Left-Handed Form: The Professionals

The first of an occasional series of posts about crime, both in its real-world manifestations and its portrayal in popular culture.  The title of the series comes from the great 1950 noir The Asphalt Jungle, in which the moneyman Roland Emmerich describes crime as “a left-handed form of human endeavor”.

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In the breathlessly sensationalist reality TV series Gangland, which aired for four seasons on the dubiously named History Channel, the announcer would always intone with menacing inflection that whatever street gang was presently being exploited for cheap thrills was “run like a business”.  As revelations go, this one is significantly less stunning than describing the machismo in a sports team’s locker room, or exposing the foul language used by sailors.  People fall into crime for any number of reasons, from boredom to desperation, but no motive is more compelling than the desire to make money.  The financial aspects may differ; some pursue criminal activities because of poverty or the unavailability of legitimate work (and please take it as read that any use of ‘criminal’ and ‘legitimate’ in this series are meant to be read as quotes) , and others because of simple greed, or the need to make more money more quickly than workaday employment will allow.  But most crimes are crimes of profit, and the reason modern crime takes on the shape it has taken is because of the pervasiveness of capitalism in the modern world.

All organized crime, to be sure, is centered on profit, whether it grows out of a lack of capital exchange (as in Soviet Russia and latter-day China) or an excess of same (as in Japan and the United States).  It has been ever thus, with nearly every new group of immigrants, arrivistes, and social climbers indulging in gray- or black-market activities until more mainstream avenues of commerce are opened up to them; to express surprise that street gangs and cartels view their own activities as a sort of alternative corporatism is naïve and more than a little racist, as if blacks and Latinos are incapable of grasping the subtleties of business.  As we’ll see further down the road, organized crime, thanks to its institutional DNA and the unusual regulatory atmosphere in which it must operate, does not always act in its own self-interest the way a legitimate business would do, but in all other ways, from the marketing of product to the pursuit of territory to the attempt to keep profits high and labor costs low, a criminal syndicate acts no differently than would a manufacturer, a service provider, or any other company with society’s imprint of legitimacy.

What, then, do we mean by “professional criminal”?  We make a mistake by assigning the term to anyone who makes a living by pursuing criminal endeavors.  Many fall into a life of crime out of unsuitability for any other kind of work, their existence punctuated by long periods of dormancy followed by brief bursts of inchoate stealing just to stave off destitution.  Others are raised into crime, or thrust into it by addiction.  Such people would be more precisely referred to as “habitual criminals” rather than professionals, because they do not think of what they do as a calling, but a circumstance.  Nor should we mistake every member of a criminal gang for a professional criminal, even if they serve the same masters all their lives; it has become painfully clear that the gap between street-level dealers, runners and soldiers and the kingpins who collect their earnings is as vast as that between the teenager who flips the burgers and the executive who dreams up new ways to sell those burgers.  The money they make is minimal — barely even a salary — and they have no hope of advancement unless they have a talent for murder.  They are the furthest point of a star away from being professionals, but precisely because of their low status, they are the ones who clog our prisons and drain our justice system’s resources to the breaking point.  It was this caste Stringer Bell referred to in The Wire when he asked:  “What, you think a nigga’s gonna get a job? You think it’s gonna be like, ‘Fuck it, let me quit this game here and go to college’?”

A professional criminal, then, is one who displays the values that lead to longevity in a career where the penalties for failure are imprisonment at best and death at worst.  In many ways, the traits valuable to a professional criminal are no different than those valuable to any other kind of criminal:   a profound understanding of the business, a tireless attitude and a willingness to put in very long hours, an ability to notice new opportunities and disruptive approaches, an instinct for seizing new markets and exploiting new customer bases.  (The reverse is also true, insofar as a professional businessman can benefit from the same qualities as a professional criminal:  a general contempt for the law, a willingness to put the profit motive above all else, and a disposition that might best be described as that of a sociopath.)  It is in those who possess these characteristics in abundance that we find the management level of the criminal class, and it is they who carve out successful careers as professional criminals, even if those careers are reckoned on a much shorter frame of time than that of a chief financial officer or a human resources manager.

Nor should we assume that the professional criminal is necessarily an operative of organized crime.  Just as there is in every town the maverick small businessman who strikes it rich by nibbling at the corners of the market not served by the Wal-Marts and McDonald’s of the world, so too are the independent operators of the criminal world, who are audacious enough to target victims deemed off limits to organized crime, or creative enough to think of approaches too lean and light for the top-heavy approach of a gang or a family.  And so, too, are there the middlemen whose careers are built on providing services between one group and the other:  the bankrollers, gunrunners, fences, and other ‘soft’ criminals who take care of the marginal details.  The parallels between crime and legitimate business, at this level, begins to justify the permanent but invisible quote marks around each word.

So close are those parallels, indeed, that it goes a long way towards explaining the fascination of crime to artists on the one hand and common people on the other.  Howard Hawks, as a filmmaker, was raptly devoted to an efficient and highly masculine brand of behavior that he characterized as ‘professionalism’, and he found it, naturally enough, in our most organized and rules-bound organizations:  business, the military, the police, and organized crime.  Tony Soprano found himself frustrated with the lack of discipline and selfishness found in the modern Mafia, and, like Tom Hagen before him, conjured the image of imperial Rome as his idealized form of professional organization, a thing both deeply militarized and highly disciplined, with hierarchies as rigorous as those as the reporting structures of any executive suite.  Richard Stark’s Parker was certainly emblematic of the most pathological sort of career criminal, a talented and insufferable Type A achiever recognized with hate and envy to anyone familiar with the corporate world; one wonders how he would have reacted to the sloppy, freewheeling ‘professionals’ of the internet age, as exemplified in the criminals of Quentin Tarantino — men who allowed themselves the killing luxury of outsized personalities, fatal friendships, and intellects too restless to focus on the job at hand.  Tarantino, for his own part, is a devotee of Elmore Leonard; it is in Leonard’s novel, Swag, where the tension between the professional criminal and the amateur is most savagely exploited, with the car salesman Frank Ryan, a dabbler in petty larceny, concocts a list of rules by which he and his partner, the career car thief Ernest Stickley, can make the most money in the shortest time without working.  The more money they make, the more the amateur Ryan begins to abandon the rules and try for a score far too ambitious for his talents, while the professional Stickley distrusts easy success and learns all too easily where a lax approach to respecting the game can lead.  The most successful professional, then, isn’t the one who makes the biggest bankroll, or the one who wields the most power; it’s the one who follows the rules loosely enough to make money but closely enough to stay out of prison.

The rules of the game of crime are not all that different from the rules of any other organized profession.  The difference is that the stakes are infinitely higher, and that inevitably leads to violence, another quality that is both inherently repellent and inescapably alluring about crime.  In the next installment, I’ll look at why violence is such an inherent part of crime, why it’s so common in some areas and so rare in others, and why the stakes for criminals are so ridiculously high despite a sometimes pitifully small take.

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