Lurking in the Shadows

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(275)

Review of 'Reefer Madness', Eric Schlosser, Penguin £10.99

When I was young I would happily sit listening to my nan's accounts of life in west London during the Second World War. Inevitably the discussion would move on to the question of rationing and the black market. She would recount how it was possible to buy anything - from meat, chocolate, cigarettes and the obligatory 'nylons' - from the spivs and black market racketeers. That was then. But how much have things really changed? Are the jeans you got down the market really Calvin Klein's? Have you paid the duty on your fags and what about the eighth tucked away in your bottom drawer? The truth is, in this era of free market globalisation, the black economy is alive and kicking.

According to Eric Schlosser's wonderful new book, 'Reefer Madness', these shadow economies range in size from about 10 percent of the US economy, 12.5 percent of the the gross domestic product (GDP) in Britain, 27 percent of the Italian GDP and a staggering 75 percent of the GDP of Nigeria. He argues that the size of black markets is not fixed, but instead rises and falls with the state of the economy.

The book can be divided into three essays. The first looks at the legal and economic consequences of marijuana use in the US. Did you know that Americans now spend more money on illegal drugs than the combined US earnings of Marlboro, Camel and all the other cigarette manufacturers? Schlosser demonstrates that those who suffer most from the so called war on drugs tend to be poor or working class people. Interestingly, while drug testing in the workplace has been used to systematically hound and control low paid workers, legislation to impose drug testing on members of Congress has repeatedly died in committee and never reached the floor for a vote!

Probably the most powerful essay is the one that addresses the harrowing plight of California's migrant agricultural workers. The hourly wages of Californian farm workers have dropped by more than 50 percent since 1980. Up to 60 percent of all Californian farm labourers are migrant workers. The average migrant is a Mexican male aged 29, who earns less that $7,500 for 25 weeks work and whose life expectancy is 49 years! Read Schlosser's accounts about the back-breaking work of the strawberry pickers, the camps they live in and how the Immigration Department kicks them out of the country as soon as the harvest is complete. You have to keep pinching yourself to remind you that this isn't a page from one of John Steinbeck's 1930s novels - this is George W Bush's America. This thriving black market in labour has enabled the Californian agricultural corporations to make massive profits. So called illegal immigrants, hounded and persecuted by the media and labelled as welfare cheats are in effect subsidising the most important sector of the Californian economy.

Finally, Schlosser delves into the world of the porn industry. He sees pornography rooted in a society fuelled by loneliness and frustration. But instead of writing an essay on pornography itself, this is very much an account of the underlying economics of the industry. Schlosser follows the porn industry's transformation from minor subculture on the fringes of society into the major business that it is today. Americans now spend as much as $10 billion a year on so called 'adult entertainment'. That is an amount roughly the same as Hollywood's domestic box office receipts.

'Reefer Madness' has the ability to both shock and make you angry at the same time. Linking all three essays is a belief that the underground is inextricably linked to the mainstream. Today's spivs don't lurk in corners, pockets stuffed with goodies - instead they come with their corporate logos and with the blessing and backing of our governments.