Society as Protection Racket

A familiar feature of organized crime is the protection racket. In this scheme, a mob leader demands to be paid to protect a business. If the fee is not paid, then that same mob leader attacks the business — hence you are first of all paying the fee to be protected from your protectors themselves.

The same logic repeats itself in mainstream society. Taxes are a protection racket in the sense that if you don’t pay them, you aren’t exposed to the violence of criminals or foreign terrorists, but first of all to the violence of the government itself. The labor market is another protection racket, because in the last analysis you’re not working just to earn money, but to avoid being excluded from the economic system altogether. Many religions also duplicate the same logic, as you are asked to be devout in order to avoid a supernatural punishment that would not be a factor if you didn’t already believe in the religion — so in mainstream Christianity, for example, God is giving you an opportunity to avoid God’s own wrath.

From this perspective, one can understand neoliberalism as doubling down on the protection rackets. The system demands ever more intensive performances of obedience in order to avoid the violence of the system itself. In the mafia scenario, you can pay your fee and go about your business, just as you could imagine paying your taxes or putting in your hours at work and going about your business. Under neoliberalism, though, you are expected to be constantly thinking about your taxes and how to game the complex system of tax credits and penalties, and you must also mobilize all of your resources (all your time, all your social connections, all your hobbies and preferences) in service of the labor market. Even the evangelical Christian groups most in tune with the neoliberal ethos demand more and more constant self-examination and church involvement — you can no longer go to church on Sunday and expect God to leave you alone the rest of the week.

Agamben’s political theory, whereby the signature gesture of sovereignty is to exclude, can be understood as a theory of the protection racket, and his quest is to imagine a political order not structured according to the logic of a protection racket. This is what provides its remarkable contemporaneity, despite its often esoteric and obscure content.

More broadly, I believe we can view the elimination of the protection racket as the ultimate goal of the radical left, and we can define causes as left-wing to the extent that they at least aim to mitigate the protection racket. Hence the push for universal health care, which keeps the job market from extorting one’s participation based on concerns about one’s physical health, or the more radical goal of universal basic income, which uncouples some minimal participation in economic life from the demand to work. It is important in both cases that the provision be in principle unconditional, so that the system of benefits itself does not become a new protection racket that can demand certain performances of obedience — as has happened most vividly in the UK’s welfare system.

The goal is not simply justice, then, but freedom — freedom from continual threats and demands, freedom from having to worry about things. This is surely a more meaningful form of freedom than the abstract freedom of “choice” offered by neoliberalism, a false freedom insofar as we can never be free of the demand to choose, can never go a single moment without getting hassled or evaluated. The goal of the radical left, at least in our contemporary situation, could be formulated as the creation of a world in which society leaves us alone.

7 Responses to “Society as Protection Racket”

  1. Minivet Says:

    While your overall point makes sense, I think we need room for accepting some level of social coercion as legitimate, rather than characterizing it as a variety of protection racket no matter how consensual and collectively beneficial it might become in time. Not accepting a difference in kind between banditry and taxation is the way of libertarianism.

  2. Craig McFarlane Says:

    You’d like Charles Tilly’s Capital, Coercion, and European States. The earlier version of the argument (“War-Making and State-Making as Organized Crime”) makes the mafia/protection racket comparison. Great stuff.

  3. Elliott Grieco Says:

    Adam, are you arguing against “social coercion,” aspect of the protection racket, or the “difference in kind” among social coercions, with respect to the psychological tolls they exert? I assume that the other dimension to evaluate the desirability of a socially coercive mechanism is the belief that one’s compliance with a degree of coersion shield’s one from exogenous versus endogenous threats to well-being (the former being more properly a protection racket circle of coercion).

  4. ess emm Says:

    I love your analogy. And eliminating the coercive nature of the system is a worthy goal, but does that go far enough to be “the ultimate goal of the radical left?”

    I guess I’m a romantic revolutionary because the world-historical goals of the Combahee River Collective seem more appropriate as ultimate goals:

    We realize that the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy…..If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Craig, I drew the basic concept from that article.

    Minivet, From my perspective, the problem with libertarianism is that they arbitrarily restrict their demand for freedom to one sphere of social life (the state), while remaining totally blind to the often more insidious forms of coersion involved in other spheres.

    Minivet and Elliott, I would obviously recognize protection racket-like arrangements as a necessary evil under present circumstances (and any foreseeable circumstances) — but the goal should be to eliminate the protection racket entirely, even if that goal remains asymptotic.

    ess emm, Though I admittedly did not have this in mind in the original post, I think one could understand the ways that society extorts people to perform gender and racial identity are also structured like a protection racket. From that perpsective, black women would be most oppressed because society extorts the most from them — above all the responsibility to protect and maintain a community that mainstream society tends to destabilize and destroy.

  6. arranjames Says:

    “The establishment of capital within material existence and therefore within the social community is accompanied by the disappearance of the traditional personal capitalist, the relative, and sometimes absolute, diminution of the proletariat, and the growth of new middle classes. Each human community, no matter how small, is conditioned by the mode of existence of the material community. The present mode of existence derives from the fact that capital is able to valorize itself, therefore exist and develop, only if a particle of it, at the same time that it becomes autonomous, confronts the social ensemble and places itself in relation to the total socialized equivalent, capital. It needs this confrontation (competition, rivalry); it exists only by differentiation. From this point, a social fabric forms based on the competition of rival “organizations” (rackets)”- .Jacques Camatte (On Organisation)

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    (I’ve added a link to the Tilly essay.)


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