Mafia Brotherhoods: Organized Crime, Italian Style
New York: Oxford University Press, 2003
Subject, Methods, Database:
A study of the structure and culture of the Sicilian Mafia and the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta, based on pentiti statements and expert interviews.
The Sicilian Mafia or Cosa Nostra and the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta constitute the core of the mafia phenomenon in Italy (p. 26). Cosa Nostra and 'Ndrangheta, respectively, are loose confederations of about one hundred mafia groups, also called cosche or families, each of which claims sovereignty over a territory, usually a town or village (p. 155), though without ever fully conquering and legitimizing its monopoly of violence (p. 172).
The individual mafia groups are "fully developed organizations" with ruling bodies to enforce their normative order (p. 40). For many years, the power apparatuses of the single families were the sole ruling bodies within the two associations (p. 51), and they have remained the real centers of mafia power (p. 64) even after superordinate bodies were created in the Cosa Nostra beginning in the 1950s (p. 51) and in the 'Ndrangheta in the early 1990s (p. 58). A sense of unity originally came from institutional similarities, including parallel features in the organizational model, culture, and normative rules, while coordination was ensured by informal meetings among the most influential members of the most powerful families (p. 52).
The first to formalize these occasional gatherings were the chiefs of the Palermo province who, allegedly upon the advice of American mafia boss Joseph Bonanno, formed the so-called provincial commission in 1957. The commission had two main competencies, conflict resolution and the regulation of the use of violence (p. 53). For essentially the same purposes, an interprovincial commission was set up in the mid-1970s (p. 56). However, instead of avoiding conflict it increasingly became an instrument in the enfolding power struggle that led to the quasi-dictatorship of Toto Riina. Members of the commission were no longer freely selected by the provinces but were chosen on the basis of their allegiance to Riina's faction, and eventually were only called to legitimize decisions that had already been taken elsewhere (p. 57). In Calabria, a superordinate body was created only in 1991 as the result of negotiations to end years of inter family violence (p. 62).
The strength and weakness of the two mafia associations lie in the brotherhood bonds through which their members are connected (p. 17). The rite of mafia initiation establishes not only a status as "man of honor", but also a ritual kinship, an almost religious communion (p. 76), that creates obligations of correctness and solidarity vis-à-vis the other members of the same mafia family and in principle also to all other mafia brothers (p. 81). These ties promote trust and provide a basis for specific purposive contracts (p. 89), even between members from different families who have never met before (p. 150). The weakness of brotherhood bonds, apart from the fact that the brotherhood principles have routinely been violated (p. 83), lies in the limited pool of mafia novices. The status and fraternization contracts of mafia membership can only be imposed on individuals who already know and at least vaguely subscribe to the underlying values (p. 90). As a result, mafiosi have found it increasingly difficult to internalize the competencies necessary to compete successfully in international illegal markets (p. 17).
The brotherhood bonds have in recent decades come under strain due to various developments. In their quest for power, Riina and his Corleonesi faction systematically sowed distrust and suspicion (p. 94). Internal cohesion has also been undermined by the increasing cultural value attached to material wealth which has led to a spread of economic relations among mafia members and alliances with nonaffiliates. This "entrepreneurial transformation" has produced a "cultural lag" between the behavior and aspirations of mafia members and the "mafia subuniverse of meaning" (p. 95). There are tensions between generations over what illicit activities a mafioso is permitted to be engaged in, and between low- and middle-ranking mafiosi and their chiefs. While higher-ranking members invest much of their time in profit-making, lower-ranking members are still socialized to understand "honor" in the traditional way as the capacity to use violence (p. 97). Finally, intensified law enforcement has reduced interaction between mafia members so that novices are only superficially schooled in mafia norms. As acceptance into a mafia family only represents a convenient way to advance economically and socially, members can rapidly revise their decision without having to radically redefine their personal identity (p. 98). The weakening of communal solidarity has caused the recent growth in the number of pentiti (turncoats) and further undermined the feeling of common belonging within the mafia. In response, Bernardo Provenzano, the new Cosa Nostra leader, is said to have drastically restricted the number of new initiations and fostered a return to old mafia principles and rules (p. 99).
In the 'Ndrangheta, security concerns have led to the creation of a secret society within the secret society: the Santa. Membership in the Santa is only known to other members. Contrary to the code of 'Ndrangheta, it allowed mafia leaders to establish close connections with state representatives, even to the extent that some were affiliated with the Santa. These connections were often established through the Freemasonry, which the santisti - breaking another rule of the traditional code - were allowed to join (p. 116).
Members of the Sicilian and Calabrian mafia have used their status and bonds to pursue extremely different ends and to carry out greatly varying functions. While the "official" goal has always been mutual aid, it has been translated into a plurality of operational goals, so that, rather than being characterized by a single function or goal, Cosa Nostra and 'Ndrangheta constitute "functionally diffused associations" (p. 19).
Mafia groups are not economic enterprises aiming at the maximization of profits. Profit making activities are not systematically planned or coordinated by each cosca or by the mafia consortium as a whole, although, illicit activities are sometimes run by the heads of the single families and the profits divided more or less equally between the affiliates (p. 144). Some businesses even encompass the involvement of more than one family, like the bulk importation of drugs or extortive kidnappings. On some occasions the superordinate bodies have collected funds to invest in large-scale business ventures (p. 145).
Mafia groups are political organizations because of their claim to exercise territorial sovereignty and to levy tributes from licit and illicit enterprises. However, it would be reductive to classify them as "power syndicates" specialized in the sale of protection and to oppose them with "enterprise syndicates" involved in the provision of illicit goods and services given the mixture of profit-making activities and territorial control. This is exemplified by the public building sector. The mafia groups initially simply demanded tribute from all main productive activities in their territory but soon shifted their interest to directly influencing the bidding processes of large-scale public works for the benefit of firms controlled by mafia groups or their members (p. 175).
At least until the end of World War II, mafia groups enjoyed consistent popular legitimacy. Mafia members were entrusted with the enforcement of the code of honor which the mafia had widely shared with its social environment (p. 162). Correspondingly, mafia associations did not recognize the primacy of state law and claimed to be in a position of equality with the state (p. 125). Since then and increasingly from the 1970s onward, the mafia associations have undergone a process of delegitimation (p. 192). At the same time the quality of relations between mafia and political power deteriorated as mafiosi emboldened by the tremendous profits from heroin trafficking stepped up their demands for influence on official decisions (p. 201). The increasingly violent confrontation with state and civil society culminated in the 1992 murders of judges Falcone and Borsellino, events that vitalized the anti-mafia movement and provoked strong countermeasures on the legislative and law enforcement levels (p. 205). Since then, however, the anti-mafia efforts have been weakened by various factors, including the lasting problem of unemployment and the "prima donna behavior" of some prosecutors and judges. Furthermore, anti-mafia legislation has become the target of politicians and state officials colluding with the mafia or sharing mafiosi's judicial interests. Silvio Berlusconi, for one, has been suspected of investing and laundering Cosa Nostra money at the beginning of his career and he has been trying to block the anti-corruption and anti-mafia investigations that targeted him and several of his associates by staging delegitimation campaigns against law enforcement officials ever since he officially entered the political game in 1994 (p. 212). Even more than in the past, the survival of mafia groups seems to depend on how their relationships with politics are set up in the future (p. 219).
Letizia Paoli's "Mafia Brotherhoods" is the fourth comprehensive scholarly study of the mafia phenomenon available in English following the works of Henner Hess (1973), Pino Arlacchi (1986) and Diego Gambetta (1993). Like Gambetta she draws on pentiti statements to reject earlier claims that there are no mafia associations in the form of clear cut organizational entities. But she is closer to the interpretations provided by Hess and Arlacchi when she emphasizes the cultural aspects of mafia membership and argues that mafia associations are "multifunctional entities" (p. 177) and not merely enterprises selling private protection, as Gambetta has proposed.
"Mafia Brotherhoods" is a well-structured treatise that is tremendously complex and rich in detail. It examines Cosa Nostra and 'Ndrangheta from various angles, highlighting similarities and differences and trends over time up to the turn of the 21st century. As such it is certainly the major reference work in the field to date. However, there are some caveats that should not be overlooked.
The first point of critique is the adversarial approach taken with regard to particular mafiologists, including Diego Gambetta. The thrust of the argument often centers more on proving their contributions wrong than on exploring to what degree they can be fitted into an overall framework. This shifts the emphasis away from the question what the mafia is to statements about what it is not. The result is that on certain issues the reader is confronted with seemingly incompatible assessments. For example, Paoli rejects the popular notion of the mafia being an economic enterprise (p. 141), stressing that mafia groups or the mafia association as a whole do not systematically plan or coordinate profit-making activities (p. 144). At the same time, in also rejecting the notion that mafia groups can be classified as power syndicates specialized in the sale of protection, she emphasizes that "mafia groups and their members are actively involved in a plurality of business activities" (p. 174). Both views are integrated in the proposition that in fact there is an "overlap between force-using and profit-seeking enterprises" (p. 176). But this view of the multiplicity of goals and functions, it seems, can only be maintained when the empirical referent remains fuzzy. Indeed, when Gambetta speaks of the mafia as "an industry of private protection" he refers to the mafia association as a set of firms who share a particular trademark (Gambetta, 1993: 155), while Paoli in the last instance speaks about the individual members of Cosa Nostra and 'Ndrangheta who "have used the cohesion created by status and fraternization contracts to pursue extremely different ends and carry out greatly varying functions" (p. 18-19). Interestingly, in one remark Paoli seems to fully agree with Gambetta when she states that "the extortion racket is, without exception, the only economic activity run by the group as a whole" (p. 170).
Another point of critique is the prominence of references to the general sociological literature throughout the book. Drawing on the concepts of Weber, Durkheim and others is often but not always helpful in clarifying certain aspects, and at times these references appear to have been given too much weight in the analysis. One of Paoli's key theses is that the unity of both Cosa Nostra and 'Ndrangheta depends on what Emile Durkheim has called "mechanical solidarity", a collective consciousness based on likeness. According to Paoli, mafia associations first came into being through the mutual recognition of the "institutional similarities, including parallel features in the organizational model, culture, and normative rules" (p. 52). However, there is no evidence to support this claim. In fact, it is at odds with the fact that, as Paoli herself explains, there are mafia groups who are not affiliated with the two large mafia associations (p. 160). The relevance of "mechanical solidarity" gains some plausibility when one assumes that the mafia is primarily about cohesion and male bonding, as the title of the book and much of the discussion contained therein suggest, and not about conflict avoidance. But a more plausible explanation of the emergence and raison d'être of mafia associations would probably have to focus more on the aspect of territorial control and protection which requires some degree of inter-group accommodation and coordination to peacefully settle disputes and to keep new competitors out of the protection market. Instead of drawing parallels between segmentary societies and the mafia, one could perhaps better interpret the sharing of initiation rituals, codes and a sense of quasi-religious unity as a culturally grounded legitimization of the mutual recognition of potentially competing groups.
"Mafia Brotherhoods" is the English language reference work on the Sicilian Mafia and Calabrian 'Ndrangheta. The rich details of Paoli's description, based on an unprecedented data base, illuminate many aspects of the mafia phenomenon and present new insights, while some controversial propositions and some less intensely analyzed facets ensure that the debate on the nature and functions of the Southern Italian mafia associations will continue.
Pino Arlacchi, Mafia Business: The Mafia Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, London: Verso, 1986
Diego Gambetta, The Sicilian Mafia: The Business of Private Protection, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993
Henner Hess, Mafia and Mafiosi: The Structure of Power, Farnborough: Saxon House, 1973
Catanzaro, Raimondo, Men of Respect: A Social History of the Sicilian Mafia, New York: The Free Press, 1992 [read review]
Salvatore Lupo, The Mafia: From Its Origins to the Present Day, London: London House, 2000 [read review (in German)]
© Klaus von Lampe, all rights reserved.