The Social Contract of Gangs in the Southwest

According to Thomas Hobbes, the state of nature is a constant state of war because we are always competing for resources, power, and wealth. This creates an anarchic state, therefore, people come together to create a  social contract because the fierce competition forces us to pursue our desires at another’s expense. In this social contract we create laws, legislation, judicial regulations, and political systems to keep people in line, which is supposed to serve the greater good. This was the way most societies developed. But what happens to people who are living in the underground or within subcultures because they reject the norms of the social contract, or because the popular social contract rejects them? They create their own.

When Mexican American gangs began forming in Los Angeles as far back as the 1920’s, it was mostly to maintain ethnic ties because the dominant culture left them marginalized. Stigmatized because of their backgrounds and isolated from the status-quo, a unique social contract was created in barrios all across the Southwest. Having very limited or no political representation, mostly ignored or victimized by the legal system, and living in disenfranchised conditions, this group of people were living in an enhanced anarchic state. If a social contract was created to serve the greater good, but a significant portion of the population was left abandoned, then the war of all against all became greater. In addition, law enforcement was created to keep people in line, yet in barrios they often conducted themselves as criminals by enforcing all types of biased conduct. Therefore, Mexican American street gangs formed a social contract to protect themselves from the constant state of war of the dominant culture.

Philosophers like Hobbes and Rousseau agreed that all people fear danger and a violent death. It is a self-preservation mechanism that keeps us moving and progressing through a natural state of survival even though there are systematic forms of power in place to keep people down. Because the Mexican American community suffered abuses that originated during the Mexican American War, it is easy to understand their fear of a violent death. Yet, despite those abuses of power, they simply wanted to fit in and be a part of the larger culture. They also wanted to participate in the “Keeping up with the Joneses” idiom like anybody else. Mark Twain referenced this in an article published in 1923, “The outside influences are always pouring in upon us, and we are always obeying their orders and accepting their verdicts.” In urban working-class barrios all across the Southwest, it was this school of thought that led to the social contract of street gangs.

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2 Responses to “The Social Contract of Gangs in the Southwest”

  1. Gina

    Urban Politics: The Political Culture Sur 13 Gangs is one of the most intriguing civil philosophy essays of our time.

    Here’s my favorite excerpt from the Social Contract chapter:

    “Large portions of the immigrant population come from rural towns in Mexico or Central America and have difficulty adjusting to an urban metropolis which helps develop a more global perspective, but simultaneously detaches them from their community. Because of the influence of affluence, this group of people also adopts the ideology of the prevalent economic gap and begins to participate in the “catching up with the Joneses” paradigm with the same competitive fervor as does the rest of the dominant population.”

  2. rodburns1

    I agree with you a hundred percent. It is one of the most intriguing philosophies of our time and underappreciated. It’s interesting you use that excerpt since my next post will be titled “The Influence of Affluence.”


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