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Gore Capitalism: The Politics of Tony Montana | Richard Marshall

… you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.” (Tony Montana, Scarface)

Tijuana is where the violence is insane, everywhere and involves everyone. Readers of Bolano and Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez know all about this. Violence there is no longer a peripheral, accidental side-effect of narco cartels and corrupt politics but a lethal structural feature of a weak, broken state. A culture of depraved machismo feeds it, leading to elaborate and theatrical killings and perverted snuff-sex death. The black tears of the innocent are washed away in its white noise carnage. The porno psycho-murder entrepreneurialism seeps into the international markets of everything. A faux blankness silences the helpless keening of its victims. We, the happy consumers of the deranged products of these cults of hallucinatory death feign ignorance or are genuinely outraged. Whatever, enough of us, like addicts and nihilists, mercilessly continue to buy. The blurb summarises Valencia’s project:

‘An analysis of contemporary violence as the new commodity of today’s hyper-consumerist stage of capitalism. “Death has become the most profitable business in existence.” -from Gore Capitalism Written by the Tijuana activist intellectual Sayak Valencia, Gore Capitalism is a crucial essay that posits a decolonial, feminist philosophical approach to the outbreak of violence in Mexico and, more broadly, across the global regions of the Third World. Valencia argues that violence itself has become a product within hyper-consumerist neoliberal capitalism, and that tortured and mutilated bodies have become commodities to be traded and utilized for profit in an age of impunity and governmental austerity. In a lucid and transgressive voice, Valencia unravels the workings of the politics of death in the context of contemporary networks of hyper-consumption, the ups and downs of capital markets, drug trafficking, narcopower, and the impunity of the neoliberal state. She looks at the global rise of authoritarian governments, the erosion of civil society, the increasing violence against women, the deterioration of human rights, and the transformation of certain cities and regions into depopulated, ghostly settings for war. She offers a trenchant critique of masculinity and gender constructions in Mexico, linking their misogynist force to the booming trade in violence. This book is essential reading for anyone seeking to analyze the new landscapes of war. It provides novel categories that allow us to deconstruct what is happening, while proposing vital epistemological tools developed in the convulsive Third World border space of Tijuana.’

‘In many nations, organized crime has become a key political actor and an interest group, a player that must be taken into consideration by the legitimate political system… This criminal element frequently provides necessary foreign currency… jobs and the economic well-being essential for national stability, as well as the enrichment of those who hold political power (through at times corrupt means) especially in poor countries…’ is Curbet’s cool observation of this depravity. Valencia points to this as the brutal and deranged heart of the modern condition. The insertion of hyper violent criminality into legitimate state business is a scandal that shames us. As state interests increasingly become the interests of plutocrats the provision of state protection for the weak and immiserated becomes more precarious, and these borderland zones are where the obscenity of this becomes obvious. These are places of hallucinatory violence, slaughterhouses with obsessions of oblivion and lethal desires, civilisation’s extermination camps, terminals of misfired sensorial freedoms and delirious lusts that are our lusts, our freedoms, our desires. For these are the places that supply us with the murky repressed, suppressed and forbidden necessities of the good life. This is the dark shadow of Globalisation, a term, Valencia warns, that obfuscates rather than illuminates. Out-of-fashion economist JK Galbraith once said: ‘Globalization is not a serious concept. We [US Americans] have invented it in order to disguise our policies of economic entry into other countries.’ But it’s more than that, or not that at all but something else: ‘The term globalisation eliminates understanding, even the desire for understanding. In this sense, globilisation functions at times as a kind of false protagonist which impedes a sharper interrogation of the processes that have been reorganizing practices and meanings during the last 25 years… Once again we live in a world of bandits and pirates, now in the form of coyotes and polleros [drug traffickers, hitmen, kidnappers, etc] who work on the borders of the whole planet’ is how Pratt describes it.

This is the main thesis of the book, that legitimate states and anarchist Gore Capitalist businesses are in cahoots. Just as China allows the Chinese Triads to work in its border regions, so too on the borderline of the USA and Mexico we find mob cartel’s plying their trade. Valencia’s book focuses on this Latin quarter, in particular Tijuana in Mexico. Tijuana is Valencia’s capital of Gore. Formerly it was just seen as a laboratory for postmoderns looking for antinomian, transgressive thrills. This approach glorified its borderline state, its dystopian economies and transgressive subjectivities, discovering a post-orientalism of ‘… radically open and new horizons: [where]… the insurrections of the peripheries show us that the inhabitants of the countryside are the living matter, the flesh of the crowd out of which the globalised world is made,’ as Negri & Cocci  write. But Valencia makes clear that treating Tijuana as a postmodern antinomian paradisiacal ‘City of Crossings and Vice’ doesn’t account for nearly enough of the reality. What such romanticism misses is it’s violence.

In her Tijuana we find a grotesque glorification of mafia leaders, a strong relationship between the Catholic Church and the drug cartels, narcos building churches and schools whilst the same macho derangements rape torture, mutilate and kill the poor in a depraved hallucinatory pornographic lawlessness . By definition you’re forever caught between murderous forces of law and order and murderous forces of criminality. Your body will be violated eventually. It’s the deranged promise of such a place.

Valencia understands the subjectivity of these borderlands via Lydia Lunch’s ‘ I sell frustration,’ and Heriberto Yepez’s ‘lack and frustration’ combined. Valencia sees Kant’s ethical categoricals replaced by economic imperatives and cites Lipovetsky with approval:

‘Now even the least privileged want access to the emblematic symbols of the society of hyperconsumerism, and they give every sign of individualistic aspirations and behaviours – even if they are simply following the fashion… Material poverty is lived as a lack of autonomy and a lack of access to one’s own projects, as the obsession with survival, as the feeling of failure and social collapse. In consumer societies, precarity intensifies psychological troubles, the conviction that one has failed at life. For these classes of people who are socialised by work and who enjoy a certain amount of social mobility, properly material frustrations tend to diminish. Yet among the underdogs frustrations get worse and lead to the conviction that they are leading a life that is not a life. This is the violence of the civilization of happiness …’ What this captures is the Endriago subject. These are the Gore Capitalists themselves, beings who are ‘… anomalous and transgressive, combining a mentality of lack (poverty, failure, dissatisfaction) with a mentality of excess, frustration, and heroification, a drive to hate and a utilitarian strategy.’ Think Tony Montana of the Scarface film, and update the operation, and you have the insane bag-of-cats rationality driving the whole show.

Lurking in the deranged murderous shit is a machismo hope, the kind of Baudrillardian  ‘… revenge of the mirror people’ which Valencia understands as the revenge of otherness. In this dream –  Scarface’s dream if you like – the Endriago subjectivity of the deprived ‘… will one day rebel, and then our whole system of representation and values is destined to perish in that revolt. This slavery of the same, the slavery of resemblance, will one day be smashed by the violent resurgence of otherness. We dreamed of passing through the looking-glass, but it is the mirror peoples themselves who will burst in upon the word…’ Or, in Tony Montana’s words: ‘… you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.’

Addressing the Endriago’s relationship with the rest of us, we who live outside these places, it’s again Tony Montana who has the best lines:

“What you lookin’ at? You all a bunch of fuckin’ assholes. You know why? You don’t have the guts to be what you wanna be. You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your fuckin’ fingers and say, “That’s the bad guy.” So… what that make you? Good? You’re not good. You just know how to hide, how to lie. Me, I don’t have that problem. Me, I always tell the truth. Even when I lie. So say good night to the bad guy! Come on. The last time you gonna see a bad guy like this again, let me tell you. Come on. Make way for the bad guy. There’s a bad guy comin’ through! Better get outta his way!”

This is Valencia’s point. The bad guys play the bad guy so they can produce what we good guys want without getting our hands dirty. We want drugs, we want slaves, we want prostitutes, we want porn, we want money laundering services, we want corrupt banks, we want arms, we want cheap labour, we want hit men, we want terror, we want real estate, we want fish, we want babies. Where are we going to buy that shit? We go to the bad guys. We buy from the bad guys and call them criminals, declare war on them, and try and keep them in Tijuana or whichever crap joint they can work their deranged entrepreneurial black magic spells so that we can stay white clean. Preciado ( rather too excitedly) calls this a pharmacopornographic capitalism: ‘ ‘We are being confronted with a new kind of hot, psychotropic, punk capitalism. Our world economy is dependent on the production and circulation of hundreds of tons of synthetic steroids and technically transformed organs, cells (techno-blood, techno-sperm, techno-ovum), on the global diffusion of a flood of pornographic images, on the elaboration and distribution of new varieties of legal and illegal synthetic psychotropic drugs (e.g. bromazepam, Special K, Viagra, speed, crystal, Prozac, ecstasy, poppers, heroin), on the flood of signs and circuits of the digital transmission of information, on the extension of a form of diffuse urban architecture to the entire planet in which megacities of misery are knotted into high concentrations of sex-capital … pharmacopornographic.’

In this world, work moves from prohibitive and rationalistic to excess and violence. In the badlands of the early 1980s the idea was:  ‘ grab a gun and snatch what you can,’ as Misha Glenny caught it. But Montana and his merry men have transformed. The new mafia are transnational businessmen… ‘Without a doubt, organized crime is the most well-developed and refined form of business in an unregulated market, or put another way, it is a market controlled by an elite, in which money confers the only legitimate source of power, which is exercised arbitrarily by those who wield it,’ according to Resta who’s talking about the Russian Mafia but whose point can be generalized to others like the Chinese and the South American cartels. Every continent has them.

The new mafiosa are publicity mad and take Joseph Schumpeter’s notion of the ‘creative destruction’ of capitalism to a new level. The overspecialization of violence, both in its military incarnations as well as the violence exercised by Endriago subjects is ‘…a vast engineering project … whose essential processes are as precisely calculable as the tensile strength requirements of a dam or a bridge,’ according to Watts. The Chechen Mafia as described by Glenny in McMafia, for example, established themselves as a franchise and used  trademarks . They’re all doing it now. Each mob has its own mark: ‘… the Tijuana cartel – also known as the CAF (Cartel Arellano-Felix) ‘works” by emulating the style of the Sicilian mafia. The Cartel del Golfo (Gulf Cartel) defends its own style, forging their criminal signature through a private army made up of Mexican and Salvadoran ex-military men, Los Zetas, who murder their enemies in the style of the Mara Salvatrucha (extremely violent Salvadoran ex-guerrillas known for their penchant for decapitating their victims.’ Since 2001 this has become the way business is done.

The mafiosa work where the state is so weak or nonexistent it can’t monopolise coercion, so places like Tijuana are like ‘national sacrifice zones’ – self devouring and uncanny – hyperrealist and surveillance saturated – where anything goes. In them the uncanny is where the repressed return after the collapse of religion. Gods turn into demons. The uncanny and related fears haunt them. The uncanny and the canny turn out to be the same in these places. Perhaps they always are. All we find are liminal subjectivities and a negotiation of racial, linguistic, and sexual systems, systems not construed as abstract but imbued with history and memory- alternative spaces that structure the informal economy connected to international markets and their dynamics. Valencia sees this as a sort of colonialism at societal level, brought about by a consumerism in border cities exhibiting ‘… heterogeneous and cosmopolitan urbanity… characterized by combination and mixture in clothing, music, and advertising as well as in practices of consumption in general,’ as Mbembe puts it in his ‘At The Edge of the World.’ This violence is a perverse ‘happy violence’ – ‘violence with images of consumer happiness’ attached.

Prior to 9/11 armed violence in such places was inter cartel; post 9/11 violence moved to profitable kidnapping. After these kidnapping gangs formed they became sponsored by the judicial system at regional and national level and protected by law enforcement agencies, military officers, ex-military and politicians. Violence became ‘accompanied by an orgy of consumption and decadent behaviour’ and justice became controlled by mafia and business where the ‘… distinction between legality and illegality, morality and immorality, barely exists.’ Valencia calls this a new kind of colonialism. She writes of how ‘Drug-related violence re-conceptualises the class struggle and paves the way to an extreme form of post-colonialism. It is a post-colonialisation that has been recolonised by hyper-consumerism and frustration, a consequence of the economic conditions that dominate the contemporary world’ and this seems a baleful truth. But only seems.

Economics isn’t autonomous, despite what the laissez-faire economic liberals and the Marxists say. It’s coercion that really matters. States monopolise coercion and in so doing they control the conditions for economic exchange. That’s why the Gore Capitalists work at the peripheries of these states where the monopoly on violence no longer holds. The relationship between producers and consumers is defined largely by this. Degenerate and deranged Gore Capitalist producers work in weak or no state  zones of coercive anarchy: the consumers live in strong states. Producers are characterised as illegitimate by the strong states because the strong state, to remain strong, cannot tolerate coercive rivals. A mixture of collusion and sheer inability to act against the cartels characterizes the relationship between legitimate states and these illegitimate businesses. Generally speaking, for business to thrive, there needs to be a check on the state so trade is freed up, but not so much as to vanquish the state’s monopoly on violence. Civic society is what stands between the State and society, ensuring that neither one gains absolute victory over the other. Western democratic states were once confident that the checks and balances of civic society protected them from the threat of an Absolute State on the one hand and anarchism on the other. But since the assault on the civic society institutions and habits that they produced since the late 1970s the Western democracies have been increasingly captured by States ruling in the interests of a plutocratic class. Political decisions in the interest of those with capital have been dressed up as economic necessities which neither the laissez faire liberal economists nor Marxists have trouble swallowing. But so-called Neoliberalism is not an economic but a  political condition, that of an eroded or eroding civic society. As constraints on state power have been continually and relentlessly removed following the Thatcher/Reagan war on civic society back in the 80’s there has been nothing to prevent a return to a belle époque economy where returns on capital once more far outpace returns on labour, as Picketty has taught us. In this post-70’s context the important habits and institutions of civic social responsibility built up since the 1930s in Western states are being dissolved.

We’re left working without entrenched civic virtues and institutions to temper the reach of unchecked consumerism. Transnational and local institutions capable of regulating centralized state powers are all parts of the civic society landscape being eroded. The United Nations struggles to regulate and arbitrate international conflicts and is routinely ignored by its member states whenever it tries to constrain belligerence. Other transnational collective bodies such as the EU are under threat of dissolution as states become unshackled from civic values. Brexit is just one manifestation of this process.  Meanwhile local governance is being removed giving transnational Corporate  Capitalists a firmer grip on the levers of state power. Social policies are being replaced by this aggressive political ideology disguised as economic policies soas to maintain and consolidate affluence in the hands of those already rich. And when we look at who the plutocrats are and how they got so rich we don’t find a clear line between the legitimate and illegitimate entrepreneurs. Capital is now soaked in gore.

As Valencia notes, quoting Misha Glenny: ‘In both banking and commodity trading, the criminal operates much closer to home than we think.’ If it’s the case that… ‘Criminal organizations of five continents have appropriated the “spirit of world cooperation” and participate as partners in the conquest of new markets, and Valencia’s point is that this is the case, then the ruling plutocratic class now includes the deranged Gore Capitalists within its unholy fold. ‘They invest in legal businesses not only to launder dirty money but also to acquire the capital required for their illegal businesses. Their preferred sectors: high-rent real estate {Trump’s business], leisure, the media and… banking.’

The drug trade is one focus of Valencia’s book, partly because it’s a huge trade – ‘…drug trafficking is currently the largest industry in the world (followed by the legal economies of fossil fuels and tourism) …’ – but also because there seems to be an easier solution to it than other illegal trades. Simply put: we could just legalise it. Democratisation of drug prices have turned some drugs into drugs for the masses. As Glenny remarks; ‘Because it is such an emblem of wealth and status, coke is the drug of choice for perhaps millions of solid, conventional, and often upwardly mobile citizens’. And Cambridge economist Diane Coyle comments:

‘There is no chance of a zero-tolerance policy working when so many of our countries use illegal drugs. A law that more than one in five people (almost one in three Americans over the age of twelve) breaks at some point in their lives, and none of their friends will ever report them for, is a failing law. Prohibition creates monopolies and it’s reaching a point where‘… the growing reach of the criminal multinationals threatens to undermine legal, democratic institutions.’

The obvious solution follows. ‘If drugs that are currently illegal were legalized, if they were formally taxed and sold freely in stores, a large part of the problems would be resolved. A new path for development in Third World countries would come into view and the United States would be obligated to use some other new stupid excuse to interfere in countries’ internal affairs. And with the stroke of a pen, the profits of a number of banks would be diminished, along with their ability to hide their money laundering…’ is Resta’s take on this. But this solution hasn’t happened and isn’t looking like it’s going to happen soon. Too many people make money and solidify their political power out of the phony war on drugs.

But even so, not all the Gore Capitalist produce could be dealt with this way. For example, Chinese Triads have infiltrated Vancouver real estate with a huge money laundering operation:

‘Criminal syndicates that control chemical factories in China’s booming Guangdong province are shipping narcotics, including fentanyl, to Vancouver, washing the drug sales in British Columbia’s casinos and high-priced real estate, and transferring laundered funds back to Chinese factories to repeat this deadly trade cycle… The flow of narcotics and chemical precursors — and a rising death count in western Canada caused by synthetic opioids — is driven by sophisticated organized crime groups known as Triads.’ This ‘Vancouver Model’ of money laundering was described by Vancouver Attorney General David Eby as showing that ‘Canada’s anti-money laundering system has completely failed.’ He told the committee that ‘ gangsters have been openly carrying hockey bags stuffed with hundreds of thousands in drug cash into … casinos, and there has not been a single prosecution.’

The report identifies the Chinese hub of this operation to be ‘Guangdong, a province that faces the South China Sea, and borders China’s special administrative regions, Hong Kong and Macau. Guangdong is China’s most populous province, with 100 million citizens, including about 30 million migrant workers, and the most billionaires in China. The province’s economy is powered by the industrial Pearl River Delta region, which includes cities such as Zhuhai and Shenzhen. And with massive shipping infrastructure that connects with major international ports, Guangdong is known as the “world’s factory.”  Gore capitalists in mainland China and Hong Kong play different roles. Mainland Triads in Guangdong specialize in large-scale narcotic production, counterfeit products, wildlife smuggling and people trafficking. Hong Kong syndicates specialize in financing drug shipments as lenders and insurers, loan sharking, stock market manipulation and money laundering services. Triads deal with the state of North Korea and Latin American drug cartels, to run a shadow economy based on the trading of narcotics, counterfeit goods, and illegal migrants.

How this has happened requires knowledge of the particular history of China. In a report Triads and other Asia-based Organized Crime by RCMP superintendent Garry Clement who served as director of the ‘Proceeds of Crime’ program, an undercover investigator, and a liaison officer for Canada’s Hong Kong embassy, we learn that Triads were working in cahoots with military and political leaders prior to the Communist Revolution. In 1949 Mao forced them out and they went to Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. In the 1980s they were allowed to return by new Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping. Deng said: “it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice,” and “not all Triads are bad.”  He tolerated corruption between state officials and business tycoons for the sake of rapid job growth. There’s little doubt that current thug politics in China follows the same line, but more discretely, as is the case in other thug regimes where the state is unchecked. And sadly it reminds us of how far the USA has failed to resist the capture of society by the Absolute State and in so doing has enabled Gore Capitalists to enter its mainstream. Who would have thought that a thug with rumours of rape and sleaze plus financial malfeasance  in his well-known back-story could have taken the White House?

So sure, we could solve the drug trafficking problem by making drugs legal. The illegal drug trade would end. But what about the trade in trafficking slavery, children, women, labour, arms, private armies, terrorism, real estate scams, illegal banks, money laundering, tax havens and so forth? You can’t legalise these. How to deal with them then? There needs to be concerted and coordinated efforts by the coercion specialists – states – to rid themselves of the anarchical places on their borderlines. But these legitimate states are themselves  being rapidly captured by interests that are working hand in hand with the global criminals. Where the state sees no disadvantage to their interests, and checks on state power are weak, then mechanisms for change are diminished. There’s a war against institutions like the UN and the EU to prevent interstate cooperation, and within the states themselves a war against the civic society that limits their powers. As a result, power is becoming increasingly concentrating in the hands of the insanely rich whose self interest reinforces the scuttling of democratic institutions and habits. A deranged hyper-consumerism feeds insatiable lusts arising from a constructed phenomenology of lack and frustration everywhere.  On every continent the hallucinatory machismo of pharmacopornographic Gore Capitalism is the hideous violent  progeny living in the badlands of this emerging state absolutism.

Tijuana and all the other ‘megacities of misery’ on the planet are not going away any time soon. Valencia’s book reminds us of the cost of our happy lives. It mirrors the Ursula K.  Le Guin fable of the society of Omelas whose general happiness was bought at the price of a single child’s daily torture. In that fable the solution was to walk away . But that solution is hardly an option for us. In our world, you’re either in Omelas or you’re the baby. And maybe, to quote a character from the underrated film, ‘Small Town Crime’ of 2017: ‘‘‘… before you want to go all mystical and shit  looking for answers, maybe you alls’ need to look at what you all did…’


First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 5th, 2018.

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