Modern governments have an odd disconnect between the use of force and the collection of funds. Pre Industrial Revolution, the relationship was fairly obvious – money comes from land, and land goes to its conqueror and his henchmen. The ruling class was obviously extractive, and their status as rulers was obviously inextricably linked with their ability to deploy violence.
With the rise of the bourgeoisie, money now depends on economic dynamics that are beyond the comprehension of any one person. This seems to work better (ie, more taxes) when they are mostly left alone, and when taxes are extracted as gently (“non-distortionary” is the econo-jargon) as possible. Instead of a ruling class of warrior-conqueror-protector-plunderers, one is left with mere managers, and the illusion is maintained as much as possible that one is left alone.
The rise of transnational paramilitary criminal gangs, particularly Mexico’s notorious drug cartels, is in some ways a return to the more honest, if less efficient, form of governance. It’s almost a misnomer at this point to refer to them as “drug cartels”, since with the acquisition of quasi sovereign power to skim from entire industries in geographies they control (avocado farming, oil production, migrant smuggling…), they are starting to resemble the bandit antecedents of proper states. Charlemagne’s court wasn’t a “grain cartel”, even if that was the proximate source of his funds.
Their influence, however, is obviously not restricted to Mexico. Smuggling requires connections on both ends; maintaining those connections requires deploying force and neutralizing competitors. The foremost of those competitors are the local government of the areas involved, and the organizations theoretically responsible for staunching the flow in general. Thus, we see increasing corruption of the Border Patrol, and increased influence in US cities in their core area of operations.
In the context of a large scale US insurgency, soft secession, political destabilization, etc, an enormous power vacuum would form. The United States is still an incredibly wealthy country, and the incredible amount of economic activity and liquidatable capital within its borders becomes the equivalent of a twenty dollar bill left on the floor of the Port Authority Bus Terminal once it can no longer be protected.
Possessing force projection capabilities at least equivalent to many local governments, if not quite as concentrated, the obvious play would be to “tax” American (or Mesoamerican, in many areas of the border states) farmers, oil producers, truckers, etc in the same way they do in Mexico; perhaps with security as the effective reward, perhaps as banditry. Certainly drug consumption of various kinds tends to rapidly increase as social stresses rise; on this basis alone one would be concerned about their influence. Even given current circumstances, one sees cartel hits in cities from Ohio to St Paul, far from the border and only distinguished by their status as places with money to be made from the drug trade. Add in a helping of increased economic stagnation, violence, poverty, and despair, in the context of reduced suppression efforts, and their presence would boom.
The US doesn’t lack for indigenous criminal capacity either. The government of Chicago, for instance, has effectively given up seriously attempting to pacify its gang problem, and in fact is attempting to integrate them into its political system as a relatively cheap vote bank. This is not very effective, since they form not so much “gangs” that can be bargained with as paleolithic micro-tribes and raiding parties, mostly settling petty disputes between themselves with violence. The main concern is preventing them from raiding externally, into the core tax base. It’s difficult to say how a decline in government competency would affect this. Megalopolis governments like DC, Chicago, and NYC place a far higher priority on preventing their citizens from defending themselves; would they continue this pattern and leave their citizens more vulnerable to increased predation, or give up on the pretense of being the primary enforcers of order?
Regardless of the ultimate outcome, a decline in the ability of governments to suppress violence in general would lead to a response. Even in Mexico, where the US acts as an enormous escape valve for social stress, one sees responses by local citizens attempting to defend their own communities. In Mexico, well organized efforts are often suppressed by corrupt governmental authorities; one would not expect the situation in the United States to be terribly different. Even ignoring that, often the local militia or would-be Magnificent Seven turns out to be a collection of assholes. The first guy to try the “let’s shoot the bastards” strategy tends not to have his plan completely figured out, and does not tend to succeed.
But there is one very salient difference between the US and Mexico in this regard: the United States is an incredibly well-armed society, and a significant portion of those have arms specifically under the assumption that they may at some point have to use them in a political capacity, or at least as guarantors of their personal safety. This is a fixation of much fiction and nonfiction on the right, and will be the subject of my next article.