We’ve been talking about gangs in the context of groups of thieves, but the truth is that gangs can form for a lot of reasons.
I mean, what is a gang anyway? That’s a topic of fairly hot debate in modern times, because the question is not without political dimension. For most people the term “gang” is going to summon up a highly racialized image, and fears of “gang activity” have driven various laws and public policy initiatives. In the oldest sense of the word that has to do with people, it simply means a group of people who go around doing things together. But it took on a negative connotation fairly early, and so we tend to apply it unevenly: if the authorities consider such a group to be respectable, they’re a club or an association, but if they’re disreputable, they’re a gang. Ibram X. Kendi asked in an Atlantic article a few years ago what the difference is between a gang and a fraternity, pointing out that both involve initiation rituals, and that fraternities have an extremely inglorious history of inciting their members to crime and violence, especially sexual violence: just as socialization makes gang members more likely commit crimes, frat brothers are three times more likely to commit rape. His point was not to fully equate the two, but rather to highlight the ways in which studies of and interventions in one can assist the same efforts with another, because the underlying dynamics are not dissimilar.
Gangs can form for a lot of reasons. Quite a lot of them are involved in criminal enterprises; alongside the thieves I’ve been talking about in past essays, you can have gangs of smugglers, or of drug-runners, or vigilantes pursuing justice outside the law — however they may define “justice.” But you can also have, say, motorcycle gangs, which may or may not do anything illegal: some of them just want to look tough and show off their bikes.
Some gangs nearly operate as a kind of unsanctioned, brute-force local government. They control territory, e.g. a neighborhood largely occupied by their particular ethnic group, defending those boundaries against encroachment by outsiders. Like official states, they war against their rivals. They extract “taxes” in the form of things like protection money, intimidating local businesses into paying them to avoid gang-induced destruction. But sometimes they also settle disputes within their territory, defend locals against threats like police intrusion, and otherwise act in a semi-beneficial fashion. Certain Japanese yakuza organizations have made the news over the years for responding more rapidly with earthquake relief than the actual Japanese government.
This is by no means an attempt to claim that gangs are actually nice — they absolutely aren’t. But the more I read about the brutal behavior of legitimate governments, especially in the past, the blurrier the line gets. The historian Barrington Moore has memorably opined that “European feudalism was mainly gangsterism that had become society itself and acquired respectability through the notions of chivalry,” and I can see where his argument is coming from.
Since I’ve brought up yakuza, it’s time to address the apex predators of the gang world, which are the organized crime syndicates. They go by many names in different parts of the world — yakuza, mafia, triads, the mob, as well as specific names for specific organizations — and there’s no clear-cut boundary between this and more generalized criminal activity, but any way you slice it, these groups have power.
In fact, as I mentioned last week, syndicates like this do have some of the features we ascribe to the thieves’ guilds of fantasy. There’s a distinct hierarchy of ranks, with some kind of boss at the top; they may not control all the crime in a city, but they definitely have their fingers in any number of illegal pies, from theft to counterfeiting to smuggling to prostitution; they may very well train new recruits in key skills, though the skills in question are more likely to be the tricks of money laundering or how to make bombs than picking the pockets of a bell-festooned dummy.
But in the sense that we generally use the term, organized crime is a fairly recent phenomenon — no more than about two hundred years old. That’s not to say you can’t find roots stretching back a good deal further than that, depending on how you choose to define your subject; the criminologist Paul Lunde has even argued for a resemblance between organized crime syndicates and barbarian conquerors. For the most part, though, the roots of groups like the ones I listed above lie in the nineteenth century, maybe a little earlier.
In part that’s because organized crime as we think of it is distinctly an urban phenomenon. The mob doesn’t spend a lot of time ambushing people along rural highways; it’s busy more profitably milking money and power out of cities. The less urbanized a population is, the less likely you are to see this type of syndicate forming, because there simply isn’t the social and economic ecology to support it. I don’t know of any pragmatic reason you couldn’t have had something like this in the large cities of the pre-industrial past, though — places like Rome, Xi’an, Constantinople, or Tenochtitlan — I just know that I’ve never seen claims of a mob-style criminal organization existing that long ago. Possibly the answer lies in the same factors that tended to make it difficult for legitimate governments really monitor and control their populations, namely, the challenge and expense of travel, communication, and record-keeping. If the actual authorities have trouble keeping tabs on everything in their territory, will criminals fare any better?
Whatever the reason, the effect on our fiction is that putting something like a mob into an invented world is going to make it feel more modern, regardless of the technology surrounding the characters. And if the degree of organization on display is out of step with how well-organized everything around them is, it may feel discordant: the Sicilian mafia dropped into a pseudo-medieval society of farmers and feudal lords.
But as long as you have groups of people going around doing things together, gangs will fit in just fine.