Underground Economies of the West Side


I’m writing this partially because I’m tired of White conservatives talking shit about my home, Chicago and particularly Black & Brown Chicago, which is more specifically my home. I also want to draw some connections from it to the larger economy, which liberals miss in their concentration on gun access. While the guns are obviously important, why we have and need so many guns — the underlying reasons — are integral. These problems will not be solved by the National Guard or the feds coming in to rescue us (which have been suggested by Republicans as well as Democrats). And they will not be taken care of by tighter gun restrictions if the economic issues are not addressed head-on.

The first thing to know about gun violence in a city like Chicago is that it is largely localized. It doesn’t appear near downtown or in the Northside. If we thought of gun use as solely about thuggery, then this omission is impossible to imagine. Because the Loop, South and West Loop, the Gold Coast, Lincoln Park, Bucktown, and Wicker Park is where the money is, right? So if it were simply about money, about robbing, then the guns would be flooding those neighborhoods, no?

So Chicago gun violence isn’t about thuggery. It’s not about bad people just doing bad things. The answer, to steal from Bill Clinton, is in the economy, stupid.

While many Black people work professional and middle class jobs, African Americans have disproportionately been kept out of those lines of income and wealth-generation. With the dismantling of Affirmative Action programs from the Right Wing courts, and the furtherance of neoliberalism and gentrification, MC AA communities are dwindling. Chicago has been a hotbed of not just racial segregation, but a testing ground for liberal neoliberalism and gentrification, so these effects are being spun over quickly and drastically here, and prominently in the far South Side and West Side neighborhoods that are the focus of the gun deaths. As I noted a few years ago, if you notice where monies are taken from the city, where basic public projects like schools and mental health centers are shuttered, you’ll find the locus of these homicides. But there’s more and this is where we come to the often-overlapping Hustling and Underground Economies.

First, note that these economies are still under the aegis of capitalism and have to play within the boundaries even as they undermine the rules. The Hustle is the first Gig Economy and as such, the hustler works from rise until bed, always looking for new contracts, new prospects, new clients, new revenue sources. The hustler must work in such a way in order to make ends meet because capitalism does not care about survival, only production. The Hustle Economy is a complete rebuke of the White Supremacist lie that Black poor folk don’t work and don’t want to work — hustlers make the most of what they have, and racist capitalism gives them nothing.

But the focus of this post is the Underground Economy, and in it we see the fullness of capitalism without the protections of the nation-state. This is most obviously seen in highly-organized gangs, but it extends to smaller ones as well.

We can think of gangs as companies and corporations. They have purpose, product, and clientele, but mostly they operate to make money. Gangs have brands and brand loyalty and they cover niches and territories — their markets. Like most corporations, gangs work hard to project, protect, and where possible expand their brands and their territories.

The difference is that official companies and corporations (the Overground Economy) have the weight and legitimacy of the nation-state behind them, while the UE does not. Company employees and customers do not need to do their business in the dark for fear of state repercussions and reprisals. In the Overground Economy (the legal one), one can make business in relative peace. If a customer or a supplier has a problem with the company in question, they can go through legal means of making amends with the power of the courts behind them if need be. Because contracts.

Acquisitions in the Overground Economy are not necessarily non-violent. People lose their jobs, their security, their savings, their homes, and their livelihoods. There is usually a lot of fighting. In the Underground Economy, this fighting doesn’t have the same legal coverage, so it spills out into the streets.

Often that street violence is retributive, again a reminder that the justice system is not on the side of Working Class and UE people and thus cannot provide for their needs. Indeed, when the justice system does get involved in the HE and UE, it is solely in retributive and punitive measurements, further complicating and worsening the plight of those involved.

The OE also has the full weight of the US military and Justice System behind it. Is any gang in the world more violent than genocidal oil companies like Chevron, Halliburton, and BP or military suppliers like Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin?

While this doesn’t account for all the gun violence in Chicago (remember that domestic violence doesn’t respect race, though the distinctive ways it carries out in wealthier and poorer communities mirrors the trend with the economies), it puts into perspective underlying reasons for the violence. Bringing in more cops and harsher prison sentences will not fix the issue, merely exasperate it.


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Your Humboldt Park Marxist; West Side, Chicago. Post-evangelical. Educator.

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