Nordstrom on Global Outlaws

I was recently listening to a podcast by Carolyn Nordstrom of her 2008 Franke Lecture in the Humanities, Emergent(cies).  Nordstrom discusses the extraordinary power wielded by those in control of an underground economy of weapons, drugs, and human trafficking.  Paul Farmer attested to Nordstrom’s extraordinary dedication to ferreting out the transactions that knit together so many imperiled and privileged lives.  I look forward to reading her book Global Outlaws.  This excerpt describes her aims in it:

I am interested in the intersections of crime, finance, and power in activities that produce something of value: monetary, social, and cultural capital, power, patronage, survival. . . . Public media focus on . . . aggressive individuals under the sensational banner of “crime,” yet this interpersonal violence constitutes a small percentage of the universe of criminal actions. Smuggling cigarettes brings in far greater profits and economic repercussions. Robbing an entire country or controlling a transnational profiteering empire is the gold standard of crime.

Trillions of dollars move around the world outside of legal channels. These dollars flow through millions of hands, thousands of institutions, and hundreds of borders. They ruin the lives of some and create vast empires of profit for others. The sum total of all extra-legal activities represents a significant part of the world’s economy and politics. The power that leaders in extra-state empires wield can rival that of state leaders, and the revenues generated can far surpass the gross domestic product of smaller nations.

Yet we don’t know how these vast sums affect global markets, economic health, and political power. No statistical formula exists to assess the impact of laundered monies on a nation’s financial stability; of nonstate power regimes on state authority; of globalizing smuggling and criminal systems on security. In truth, we know little about the actual life of the extra-legal: who is doing what, how, and why?

The secrecy surrounding such trade (and even manufacture, in the case of cigarettes) has many causes. In a tour de force narrative in the lecture, Nordstrom describes how the fate of a child shot in Angola could be directly related to global market forces.  Pirate banking systems enable the flows of funds for “goods” ranging from arms to fake pharmaceuticals. Those struggling for transparency in these systems occasionally score some victories.  But without much more serious efforts to monitor the flow of money and goods, we should expect the “global outlaws” to exercise more influence in ever more rogue economies.

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