Moises Naim’s scary world

I picked up Moises Naim’s book “Illicit” (2005), as the book of record on illegal trade (or, what I call, following my friend Manuel Rozental, “illegal capital”). I wanted to read it because I’m trying to figure out how much of the global economy flows into these different niches. You can understand the economy one way by following energy flows, another by following money, another by following technology (like the story of stuff), another by following arms, another by following illicit trade. And each of these has some relationship with the others. And the whole picture is, well, a little beyond me. What I am wondering about is what the relationship between this kind of trade is and the aboveground economy of employment, incomes, the state, investment, and so on. What happens to this economy during a financial meltdown? When is it better for a kind of economic activity to be legal and when illegal? My answer to that, as someone who is against prohibition, is different from most. But I’m all for learning whatever can be learned from whatever sources there are. Including, if it comes to that, the editor of Foreign Affairs, who is also an opponent of the Venezuelan Bolivarian proceso (a process I support).

I did some reading on “cyber crime” (mainly identity theft and credit card theft), for example, before this, and one of the causes of the increase in cyber crime was the huge number of technically skilled people in Russia thrown out of work by the neoliberal restructuring of the 1990s (it was not put in these terms exactly, but that was the upshot). Other things being equal, people would rather work in the licit than in the illicit economy. So under what circumstances does the illicit economy grow, and shrink? To the extent it is bad for people, how to stop it or minimize its harms?

Unfortunately, I didn’t find Naim’s book very useful on these questions. His basic argument is that technology and globalization have made illicit trade blossom. He doesn’t differentiate enough between crimes that shouldn’t be crimes, like software ‘piracy’ (see the views of Richard Stallman, who I follow in this, for an explanation of information freedom), and crimes that should be, such as human trafficking and sexual slavery. Even the latter crimes might be better stopped through legalization of prostitution and giving sex workers the protection of the law from violence rather than forcing them into the underworld. Naim acknowledges the possibility of demand reduction measures, including decriminalization, but having thoroughly frightened his readers with the spectre of massive illicit trade, he suggests a crazy dystopia of technological surveillance and state power as a solution. Starting on page 243, he advocates digital fingerprinting of products, biometrics, detection devices, surveillance (everywhere, including online), GPS tracking of people, and the increased use of biotechnology and DNA!

For people looking to think sensibly about security issues, please try Bruce Schneier instead. His “Beyond Fear” was an excellent book. It might be the thing to read after Naim, if you need to clear your mind a little.

Author: Justin Podur

Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.