Complexity in Action

I have read salon.com for years, ever since the late 1990s, and while I have never appreciated its smarmy social democrat (and statist) sympathies, it’s been a much better publication over the last seven years of the Bush Jong Il regime simply because the nincompoop editors of salon.com have not a Democrat regime to defend (with all its wars and other nonsense). Should a Democrat return to the White House next January, salon.com will likely take a turn for the worse. I hate the idea of Glenn Greenwald becoming a mouthpiece for, or a reflexive defender of, political power, but he likely will. The degree of thoughtfulness and truth-telling generally tends to be in inverse proportion to whether or not one supports those in power. It’s easy to “speak truth to power” you rarely agree with. Speaking truth to power you support and endorse is difficult. If not downright impossible.

Still, salon.com publishes some interesting stuff, especially its articles dealing with culture. Case in point is this review of Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets. Venkatesh spent seven years shadowing members of the Balck Kings gang in Chicago’s now-defunct Robert Taylor Homes, and this review shows the book is something of a primer on how human beings organize themselves, politically and economically.

Again and again, the people Venkatesh talks to explain that police and emergency medical personnel “don’t come” when project residents call them about such “minor” matters as robberies and domestic violence. The Black Kings, by contrast, could sometimes even get stolen property back. None of Robert Taylor residents really liked the gang, but it evolved to serve a purpose: As is often the case when civil order breaks down — whether it happens in Afghanistan, Somalia or the South Side of Chicago — strongmen emerge to provide security, at a cost. On the other hand, at least the residents of Robert Taylor knew exactly what they were getting for their “taxes.” Furthermore, J.T. wasn’t the only one to levy such taxes; despite her efforts to pass herself off as a disinterested benefactor, Ms. Bailey, too, demanded a piece of any action that went down in her building.

Venkatesh soon realized that what he saw of J.T.’s work (or, for that matter, of Ms. Bailey’s) had been “edited.” Nevertheless, he was still present for several violent episodes, most of them beatings administered to anyone in the gang hierarchy who got out of line. When J.T. offered to let Venkatesh be “gang leader for a day” (hence, the book’s title), the exercise was effectively meaningless because the grad student refused to get involved in any violence; the doling out of “mouthshots” and other, harsher penalties was a key part of J.T.’s job. “They need to see that you are the boss, which means that you hand out the beating,” he explained in exasperation. “You have to make sure that they understand that they can’t be stealing! Nigger, they need to fear you.” Behind all J.T’s talk of the Black Kings’ role as a “community organization” lurked the stark fact that his authority was founded in the threat of violence.

It has always struck me as odd the belief that the collapse of “civil order” as is generally understood by genteel and civilized folks is seen as the collapse of all order. Isn’t the civil order so prized just another form of strongmen emerging to provide security “at a cost?” In fact, aren’t “disorder” and “chaos” impossible conditions for two or more human beings living in some kind of community, as human beings quickly and naturally structure and order themselves?

Philosophical thinking on social order tends to see it as top down, that is, something that is or must be imposed on society. And yet human beings seem to order themselves from the bottom up, that is, there is a fair amount of complexity involved when two or more human beings live together. In my mind, this idea of complexity is much more in accord with anarchist or libertarian thinking on the state than it is with hierarchy. Yet it’s clear that human self-organization involves the creation of hierarchies and the use of force. I wish it were not that way, but on this side of both Eden and the eschaton, we are incapable of organizing ourselves without the resort to force and violence. This doesn’t mean that, as the church, we should participate in or benefit from that violence, nor should we think that we can guide it and use it better than others.

Reviewer Laura Miller continues:

“Gang Leader for a Day” illustrates a handy contemporary maxim: As soon as people start using the word “community,” you can be pretty sure they’re trying to put something over on you. In time, Venkatesh became just as disillusioned with Ms. Bailey, the neighborhood clergy, the director of the local Boys and Girls Clubs (inventor of the much-celebrated midnight basketball leagues of the 1990s) and the cops — the ones with the “real power” in the ghetto, and in a few cases all too prone to abusing it. Everyone he met was jostling for influence, offering protection or resources, and distributing both to whoever had the most to offer them in return.

What the budding sociologist found, in the end, was not the depraved chaos that the political right imagines ghetto life to be, nor the left’s tragic melodrama of a powerless, victimized population terrorized by its most hopeless members. (J.T., a gifted manager by Venkatesh’s account, went to college on an athletic scholarship and gave up a job selling office supplies when he realized that white employees were receiving preferential treatment.) What he did find was an economy, and a rough social order that the residents had assembled out of the broken pieces left to them by society at large. Without meaningful police services, they cobbled together a security force of sorts. Without much in the way of social services, they figured out how to extract some of what they needed from the main economic engine in their environment: the gang. Within the borders of a major American city, they lived in the equivalent of a corrupt third-world nation.

Miller sees here that people muddle through, and that often, muddling is the very best we can hope for or even accomplish. That muddling is human life, often at its best, and certainly at its most authentically human.