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New Worlds: Shady Trades

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We talked about smuggling back in Year Six, but there’s more to illegal commerce than that.

The common terminology here is black market, though I’ve seen efforts to move away from that so as to ditch the framing that associates blackness (and therefore Blackness, in the racialized sense) with criminality. I can understand the need for a shift, given that the term specifically contrasts not only with the grey market, where commerce is legal but unofficial or unauthorized, but with the white market, where it’s legal and official and where most of us do most of our business.

There are no clean boundaries around this kind of trade, and you can subdivide it in a number of ways. In some cases the illegality mostly centers on the fact that the money trading hands isn’t being reported, taxed, and regulated; the actual goods and services are perfectly ordinary and legitimate — anything from cigarettes and alcohol to taxi rides and rental housing. But mostly when we bring up the idea of a hidden/subterranean/shadow market, we mean situations where something more overtly illegal is going on.

This may mean that the items being sold are stolen. After all, while sometimes a thief wants the item for its own sake, in most cases the idea is to resell it for money. This can involve not only the fences mentioned in a previous essay, but ordinary citizens who don’t ask too many questions about the origin of the goods being sold in a back alley or out of someone’s trunk. The appeal here is usually that you can get the item more cheaply: since the thief didn’t pay for it, their only expenses are those involved in the stealing.

In other cases, the goods are actually counterfeit. This isn’t too dangerous when it’s something like the “Rolex” my husband bought from a Turkish stall that proudly advertised itself as selling “genuine fake watches;” the worst consequence he suffered was the band breaking less than four hours later. You get what you pay for: counterfeit goods of this sort are often incredibly shoddy, maximizing profit without having to worry about brand reputation the way a legitimate manufacturer must.

But if you buy medicine clandestinely — perhaps because you can’t afford the kind sold through legitimate channels, or because you don’t realize the person you’re dealing with isn’t a legitimate channel — you can wind up with an untreated disease at best, a lethal case of poisoning at worst. And counterfeit money, as we discussed all the way back in Year One, can badly destabilize the economy of a country if it spreads too far. Governments tend to try and suppress all kinds of counterfeiting, so as to protect their people, but fake money threatens the government itself. The crackdown is correspondingly swift and harsh.

The real core of what we associate with the underground market, though, is the stuff you’re not supposed to be buying from anybody. Illegal drugs are the most obvious example here; if you want heroin or meth, you have no option but to look to criminals for your supply. Depending on local laws, the same can be true of weapons, where you’re buying e.g. an unregistered firearm in a place that requires registration, or a type of gun that isn’t permitted to ordinary citizens.

There are some less obvious options, too. As we move to protect endangered species, the trade in live specimens or body parts (meat, pelts, feathers, horns) goes underground. Or even animal products you might not think of: apparently some U.S. states have a clandestine trade in raw milk, because local regulations require all milk to be pasteurized. Nor is the trade in body parts limited to animals, as organs are harvested from people desperate for money and sold to those desperate for life. It’s an urban legend that you might get drugged and wake up in a bathtub missing a kidney, but there’s a shockingly large trade in illegal organs worldwide.

Some of which might even be taken from the unwilling. Human trafficking is perhaps the most sordid corner of this field of commerce, though relatively little of it is focused on organ harvesting. Most trafficked individuals are sold for sex work or forced labor — be it domestic, agricultural, entertainment, or other — replicating the institution of slavery without the legal backing. Women and children are by far the most common victims of this trade.

I’ve been focusing largely on goods, but as human beings come into the picture, we slide across the line into services. Not everything bought and sold illegally is a tangible item; you might also hire someone to perform an illicit task. Hit men are a dramatic instance of this, where you pay an individual to commit murder on your behalf, while the aforementioned unregistered taxi services offer a far more mundane example. Many science fiction and thriller protagonists visit a hacker who can break into a computer system (usually with unrealistic speed), while their fantasy counterparts might enlist a thief to break into a building.

The creation of this type of market is often the negative consequence of regulation. When the U.S. government began to restrict the sale of pseudoephedrine, for example — the most common medication used for treating congestion, which can also be used to create methamphetamine — a clandestine trade sprang up, in which previously ordinary citizens would go from store to store buying the limit available there, then resell it to the meth manufacturers. Similarly, Prohibition in the United States fed not only a thriving industry in bootleg alcohol, but a world of organized crime to oversee it. Wartime rationing in Britain created a clandestine market in simple goods like gasoline and meat. One of the arguments being used to encourage the legalization of marijuana in the U.S. is the conversion of illicit trade into something that can be taxed and subjected to safety regulations.

Bear in mind, though: this market is rarely an actual place. When it’s simply a matter of normal trade not being reported to the authorities, then it can spring up in centralized, physical locations, which might occasionally be subjected to raids or required to pay bribes for the authorities to look the other way. But as with the problem of there being a formal “assassins’ guild” people can visit to hire a killer, giving a hidden market a standard location and time just invites crackdown. Any such gathering is more likely to be mobile, irregular, and brief, the specifics shared only with the trusted. The quasi-exception to this is the dark web, the portion of the internet that’s configured for secrecy, anonymity, and controlled access; the darknet market Silk Road managed to operate for over two years on the Tor network (no relation to the SF/F publisher Tor!).

So before a character can buy or sell anything illicit, you have to consider how they’re making contact with prospective vendors or customers. And that can be an adventure all on its own!

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6 thoughts on “New Worlds: Shady Trades”

  1. Hiring undocumented workers is an interesting one. Some people call the undocumented workers the criminals, but not those hiring them.

  2. Art fakes — both actual counterfeits of specific works, and misattributed works. The latter has been a seldom-acknowledged but “serious” problem in the West since the mid-1400s (and probably was before then, but just wasn’t documented let alone reported).

    In a sense, though, this is a schadenfreude illegal market: It’s really, really hard to have an awful lot of sympathy for the travails of the ultrarich when they get “ripped off” because they were buying Art instead of art.

    1. Forgery is on my list of possible future topics, though I’ll have to see whether I feel like I have a thousand meaningful words in me about it.

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