Social bandit

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Juraj Jánošík - a Slovak social bandit who became a folk hero

Social bandit or social crime is a term invented by the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm in his 1959 book Primitive Rebels, a study of popular forms of resistance that also incorporate behavior characterized by law as illegal. He further expanded the field in the 1969 study Bandits. Social banditry is a widespread phenomenon that has occurred in many societies throughout recorded history, and forms of social banditry still exist, as evidenced by piracy and organized crime syndicates. Later social scientists have also discussed the term's applicability to more modern forms of crime, like street gangs and the economy associated with the trade in illegal drugs.

Eric Hobsbawm[edit]

Hobsbawm's key thesis was that outlaws were individuals living on the edges of rural societies by robbing and plundering, who are often seen by ordinary people as heroes or beacons of popular resistance. He called it a form of "pre-historic social movement", by contrast with the organized labour movement. Hobsbawm's book discusses the bandit as a symbol, and mediated idea, and some of the outlaws he refers to are Pancho Villa, Lampião,[1] Ned Kelly, Dick Turpin, Juraj Jánošík, Sándor Rózsa, Billy the Kid[2] and Carmine Crocco, among others.[3] The colloquial sense of an outlaw as bandit or brigand is the subject of the following passage by Hobsbawm:[4]

The point about social bandits is that they are peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps even leaders of liberation, and in any case as men to be admired, helped and supported. This relation between the ordinary peasant and the rebel, outlaw and robber is what makes social banditry interesting and significant ... Social banditry of this kind is one of the most universal social phenomena known to history.

Mancur Olson: Stationary vs Roving Bandits[edit]

Mancur Olson's article "Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development" provides a distinction between "stationary" and "roving" bandits.[5] Olson is an economist most famous for his work on collective action. However, he has also explored banditry when investigating state formation. Olson describes a roving bandit as one that extracts the maximum amount of resources from a population and soon departs, where as a stationary bandit settles and claims a territory while continuously taking only a portion of the citizens' income in taxes. Olson states that being a roving bandit is much more profitable than being a stationary bandit in the short run but has a negative payoff in the long run since the area's resources will be quickly exhausted. In comparison, stationary banditry is more profitable in the long run because more will be gained through continuous taxation than "migrant plunder".[6] This logic incentives roving bandits to settle down and turn anarchy into government, lead by what Olson refers to as "the first blessing of the invisible hand". Olson concludes that warlords will base their actions on how long they expect to stay in power.[5] If a bandit thinks that he/she will be in power for a long time, there are incentives to imitate a state and provide various public services for long-term profit; however, if a bandit only expects to be in power for a short time, he/she should try to seize as many goods as possible in that short amount of time.[5]

Although the bandit is acting in self-interest populations are also said to prefer, and benefit more from, stationary bandits than roving bandits. Under stationary banditry individuals maintain their incentive to invest and produce - knowing that they will only face regular taxation versus the possibility of all of their resources being extracted from them.[6] Stationary bandits also have incentives to make improvements and provide public goods in their area of control if it sufficiently increases taxable income.[5] The population also benefits because since they are a continuous source of income for the bandit he is incentivized to prevent them from being murdered or otherwise harmed.[7]


Historians and anthropologists such as John S. Koliopoulos and Paul Sant Cassia have criticised the social bandit theory, emphasising the frequent use of bandits as armatoloi by Ottoman authorities in suppressing the peasantry in defence of the central state. Sant Cassia observed of Mediterranean bandits that they "are often romanticized afterward through nationalistic rhetoric and texts which circulate and have a life of their own, giving them a permanence and potency which transcends their localized domain and transitory nature".[8] In Hobsbawm's case, the romanticisation was political rather than nationalistic, yet the fluid, ambiguous figure of the bandit remains.

See also[edit]

  • Robin Hood
  • Brigandage in the Two Sicilies, peasant rebellion developed in southern Italy in the early 19th century
  • Expropriative anarchism, practice of robbery and scams in Argentina and Spain
  • Illegalism, anarchist philosophy which openly embraced criminality
  • Cangaço, social banditry in Northeast Region, Brazil
  • Hajduk, outlaws in Central and Eastern Europe
  • Betyárs, social bandits in Kingdom of Hungary
  • Klepht, anti-Ottoman insurgents in Greece and Cyprus
  • Narcocorrido, Mexican music from the norteño folk corrido tradition
  • Rapparee, Irish guerrillas during the 1690s Williamite war
  • Uskoks, Croatian Habsburg soldiers during the Ottoman wars in Europe
  • Abrek, Anti-Cossack/Russian guerilla raiders in the North Caucasus, especially Chechnya


  1. ^ Seal, Graham. "Outlaw Heroes in Myth and History" Anthem Press, 2011. ISBN 9780857287922. Pages 3 & 181.
  2. ^ Hobsbawn, Eric J. (1959). Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries. WW Norton. pp. 13–29. 
  3. ^ Eric J. Hobsbawm, Bandits, Penguin, 1985, p.25
  4. ^ Bandits, E J Hobsbawm, Pelican 1972. Revised ed, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001. ISBN 978-0-349-11302-9
  5. ^ a b c d Olson, Mancur (1993-09-01). "Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development". American Political Science Review. 87 (3): 567–576. doi:10.2307/2938736. ISSN 1537-5943. 
  6. ^ a b Olson, Mancur (1993). "Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development.". American Political Science Review. 87 (3): 567-576. 
  7. ^ Olson, Mancur (1993). "Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development.". American Political Science Review. 87 (3): 567-576. 
  8. ^ Cassia, Paul Sant (October 1993). "Banditry, Myth, and Terror in Cyprus and Other Mediterranean Societies." Comparative Studies in Society and History 35, no. 4

Further reading[edit]