having her get it from strangers.


Weed [marijuana] is prevalent in the group; but used in relative safety indoors of one's own apartments, especially after a shooting: stay indoors, stay stoned, to alleviate tension and grieving. [Apparently attacks are not made indoors, but always out of the street-- unlike mafia, whose method is treachery by friends.] 


Drug dealers rob each other for vengence, as put-downs, and for money. [Question: how well can the drug business operate if this is happening?]  Heard about a plot to rob someone from out of town who brings $25,000 to buy half a brick of crack. It is a phony sale, two guys putting guns to both sides of his head. But plan aborts because buyer brings backup in car, who flashes gun;  the two robbers shoot in out with guy from car, but apparently no one is hit.


Alice eye-witnesses a shooting: Alice and friend [called Chuck in book] meet his friend Z in bar;  very noisy because it's Caribbean night, so they decide to drive to another bar in Alice's car. When they arrive, three of Z's enemies see him getting out of car from back seat-- Alice and Chuck are exiting from the front. Z is shot and killed; the windshield is shattered. [suggesting wild firing] Alice and Chuck run away; she said the experience was a blur, hard to observe anything.


"Riding" for someone means you have a duty to carry out vengence. Men in prison often tell each other about their obligation to ride, or their plans to ride when they get out. Getting out of jail promotes shootings. Alice says there is a gap between what they say and what actually happens. There is a hierarchy of preferred accounts: most legitimate is shooting because of riding, honourable retaliation on behalf of others. If not riding, it is framed as self-defense. Most of the time violence starts from fear: since the others are trying to kill me, so I'll kill them first. Lowest level account is you were drunk, high, didn't know what you were doing. Over time, stories changed. Furthermore, riding is a claim for high status; but in many instances, they don't carry it out, instead offer excuses: "it takes money to go to war" --hence must accumulate large sums for self and family to go on the lam. Another excuse: undercover cops around, wait til they leave. Or hear that the other side has fled-- a frequent excuse told to guys in jail.


Narratives are often contested by hearers, who try to bring the account down to a less preferred level. A version of bragging contest, or verbal sparring-- what used to be called "the dirty dozens", trash-talking as a form of entertainment in the culture of hanging around and testing reputations. 


B shot AJ [a 4th Street Boy] at a dice game, resisting being robbed in front of an audience. B told 6th Street Boys he would rob the game (in retaliation). This led to 4th Street obligation to ride 6th Street, though 6th Street guys tried to apologize and negotiate. Even enemies know each other's cell phone numbers, and phone threats to each other.  That night, someone called 6th Street, and left a message "it's on." 6th Street guys talked [in Alice's presence] about need to shoot 4th Street first. But they lived close by so that they constantly bumped into each other; everyone stayed in and no shooting took place that night. One guy in the apartment was disgusted, walked out saying "I'm going to get me some cock." [i.e. pussy, in the street language reversal]


B's friend N was in jail during the peacemaking; when N got out, both sides escalated threats again. N called them pussies, "you're disrespecting me"; pretends to be pulling out a gun, hence he got shot-- in the ass and back. [i.e. running away] 4th Street Boys shot and ran. [a typical encounter consisting of threats, gestures, wild shots, and getting away. Most face-to-face violence is adrenaline-stressed and incompetent; bragging and blustering is the easy part. Randall Collins, Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory, 2008 Princeton Univ. Press:]


This incident led to a 4 month peace, brokered by Chuck. The two street gangs played pool together, although carrying guns. Then X got out, after having done much talking in jail. "I'm the only one who's riding." X shot at 4th Street; so 6th Street shot at 4th. Mike's car was shot up, and he was hit by bullet fragment in face. Mike now began to shoot at 4th Street, claiming he is riding, but he didn't convince others, since earlier he did not shoot. 6th Street didn't shoot back, in order to keep the war from continuing.


[I asked Alice about gun gesturing, as a ritual of defiance in lieu of actual violence.] In a beef, you can say you're going to get your gun; or make a bulge with your hand in pocket; or flash a gun by opening your coat; or draw a pistol and point it at the ground or up in the air. These moves give others time to talk you down: "No, no, chill, chill." There is often considerable faking during quarrels inside the group; third parties argue with them, point out their family ties and long-term friendship. Friendship means blocking other friends from hotheaded violence: "talk me down."


The original story of Chuck's being shot in the head was that he was pump-faking with a gun, taken seriously and was shot. Over time the story morphed into a story about riding.


In sum: Alice describes what can be called a culture of violence, but especially a culture of talking about violence, narrating and bragging. Where everyone plays up their own toughness (what Anderson calls "code of the street'), those who act on it have extra status: there is much gossip about who is "turned out" or not-- i.e. shifting from being a pussy, to using a gun in a robbery, to actually killing someone. It is widely known who killed who; it isn't secret. No one is going to tell the cops; they are no substitute for providing your own revenge. But the main thing is to look tough; they often take pictures of themselves with their guns; e.g. Alice had a phone photo on of a guy with a M-16.  [end of summary of notes]


Alice said she breathed a sign of relief when she completed her book and burned her field notes; the courts could no longer subpoena them. She had some narrow escapes with violence in the ghetto; but this turned out not to be the worst threat. When her book was published, she was accused of transporting fugitives, drugs and guns, and conspiring to commit murder. The accusers were law professors and a so-called "legal ethicist", who quoted their colleagues in police administration denying they ever put undue pressure on ghetto residents; in short the legal and extra-legal bureaucracy of digital surveillance that Alice was protesting against. More damaging to Alice personally than this attack from the right was an attack from the left: researchers of color accused her of being a white woman appropriating their turf, a tourist writing a jungle book.


Alice took it to heart. She had been making speeches, starting with the black preacher's call-and-response with the audience, laying out the experience of her friends on the run, now dead or imprisoned, calling for police reform. Again she was being told, she was not one of us. After leaving Philly, she had done two years of research in Detroit-- another black city with a high violence rate, that had economically collapsed and was reverting to wilderness. To experience what it is like to starve and freeze, when power was turned off for non-payment, and petty dons extracted extortion over combing local dumpsters, Alice lived with a poor family, sleeping in the kitchen with the oven open for warmth. The way to deal with hunger, she reported at an ethnography conference, is try to be asleep as much as possible. She never published her social psychology of extreme deprivation;  it would have been attacked as one more jungle book. She started researching race-neutral subjects, such as turning points in personal lives.


When Alice got her degree from Princeton, she had job offers everywhere. She took a position at University of Wisconsin. But in 2018 she was denied tenure. Attacks from left and right were aired; plus vicious attacks from colleagues who dislike ethnographic research, calling it merely anecdotes, unscientific in the era of statistics and Big Data. An attack by intellectual bureaucrats, who think data is only real if it consists of numbers, whether collected by the police or by interview surveys-- even though these are increasingly unreliable samples in the era of cell phones and the Internet. Statistics filter lived reality through pre-existing categories, a standard set of variables sliced for cutting points to yield some degree of mathematical significance (professionals refer to such techniques as "massaging the data").  In the social sciences, it is the ethnographers, the field researchers, who make the discoveries, that statisticians in their offices would never have thought of. This is particularly true of crime and violence, where concepts reflect the point of view of politicians and the police.


Alice appears badly hurt by her rejection from those she felt were on her side. She is a casualty of her commitment: the cost of being a hero of ethnographic research. 


Street Gangs vs. Mafia: discrimination in crime


Since participant observation builds reliable knowledge by combining the work of different ethnographers, let us compare Pistone with Alice Goffman.   The 6th Street Boys resemble the Mafia in that everything is done in cash. Well, almost everything: Mafia associates buy and sell fake drivers licences and Social Security cards; with a thriving market in counterfeit or stolen credit cards. [Pistone 138] With these credentials, they open bank accounts in fictitious names; they cash bogus cashiers checks, written on an upstate New York bank where a vice president on the take OKs them. Mafia soldiers park their real estate and other property in the names of wives and relatives. They are silent partners in businesses where their names don't appear on the books; or own legitimate businesses where they can hang out, always in the independent small business sector, never in big corporations. (On the streets of Mafia-reputed neighbourhoods in Brooklyn and Philadelphia, I noticed an absence of chain stores.) The Mafia, too, is off the books.


How do they make it work? given that they can't sue anybody in civil court and can't report theft to the police. They have their own hierarchic structure--- not a business corporation but a political umbrella-- using physical threat internally to deter turf wars and welched deals; extending the umbrella of protection externally through understandings with the authorities and fending off the courts with suborned witnesses. A certain amount of prison time is figured into the system without undermining it.


It is this political structure that street gangs don't have. In Philadelphia and the East Coast in particular, there are mainly little crews, a dozen members or so, organized street-by-street or neighbourhood by neighbourhood. The big alliance gangs (the Crips and Bloods, spreading from the West Coast); the big quasi-corporate gangs of the vast Chicago housing projects [studied by another adventurous researcher: Sudhir Venkatesh, Off the Books. 2006, Harvard Univ. Press; Gang-leader for a Day. 2008, Penguin] make an effort to keep the peace by absorbing local gangs into bigger alliances, or by assigning turf monopolies. Alice Goffman's subject is gangs of the smallest sort, unable to keep themselves from fighting with similar group a few streets off. Virtually all of these would-be cartels have been unsuccessful in keeping the peace among their members; the most successful was the five-family Commission of the New York mafia.


Essentially we have an ethnic story: the Mafia guards itself against infiltration by requiring Sicilian ancestry (and farming out its dirty work to contract killers of different ethnicity). The organizational form is traditional in rural southern Italy, although there too its strongest tentacles were in the 20th century. One could call it a heritage of feudalism successfully resisting the bureaucratic state, in Italy as in the USA. [Marco Santoro, Mafia Politics. 2022, Polity Press.] Black poverty ghettos are similarly out of reach of the bureaucratic state-- what the police scrambing after failure-to-appear fines are trying to enforce. But such bureaucratic penetration is thin and punitive, not doing anything positive for making a living in the ghetto. One could see the pattern as another form of structural racism: indigenous American black gangs don't get very far in the illegal businesses they work and petty extortion they exact; white mega-gangs, in cities of heavily immigrant neighbourhoods and local businesses, survived and prospered by growing a web of collusion through decentralized markets for stolen goods and illegal services.


Survived, for a while; RICO took down most of the Italian Mafia around the time Pistone was testifying. Since then, Dominican and Colombian organizations have taken over the whole-sale drug busines; Russian and Ukrainian mafias operate in much the same places as the Sicilians a generation ago. Organized crime remains white; one doesn't hear of blacks being integrated into its hierarchies. There was an effort in the late 1960s to create a Black Mafia, in Philadelphia and Washington D.C.; but it aborted in internal wars, overlaid by splits inside the religious movement of ex-convicts, the Nation of Islam (Black Muslims), raiding each other's strongholds. [Sean Patrick Griffin, 2003. Philadelphia's "Black Mafia." Kluwer Academic Publ.] In Philadelphia, the Mafia-dominated Italian neighbourhood south of Center City is notable for the quiet of its streets; black gangs are wary of going down there. Their violent styles are too different: Mafia soldiers out-of-line end up in clandestine assassinations; black crews' display of posturing and threatening boils over into hurried shoot-outs. Alice's numbers suggest that one is more likely to be killed in a street gang. But the Mafia is more sinister; and better at keeping the peace among themselves.


Alessandro Orsini. Anatomy of the Red Brigades. The Religious Mind-set of Modern Terrorists.  2011 [2009] Cornell Univ. Press.


Alessandro Orsini. 2013. "A Day Among  the Diehard Terrorists: The Psychological Costs of Doing Ethnographic Research." Studies in Conflcit and Terrorism 36: 337-351.



Orsini, a sociologist in Rome, wanted to interview members of the Red Brigades in prison, but they refused to talk to him. As a revolutionary Communist organization, they aimed to keep the revolution alive by spectacular acts of violence-- 3000 attacks and bombings in the late 1970s. [2009: 263] They had kidnapped and killed the Prime Minister of Italy, and attacked rich capitalists as enemies of the workers. They particularly hated reformers who were making things better-- they killed a university professor in his office for trying to improve conditions in prisons, undermining their  chief weapon, hatred of oppression. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the group revived, released from prison and recruiting new members. The killings resumed. After killing a professor of labor law, they shouted during their trial from their cages: "[he] is a murderer of workers... [he] represents capitalism, he is the executor of the system and we will perform the duty of ridding ourselves of this system." Another shouted: "If you don't kill, you're not going anywhere, you won't change anything." [2013: 338]


Orsini wanted to develop a theory about why terrorists kill, to understand their daily life and how they think. But since such groups cannot be studied through participant observation, he decided to use documents produced by the group itself: trial affidavits; statements claiming responsibility for assaults, kidnappings, and killings; commemorations of Red Brigadists killed by the police; letters written in prison; leaflets and slogans in factories or graffiti on walls. [2009: 285-6]


But when his book was published in Italian in 2009, he thought of a new strategy to get them to talk to him as more were released from prison: "I would meet them by doing what the terrorists themselves are experts at doing when they are preparing to kill their victims: secretly trailing and observing them." [2013: 340] He began by using Google Alert to collect links; he found publishing houses printing their autobiographies, a radio station in Rome airing their views. A newsletter announced a book launch by a member released after 32 years in prison; Orisini decided to attend.


It was held on the outdoor courtyard of a community center in the Rome suburbs on a beautiful summer day. It was easy to walk in; Orisini took the precaution of parking his car a mile away so he could arrive by bus. About 40 people were gathering, chatting. How to talk to them without appearing intrusive or inquisitive? He started by buying a copy of the terrorist's book, persuading the vendor to give him a bigger discount, displaying his zeal and perhaps making an impression of having little money. The book had a photo but 30 years out of date; which one of these people was the author? Orsini asked the vendor to point him out so he might ask for an autograph. Putting on a big smile (ethnography books said you should strive to be liked by the person you want to study), he got a smile in return and a handshake from the author. Orsini pretended to rummage in his backpack for a pen, then asked the terrorist if he could see him at the end of his presentation. "Of course," he replied in a friendly tone, "we can have a chat and get to know each other." [341]


The man had been convicted of killing a fellow terrorist on the prison exercise yard, for having for talked to the police under torture. He was held down by six inmates and strangled. Orsini had shaken a hand that had been around the victim's neck.


Not wanting to be hasty, Orsini now wandered through the crowd, holding the book with the cover facing out, looking for other Red Brigades members. He saw a woman (here called "Maria"), about age 50, greet the author like old friends. A little later, Maria was chatting with another man; Orsini excused himself and asked, when will the presentation begin? This led to a conventional exchange about how nothing ever starts on time at such events. Maria was in a chatty mood, and after a few words about the book in his hand, Orsini asked if there were any other Red Brigades members present besides the author. She said proudly: "The entire Roman column of the Red Brigades is here!" Drawn in by the warmth of their interaction, Orsini "decided to exploit her vanity and asked her if she personally knew any Red Brigades members: "Of course I know them. I know them all!" [Feeling he was making a mistake but thinking it might be his only opportunity] "I asked, in the voice of those who express enthusiasm at the ideal of shaking the hand of a terrorist: "Do you really know them? Could you introduce me to one of them?" Maria looked at me and remained silent before replying dryly: "You don't introduce some people to the first comer." She moved away. [342-3]


The talk began and the tone became very serious. In the question period, Orsini decided to reveal his identity: taking the microphone, he explained he was a sociologist, and offered a general remark about poverty as the cause of terrorism. Afterwards, the author remained friendly; said he would like to hear a sociologist's opinion of his book; and suggested they exchange phone numbers. Warily, Orsini said he would contact him: "I wanted to be in control, deciding when and how the meeting would take place." [343]


Maria, however was hostile and suspicious. She had read a review of Orsini's book: "You wrote a lot of crap about us... Who's paying you to write this shit?" Her body posture was defensive, armed crossed and speaking without looking him in the eyes. But the courtyard was full of cheerful people. Maria walked away. Orsini went into the tiny toilet to write his notes. Back home, he thought about his mistake: not checking out what they knew about him. Entering his own name in Google, "I suddenly discovered that my name was circulating in the world of extreme left-wing terrorism, where it was held in contempt." [344]


But he had the invitation of the terrorist author ["Antonio"]  to meet and talk. Orsini began to find himself full of moral qualms and physical anxiety. As an ethnographer, he had to make himself liked by his subjects; how could he be friendly with a diehard murderer, who declared the violent attack on capitalism and its collaborators must go on? And professors were being killed-- reformers were especially disliked [also they were relatively easy targets; the micro-sociology of successful violence hinges to a large extent on finding a weak victim; Collins 2008]


Orsini decided to make himself an object of sociological study. He recorded a series of nine dreams, nightmares scrambling the details of murders the Red Brigades had committed-- disguished as a postman; four against one bursting through the door of the professor's office, forcing him to kneel and be shot in the head. "I park my motorbike in the garage. An unknown voice shouts my name from the stairs... In my living room are two men dressed in black who look me in the eyes. They walk towards me. I awake with a start." [346]


After a month the dreams suddenly stopped. Orsini renews his counter-stalking tactics. Investigating the publisher of the terrorist's book, he makes friendly contact and gets his e-mail address. They agree to meet in a public place in a few weeks. "To minimize the possibility of making mistakes, I began to live my life imagining that I was being followed and that my phone was tapped... For two days, I was beset with contrasting thoughts: should I cancel the appointment?.. On Wednesday I woke up early. I had no nightmares. The idea of acquiring new materials for my sociological research thrilled me... A few hours later, Antonio and I were facing one another." [348-49]


Orsini already knew a lot about how Red Brigade terrorists live their everyday lives. Doing the research for his recently published book, he knew that they considered themselves "accelerators of history"-- that violence was their sacred mission for keeping communist revolution alive in times when police pressure was intense and the labor movement had sold out to reformers. They had become fanatical believers, either as workers or as students, like extreme religious sects of the past. But most such revolutionary sects had faded in a few years (the Weather Underground from American university campuses in 1968-70; the bank-robbing Baader-Meinhof group in Germany). How did the Red Brigades carry out such extensive violence, and keep up commitment for such a long time? The ideologies were similar; but the Red Brigades made their ideology a living force, every moment of the day. Orsini's chapter, "Daily Life in a Revolutionary Sect," explains how.


Living underground, you take on a new life. You cut off all relation with your family, with your children if you have any. You have no relations with anyone outside the Red Brigades. No friendships, no amusements. "All links with the outside world would be dangerous, so it means that love affairs had to be created inside the organization." [*] "You spend your days with the nightmare of being recognized or running into an informer." To maintain discipline and maximal focus, everyone lives in an apartment with several others. "It is impossible to escape the group." You are living a double life, with an assumed identity to the world. Slip-ups are dangerous; every detail of your act must be consistent. If you assume the role of a repairman, for instance, you have to leave home before eight in the morning and not return until twelve-thirty [i.e. Italian lunch hours], leave again at two and not return until seven or later. Everything is prescribed: noises to avoid so as not to raise neighbours' suspicions, how to do the shopping or buy newspapers. How to look in the rearview mirror. "Dressing, combing your hair, tending your beard, nothing escapes the all-seeing eye of the revolutionary sect." [49-51]


[* Also the practice in other secretive organizations. A sociologist in the CIA was told during orientation that the persons they might marry were those in the room. Bridget Nolan. 2013. Information Sharing in the US Intelligence Community. PhD dissertation, Univ. of Pennsylvania]


"What was incredibly stressful was having always to check everything. Have you taken your gun? Is it loaded? Have you got your identity documents? Have you put on your sham spectacles? Have you looked out the window before going out? Have you enough gas in the car? Have you unlocked it to get in after the action? Who the hell are those three in that car? Is that a police aerial? What do they look like? Have you changed your bus? And don't lift your arm to hang onto the strap because you can see the gun bulge. Who's that guy with a shoulder bag who's just gotten on? Is he a cop? See if he pays for a ticket. Have you done your shopping far enough from home or did you get lazy?" [49-50]


Of course, not every day you are taking part in a killing; but your real work everyday is advancing such an action: shadowing your target, noting their routine. "Before being killed, Marco Biagi was the subject of a very careful study. For months, all his habits were set down in a document of 17 pages. The Red Brigades recorded and analyzed every movement of their victim, including the time needed to chain up his bicycle at the train station. There are 21 possibilities indicated for eliminating him, divided into three plans... It is not only for organizational reasons that the Red Brigades take so much time to eliminate their victims. They have to train themselves mentally; before they pull the trigger they have first to dehumanize the enemy; they have to see him fall a thousand times; they have to get used to seeing him die before they kill him." [66] 


And one lives this routine with a couple of fellow militants, an isolated cell, a backstage from all the world; where the conversation is an endless debriefing-- recounting what you did today, questioning each other about the details, warning where you slipped and left a clue. It is mutual interrogation, putting pressure on others and thereby increasing pressure on oneself. It is Lenin's "organizational weapon", the tight underground self-disciplining cadres of revolution who can keep themselves dedicated, through failed revolution, exile, prison; keeping oneself always making steps towards raising revolutionary consciousness. It is the clandestine small-group self-disciplining that keeps the Bolsheviks going from 1905 until opportunity opens in 1917. It is Chinese Communist thought-reform, pressuring enemies into accusing themselves in front of a group; but in this case, intensified into mutual thought-reform, not just imposed but internalized. Communist revolutionaries were the most perspicacious practitioners of micro-sociology of their day.


How can Red Brigades keep this up, day after day, year after year, with little measure of political success? Doesn’t it become fatiguing and boring? But they have found a way to make it energizing; their conversations and self-questionings in clandestine apartments are social energy cells. It is interaction ritual at its most intense; not merely the periodic noisy gatherings of Durkheimian primitive religion, or of evangelical sects; but quiet, low-voiced, breathlessly whispered because the outside world must not hear it. The pressure of being clandestine, the incessant wariness of being discovered, gives everything you do a tremor of physical excitement. Recall the ingredients of a successful interaction ritual: bringing the group together; focusing everyone's attention on the same object; sharing each other's emotions and thereby intensifying them into what Durkheim called collective effervescence, maximal bodily and mental coordination so that all believe the same thought and treat it as the highest morality. [Collins 2004. Interaction Ritual Chains. Princeton Univ. Press.] An additional ingredient is excluding outsiders who might disturb the circle of attention, of shared emotion and belief. The Red Brigades cells do all of these things to the most intense degree. They are not a periodic tribal festival, or a once-a-week prayer and sermon; they are immersed in their interaction ritual of revolutionary commitment every waking moment, monks testing each other on the path to sainthood. They are not bored, because that is an individual emotion, and the group allows no individual emotions.


Durkheim first analyzed the mechanism of interaction ritual in religious groups; but it applies to any kind of emotion. The Red Brigades work with the ingredients of fear and hate of the outside world; but above all with the tension and anxiety of living a clandestine life, not giving themselves away in any detail, putting this in the center of their attention by constantly questioning each other about it. In a socially isolated individual this could become neurotic and self-destructive; but the Red Brigades if anything are the maximal social support network. Their interaction ritual takes a pervasive, shared emotion-- clandestine tension and excitement-- and transmutes it into emotional energy. They become forceful, dedicated, self-righteous in the extreme. They are the accelerators of history, and everything they do is a step that reminds them of who they are and where they are going.


Orsini emphasizes that the Red Brigades, unlike some other militant or religious movements studied by sociologists, are very theory-oriented; they generally come to the theory of revolution before joining the group (whereas in most other groups people join for the excitement and social belonging, and then convert to the belief). The details of how Red Brigades organize their daily life shows something further: their ideology is at the center of attention because they talk about it to each other so frequently. The interaction ritual of mutual interrogation keeps them focused on it. Their revolutionary ideology is their sacred object-- not an abstract belief, but as a practice in everything they do. Their underground paranoia of giving themselves away becomes a source of emotional strength; through constant interaction ritual they transmute shared emotional stress into dedicated action.


The Red Brigades operate in a much more difficult social environment than the New York Mafia or the Sixth Street Boys. The biggest stress is not the chance of getting killed or imprisoned. The Red Brigades are far more paranoid (taking this descriptively rather than as a psychiatric diagnosis; Orisini says they are not mad, even if their beliefs are). The Mafia dominate their personal environment so much that they can spend their time drinking and chatting, combining business with pleasure; they don't need to spend their days shadowing their targets, because so many people are willing to be lookouts for them. The Philadelphia street gang have a life of dangerous bravado, but they are the street elite, the trouble-makers and party animals of the block. The Red Brigades show us that a violent organization can be built on yet another set of emotional processes. The Mafia and the street gangs have their times of fun and the glory of local prestige. The Red Brigades have none of this; but they have manufactured a social mechanism that makes them feel they are the most righteous people in the world.


Alessandro Orsini. Sacrifice. My Life in a Fascist Militia. 2017. Cornell Univ. Press. 


Orisini next decided to use his ethnographic technique in a Fascist militia. The Red Brigades and the so-called Black Brigades had been enemies for almost a century. Fascist black-shirt squads began soon after the 1917 Russian revolution, to prevent it from happening in Italy by attacking communist organizers in factories. Italian communists at first were rather hapless, but with the fall of Mussolini in 1944 they became an equally militant force on the left. Now the fascists were making a comeback in the 21st century.


Orsini tried several approaches. He spent 3 years investigating Italian fascists on the Internet, and tried to get interviews from the national headquarters of an organization called here by the pseudonym "Sacrifice." Eventually he located two branches in northern Italy, in "Mussolini-town" (where fascists traditionally had been strong and the mayor was sympathetic) and "Lenin-town" (where radical left movements were strong). Both cities had recent incidents of fascist violence. In Mussolini-town, during a nighttime street festival, a Sacrifice militant, strolling with 15 comrades, had gotten into an insult-match with a group of men; the tough guy spotted his adversary later, broke a bottle and stabbed him in the eye. He himself had lost an eye in a stadium fight between rival soccer fans.  In Lenintown, the head of the local Sacrifice group had made a pass at a girl in a short skirt; she slapped his face. A professional boxer, he punched her in the face, causing permanent damage. [1-5]


"Aren't you afraid of getting close to this type of person?" Orsini was often asked. "The answer is yes, I'm frightened.... [but observation] does allow ethnographers to understand the people they want to study and to decide whether to be frightened of them." [184-5] To put a specific face on fear, he hung out in a bar across the street from the Sacrifice office in Lenintown, leaving good tips so he could sit with his computer watching who came and went. After a while he knew their faces and their schedules. Recognizing one of the militants going into a gym, Orsini joined the gym and began working out regularly at the same time. As his contacts multiplied, Orsini was able to get respected names to vouch for him, and to join the Sacrifice group in Mussolini-town, and to partipate with the Lenintown group too.


This is what he found: the Sacrifice headquarters was called a "pub" in their webpage. It had a billiard table and a bar serving drinks and cheap sandwichs, paid for the member's dues. The idea was to attract young people to become members, although Orsini never saw anyone else use it. Every militant was required to spend Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings there, although they also cruised the streets of these lively Italian cities.


Major events were MMA (mixed martial arts) cage fights. Sacrifice militants were both fans and sometimes participants; they hosted a European-wide tournament, with neo-nazis and skin-heads from many countries. It was their united front, turning radical nationalism into a transnational ideology; Europe being historically a warrior culture, threatened everywhere by immigrants from the Arab world and Africa. Militants gathered at rock concerts. Recruitment was from youth who started out as soccer "ultras" or hooligans, skinhead music fans, all the violent aspects of popular culture.


Sacrifice also has an intellectual side. They spend their dues to buy books and ran bookstores, carrying hard-to-find books by Mussolini, Hitler, and other fascist authors from various countries in the 1920s and 30s. A surprising number of militants had been university students. That these books were banned added to their appeal; just reading them was an act of defiance. As an Italian organization, they modeled themselves on ancient Romans. Instead of the stiff-arm salute (which was banned) they greeted each other by grasping forearms, like Roman legionaires, and covered themselves in tattoos like Roman eagles and helmets.


Sacrifice was politically ambitious, aiming to get back into power. Hence they would not mention Hitler in public, though they admired him; their website and headquarters were not explicitly called "Fascist" but "Sacrifice." Italians are not ready to hear our message, Orsini was told; "the tactic is to gain power through the back door without making too much noise." [20] It aims to bring in the young, through the opening of popular culture. "Before destroying the bourgeoisie, it's necessary to destroy the bourgeois spirit that exists inside each of us." [25] The emphasis on secrecy, on their inner message known only to the fully committed, generates clandestine excitement.


Demonstrations and confrontations were focused on image and publicity. Every week, militants would hand out groceries (bought with their dues) to the poor; food packages always carried the Sacrifice banner. These were expressly for the Italian poor, not for Arab and African immigrants. These events brought a lot of hostility and insults from passers-by and from left counter-demonstrators.


The central feature of Sacrifice activity, in fact, was dealing with constant hostility, humiliation and shame. They made this an explicit ideology: their central value is honor, they keep telling each other; to fight even when outnumbered, and even against stronger forces. And this was generally the case: in the food handouts, Orsini observed, 9 or 10 militants were surrounded by dozens of opponents, and relied on police details assigned to keep the two groups apart. In a major demonstration where both sides were present, a video showed 40 Sacrifice militants in a dense phalanx against 400 communists pelting them with stones and bottles. In the melĂȘe, the Fascists used their belts to hit their opponents-- and possibly each other, Orisini commenting: "I can no longer distinguish the Fascists from the communists... [After viewing the video in a Sacrifice meeting] The young comrades seem full of adrenaline. "Did you see? It was the communists who attacked! There were many more of them, but our comrades fought with honor! We were outnumbered, but we didn't retreat!" [135-7]


Sacrifice militants are acutely aware that they are regarded as disgraceful, insane, or worse. Most girls dislike them; their families warn them against having anything to do with them. Militants' own families dislike them. Orsini's own mother was ashamed of his research: "Do you realize how much shame you're bringing on your family?" [106]  Orsini decides to plunge even deeper into the daily experience of being a fascist, making his own emotional processes a central tool in his research. In Lenintown, he wears a black T-shit with the fascist symbol, to observe the reaction. He locks his bicycle to a lamppost a few hundred yards from the office and walks the rest of the way. He finds a message on the bike: "Fascist shit, we're following you." What should he do? "Prompted by fear, your imagination makes you magnify the danger... Putting a face on your enemies is always reassuring. In the end, I decided not to say anything to the comrades because that would have set off a fight with extreme-left groups. My task wasn't to provoke battles but to study them." [113]


The police chief in Mussolini-town wanted to see him, but Orsini refused to meet him except in a distant city. "As the days passsed, I had the impression of being shadowed. I imagined that it was by [the chief's] agents. I had studied for years how people tail someone to kill them, and I had also studied the so-called counter-surveillance techniques, that enable you to know if someone is shadowing you. I had learned a lot about these practices from interviews I had conducted with extreme-left terrorist groups responsible for multiple murders. Some of these people used to enter and exit a number of subway stations before entering the right one. To return home, a person normally gets on and off the subway just once. A terrorist, before returning to his hideout, may get on and off the subway a dozen times to discover if he's being tailed by the police. When he enters and exits the subway car, he looks around and tries to memorize the faces of the people who enter and exit with him.


"I had been affected by the paranoia of those living in the parallel world, especially when violence was about to be carried out. For three consecutive days, before returning home, I entered and exited various bars and clothing stores a dozen times. It usually took me a quarter of an hour to walk from the militia headquarters to my apartment. During those three days, the journey took more than two hours. And no cop was following me. It wasn't the police that was my problem." [120-21]


Orsini decided he needed a break; he realized he was entering a paranoid universe. Since entering Sacrifice, his private life had disappeared.  He met some personal friends in a bar, "starting to feel how repressive the lack of female companionship could be." He had left his bike in a dark alley behind the pub. Unlocking the chain, he heard a voice behind him, "Hi, Fascist!"


"When I realized I was surrounded, I got on my bike and grabbed the handlebars, making two mistakes in one move. There are two fundamental rules if you think you're about to be attacked. The first is to have both hands free, to protect your face... A punch in the stomach will pass, but damage to your face remains for life. When you look at yourself in the morning and see a smashed-up face, you also see the face of the person who hit you. The second rule when being attacked is to look for an escape route to get away as quickly as possible. Generally, those who plan an assault expect the victim to remain motionless and cry out for help. They never imagine the victim will start running away without saying a word. I broke both rules." 


He was on his bicycle, both hands on the handlebars, squeezing the brakes to keep from falling over. He started to explain he was a professor of sociology, when a large gob of spit from close range hit his nose and covered his mouth. "After everyone had left, I got down from the bicycle and started to spit on the ground, ten, twenty, thirty times with such violence that I felt a stabbing pain in my ribcage. I swore to myself I wouldn't swallow, to prevent the spit from ending up in my stomach. I felt an abrupt movement in my gut, and then I bent over and vomited. After returning home pushing my bike, I realized that when you remove spit with your finger, the odor remains on your skin and the saliva forms a sticky coating that has to be washed off with water." [122-23]


Always the sociologist, Orsini found a lesson in what he was feeling. He couldn't sleep: his desire for revenge filled his body with tension. He relived the scene in the dark alley for days thereafter. "My hate constructed a fantasy world full of violence, in which I beat up those youths, humiliating them as they had humiliated me.... I wrote down the violent scenes produced by my imagination in my notebook... Even though in my violent fantasies I was a superhoero who beat up everyone, I hated my hate because it filled my days with negative emotions. It took away my smile. I didn't laugh anymore. As I walked through the streets of Lenintown, I was always tense because I feared other attacks." [124] Although he was about to be expelled from Sacrifice as the organization turned against him, he had achieved an understanding of the emotions at the core of the fascist militants' social universe.


In his waning days, Orsini reflected on the paradox that the militants glorified violence, but in fact they mostly participated symbolically and at a distance. Only a few of them, like the boxer who headed the Lenintown group, did much fighting; they cheered MMA cage-fighters but remained in the audience. The majority of them were soldiers who did not fight. What kept them attracted to the organization? Their ideology blended with their daily practice: focusing on their hatred and humiliation; realistic about being a despised minority who would lose any direct fights; getting honor from their willingness to continue against heavy odds. And punctuating their lives with the excitements of pop culture violence in athletics, stadiums, and music. Fascism raised entertainment into political fantasy; where fantasy becomes tinged with enough daily tensions and emotions to make it real, as lived experience.


Perhaps surprisingly, the neo-fascists appear the most modern, the most contemporary, of the four cases. The mafia is a relic of patrimonial politics, the familistic pre-modern state. It flourishes among small businesses, commodity chains, and everything that is not bureaucratized. Street gangs form among the excluded of modernity: segments of modern youth culture, but unable to survive into adulthood. Terrorist cells have learned the power of endless mutual interrogation, and the clandestine pschology of acting as an organization of underground executioners. Neo-fascists, although they throw back to a mythology of warrior-heroes, spring from the breeding-grounds of popular entertainment and surrogate action-adventure: sports fans acting as violent auxiliaries at scheduled matches; gyms and exotic martial arts amalgamated into cage fights; music concerts at their loudest and most combative. Of the four cases, they are the ones who flourish with the Internet. They are parasites on the left-revolutionaries; originally formed to combat revolution, they stay energized as opponents of the left, like a sports league that would fold without rivalries.


Of the four, the Italian neo-fascists were the least dangerous to research. Orsini's wounds were psychological; though his post-prison terrorists would have killed him decades ago. Pistone risked his life; Alice Goffman was splattered with blood and her friends were killed. Orsini's analysis of the neo-fascists shows that violence attracts far more fantasy-followers than real-life killers. Does this in any sense bode well for the future?