Chicago and the natural ecology of human conflict

President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize celebrates his supposed commitment to a world without war. Meanwhile some people have noticed that all is not peace-process and diplomacy back at the president's adopted home town of Chicago.  Gang violence has erupted recently, and the city seems powerless to stop it.  What has gone wrong back in Chicago, even as the president confidently implements his strategy to reengage the US in the world community and end the international provocations and cowboy diplomacy of the Bush administration?

Unfortunately, nothing is wrong back in Chicago.  What we are seeing is the natural ecology of human conflict.

To understand what is going on, let us dignify these gangs of young men with a grander name: armies.  And let us call their leaders war-lords.

When an army is on the march, it supplies itself with food and comforts by requisition.  It takes whatever it needs from the farms and the towns through which it marches.  How do you think that Mao and the Red Army managed their Long March across China in the 1930s?  When an army stops marching and settles in one place it is called a government; its requisitions become taxes, and its leader becomes a head of state.

Surely, the gangbangers of Chicago don't deserve this sort of dignity?  Perhaps not.  But that is not what emerges from the pages of Off the Books by Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh.  Venkatesh's sociological study of South Chicago has a whole chapter about a gang led by "Big Cat" called the "Black Kings."

Big Cat had a problem in the early 2000s.  With the decline in the crack trade, his gang members needed income.  He solved the problem by getting the gang into other illegal businesses and by taxing everyone in the neighborhood from shopkeepers to off-the-books traders and hustlers.  He saw himself becoming a powerful political leader.  In fact he got gunned down in a drive-by shooting.

How do these inner-city gangs get away with this?  Are there no police?  Are there no regulators?  Gangs flourish probably because the lowest economic stratum in any city lives "off-the-books."  The poorest, least skilled people cannot get regular jobs.  Taxes, addictions, and the minimum wage make them too expensive for legitimate employers.  So they must survive in the underground economy.  To veil their own illegal acts they must keep the police at arms length.  In that space the gangs can flourish.

No armed gang in North America has succeeded in becoming a government since the rebellious North American colonists welshed on their British sponsors about 235 years ago.  The name of their leader was Washington.  They made him head of the new state.  But 150 years before that the colonists were little more than an armed gang living in tiny beachheads in on the eastern seaboard.  Pretty soon they marched out of their beachheads and created British North America.  That wasn't good enough for them, so they rebelled and declared independence.  In the 19th century Irish immigrants formed beachheads in Boston and New York; they enlisted in gangs but never posed a military threat to the US.  Nor did the Jews, the Italians, or the African Americans.  Today the immigrant beachhead is Hispanic, but Michael Barone, in The New Americans, thinks that Hispanics will assimilate like the Italians.

Armed gangs are forming all the time elsewhere in the world.  They are usually led by aggressive young men with winning ways -- men like Fidel Castro, Daniel Ortega, or Ho Chi Minh.  They don't always develop as insurgencies, but they all exhibit a politics-is-everything ruthlessness.  We like to stigmatize them as thug dictators; we should probably take them more seriously.

It is the great achievement of the modern West to have sublimated the actual combat of civil war and insurgency into the simulated war of electoral politics.  Instead of the man with the biggest army winning political power we award the spoils of office to the man who deploys the biggest army of voters.  We easily forget that the ritual of election battles is a stand-in for the real battles of armies, the bloody crucible of civil war and conquest.

It was ever thus.  The military cadre that wins political power starts to lose its martial traditions.  High-born sons go into the diplomatic corps rather than the army.  Daughters no longer grow up to be mothers of warriors but become childless scholars and groupies to fashionable gurus.  Aggression softens into border defense, and pugnacity into appeasement.

Our liberal friends think that they understand the pugnacious mind; they elected President Obama to appease the world's jumped-up gang leaders just as their grandfathers successfully appeased the pugnacious working class seventy years ago and fathers appeased the angry young black men forty years ago.

Conservatives take a dim view of all appeasements.  We believe in firmness when it comes to gang leaders, whether they are making life miserable for poor people in Chicago or poor people in Iran.

In the next couple of years we will find out who is right.

Christopher Chantrill is a frequent contributor to American Thinker. See his and usgovernmentspending.comHis Road to the Middle Class is forthcoming.