What Is a Cartel?
Much of the difficulty in analyzing the social systems of the postmodern era results from their placement within a particular semiotic framework. This framework creates the appearance of roles and structures which are taken as a priori true, and this appearance often conceals the social systems’ actual operations. Typological distinctions are predicated between systems based on their names and titles rather than on their properties. This facilitates the use of power. For example, certain actions of the so-called “private sector” are permitted or even endorsed by society, when those same actions undertaken by “public institutions” are forbidden. And while there may be valid reasons why two different social systems with different properties have different permissions regarding the same activities, this cannot be assumed to be the case on a purely nominal basis.
A superior framework for analysis would approach social systems with a clean slate absent any prior labels, and this begins with the general activity of humanity: the redistribution of resources. Given an objective distribution of a resource, humans will shuffle it about in various ways in order to fulfill various individual and collective needs, and this shuffling about, in combination with end-point resource consumption (often itself a transference of redistribution to the internal worlds of the human body and mind), encompasses all human activity. This redistribution is accomplished via an assortment of biological and social systems — distribution systems — and these systems share the following structures:
First, a primary distributionary resource, whose distribution is the system’s function. It is this primary distributionary resource which delineates the system from other distribution systems with which it might share components or subsystems. A given social system may and likely does participate in multiple distribution systems, which are understood and analyzed as such qua their relationship to a primary distributionary resource. Such resources include raw materials whose original distribution is given by nature, materials which have been fabricated or cultivated by humans using these raw materials (including the energetic materials of electrical power and kinetic force), and the abstract material of information.
Second, various feed resources which fuel the distribution system itself. These feed resources are directed to the distribution system via feed resource flows, which are simultaneously the redistribution flows of primary distributionary resources belonging to other distribution systems.
Third, the infrastructure by which the primary distributionary resource is distributed and by which feed resources are converted into more infrastructure via secondary processes.
It’s notable that individual humans can fall into any one of these categories: a person can be the resource being distributed (as with human trafficking), part of the infrastructure of distribution (laborers, smugglers, administrators), or a feed resource (in that labor must be procured somehow and from somewhere and “put to work” via administration).
Fourth, territory in which the infrastructure exists, over which the primary distributionary resource is distributed, and from which feed resources are drawn.
A particular form of infrastructure warrants special mention, that being the abstract infrastructure of normal order, the norms and expectations under which distribution takes place. Normal order is established through the (informational) feed resource of normative ordering. The substructure of normal order, relative to a given primary distributionary resource, which describes human control over the distribution system, is the cartel. One might think of the normal order as a conceptual map onto physical infrastructure: this person is my boss; this bridge belongs to us. Normal order is ecumenical, a collective understanding distributed across minds; it is the total consensus reality exploited by the cartel in any way.
While we may colloquially speak of individuals as belonging to a cartel or being members of a cartel, it is of central importance that we recognize that the cartel is not identified with the group of people who meet that description. People, in terms of their physical bodies, are infrastructure (or resources). A cartel is conceptual.
Cartels are rarely constituted by a single social system but rather by multiple social systems acting within an environment of collaborative competition defined by the distribution system’s normal order. The sources of normal order for all distribution systems are normative ordering cartels, whose primary distributionary resource is normal order. Normative ordering takes place through ordering communication (the feed resource flow of normative ordering), which ends (always) in agreement, acceptance of the new normal order. Normative ordering is predicated on and takes place within the context of the existing normal order. In the absence of immediate agreement, a state of war results and ordering communication continues (possibly including threats of force or the use of force) until agreement is reached.
While this account of the cartel is intended to be neutral and universal, opium serves well as an example primary distributionary resource precisely because the social systems responsible for its distribution are not pre-defined through conventional legal frameworks.
Working our way up from the level of cultivation, we see at that level loose coalitions of farmers, mostly in Afghanistan, operating under traditional family arrangements which also perform the role of processing the raw materials into opium resin. This resin is then sold to smugglers and the income used for local development and paid as a tax to local militias. (This source certainly predates major changes in the Afghan political landscape, but whether or not this is the present arrangement, we can examine it as a historical arrangement). We may analyze a single farm as a distribution subsystem: opium is the primary distributionary resource. Feed resources include seed (converted to poppies via the secondary process of planting and cultivation), water, any fertilizing agents utilized, tools (perhaps converted from raw material feeds via secondary processes), farmers to plant the seed and till the soil, other human bodies to harvest and process it, the smugglers to whom the finished product is sold, the money for which it is sold, and normative ordering. Infrastructure includes all of the above post-acquisition, and the normal order under which opium can be exchanged for afghanis and under which afghanis can be exchanged for other goods and services. All inventory on hand, including finished opium and intermediate products, are also infrastructure. That the feed resource “money” continues so long as the primary distributionary resource flow continues — that they are “exchanged” — is part of the normal order. And the territory is the farm and the land itself, control over which is part of the normal order.
Territory is not exclusive (the same land may be controlled by multiple cartels, even those with the same primary distributionary resource in a state of war), and is not binary but rather gradient: a given area might be graded on a scale of 0 to 1 relative to a given cartel, 0 representing no control and 1 representing total control, with control of all cartels over a given area summing to 1. Territorial control, as with all normal order, is subject to disagreement (a cartel or agency might think that it has more control than it really does) and dispute (a cartel might be working to increase their level of control, necessarily decreasing the level of control by other cartels in the process), but there is at all times a fact of the matter as to who controls a given area, whether or not anyone knows that fact or agrees with it.
The analysis of the total cartel continues above the level of the farm. The cultivation of the poppy is carried out under the authority and protection of the local militias, who control and protect these operations because it is profitable for them to do so. Control over and profit from poppy cultivation is not the militias’ primary goal but rather a means towards their political ends. A given militia thus belongs to the opium cartel as a normative ordering subsystem.
Given the importance of normal order, it is hotly contested, with disputes often resorting to force. Max Weber famously described the state as the political institution which successfully claims the monopoly on violence over a given territory, and this serves very well for most purposes, but under this analysis, the state, for a given territory, is the normative ordering cartel with control over that territory. This definition largely subsumes Weber’s: given the strategic importance of normal order, and given that force is the ultimate recourse for disputes over the normal order (in that all disputes will be resolved by force if by nothing else), that normative ordering cartel with control over a given territory is most likely the one with the monopoly on violence within that territory. Note that it is necessary by definition that this cartel be singular: it is impossible that multiple cartels share normative control of a territory, for if they did, that arrangement would be the cartel. Multiple states are only possible when there is a state of war between them.
Returning again to our opium cartel and to the level of its cultivation in Afghanistan, we see the normal order at that level largely imposed by family and tribal leadership and by local militias. This order is threatened on at least two fronts: by the Afghan government (the Taliban), and by foreign military coalitions. Given a parcel of land, if that is indeed the territory of a local militia and not the Taliban, we can simply say that the Taliban does not control that territory. If they attempted to, either the local militias would submit (making the Taliban the state, at least insofar as our as-yet-incomplete analysis), or there would arise a state of war. The Taliban thus enjoys at least some degree of control over the territory but presumably tolerates local militia control in remote areas, which means that the state is a cartel of which the families, tribes, local militias, and the Taliban are subsystems.
Foreign military coalitions, even if not physically present in the parts of Afghanistan of which we are speaking, enjoy some degree of control merely through the threat of invasion. For example, if the Taliban were to invade an area controlled by a militia, the militia might be compelled to resist rather than submit, fearing that submission would result in an invasion by a foreign military coalition, which they might perceive to be worse (although this is not at all likely to be the case at present). So the state cartel now includes family and tribal leadership, local militias, the Taliban, and foreign military coalitions as subsystems, though it’s important to remember that they are not neutralized in this way: they play different roles in the cartel and have different degrees of control. In this analysis, we also see why Weber’s account of the state is insufficient: the foreign military coalition has a theoretical monopoly on violence over the area — theirs is the violence of last resort — but for everyday purposes, the monopoly is held by the local militia, and there may be some exceptional circumstances in which Taliban is required to intervene but which do not require the intervention of foreign military coalitions.
This is despite the Taliban not being recognized as legitimate by foreign governments. The United States, for example, may protest the illegitimacy of the Taliban as much as it wants; it still concedes to the Taliban’s normative control over Afghanistan. Thus, the Taliban and the United States government are part of the same state cartel exerting normative control over Afghanistan. The respective agencies are in a state of collaborative competition rather than a state of war.
This example illustrates the power of the cartel model. Under this analysis, the illusion of certain subsystems’ control over a territory based on their names and titles is dispelled. In this example, this reveals that the true Afghan state includes the United States in a particular way.
What about the smugglers? Certainly they’re another link in the chain, but they are also not operating under the authority of the militias. Certainly they are under the general control of the militias while in the militias’ territory, but their total journey (to, for example, neighboring Tajikistan) falls outside their protection. There is consequently, at this point, a break in the chain of authority, one which is bridged by the smugglers (who are, regardless, undoubtedly part of the cartel’s infrastructure).
In Tajikistan, then, the drugs are either distributed directly by the smugglers or fall into the hands of criminal organizations, who then control their local distribution and exportation, in partial collaboration with law enforcement agencies and indeed the entire Tajik government. Distribution beyond Tajikistan is then managed by networks of criminal organizations operating an international black market economy. This network is the cartel proper, and we note that, at this level, control is not fully cooperative. The cartel is anarchical: there is no single person or organization in charge of it all, and criminal organizations are certainly competing and at times fighting for control of strategic assets within the distribution system. This presents us with another example of cooperative competition, a norm other than open warfare under which agencies within a cartel vie for control. When this norm breaks down, there is then a state of war between cartels (whose ontology may derive from a schism within a single cartel).