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From blurred lines to legal loop holes: how McMafia presents globalised entrepreneurship

By Natasha Downes, on 15 February 2018

Written by Natasha Downes, Media Relations Manager, UCL

The BBC drama McMafia has been the talk of the moment. So much so, that Security Minister Ben Wallace recently admitted to exploiting the success of the programme to raise public awareness of transnational crime, and announce that oligarchs would have to explain the sources of their income.

When government officials jump on a fictional TV drama to announce a crackdown on Russian oligarchs, the implication is that Russian’s really are at the heart of organised crime. A message further reinforced by media headlines such as ‘McMafia is a documentary, not a drama’.

 

But is McMafia really art imitating life?

On Wednesday 7 February at the Darwin Lecture Theatre of UCL, I attended McMafia: The Reality, chaired and organised by Dr Ben Noble (UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies), to hear four academics he brought together discuss the scope of whether McMafia is a work of fiction or a work of reality.

Dr Mark Galeotti (Institute of International Relations, Prague) opened up the session by discussing the origins of the emblematic Russia mafia narrative. He talked of the ‘original gangster’ which many associate with the Chechens due to the successful scaling of their franchise of fear.

With the break-up of the Soviet Union in the late 1990s many newly rich oligarchs moved their money somewhere safe, and this is more or less, when the boundaries between business, crime and politics became imperceptible.

But this narrative of mafia is not so simple, because organised crime is essentially transnational. It may happen in Russia, but it also takes place all over the world. Businessmen and businesswomen, gangsters and corrupt state representatives operate within their own districts and national networks, and link up to form an international system of organised crime. Dr Alexander Kupatadze (Kings, Russia Institute) calls this the continuous loop of transnational trade.

In McMafia, Russians are depicted as the wholesalers; the one-stop-shop for criminality. They are the service providers blending upper world legal forces. According to Dr Philippa Hetherington (UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies) this is a narrative that exploits negative stereotypes. Speaking on the panel she called for a more critical viewer. She highlighted how easily McMafia slips into worn stereotypes of Slavic women being trafficked by Russian men of Jewish descent to the ‘Middle East’. When in fact sex trafficking is a global problem, affecting women of all nationalities.

Dr Hetherington warns of the dangers of allowing these stereotypes to prevail. These are what she calls cultural and radicalised stereotypes, which feed into the notion of otherness about Russia and the Middle East. It negatively reinforces the trope that foreigners bring us problems.

Professor Alena Ledeneva (UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies) attributed this to the media’s difficulty in communicating complexity.  Speaking on the panel, she carefully peeled away the narrative; exploring what McMafia alludes to rather than explicitly portrays.

Professor Ledeneva discussed how McMafia arouses the tensions of globalisation. Alex, McMafia’s central character, handles global transactions from his almost clinical London office, but he also travels and has a lot of international partners. So, she asks, why do we refer to Russians?

McMafia is a series that highlights what Professor Ledeneva calls the political roof of organised crime. The monopoly of legitimate violence. The blurred lines of globalised entrepreneurship – where what we see may be unethical and immoral but is in fact ‘legal’. Here we see that organised crime has surpassed the capability and capacity of law enforcement, and it’s a difficult message for audiences to swallow.

Professor Ledeneva seemed to suggest that modern capitalism depicted in McMafia, and the real world City of London which we associate Alex with, doesn’t provide a view on morality.

The McMafia event helped the audience to think more critically about the grey areas. The line between formal and informal, family and business, strategies of survival vs strategies of the system. In McMafia Alex says he is a broker for survival, but he is also about competitive advantage and creating a level playing field.  Strategy is essential for the successful operation of McMafia.

We travel between a set of standards which are fluid, and choice is a central motif of the McMafia narrative.  Arguably Alex has a choice, many choices in fact, but as Professor Ledeneva highlights these are complex choices, and ones in which social structures and cultures may come into play.

These attempts to contextualise McMafia help us to better understand individuals but also the system of organised crime. Professor Galeotti importantly emphasised that we mustn’t conflate organised crime with corruption; the people at the top moving money don’t sit down with gangsters despite what McMafia portrays.

McMafia is gripping television at its finest, and academic insight helps to remind us that we should be careful blurring fiction with reality, because the reality is always more complex.

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MD4: Mysticism and Insecurity

By Jacinta M Mulders, on 5 January 2018

MD4 at The Koppel Project. Photo credit: Kai Syng Tan

The Global Engagement Funds are intended to support UCL academics collaborating with colleagues based in other countries. Last year, they enabled Professor Andrew Stahl of the UCL Slade School of Fine Art to bring several brilliant Thai artists to the UK for a fourth edition of Monologue/Dialogue. Curated by Professor Stahl, Monologue/Dialogue is an exhibition series alternating between Thailand and the UK. Originating from a British Council initiated and funded residency and exhibition in Bangkok, Professor Stahl has organised and participated in the project since 2006. The key focus of the project has been to celebrate transcultural conversations by bringing together artists mainly from Thailand and the UK but also from different parts of the world to install or construct work together, and develop existing contacts between UK and Thai universities and in some way to reflect on the transcultural nature of today’s discourse for artists.

This edition, ‘MD4: Mysticism and Insecurity’, took place in London’s Koppel Gallery in Baker Street. It involved 16 artists mainly from Thailand and the UK, but also from Singapore, Bangladesh, China and Japan.

In collaboration with Dr Kai Syng Tan (UCL Institute of Advanced Studies), an artist, curator, and researcher, Professor Stahl organised numerous events in the gallery including tours of the exhibition and discussions engaging the public, students and artists. The project received additional funding from the Royal Thai Embassy and was opened by his Excellency the Thai ambassador.

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Transforming teaching as a career choice: what would be on your wish list?

By Guest Blogger, on 22 December 2017

Written by IOE Events

Next up in our ‘What if…’ debates series was the matter of the teaching profession: What if… we wanted to transform teaching as a career choice?. To address this question we had union and think tank representatives in the form of Mary Bousted and Jonathan Simons, and international perspectives from Professor Martin Mills of the University of Queensland (and incoming Director of the IOE’s new Centre for Research on Teachers and Teaching) and Lucy Crehan, author of Cleverlands.

ioe-debates-social-mobilityThat there is a pressing problem with recruitment to, and retention in, teaching has become all too evident. Recruitment targets for initial teacher training courses have now been missed for five years in a row, while head teachers have been increasingly vocal about the difficulties that they’re having in staffing their classrooms. Graduates and teachers are voting with their feet (many to become teaching assistants as it happens) and the alarm bells are ringing – and not to mark the end of the lesson.

It seems that we have no alternative but to think about alternatives. What might they be? Never mind those lists for Santa Claus, what should we be asking the Secretary of State for Education to put under the Christmas tree for teachers? Read the rest of this entry »

New Practices in Urban Transformation: Towards inclusionary heritage

By Guest Blogger, on 9 December 2017

Written by Dr Lilian Schofield (UCL Bartlett Development Planning Unit)

Bixiga, São Paulo

Bixiga, São Paulo. Credit: Jen Leonard via Flickr

Contemporary urban studies, especially those in global cities often acknowledge the challenges in city planning and a variety of urban development problems that are associated with rapid urban growth. The city of São Paulo, Brazil, which is one of Latin America’s most developed urban agglomerations, is no exception.

The lecture by Nadia Somekh draws on 40 years of theory and practice, using the case of São Paulo’s Bixiga neighbourhood as an entry point to explore how a critical approach to urban planning practices can help city planners move towards a more inclusionary understanding of heritage management.

Read the rest of this entry »