Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Bandit Heroes: Social, Mythical, or Rational?

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Bandit Heroes: Social, Mythical, or Rational?

Article excerpt


A bandit is an individual who methodically acquires human capital for the purpose of robbing others or is part of an organization that pursues the same ends. Nevertheless, bandits have been aided, sheltered, praised, and immortalized in songs by members of the same social classes that they predate upon. The recurrent presentation of the bandit as a folk hero seems to be contradictory. Why would anyone sing the praises of his robber?

We argue that, in the presence of a predatory government, bandits become folk heroes because they provide some benefits to the ordinary members of the societies they steal from. Bandits are violent, calculating, ruthless, and undiscriminating in their exploitation. (1) But praising them is sensible if bandits help to mitigate harms stemming from dysfunctional and predatory governments. Bandits can unintentionally increase social welfare by opposing unpopular laws, by providing checks against government predation, and by providing legal services and protection when government does not. In these cases individuals who praise bandits praise a known evil, albeit it is the lesser of two evils.

The eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm (1959, [1969] 2000) was the first to call attention to the sociological puzzle of the bandit hero, which has subsequently become central in historical research on banditry. Hobsbawm provides an explanation for the positive reception of bandits based upon Marxian class analysis. Hobsbawm ([1969] 2000) formulated the thesis of the social bandit as an explanation of the phenomenon of the bandit hero, whereby social banditry is an early manifestation of proletarian protest against the exploitation of the ruling classes. While social bandits are considered criminals in the eyes of the elites, they are admired by the members of the exploited peasant classes from which they come. Social banditry, in contrast to ordinary banditry, according to Hobsbawm (1974: 143, [1969] 2000: 20), is characterized by a supportive relationship between the peasant population and the bandits. The unique social bond formed between the bandits and the peasants sometimes plants the seeds of more substantial peasant resistance against the oppression of the ruling classes.

Subsequently, some scholars have found evidence for Hobsbawm's social bandit model (Pillai 1974; Austen 1986; Joseph 1990). Other revisionist scholars, however, have argued that the historical record does not provide convincing evidence in support of Hobsbawm's thesis (see, for instance, Blok 1972, 2001; Vanderwood 1981; Driessen 1983; Hart 1987; Koliopoulos 1987; Slatta 1987a, 1987b). These revisionists claim that actual bandits were not in fact admired by their contemporaries. They conclude that real-life heroic bandits are only a myth. According to this mythical theory of banditry, the image of the heroic bandit emanates from the collective imagination of later generations, who look back and romanticize legendary characters from the past. (2)

The burgeoning literature on banditry has greatly contributed to our knowledge about its general nature, its history and evolution, and its social consequences. Nevertheless, the two most prominent explanations for the puzzle of widespread bandit approval both have their limits. The social bandit theory relies on widespread adherence to proletarian class sympathies and is constrained by a framework of historical dialectics. These assumptions are problematic, both because in actual history the phenomenon of the bandit hero has been observed in populations from cultures not tied together by class sentiments, and because the bandit hero phenomenon does not appear to necessarily be related to certain stages of historical development. By focusing on dialectics, Hobsbawm, and those following him, needlessly constrain their work from having even greater value. Bandits can benefit individuals who suffer from government predation regardless of the particular social institutions, what ideologies individuals happen to hold, and how production processes are organized. …

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