Response to Saviano interview

Hey Andria

Thanks loads for posting the Saviano interview, his book ZeroZeroZero is a brilliant description of the workings of what he calls cocaine capitalism or narco-capitalism. One of the most important achievements of the book is the demonstration that the narco-state is not something that is “over there”, “far away” but is rather everywhere and that narco-dollars have thoroughly infiltrated every aspect of, and become the keystone of, contemporary capitalism, he describes the City of London as “the narco-trafficking, money laundering capital of the world” and the seat of many of the major banks that play an indispensable role in laundering narco-dollars and inserting them into the matrix of global capital flows.

Following this claim he shows how the commonly accepted distinction between the licit and illicit economies is completely false, artificial and meaningless. In the dominant narrative narco-states are failed governments in low and middle income countries on the major trading routes (West Africa, Caribbean, Latin America primarily), Saviano goes beyond this and shows that the narco-state is everywhere and is in fact the keystone of the contemporary global economy. The traditional narrative, like so much drugspeak is inherently other, specifically racist, and holds that narco states are over there, far away, in ‘developing countries’ and certainly not in the ‘free west’, ‘civilised’ or ‘first’ world.

The cocaine capitalism that Saviano describes but doesn’t theorise is however much better thought through in the brilliant Drug War Capitalism by Dawn Paley – the two complement each other perfectly. Paley’s book makes several important points that I’ve long felt to be true but hadn’t previously been able to think through.

So a few thoughts (sorry it’s a bit long):

1. The War on Drugs has very little, if anything, to do with drugs at all “Rather than actually dealing with controlling illegal substances, the war on drugs i s a concept invented by the US government […] to serve their interests , both domestically, and abroad” (Paley 43); as Paley bluntly puts it, the war on drugs has nothing to do with prohibition or drug policy “but is instead a war “in which terror is used against the population at large in cities and rural areas” while “parallel to this terror and the panic it generates, policy changes are implemented which facilitate foreign direct investment and economic growth.” She goes on to suggest that the war on drugs is in reality motivated by “the expansion of the capitalist system into new or previously inaccessible territories and social spaces.”

2. It certainly has nothing to do with attempts to improve “the health and welfare of mankind” (as the Preamble to the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961 claims);

3. Still less is it part of that “humanitarian endeavour” that securing the “dual suppression of the abuse of opium, morphine, and cocaine” is described as in the same convention;

4. The same convention claims that “addiction to narcotic drugs constitutes a serious evil for the individual and is fraught with social and economic danger to mankind”. Regardless of one’s views on the utility or otherwise of the language of ‘addiction’ (personally I find it vague, obfuscating, unhelpful, largely meaningless, entirely subjective, and inherently stigmatising, but that’s for another post), the use of the language of “evil” to describe the problem that an international convention is combating is extraordinary, dangerously theological, profoundly moralising and unique in international law – as Rick Lines has noted – neither “slavery, apartheid, nor torture” are described as “evil” in the conventions prohibiting them (in the convention relevant to it, the sternest language applied to genocide is “odious scourge”‘ whilst the UDHR musters “barbarous acts” t0 describe the totality of human brutality committed in WWII). The war on drugs is definitively not a component – and certainly by no conceivable measure a well functioning component – of the entirely questionable objective of reducing this apparent “social and economic danger to mankind” . A key consequence of the deployment of the language of “evil” has been that the war on drugs has given rise to what political theorist Carl Schmitt called a “state of exception” which he defines as “not a special kind of law (like the law of war) […] rather insofar as it is a suspension of the juridical order itself, it defines law’s threshold or limit concept”. Faced with what is essentially a threat to the very fabric of society – note that the Single Convention calls upon member states to be “Conscious of their duty to prevent and combat this evil” – extraordinary measures are justified, and governments must be freed up to pursue policies, and take measures, that would, under normal circumstances not be acceptable; it is in this light, that the War on Drugs gives cover for the widespread suspension of, and trampling upon, civil liberties, leads to human rights violations on a gross and systemic scale, and is used to justify incursions into the sovereign territory of other states. A clear illustration of the kinds of policies that such rhetoric can give rise to is the legal definition of drug trafficking as a “threat to the national security of the United States” that was introduced by Reagan in 1986, similarly, combating drug trafficking was given as one of the three official justifications of the 1989 American invasion of Panama.

5. The War on Drugs is not about protecting your kiddies from the evil ‘pushers’ who apparently frequent school gates.

6. The War on Drugs, far from being the dogged pursuit of any of the intrinsically highly questionable, yet supposedly noble and laudable aims that it professes to pursue is much more fruitfully understood as a cipher, or a Trojan horse, through which states act out agendas of domestic social control (not least of all through the mass incarceration and disenfranchisement of marginalised, poor, ethnic minority communities).

7. The War on Drugs functions as a vehicle for justifying systemic racism, classism and the protection of the prevailing order of social privilege and as a pretext for the increasing para-militarisation of police forces and their deployment more as hostile occupying armies in the poor, marginalised, and ethnic minority urban areas that they single out as ‘hot spots’. One direct result of this is the still ongoing mass incarceration seen in the US, as John Gibler writes “the use of prohibition for racialised social control is the genesis of the modern drug-prohibition era”. Michelle Alexander has noted that the US “imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid” – this is now so extreme that three out of four young black men can expect to be incarcerated at some point in their life, and are therefore better represented in prison than in universities.

8. The War on Drugs functions as one of the principal mechanisms sustaining the seemingly unstoppable growth of the the prison-industrial complex. The latter, apart from functioning as an abstract site into which those deemed to be socially undesirable are deposited (Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?), having been exiled from larger society, is also ever more central to the functioning of capital, as inmates are exploited as a captive source of quasi slave
or bonded labour. These two latter features i.e: a) as a site of exile, or a dumping ground, for the socially undesirable; and b) as a source of slave labour are as true of the Western prison-industrial complex as they are of Asian compulsory drug detention centres.

9. In the name of wiping out local drug markets, the war on drugs (which is better thought of as one on people who use illicit drugs and their communities, especially drug consumers from ethnic minorities, the poor, and otherwise disenfranchised) functions as an advance guard in cleansing urban spaces of their ‘undesirable’ minority, poor, disenfranchised residents and making them available for gentrification. This removal of minority communities from their neighbourhoods has been most apparent in the US where released drug felons are evicted from public housing, this progressive exile or expulsion from civic life is compounded by the denial to felons of most forms of employment, of education grants, and of the majority of other forms of social assistance, and finally the stripping of that most basic sign of citizenship ie the right to vote – felony disenfranchisement is the norm in the US, being enshrined in state law in all but two states (given the massively disproportionate weight of incarceration on drugs charges carried by young men of colour, this means that 13% of African-American men are disenfranchised).

10. The War on Drugs gives cover to the reinforcement of the juridical or punitive role of ever changing sub-disciplines of medicine and allied sciences (currently psychiatry and neuroscience) through the provision of a ‘scientific’ justification for architectures of control driven by the construction of the supposedly objective categories of normal, abnormal, pathological, healthy, unhealthy. As Michel Foucault notes,

“…if you are not like everybody else, then you are abnormal, if you are abnormal , then you are sick. These three categories, not being like everybody else, not being normal and being sick are in fact very different but have been reduced to the same thing”.

Under the cover of the War on Drugs these supposedly scientific categories become particularly potent weapons of social control, used to break up families, remove children from the custody of their parents, and deny access to health care to whole categories of people- most, notably, the exclusion of people who inject drugs from access to treatment for HIV, and hepatitis C; alternatively they are used to justify court ordered or mandatory ‘treatment’, and so further fuse together, or erase the distinctions between, medical and juridical judgement. In this role, ‘addiction medicine’ and psychiatry are very clearly demonstrated to be the “technology of abnormality” that Foucault claimed the latter to be.

11. The cover offered by the War on Drugs has long played a critical role in the execution of foreign policy objectives. The case study explored in most depth by Paley is the complex of ways in which the war on drugs provides cover for American corporate and state interests in Latin America. Here she shows how the agenda of destroying coca crops which brings with it land clearance, and the massive displacement of indigenous peoples and cocaleros is driven by the imperatives of direct corporate investment largely in the name of the extractive industries.

12. The recent HSBC scandal revealed quite how thoroughly interdependent global capital flows and the ‘legitimate’ banking sector on the one hand and the vast sums circulating through the illicit drug trade truly are. The latter is quite literally too large to be allowed to fail.

13. In his book Deterring Democracy, Noam Chomsky illustrates theinterconnectedness between the licit and narco economies by quoting Alberto Galán, brother of murdered Colombian presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán (whose murder triggered US intervention supposedly in pursuit of the cartels). Galán writes that “the drug dealers’ core military power lies in paramilitary groups organised with the support of large landowners and military officers”. He argues that in addition to strengthening “anti-democratic and repressive forces” the strategy pursued by Washington “avoids the core of the problem […] the economic ties between the legal and illegal worlds” which critically includes the major banks that are central to laundering narco-dollars and facilitating the entry of the latter into the mainstream economy. As Galán goes on to point out, if the war on drugs really was about disrupting the production, distribution, sale, and use of those drugs, trade in which is controlled by the cartels, as is claimed, it would make far more sense to “attack and prosecute the few at the top of the drug business” rather than incarcerating the millions of low level street dealers and users as actually happens. That this ‘sensible’ strategy is not that which has been pursued is as clear an indication as any that the objectives of what we call the war on drugs are not those which are claimed for it. By the same token, drug policy reform agendas that fail to grasp this issue end up presenting (whether deliberately or explicitly or not) prohibition as a faulty mechanism
for reaching what are legitimate ends (the most strikingly problematic of such ends is of course “reducing drug use”) – and consequently
limits itself to tinkering with a mechanism that is not designed to, and is incapable of, producing the results that reformers want.

14.  “It is clear that the drug war is is the means by which states are waging a war against poor people, workers, migrants, and others. The drug war model inside the United States provides a mechanism of social control through criminalisation and mass incarceration, which targets communities of colour. In Mexico, Central and South America, the drug war model relies on the use of terror in order to impose social control”.

15.  Metrics and perverse incentives – as Reprieve (the anti-death penalty campaigners) have pointed out, Iranian and Pakistani police carrying out interdiction projects funded by European states via UNODC are positively encouraged to try to ensure that their efforts lead to as many executions as possible (Reprieve, European Aid for Executions 10) – this is inevitable given that these ‘counter-narcotics’ efforts have, as their indicators of success, numbers of arrests, prosecutions, and types of conviction, and amounts seized. This is what the supply reduction demanded by the war on drugs and sought as one of its objectives looks like in reality, and there is no way around this. It seems to me that there can be no better or more humane metrics for a system that is wedded to the conviction that certain behaviours are “evil”. This condemnation of drug use beyond the control of state sanctioned medical practitioners as evil can onlyhave two outcomes: people who use drugs are framed either as criminals or as sick people in need of restorative treatment (coerced if necessary).

16.  Further, the War on Drugs has been a pretext for the increased militarisation of the police – in the US for instance the Colombian cartels were used as a pretext for the 1981 modification of the Posse Comitatus Act, (this forbade the military from participating in domestic policing) this militarisation of domestic police forces started with allowing the US Navy to accompany the civilian law enforcement agencies and the coast guard this has spread to the full militarisation of patrol cops who instead of patrolling local communities occupy them like invading armies.

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