Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia
COSA NOSTRA: A HISTORY OF THE SICILIAN MAFIA
By John Dickie
Blog readers know I’ve been obsessing this summer over the causes of southern Italian underdevelopment. One obvious hypothesis blames the relative poverty of southern Italy on organized crime, a problem so associated with Italy that “mafia” ranks along with “pizza” as one of the planet’s most universally used Italian words.
Wanting to learn more, I turned to John Dickie’s Cosa Nostra, the most acclaimed of all English-language Mafia studies. Dickie convincingly argues that the answer to my core question is: No. Dickie shows that organized crime generally, and the Sicilian Mafia in particular, has certainly battened on Sicily, stealing wealth and discouraging legitimate business. But he argues — and I think very convincingly — that organized crime should be seen as a consequence of Southern Italy’s (relative) under-development, not a cause.
Cosa Nostra is a history, not a treatise, and a gripping history at that. One of the back-cover blurbs promises that the book contains enough lurid stories for a dozen movies. That is a modest count. The Mafia stories Dickie tells are not only horrifying in their audacious violence, but deeply disturbing in their revelations of complicity between the Mafia and other Italian institutions, reaching to the highest levels of the state.
Yet in this history is an argument, and an important one. Organized crime exists always and everywhere. But the particular form of organized crime that is the Mafia arose in specific conditions and to seize certain opportunities in one particular place. The Mafia is an alternative state, one capable of executing functions of government. It does not merely traffic in narcotics, or bootleg liquor, or fence stolen goods, although of course individual Mafiosi have done all those things. The Mafia’s core business has always been to sell protection. It finances itself by extracting taxes. It enforces its decisions by the exercise of violence, and until very recently, agents who used violence on its behalf could expect impunity. Most gangsters compete with other gangsters. The Mafia competes with Italy itself.
Dickie is determined to refute the theory that the Mafia grows out of some primitive Sicilian culture of vendetta, that is a survival from a more primitive order of society, more a habit of mind than an institution. His key claim is that the Mafia is not an unconscious expression of culture. It is a conscious creation of human beings. It is a thing. It had a beginning and — he insists — therefore must have an end. In fact, at many moments, it seemed that its end was imminent. It was saved in every case by the same fact that enabled its creation: the weakness of the Italian state.
In John Dickie’s telling, the Mafia is a product of Sicily’s modernization, not the ancient past. It appeared in the 1860s, in Sicily’s richest farming region, as a direct consequence of Italian unification.
The overthrow of the Naples monarchy in 1860 disrupted the traditional governance of Sicily. Suddenly nobody had the job of keeping order on the island: not the departed Bourbon kings, not the alienated and disempowered local elites, not the distant and weak government of the new kingdom of Italy.
In this vacuum of power, local criminals, disbanded Bourbon soldiers, and unemployed youth discovered a sudden opportunity.
The opportunity was lucrative. Forget the images you may have in your head of dusty, impoverished Sicilian hill towns. The Mafia was born in the 1860s, in Palermo and the area immediately surrounding, at a time when the region was enjoying an agricultural boom. Western Sicily in the mid-19th century dominated world production of citrus fruit while newly affluent consumers in northern Europe were demanding new luxuries — and the British Royal Navy was buying limes by the ton to ward off scurvy.
Preparing the land to grow fruit, then planting trees and waiting for them to bear, together put substantial capital at risk. Even after the trees began to produce, lemon groves remained highly vulnerable to sabotage. In an environment lacking effective law enforcement, blackmail possibilities burgeoned: protection rackets, kidnapping, and so on.
All of that could have happened anywhere. In post-unification Italy, however, criminals brought a special history to their work: a 50-year legacy of secret societies and political conspiracy. When caught and sentenced to Palermo prison, they taught each other this new criminal technology — and swore each other to “omertà,” Sicilian slang that (Dickie hypothesizes) originated in the local word for “humility,” the appropriate attitude of “men of honor” to each other. There was born what Dickie calls, following the lead of a late 19th century Italian investigator, Sicily’s “violence industry.”
Interesting as this backstory is, thus far we are not hearing anything that has not happened in many places at many times.
What was uniquely Italian was the failure of the new state to assert its power against this “violence industry” — and the ultimate decision by leading figures in that state, dating back to the 1880s, to use the Mafia as an agency of local government on the island. The Mafia would deeply interpenetrate the national state, and gain the complicity of the leaders of the Catholic church as well.
From time to time the state would crack down, most spectacularly during the fascist epoch. The end of civil liberty in Italy empowered Mussolini’s deputy in Palermo to arrest Mafiosi and hold them indefinitely without trial. Although a cure even worse than the disease, that method worked, at least for a while. Post-1945, however, Italy’s new Christian Democratic governments — heavily dependent on money and votes from the South — relaxed the anti-Mafia campaign and allowed Mafia-associated politicians into the central government itself, ultimately even the prime minister’s office.
Only when the Mafia began to commit murders on the Italian mainland in the 1970s did the state crack down — and the crackdown did not become serious until after not one, but two senior anti-Mafia magistrates were assassinated. Only very belatedly has Italy adopted the kinds of laws that have done so much to break organized crime in the United States: laws against membership in a racketeering organization, laws that held organized crime bosses responsible for killings committed by their subordinates, and laws imposing forfeiture of property as a penalty for organized crime activity.
Italy is now quite a rich country, yet the Mafia remains active: a beneficiary of the chronic internal squabbles of Italian politicians and their unwillingness to act jointly for broad national interests like crime suppression. From time to time, “moral minorities” gain power in the state and strike at the Mafia. But when they tire or falter, or when they are eventually eliminated by politics or murder, the old indulgent ways reassert themselves.
As John Dickie tells it in his riveting and convincing Cosa Nostra, Italy’s Mafia problem is not a problem born of culture. It is a problem born of political and institutional failure. It is Italy that has made the Mafia; not the Mafia that has made Italy.