Friday, January 19, 2007


I'm reading Shantaram by Gregory Roberts. It's a cracking real-life story of an Australian con-on-the-run ending up in Bombay, first living in a slum, then becoming involved in organised crime, which apparently is to be made into a film shortly, staring Johnny Depp. It can be read on many levels: as simply a gripping read, as an insight into Bombay as megalopolis (offering more than Mehta's Maximum City in my opinion), but at a deeper level, it offers insights into the informal economy and how we view criminality. The urban poor often have no access to the formal economy, bank accounts, legally-backed accommodation etc. In that wise, they have to rely on informal networks that formal capitalists systems view as 'criminal'. However, oftentimes, these informal-yet-illegal networks are wholly supportive and mainly positive in the work and service they provide. Roberts helps to set up a medical facility (in his hut!) in the slum, receiving black market drugs from a community of lepers and paid for by one of the underworld mafia dons. At no point in this value-chain is there bad intention, and the end-users in the slum only benefit. Shantaram forces us to question the relationship between social disenfranchisement and criminality. Some reviewers on Amazon criticise it for being overlong and riven with overly poetic flourishes. I say bollocks. It's a profound meditation on the nature of human suffering and agency, from someone who has experienced more than a lifetime of limit situations.. At 900 pages+, its ideal for long commutes, flights etc.


Anonymous,  9:23 pm  

Interesting. As usual, your knee-jerk iconoclasm blinds you to some basic truths about human nature. If criminality, black market drugs, and "informal" networks were so efficient, they'd become the norm, instead of the back-alley, underhanded, illegal things they are.

In your world view, one doesn't get to see what are actually the characteristic of your much-vaunted "informal" networks: violence, cheating, prostitution and general malfeasance.

Still, if it's made into a movie starring Depp, count me in.

Anonymous,  9:33 pm  

Interesting. This reminds me of Brian Larkin's article "Degraded Images, Distorted Sounds: Nigerian Video and the Infrastructure of Piracy" _Public Culture_ 16(2): 289-314 in which he discusses the global "shadow networks" of piracy, enabling people in less priviliged countries to bypass the copyright laws of the West to have access to materials they would not otherwise be able to legally obtain. (which, from my observation, includes software as well as media)

Larkin notes that "Nigerian videos are a legitimate media form that could not exist without the infrastructure created by its illegitimate double, pirate media” (290). This is because the video-films are distributed and marketed in the same way that pirated Hollywood and Bollywood movies were and still are distributed.

If you'd like to see the article, I have it in pdf format and could send it to you. Let me know.

Jeremy 9:49 pm  

Fred you could put it exactly the opposite way: if formal networks were more efficient, there would be no need for informal networks. The question is, why hasn't advanced capitalism achieved this (and will the 'bottom of pyramid' approach finally do this?)

I'm not quite sure why you think I 'vaunt' informal networks. However, you will note when you read the book that the overload Roberts works for is quite the philosophy with a highly attuned sense of ethical service: he doesnt do prostitution racketeering.

TC: yes please send the pdf!

Anonymous,  12:52 am  

J: "Formal" networks may not be 100% efficient, but they are most certainly close. As close as humanly possible, within the confines of a "civilized" approach to things. By which I mean, taking into consideration all the variables that go into making a system (of any sort) work as smoothly as possible, what with competing value systems and outcomes.

One in which might does not necessarily mean right, a situation which happens by rote in "informal" networks, as altruistic (or ethical, a nonsensical idea to me) as it may seem on the surface.

Someone always gets the short end of the stick, with a dollop of degradation on top. I'm not saying the same doesn't happen with "formal" networks, but to a disproportionately lesser extent. It's a question of what works equitably, an idea which does not necessarily figure into "informal" systems.

J, you're an iconoclast; a very weird blend of socialism and a 'disliker' of constituted authorities and systems. Of course you vaunt these informal networks, and that's why I like you! I can always predict what the good doctor will think! ;-)

Anonymous,  1:47 am  

When I eventually go back to grad school, I'd like to do my thesis on informal economies (or something thereabouts) in developing countries. It is an extremely important aspect of the economy that is not accounted for, yet it enables survival for the poor!

Anonymous,  2:36 am  


Who determines the rules? Are they always written to include the least privileged? Are there times when the least privileged may not have access to certain drugs, software, media, et al. unless they get them illegally? What is more "moral"--for large pharmaceutical companies to "legally" inflate the cost of their drugs to make them almost unaffordable to those who don't live in countries with insurance or efficient public health care infrastructures, or for there to be certain "illegal" networks that help treat the poor with pirated drugs.

The fact that there are informal networks of child prostitution, fake drugs, etc. that are also "illegal" does not mean that all "illegal" activities are EQUALLY despicable. One hopes that the more noble forms of "illegality" might eventually become "legal."

But then, perhaps that is wishful thinking. One of the most universal charachteristics of human nature seems to be the corrupting nature of great power.

Anonymous,  8:27 am  

fred you done come again. Talatu-carmen, well put. The informal (which the formal structures reads as illegal)is the mainstay of the vast majority of the developing world. lets face it without some kind of informal organising going on, many will simply perish.

Anonymous,  2:33 pm  

It seems, without the bluster of attempting to moralize business and economics--an impossible task, my little liberal socialist, Carmen, ask the Europeans--that you and I agree: the effort should be towards getting rid of these informal networks with their attendant baggage.

Semper 12:52 am  

Hi Jeremy,

Ignore Fred and carry on thinking.

You are on to something.

(Americans disapprove of all stealing, violence, cheating and bullying. Except their own corporate s,v,c&b.)

Anonymous,  11:16 pm  

its a brill book. its all about mercy, the thin line between good and evil, i'd recommend it,but i think the author favours the status quo too much. it sorta accepts that there 'll always be poor people in the world

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