As I was reading a bit about the Hanseatic League in one of my old history books, the NYT came with a long article on Chicago street gangs. That triggered my thoughts on a very Basic theme: the way humans organize themselves for action. Up to a point, the process of development is similar between the two seldom compared social and commercial phenomena. Both consist of human beings in a limited geographical area united by certain commonalities, e.g. language and having a product to sell or trade in order to earn a living.
What prompted the comparison was discussion in the article of how older gangsters begin taking on more responsibility for developing the community in some way, encouraging the youth to stay out of the gang life, and to broker truces. What’s happening there, I questioned, and why doesn’t it develop into something larger? And following that, why did the Hansa develop into something resembling its own nation and thrive on into the beginning of nation states?
As I compared them, the obvious lid on development of the gangs was the looming presence of a much larger, stronger government whose spear point was the police. Even the Italian gangs deriving from the Mafia practices brought from the old country could penetrate the governing forces only so far, bribing a few judges and suborning a senator here and there. Once they lost their principle commodity of commerce, liquor, and turned to less reliable commodities like social practices – gambling, prostitutionn – and never organized for a lucrative drug trade, they declined in influence and eventually have been reduced though not eliminated. But we make comedy films about them. Much more effective have been the drug cartels of Latin-America. But their commodity is still in very high demand and still illegal as was liquor during Prohibition. They have taken over government but not governing. Recent rumblings from Mexico suggest all-out war may come soon among the cartels and they may destroy themselves.
The lid of government is major in suppressing the elaboration of gangs, but as important is a culture antithetical to corruption, something lacking in Latin-America where corruption is accepted by the societies. In early modern Europe and especially in the German cities, the feeble and localized government was simply an obstacle to trade, trade in legitimate articles and goods. Their tolls, tariffs, taxes, and constant harassment was the just the practice of petty lords, nobles, princes, and burghers. Once the commercial interests began cooperating, they could leverage their financial power to entice the local forces to concede privileges and eventually they became a greater power than the principalities themselves. (this occurring between the mid-13th century through the 15th century). All of this was accomplished with an end to extending commerce. From my reading in Fernand Braudel’s The Perspective of the World, v. 3 and Edward R. Cheyney’s The Dawn of a New Era: 1250-1453 in the series The Rise of Modern Europe, 1980 and 1936 respectively, no other motivation, cultural, religious, political, or other motivated the merchants of the Hansa. So successful were they in this single-minded pursuit of commerce that their name survives in the name of the German airlines, Lufthansa. I would love to read more about the Hansa b/c I have an inkling that some of their practices foreshadowed diplomatic, commercial, and political practices of later nation states.
We must not leave out other forces in the societies of the northern German lands, like brigands, highwaymen, marauders, and cut-purses. Did the Hansa merchants deal with this problem? Of course, and matched the violence of these marginalized people of the various realms. These had to be brought under control for commerce to flourish just as the depredations of cities and principalities needed to be. Not only did the Hanseatic League bring force to bear on local recalcitrant governing bodies but also on the outlaws encountered on the roads and pirates assaulting them on the seas (mainly the Baltic and North Seas) and rivers. Moreover, other commercial endeavors attracted their ire and those were dealt with. Just as I was wondering about the level of violence among the Hansa merchants as compared to the notorious violence of street gangs, I read in Cheyney, “When some English merchants from Lynn tried to break the monopoly at the beginning of the fifteenth century and establish a settlement, their houses were broken into, they were beaten and their goods were seized by the Germans. In 1406 ninety-six Englishmen were captured while fishing off the coast and were thrown overboard to drown, their hands and feet tied together.” Pretty violent.
My central question is then, are the street gangs an element of social pathology or a symptom of it, or are they an expected development given the restricted geographic, social, economic, and political milieu they thrive in?
My answer to that is that the gangs inhabit a special environment. All sectors of society have gangs of youth. Fukuyama says the basic unit of action is the war chieftain and his retinue, and that pretty well defines a gang except that the war chieftain is raider as are gangs until the gang gets a product. Then turf wars break out. What distinguishes the origins of the Hanseatic League from that is that it started not with individual entrepreneurs but with cities, trading cities that were centers of commerce in their own right (although the Hansa made some cities that merely by their presence, but the founding cities were all in Low German areas – another reason German dialects are respected as they carried a great culture in the medieval period). Gangs are at the highest level founded by siblings and cousins but mostly by propinquity, viz. living on the same block, The One-Niners all live on 19th Street. So in their very beginnings, the street gangs are much weaker than the Hansa. The Mafia was limited and therefore defined ethnically. The Latin-American drug cartels arise and grow in circumstances I am not familiar with, so any input on them would be appreciated.
Due to the individualistic nature of the street gang membership, high priority is placed on individual status and the struggle for it. Among Black gangs this is exacerbated by the Southern tradition of brittle respect, in the service of which duels used to be fought and which still results in a higher homicide rate in the South than elsewhere in the U.S. Latin-America is heir to that as well and, I suspect, so is the Mafia with its Italian peasant roots. These factors make discipline and control difficult, while the Hanseatic League battened on a culture extremely high in discipline and order.
All in all, I would say that the gangs have a lid over them the Hansa never had, as is shown by its disappearance with the rise of powerful nation states capable of imposing their laws and tariffs, though ever with an eye not to kill the goose laying the golden eggs.The rise of mercantilism pursued commerce with a vengeance. The gangs, OTOH, grow in closed communities where escape is for only the few. To answer the question about gangs, pathological or not? I would posit that youth gangs, like the chieftain and his retinue, are a natural outgrowth of youthful energy, violent as it may be, and competitiveness, and in a stable, moderate society, they get channeled into productive pursuits. Youth gangs labeled pathological, OTOH, while they may be following age-old patterns of exploiting a product in a free market, nevertheless operate in a closed system designed to control them in every way – the literature on youth gangs is immense, even producing a famous Broadway musical romanticizing gang warfare (West Side Story), and its popularity among highs school drama classes attests to the appeal of gangs to youth. But the controls, what has recently been dubbed the school to prison pipeline, result in decimation of the street gangs (my dad, a son of Italian-American immigrants, said most of his childhood friends were either dead or in jail) so that only a few manage to reach that mature level, in their 30s and 40s, when they want a better life for the children they have sown all over the neighborhood in their quest for manhood. Sadly, their efforts will always be stifled by that lid placed over them, and placed over them for good reason, by a larger entity the Hansa never had to deal with.