Space, Time, and Organized Crime – Alan A. Block Book Review

For me, Space, Time, and Organized Crime written by Alan A. Block in 1994 was a game changer and it remains my favorite book on organized crime. Staying faithful to the historical method and grounding the contents in their sociological context, Block played both the role of a critic and journalist to write incredibly detailed essays on all manners of topics intersecting organized crime, the American labour movement, Big Business, and politics. This was the first academic book that I read on “the mafia” and it changed my understanding of how great literature can be in this genre. I was not longer stuck having to read books written by journalistic hacks (cough cough Larry McShane cough cough Phillip Carlo) and even respected authors like Jerry Capeci and Scott Burnstein failed to meet my desire for rigour. Although a niche subject, some scholars and academics did not treat this topic as an amusing novelty and dedicated a great deal of time and effort in trying to inject some much-needed standards and accuracy. Block was one of them. Yet, it wasn’t just the lack of quality that I lamented; reading this book I realized just how narrow biographies are in their scope. Although that should have been readily apparent, the limited nature of the popular (auto)biographical books was not apparent until it dawned on me that I was reading about a tree and missing the forest around it. What Alan A. Block’s book did for me was place people, things, and events into context, both from within organized crime and the surrounding sociological setting.

My initial ambitions with Space, Time, and Organized Crime were very limited at first. The sole purpose for my purchase was to read chapter 10 entitled, “Racketeering in Fuels: Tax Scamming by Organized Crime”. At that time, I was desperate and determined to find an overarching history and explanation of fuel racketeering only given in bits and pieces by popular books. What I read was astonishing to me; the butterfly effect was real. It was never explained in any book (or video for that matter) that the seeds for this racket were sown a decade before any Italian got involved due to geopolitics in the Middle East (Yom Kippur War and the subsequent 1973 oil crises) and the success of which was enabled by the gutting of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Intelligence Division because of internal battles in the backdrop of the Watergate Scandal. Smarmy criminals bragged in their books about how clever they were only to forget to mention how their exploits were only possible because Richard Nixon was an angry and vindictive man that the IRS took until 1982 to recover from. What made this chapter so compelling to me was the ability of Block to place this criminal endeavor into what was going on in America at the time. The irony is that the criminals that executed the scheme and now write or talk about it make it seem much smaller and more boring than what truly took place. Getting towards the end of the chapter I was disappointed because I didn’t want it to end and then I started scrolling through the notes to hit upon a key strength of the book. First, so much wonderful and crucial information is tucked away in the endnotes, details that enrich the characters and events Block wrote about. More crucially, however, they indicated the richness of the book’s bibliography. His research skills and ability to sift through documents to extract key information were bolstered by his access to important primary sources, including affidavits and other crucial files. It’s hard for other authors to match this kind of quality because Block simply had people outgunned with the wealth of information he had. The foundations of the book are great because of the author’s academically skeptical approach backed by vast amounts of resources to draw upon for data.

Rejecting the commonly held view of the “alien conspiracy theory”, Block stressed throughout the book that organized crime in America was not synonymous with “La Cosa Nostra” or “the Mafia” despite the claims made by law enforcement and preceding historians/sociologists. In fact, the opening chapter of the book is dedicated to debunking popularly held myths (that, unfortunately, persist to this day) about the supposed purge of “Mustache Petes” following Maranzano’s murder or Murder, Inc. in the heydays of Albert Anastasia. Seeking to improve upon the historiography of organized crime, he corrects the record on several key events and instead promotes the notion that modern organized crime was born from the marrying of machine politics, vice entrepreneurs, and waves of Southern and Eastern European immigrants in a mixing in a pot of a rapidly urbanizing prejudiced industrial society. Supporting the notion that organized crime =/= Italian organized crime, Block highlighted that modern drug racketeering was popularized by criminals of Jewish heritage in which Italians played second fiddle. It was only through the tragedy brought upon by World War II and the shattering of international Jewish networks, that Italians finally became dominant players in opiate importation. The in-depth coverage of so many varying topics is what I feel makes this book so great; there is something for everyone.

The sections that stood out the most to me were Part IV: New Ventures and Part V: Dilemmas and Ambiguities in Crime Control. Those chapters are filled with such meticulous detail and intricate research that in many cases it feels like you are reading a mystery thriller novel. Every page uncovers some new connection between politicians, criminals, and business executives highlighting an intricate web of relationships that permeated the fabric of American society and outlined mind-boggling conspiracies. From Florida judges using the Watergate Scandal to deflect their alleged connection with organized crime to alleged Lucchese associates sitting on the same board of directors as Britain’s Prime Minister’s husband, the connections uncovered were just fascinating. Of course, there is so much more as well from the League of Nations’ failed policy that led to the creation of the modern illicit drug market to deflating organized crime’s inevitable march towards bureaucratization as purported by some academics. As wonderful as the book was, it isn’t without some flaws, and I will comment on two particular grievances I had.

First, the biggest issue I found with the chapter on fuel racketeering is the fact that it was not brought to a satisfying end. This is strange in the view of preceding and subsequent chapters where Block makes an effort to methodically chronicle all major characters, corporations, and dates to sketch out a complete understanding of the evolution of conspiracies. This is more of an individual complaint, but Block dedicated a whole book to LCN’s infiltration of the garbage industry and two books on organized crime within the global financial system yet he only managed to produce two essays on fuel racketeering. Come on man… Finally, the main criticism has to do with chapter two regarding the testimonies of Cleveland underboss Angelo Lonardo and the issue of the Commission at large. It seems most academic scholars (including James B. Jacobs) dismiss the regulatory powers of the Commission and its perceived ability to meaningfully direct La Cosa Nostra affairs across the country. By noting Scalish’s ignorance of national affairs and important mafiosos and Licavoli’s lack of knowledge about proper protocol, Block concluded that it meant the Commission was fairly if not entirely irrelevant in the running of the various crime families. And yet Block ignored a major aspect of Lonardo’s recollections, specifically concerning a request for the Genovese “boss”, Anthony Salerno, to permit Cleveland to make ten individuals since the Commission banned the induction of new members after 1957. Clearly, the Commission was influential enough for families to follow this important policy and decades later Cleveland wanted the permission of the Genovese family (which was a proxy for the Commission since it represented them) to enlarge the size of their membership, a vital function for the success of any organization. The national significance of the Commission at large was yet still dismissed from the revelation of a certain Italian document that outlined how New York-centric its composition was. Block determined that this showed how the Commission, if really functional, was largely just a New York affair in its ability to exert any significant influence. Of course, a simple alternative explanation could be that while “the mafia” was a national criminal network, it was most concentrated in the urban areas of America’s East Coast and the make-up of the Commission reflected that fact. Proportional representation, if you will. Finally, Block used the chaos of the Philadelphia organized crime family starting with Angelo Bruno’s death in 1980 to highlight how utterly powerless the supposedly powerful Commission was at regulating violence, the very purpose of its origin. I thought that was a weak example for two reasons. First, by the 1980s, the Commission was losing national relevancy and did become the local affair Block assumed it was from the very beginning and so its ability to enforce its edicts was unravelling in the face of sustained law enforcement attacks and general attrition of the smaller families that impeded the networks that underpinned this national criminal fraternity. Second, many of the murders done in the wake of Bruno’s death were done on either the Commission’s (or proxy) orders or as a way to instill discipline into members or associates who broke the rules that underpinned the organization. Thus, what might look like general chaos and breakdown of the family was just waves of new leadership trying to bring the perpetrators of “unlawful” murders to “justice”. As such, I feel like using and analyzing the events of “the Bannana War” or either the First or Second Colombo War might have served as a more relevant example for the type of analysis or conclusion Block was trying to deliver. With all that being said, these minor nitpicks pale in comparison to the great material one can find and learn from reading this book.

Alan A. Block was my introduction to academic writing on organized crime and maybe he can be yours too. A link to his obituary.

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