David Cameron…and the MAFIA, but not in the way you think

This Crooked Timber points to a column in the Economist about interns on the Bush campaign carefully hand-writing a range of fake homemade signs, confiscating the ones their positively vetted audience had brought along, and issuing them to the crowd for the media to wow over their rural authenticity. Well, not surprising. And the Economist guy was clearly so shocked he almost said something.

At the moment, however, I can’t help but think of this touching scene in terms of signalling and secret communication. The problem is Diego Gambetta’s Codes of the Underworld: How criminals communicate, which recently attracted attention because of its section on the vital importance of mediocrity to some Italian academics. I’ll do a formal review of it later, either here or at AFOE, but before we do that, let’s try putting it in practice.

He argues that much behaviour among criminals is driven by the problems of communicating things like group membership, reputation, and availability of goods or services in an environment where it is both easy to fake it and impossible to signal openly. Therefore, members of the Mafia never use the word “mafia” or indeed any specific term to refer to the organisation – what could be harder than trying to convince your mark that you are part of a mighty criminal society whose name you don’t know? – and they operate a sort of web of trust, in which two mafiosi who don’t know each other can only meet if one who knows them both mutually vouches for their identity.

A crucial element is the creative use of biological signalling theories, which revolve around the insight that an identifying signal needs to be cheap for a real user to produce, but expensive for a faker, or at least, that a signal needs to represent a real commitment of resources to be credible. In this sense, I think I can see the purpose of those signs – we know, after all, that the canned crowd were willing to be relieved of their own signs and have others thrust into their hands. Would you put up with this treatment?

I suspect if you’re reading this, you would probably find both the reality of the censorship, and the aesthetic horror of the fakery, quite offensive. But then, you’re also unlikely to want to be part of a canned crowd for George W. Bush….unless you were trying to fake it for some reason. Clearly, one of the effects of this procedure was a form of cost-discriminating signalling – the organisers demanded that their activists signal certain things that fakers would find difficult to mimic. You had to demonstrate that you were willing to abandon your stated opinions and wave ones they gave you instead.

As far as I can see, the qualities this process selected for would be obedience to authority and tolerance of ugly kitsch. Does anyone doubt that these would indeed qualify you to wave a sign behind the former president? This is an example of using costly signalling to communicate with people who score highly on the indices of social authoritarianism; as well as the political implications, it’s probably true that staging a preplanned media photocall with a crowd of people selected for their obedience to authority is just easier.

This is something which comes up occasionally in Gambetta; it’s possible for communication to evolve independently of intention. Even if our man the Bush ’04 intern was trying to stop the rent-a-mob turning up with 666 – TAKE A CLOSER LOOK!!! or OSAMA BIN KERRY signs, the way he did it had the secondary or unconscious effect of selecting the kind of person who would appreciate them most.

Over time, such effects could come to determine the culture of an entire political movement. Obviously, people who go to rallies are likely to be the same people who take part in all the other forms of campaigning, so if this (and other practices with similar effects) are common, it would likely tend to help boil down the base to its stinking, bitter, toxic, sticky residue.

O.K. Enough beating about the Bush. A practical example with David Cameron. The thing to grasp here is that whatever he’s apparently saying, or not saying, may be better understood as a way of identifying and communicating with like-minded people on a secure side-channel. Here, he’s saying that we don’t need to do anything, plus a whole lot of implied ideological justification. The obvious corrolary of not needing to do anything is to suggest that nothing is wrong. But what is the cost investment here?


  1. 1 how criminals communicate « Alternate Seat of TYR

    […] IR theory, we’d be looking at this point for a costly signal, as described so well in Diego Gambetta’s classic book Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate. The reason why the Tories and Labour can try to obfuscate their credibility is that talk is cheap. […]




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