We invited the six shorlisted authors for the firstBristol Festival of Ideas Book Prize to talk to us about their nominated books. Here, Misha Glenny talks to us about his book McMafia: Seriously Organised Crime:

Why did you write the book?
Working in the Balkans and Eastern Europe in the 1990s involved understanding organised crime. This was one of the few social forces capable of adapting to the turbulent conditions that emerged from the collapse of communism. As I examined the relationship between money, power and the new economic empires in the new market economies, I observed how they had swiftly become an integral part in an expanding shadow economy that both aped and interacted with the ‘licit’ economy as globalisation took hold. I felt it important to begin mapping the burgeoning importance of mafia structures and their relationship to our new circumstances.

What and who is McMafia?
The term seeks to describe the highly decentralised groups which individually are able to ‘capture’ or ‘semi-capture,’ that is to gain influence over institutions of state in order to carry out illegal activities. Collectively, they control huge networks of the production, distribution and sale of illicit goods and services (largely into developed economies like the EU and the US where the markets are biggest). The McMafia comes in very different shapes and sizes across the world. There is quite some variety in the degree of social harm they inflict and a few gangsters have a positive role in replacing the state where it is apparently unable to function.

Explain the research behind the book
I packed my bags and travelled to most corners of the world to interview all manner of people affected by organised crime – police, lawyers, politicians, journalists, victims, and, most importantly, the gangsters themselves. This presented me with a number of logistical and research challenges. It was fascinating but exhausting and sometimes most depressing. I would occasionally find myself in awkward situations (interviewing representatives of Colombia’s FARC for example) but having covered the wars in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, I had already experienced much greater danger first hand. I was constantly aware of the issue of my personal security and that of those with whom I worked.

Will elements in McMafia become even more powerful in a global recession?
This is already happening. There has been a surge in computer crime and identity fraud in the United Kingdom while in Italy there is mounting evidence that the major organised crime syndicates are not just expanding their protection racket activity but even beginning to act as lenders, taking advantage of the banks’ lack of liquidity. At a time when there is so little money available on conventional markets, the cash rich economies of organised crime are bound to exploit this and increase their activity in financial crime. This is in part to compensate for the downturn in other traditional activities such as people trafficking and the sale of recreational drugs which are likely to decrease as consumers have less money to pay for them.

What are the solutions to dealing with organised crime of this international nature?
The quickest way to reduce the immense influence that organised crime enjoys as well as stabilising several chronically affected regions like central America (Mexico in particular), West Africa and central Asia, is to call a halt to the War on Drugs and consider a radical new approach to narcotics of which in my opinion legalisation is probably the most effective. At the moment, there is reluctance on political parties in many parts of the developed world to articulate publicly that the War on Drugs is a lunacy even though in private some of the Western World’s most senior politicians, law enforcement officers and newspaper proprietors have conceded this a long time ago. An anticorruption strategy with teeth and a binding global tax regime would also assist considerably in bringing the extent of organised criminal activity under control. This requires political vision and courage which has been lamentably absent in the US, Britain and the rest of the European Union in the past two decades. President Obama has an opportunity to demonstrate the requisite vision but the task facing him in this and other key issues is monumental.

Apart from McMafia which of your own ideas have you been thinking about most recently?
I work closely with several people from the US, Europe and the Balkans, and Africa who I met while working in the former Yugoslavia in the late nineties and after the Millennium. We come from different backgrounds – from government, business, civil society and journalism but share a commitment to political progress and broad social and cultural themes. We come together intermittently to share not just news but to review our work in wider political, economic and cultural contexts. We have been collaborating on several projects for some years now, looking at policy areas where we feel the need for change is most urgent and where our particular skills might help. But we also discuss philosophy, novels, art as well as new ideas which we have encountered. The richness of our collaboration has been my primary inspiration for almost a decade.

Which idea of someone else has made most impact on you recently?
The principle of human scale.

What is the most important book/article of ideas that everyone should read and why?
Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond.


Click here to read reviews of Misha Glenny’s book, McMafia: Seriously Organised Crime?

Read more about the Bristol Festival of Ideas Book Prize here.

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