The dull future of Vladimir Putin's rule

There is a stream of political economy holding that government per se is rooted in organized crime: The “stationary bandit” replaces the roving bandit, tribute and extortion becomes taxation, the protection racket becomes the rule of law. Don Corleone’s real-life predecessors in Sicily ran organizations that often had the character of a municipal government and, it is worth remembering, also functioned as a kind of virtue police on the Saudi mutaween model. “Could we take off the dark covering of antiquity and trace them to their first rise,” Tom Paine wrote, “we should find the first of them nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang; whose savage manners or preeminence in subtilty obtained him the title of chief among plunders; and who by increasing in power and extending his depredations, overawed the quiet and defenceless to purchase their safety by frequent contributions.”

That story echoes throughout the ages: The Taliban is partly an Islamist movement, but it also (and perhaps principally) is a crime syndicate, a drug cartel; Fidel Castro’s government was as much a mafia as an ideological movement; Rafael Trujillo was a gangster; Francisco Franco and Augusto Pinochet may have called themselves generalissimos and worn epaulets, but they had much more in common with Carlo Gambino than with Dwight Eisenhower; the Maoist revolutionary movement known as Shining Path never got the chance to impose its vision of socialism on Peru, but it has endured as a criminal gang; Russia had plenty of oligarchs in the days of Soviet socialism, but we called them apparatchiks back then. A gangster is a gangster is a gangster.

Putin is a gangster with a little ambition.