The Gangster’s Fallacy

2 September 2010


Gangsterism is more than prettified memories of Chicago during prohibition, more than The Godfather, and more than the pop culture absurdity “gangsta” rap; gangsterism is a perennial feature of human society, and as such has been expressed in one form or another throughout human history. The classic gangsterism that comes to mind — La Cosa Nostra, its American variants, the Japanese Yakuza, the Chinese Triad societies, and so forth — are all examples of organized crime, usually based on extended kin networks. This is one form of gangsterism, but it is not the only form.

Who is a gangster? A gangster is someone committed to the efficacy of violence. Violence can come in many forms — physical violence, emotional violence, moral violence, intellectual violence. Any aspect of human life and experience can be the context of violence. Similarly, any entity capable of taking action — what we usually call an agent — can engage in violent action. Therefore, any agent is potentially a gangster, but the true gangster is the true believer in violence, and especially in violence as a way of life.

In so far as we accept the Weberian definition of the state as the legalized monopoly on violence (Gewaltmonopol des Staates), and in so far as this violence is understood to be efficacious, the state is by definition a gangster, as I define it above. Many leaders of nation-states have been (and are) gangsters. Perhaps the purest expression of gangsterism in the twentieth century was Mao’s, “Power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” We also note in this context that the Nazis were called “armed bohemians.”

There is an inverse relationship between political violence and political efficacy. It is the gangster’s fallacy to believe that there is a proportional relationship between the two, and this fallacy derives from a conflation of short term and long term efficacy, or simply a failure to understand that long term consequences can differ profoundly from short term consequences, and that long term consequences always outweigh short term consequences by the obvious and quantifiable fact that the long term is long and the short term is short. This sounds too obvious to mention, but I find it often neglected. As always, my concern is with the longue durée.

I say that the belief in the efficacy of violence is a fallacy, and it is a particularly stubborn if not seductive fallacy, since it is apparently so easy to cite precedents from history in which violence has decisively settled outstanding issues. As against the gangster’s fallacy, I hold that the only lasting victory that does not unravel given changed conditions is the victory that is won through (or which itself wins) social change. This is a sweeping claim, I realize, and in order to defend it I will have to make a lot of qualifications and set many conditions upon the general principle, but in general, and on the whole, I believe that it is sound.

The most obvious way in which the gangster’s fallacy is invoked is in war, since war is the systematic organization of violence. If the gangster’s fallacy is a fallacy, and violence has no ultimate efficacy, then war is without efficacy. Would anyone be willing to say that, as a general principle (for we can all cite specific instances on one side of a question or the other), war lacks efficacy? Yes, that is exactly what I am saying. War is not absolutely inefficacious, but it has not the efficacy that it is usually believed to have. And I say this not only thinking of obvious examples of civil wars and protracted conflicts in which it is obvious that nothing is settled, but also of the great conflicts that have increasing marred the face of civiliization.

A military victory (or a military defeat) uncoupled from a political context is virtually guaranteed to be less meaningful in the long term than even the smallest, most incremental political change. Moreover, a significant political change (like a revolution) can wash away military victories and defeats even in the short term. But revolutions since the advent of the Revolutionary Age with the American Revolution have been becoming ever more violent and ever less political, especially since the later advent of what I have called the weaponization of genocide. One can predict that the more violent revolutions become, the more they become a springboard for genocidal carnage, the less effective they will be in producing any measurable change in a society.

If the First World War or the Second World War had not been fought, or had been different wars because the underlying geopolitical tensions had been differently triggered (no Franz Ferdinand, no Pearl Harbor, etc.) and therefore issued in different outcomes, would the world be significantly different than it is today? Would the international balance of power be significantly different? Would no world wars in the twentieth century, or different world wars in the twentieth century, done anything to prevent the underlying factors that drove the growth of American power which is the central fact of the world political system today? Or would different historical events, i.e., different wars, have changed the emergence of communists in Russia and their eventual self-sabotage and collapse? These are, obviously, counter-factual conditionals, and no one can say definitively how things might have been if things had been different.

Again, this is the perspective of the longue durée. From the perspective of the longue durée, a war is an event, and events belong to the ephemera of history. As Braudel put it:

“Events are the ephemera of history; they pass across its stage like fireflies, hardly glimpsed before they settle back into darkness and as often as not into oblivion.”

Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Volume 2, Part Three: Event, Politics and People, p. 901

As against the perspective of the longue durée there is the famous line from Keynes:

“The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is past the ocean is flat again.”

Keynes can be precisely paraphrased to the same effect for grand strategy:

“The long run is a misleading guide to strategy. In the long run we are all dead. Strategists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in a time of national crisis they can only tell us that when the storm is past the ocean is flat again.”

This Keynes quote has been grievously used to defend short-term thinking, but there are valid common-sensical arguments that can be constructed on this basis. Obviously, if a soldier has been killed in a war, that war has had the most profound consequences for that soldier and his family. This reasoning can be extrapolated from the greatest sacrifices to the most trivial sacrifices: if violence can be used to extract a sacrifice, then violence has been efficacious.

Certainly, yes, violence is efficacious in compelling sacrifice, as well as being the cause of untold pain, suffering and misery. One must not attempt to explain away the human cost of violence; when we say that violence stands in inverse proportion to political efficacy, we are not making an excuse to ignore pain and suffering, to say that it “ultimately” does not matter, or any such thing. Violence is real, its consequences are real, and those consequences frequently are cashed out among the inferior species of political agents, i.e., front line soldiers, first responders, and, generally speaking, wherever the rubber meets the road.

But if we think of war in classic Clausewitzian terms, violence is a failure. Here is Clausewitz’s definition of war, from On War, Book I, Chapter I, 2:


A people, in so far as it can, fulfills its own will, and if it is forced by loss in an armed conflict to temporarily fulfill the will of another, it will do so in the spirit of “malicious compliance” unless true social change is part of the peace settlement. There have been many wars in which social change is a part of both the war itself and the peace. The Marshall Plan after the Second World War is an obvious example of a peace that engaged former adversaries in a very practical manner; social change can sometimes be purchased with sufficient treasure.

The event of war is temporary, and thus the outcome of war is temporary. The perennial nature of peoples will continue to assert itself after a conflict as it did prior to a conflict. That will not be changed by war or lesser forms of violence.

. . . . .

What I have written so far on this head is inadequate to make the case for the refutation of the gangster’s fallacy; the charitable reader will understand that this is but a sketch and a beginning.

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