Weak states: Causes and consequences of the Sicilian Mafia
March 5, 2018 2:01 PM   Subscribe

The Mafia is often cited as one of the main reasons why Sicily has lagged behind the rest of Italy in economic and social development. This column describes how in an environment with weak state presence, the socialist threat of Peasant Fasci organisations at the end of the 19th century induced landholders, estate managers, and local politicians in Sicily to turn to the Mafia to resist and combat peasant demands. Within a few decades, the presence of the Mafia appears to have significantly reduced literacy, increased infant mortality, limited the provision of a variety of local public goods, and may also have significantly reduced local political competition.
posted by bq (36 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
Reminds me of this passage from Dashiell Hammet's Red Harvest:

The strike lasted eight months. Both sides bled plenty. The wobblies had to do their own bleeding. Old Elihu hired gunmen, strike-breakers, national guardsmen and even parts of the regular army, to do his. When the last skull had been cracked, the last rib kicked in, organized labor in Personville was a used firecracker.

But, said Bill Quint, old Elihu didn't know his Italian history. He won the strike, but he lost his hold on the city and the state. To beat the miners he had to let his hired thugs run wild. When the fight was over he couldn't get rid of them. He had given his city to them and he wasn't strong enough to take it away from them. Personville looked good to them and they took it over. They had won his strike for him and they took the city for their spoils. He couldn't openly break with them. They had too much on him. He was responsible for all they had done during the strike.
posted by ckridge at 2:17 PM on March 5 [49 favorites]


Yeah for as much romanticizing as people make of the Mafia, especially as being some kind of patrons of their communities, ultimately they are just armed laissez-faire capitalists with an intense pre-occupation with hierarchy and tradition. Hardly surprising that a cabal of people who want a monopoly on anything they can get their hands on and will use violence to maintain it drain community resources rapidly and give fuck all back.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 2:20 PM on March 5 [39 favorites]


No price, apparently, is too great to stop socialism....
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:28 PM on March 5 [17 favorites]


Sicily is pretty small right? I'm kind of amazed there are any areas free of Mafia influence. What's up with that?
posted by GuyZero at 2:41 PM on March 5


What's up with that?

The east and west in Sicily presented some practical and resource-based differences for Cosa Nostra. When Sicily was transitioning from feudalism to capitalism, eastern landowners had large estates but heavy enforcement, while the western landowners had much smaller estates but not enough muscle to keep a lid on potential profiteers. That's not to say east Sicily is free of the mob or something; it was just much easier for Cosa Nostra to flourish in the west, and that's where the roots run deepest.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 2:52 PM on March 5 [2 favorites]


"Yeah for as much romanticizing as people make of the Mafia, especially as being some kind of patrons of their communities..."
brings to mind this bit from The Sopranos:

posted by abrightersummerday at 2:59 PM on March 5


The Sopranos

And to come full circle with this whole mobsters as uber capitalists theme:
“I’m here because I’m a far-to-the-right Republican,” [Tony “Paulie Walnuts”] Sirico said.
Only half-serious here; Sirico's criminal past is well known but his involvement in any actual Cosa Nostra stuff is tenuous.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 3:17 PM on March 5


one wonders about similar economic consequences following the Dirty War in 1970s South America and the various subsequent low-intensity conflicts in Latin America as a whole.
posted by mwhybark at 5:04 PM on March 5 [2 favorites]


GuyZero, the answer may be lemons.
posted by VelveteenBabbitt at 5:08 PM on March 5 [3 favorites]


Just after hitting post, I realized I can even cite some related parallel consequences.

My brother-in-law's family is Sicilian, and they emigrated in the early twentieth century due to the disastrous exonomic conditions there. So is my uncle and his family, who left somewhat earlier, seeking to escape the conflicts in the region, and then moved again in the US to escape the influence of the Mafia where they'd initially landed - I have heard vague stories of a relative being killed for failing to pay protection money in the US.

My family lived in Chile in 1969, and after the coup in the seventies a number of my dad's Chilean colleages emigrated to the US to get away from the regime. My family spent a lot of time in Mexico in the 1970s, and likewise, a number of my father's Mexican colleagues came north as things got out of hand. These anecdotes do not, of course, address statistics regarding diminished access to social goods, but they certainly do document people's responses to those conditions.
posted by mwhybark at 5:13 PM on March 5 [3 favorites]


Dolci's Sicilian Lives* talks about the US and allies after WWII and how they (and the Vatican) enlisted the Mafia to crush the labor movement and socialism. Try to organize a union, get thrown down a well. Sicily is a very sad and beautiful place. I've talked to people there who told me it's hard to get a government job because everyone is only one or two degrees of separation from the Mafia. Others explained how the Mafia acts like a gait keeper for pretty much all work on the island.

The Mafia isn't so much "organized crime" as a massively corrupt and parasitic government. Of course, they're amateur hour compared to modern day internationalized crony capitalists.
____
* This NYT review mentions the danger faced by organizers, but is silent about how US policy encouraged it. Shocking, I know.
posted by mondo dentro at 5:35 PM on March 5 [4 favorites]


I find the notion that the Mafia is some kind of expression or symbol of capitalism to be very strange. I am no expert on organized crime, but it seems to me that many Mafia efforts were premised on blocking new entrants into markets for certain goods or services (prostitution, drugs/alcohol, gambling) by protecting quasi-monopolies, as well as imposing another layer of taxes on mainstream businesses (what was known as "protection."). The Mafia is, if anything, an anti-capitalist phenomenon.
posted by Mr. Justice at 5:42 PM on March 5 [3 favorites]


Mr. Justice, did you read the linked article? The posted excerpt at the top is accurate. Here is a longer excerpt.

We document that the spread of the Mafia in Sicily at the end of the 19th century was in part shaped by the rise of Peasant Fasci organisations, the first popular socialist movement in Italy. The Fasci articulated many of the grievances of the peasants and day labourers of Sicily. Chief among their demands were higher wages, land redistribution, better working conditions, longer-term contracts for land leases, the return to sharecropping arrangements, and the reduction in indirect taxes, which fell heavily on peasants (Romano 1959, Renda 1977, Casarrubea 1978). In an environment with weak state presence, this socialist threat induced landholders, estate managers, and local politicians to turn to the Mafia to resist and combat peasant demands. The historical record shows many instances in which the Mafia fought against the Peasant Fasci and collaborated with the military in suppressing protests and killing protesters.

Figure 1 depicts the distribution of Peasant Fasci in 1893 and the intensity of the Mafia in 1900 across Sicilian municipalities and shows a positive association between these two variables. This visual correlation cannot of course be taken as evidence of a causal effect for the usual reasons that omitted factors might be accounting for both the presence of Peasant Fasci and the Mafia in a municipality.

posted by mwhybark at 6:03 PM on March 5 [4 favorites]


Also, mssr justice, you will often find that acting capitalists of any stripe have grok'd the basic econ texts and internalized how much a threat competition is to the bottom line
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 6:10 PM on March 5 [8 favorites]


many Mafia efforts were premised on blocking new entrants into markets

This is actually existing capitalism.
posted by meehawl at 6:26 PM on March 5 [16 favorites]


Yes, mwhybark, I certainly did read the article. Did you?

The mafia aren't capitalists. They're businessmen who are doing their best to close markets, protect incumbents through anti-competitive policies, and create a system of predation via an additional layer of taxes. Again, the notion that the mafia is an expression or symbol of capitalism is a very strange one.

And, meehawi, I admit that I'm really intrigued by the consequences of this argument: "This is actually existing capitalism." Doesn't the fact that this is also actually existing socialism suggest to you that this is a problematic argument?
posted by Mr. Justice at 6:33 PM on March 5 [3 favorites]


Now look up the Pinkertons. America's homegrown equivalent of a mafia style landowner/capitalist anti-labor protection racket ended up becoming the secret service.
posted by srboisvert at 6:38 PM on March 5 [11 favorites]


The mafia aren't capitalists. They're businessmen who are doing their best to close markets, protect incumbents through anti-competitive policies, and create a system of predation via an additional layer of taxes. Again, the notion that the mafia is an expression or symbol of capitalism is a very strange one

Like, truly, what one of those things do you think your typical CEO wouldn't engage in if they thought they could get away with it because it wouldn't be in the true spirit of noble capitalism?
posted by Space Coyote at 6:45 PM on March 5 [13 favorites]


Thanks awfully for your recommendation to look up the Pinkertons, srboisvert. I'd recommend that you look up the Soviet Union. Are you under the impression that unions flourished there? Presumably you don't think that the extraordinary hostility to non-state organizations in the USSR demonstrates that it was actually an example of actually existing capitalism.

@ Space Coyote: the resort to sarcasm about "the true spirit of noble capitalism" is less persuasive than you might imagine. My point is that words like capitalism, etc., will do more work when they're used analytically, rather than all-purpose expletives. Like I said, they aren't capitalists, they're businessmen. Businessmen don't have strong political views, and there are businessmen in every actually existing economic system.
posted by Mr. Justice at 6:55 PM on March 5 [7 favorites]


So the Canadian mining firms that are burniing jungles in Central America, what economic system are they operating under?
posted by Space Coyote at 7:37 PM on March 5 [3 favorites]


Mr. Justice, it appears to me that possibly your definition of capitalism differs from its practice. I do thank you for your efforts on behalf of that definition. I have not found the arguments you present to be convincing.
posted by mwhybark at 8:19 PM on March 5 [9 favorites]


The Mafia strike me as Libertarians. No regulation other than brute strength.
posted by theora55 at 8:27 PM on March 5 [4 favorites]


this is a problematic argument

Yes, you could only be right: no true capitalists could behave in such a way.
posted by meehawl at 8:41 PM on March 5 [3 favorites]


Like, truly, what one of those things do you think your typical CEO wouldn't engage in if they thought they could get away with it because it wouldn't be in the true spirit of noble capitalism?

Those things are more in the realm of governments. Particularly governments that are not friendly to free markets. Typically translates as left leaning, though non-left/populist governments also like such things. For example, it was not unheard of for more left leaning folk to advocate closed markets, by means such as tariffs, and opposition to trade agreements like NAFTA and TPP. At least until the current dickhead in chief took office and stole that thunder.

Mafia doesn't seem particularly ideological. They generally seem more inclined to follow money. It appears some Fasci Siciliani leagues took involvement from mafiosi for leadership and muscle early on.But it looks like when the cause got in the way of profits, those connections ended. And some organized labor has had the shadow of Mafia involvement for a long time. If it's good for business, they can roll with it.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:51 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]


Let’s not go down the “no true capitalist” road, and let’s definitely not pretend capitalism = fair play and democracy in the pursuit of profit. There’s a reason why the gods invented adjectives. The US was founded in spectacular wealth with genocidal slavery capitalism. Crony capitalism is an objective thing. So is authoritarian state capitalism. So is oligarchical capitalism. All actual things. I’m quite willing to consider the unicorn-like nation of shopkeepers version, too. I rather like that one.
posted by mondo dentro at 8:55 PM on March 5 [8 favorites]


If I remember my "Politics of Heroin" correctly, the Mafia was also a convenient ally to the CIA's drug profits, given their long experience with wetwork and the anti-drug trade stance of communist nations. Mother Jones has short vignettes, repetition on a theme
posted by eustatic at 9:35 PM on March 5 [3 favorites]


So the Canadian mining firms that are burning jungles in Central America, what economic system are they operating under?

Shock Doctrine.
posted by aqsakal at 11:41 PM on March 5


Those things are more in the realm of governments. Particularly governments that are not friendly to free markets

This is so ignorant of economic history as to be flagged. Every modern industrial economy used protectionism at its inception.

Every.single.one.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 4:27 AM on March 6 [6 favorites]


Mr. Justice, it appears to me that possibly your definition of capitalism differs from its practice. I do thank you for your efforts on behalf of that definition. I have not found the arguments you present to be convincing.
Words mean things, and Mr. Justice is describing what capitalism actually means in standard English, which is much more meaningful than this hyperrealistic bullshit. While it has somehow become normal to use the word capitalism here to mean 'economic systems I don't like' in a way completely divorced from the features the word is meant to describe, that is a pretty useless definition, particularly for a website that is in fact general interest and not just /r/latestagecapitalism with blue highlights.

Competitive markets markets are a central feature of any meaningful positive definition for capitalism, and while I don't doubt that you can give us a lecture on how markets that have been described as capitalist have never been genuinely competitive with all the biggest words, the anti-competitive nature of the Sicilian Mafia still makes them a fundamentally anti-capitalist phenomenon. You've clearly communicated that you don't like 'capitalism' and that you don't like the Sicilian Mafia, but that doesn't mean that they're the same thing or even that they belong anywhere near each other in any meaningful taxonomy of ways to organize economic relationships.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:02 AM on March 6 [7 favorites]


Competitive markets markets are a central feature of any meaningful positive definition for capitalism, and while I don't doubt that you can give us a lecture on how markets that have been described as capitalist have never been genuinely competitive with all the biggest words, the anti-competitive nature of the Sicilian Mafia still makes them a fundamentally anti-capitalist phenomenon.

So, Standard Oil, Microsoft, Amazon, Google - anti-capitalist corporations, every one? And I guess Nestle squeezing out landowners to own giant swaths of fresh water, that must be anti-capitalist, too.

Less glibly, it isn't "hyperreal bullshit" to describe capitalism in practice. Cosa Nostra demonstrably engages in capitalism. They have ownership of a wide swath of goods and services, these owners at the top take a share of the profits generated by their underlings, they follow an expansionist model, they have uh direct methods of dealing with competition but they also form alliances and partnerships and mergers. They are in the business of property ownership, entrepreneurialism, and profit.

This is why so many of them have an easy time engaging in "legitimate" businesses, often simultaneously with their illegal activities. Really, the only difference between a bank CEO and a mob boss is the CEO is less likely to murder his competition.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 6:26 AM on March 6 [9 favorites]


Words mean things...standard English.../r/latestagecapitalism

I'm really sympathetic to your frustration here. What I hope to convince you of is that this isn't some stoner dorm talk and in fact real [nobel] economists are having an ongoing discussion about what the words should mean:

post autistic economics


This discussion isn't just a passing fancy and it's not just a reaction to the latest recession (though that certainly helped better show the emperor). I would say that the neoclassical framing of economics has had a good run and it certainly contributed to theory and now it's been shown to be a simple handmaiden to powered interests that use it to create marks.

hyperreal bullshit


If you take the time, I think you'll find that stuff like the Cosa Nostra is not the exception, but instead the norm. And this norm is better understood and explored by a post-neoclassical approach to economics.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 6:50 AM on March 6 [4 favorites]


I am about as far from an economist as exists in this world. At some point I probably learned the dictionary/academic definition of "capitalist" but I have only had recent exposure to "capitalism" as I would have defined it before this thread: "The economic system the U.S. uses." I don't see US corporations that are encouraging a free market. I see US corporations doing their best to eliminate free markets, in favor of a monopoly where they control the strings. What I see the US using sounds like it's not actually capitalism as traditionally defined, if this thread's discussion is accurate. I have no idea what the US system would be called, if not capitalism, but that's also what I see in the mafia. Only without the corporations protecting in any way.

This is interesting reading, thanks.
posted by Stewriffic at 7:05 AM on March 6


The thing is, we have to examine systems as they actually exist, not just by dictionary definitions. Just as we can examine the problems encountered in the USSR and PRC and ascribe them to communism, so to we need to examine the problems in the USA, the UK, Germany, and so on and can ascribe them to capitalism.

It's true that neither is a perfect Platonic example of the dictionary definition of either capitalism or communism, but they did start as an effort to implement those theories in the real world and both continue(ed) to be shaped and steered by the theories.

Undeniably one of the problems with capitalism is that successful capitalists dislike competition. But that's a problem with capitalism, not an example of successful capitalists falling from the true faith. If it happens regularly (and it does) then it isn't a problem of people failing the system, it's a problem inherent to the system. Anti-competitiveness among the successful is an outgrowth of capitalism, it's part of that system even if the system officially claims to be centered around competition.
posted by sotonohito at 7:16 AM on March 6 [6 favorites]


The idea that "capitalism" means "perfectly free, unregulated, frictionless markets functioning exactly as the most naive/dishonest/panglossian capitalist economists prescribe" is nonsense, leftover right-wing Cold War propaganda, and unworthy of any serious consideration, conversation, or thought. In the three hundred or so years capitalism has existed, there have continually been efforts to describe and analyse it, and nobody, pro- or anti-capitalist, save a handful of people attempting to absolve capitalism of its failings and absolve capitalists of their crimes has come to this definition. It exists for no reason other than to make dishonest, poorly thought out "no true capitalist" arguments, and is a fine red flag for bad faith and worse analysis.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:35 AM on March 6 [11 favorites]


[since the derail seems to have become the thread...]

One curious consequence of the argument made by Mr Justice et al is that the EU is both more socialist and more capitalist than the US.

More socialist because the majority of EU member states have a stronger welfare state than the US and a much lower degree of inequality.

But also more capitalist because, in response to the challenges of facilitating trade more-or-less fairly between nation states within the bloc, the EU is much more willing to interfere in markets to keep them fair and competitive and tolerates the much higher degree of regulation required to maintain this.

So perhaps we’d be better off thinking about the US economic system (er, and perhaps the Mafia by analogy) as more libertarian - if we wanted to highlight the idea that unregulated markets drive the economy - or more oligarchic - if we wanted to highlight the inevitable end state.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 7:42 AM on March 6 [6 favorites]


More on topic, I think the authors probably have a fairly non-controversial thesis. An active organized crime presence necessarily means a drain on the economy with no real gain. When organized crime shakes down a business for protection money that's money out, and unlike with taxes there's nothing coming back.

Of course, as a person on the political left I'm also unsurprised that what organized crime would be politically regressive. When you give a group with a strong honor culture, a strict social and power hierarchy with a massive dose of patriarchy power it isn't likely to be used in ways that lead to better education, better treatment of workers, higher wages, and all the other stuff we classify as progress.
posted by sotonohito at 11:29 AM on March 6 [9 favorites]


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