The Mafia Today: Breaking the Balance

Marlon Brando in "The Godfather", by Francis Ford Coppola (1972)

By Caterina Barbi, a member of M.E.R: the association for Memory, Engagement, and Research, focused on Italian organized crime.

In the wake of the death of Toto Riina, the boss of bosses, Italy has been reminded of what seems to be our champion export: organized crime, also known as the Mafia. The divided public reaction to such an event displays perfectly the need to dissect the balance between State and Mafia, who have coexisted, often battled, and even times stimulated each other’s growth, since the very unification of the country in the 1860s. And in doing so, we may come to understand the significant cultural and historic role held by the Mafia in the Italian context.

This piece is not meant to be a critique of what my government has done, but rather an attempt at understanding why the final departure of a notorious and brutal mobster has been, in some cases, lamented as the death of ‘a man of honour’.

To define the Mafia as a criminal phenomenon would be to miss the whole point of the discourse. The Mafia, and Italian organised crime, is very much of a social actuality. Maybe paradoxically, the Mafia was born as a means of defending the poor against abusive pseudo-feudal landowners and an overreaching aristocracy of the South of Italy — some sort of less romantic Robin Hood. This later evolved into an intermediary between citizen and State.

The turnover of ‘Ndrangheta today is greater than that of McDonald’s and Deutsche Bank combined, and yet people still mourn and idolize the one who was known as “The Beast”.

The well-established tension, which to a certain extent may be defined as act act of balancing, leads one to question the nature of the Mafia in relation to the State. A subtle power play between a legitimate and sovereign body — and an equally legitimate and often more intricate one — the relations between State and Mafia have long oscillated between utter and merciless war and tacit agreements. At the very birth of the Italian State, no one from the Piedmontese monarchy bothered to look into this ‘halfway house’ (which was progressively overtaking over their role), because the one real struggle was the making of an Italian identity.The first serious attempt at curbing the phenomenon came during fascism, because here’s the catch: it’s all about power; who has more power, and how it is employed. The authoritarianism and totalitarianism by Mussolini’s regime left virtually no space for an intermediary, much less for a sub-state governance. This not only drove many clans out of the country, but also gave them a new role in the post-bellum period as the antithesis of fascism and, once again, the protectors of the people.

To talk about Mafia in these terms today, nevertheless, would mean broadly and grossly perpetuating a prejudice and a stereotype. What persists today of the old power order is the societal hierarchy: the code of silence, an evergreen system of corruption, as well as expanding economic activities. So, what triggered such a substantial change? One should look into the two decades from the 1960s to the 1980s that are often defined as the ‘years of lead’ of Italian history. The ‘years of lead’, usually defined as an age of turmoil and political strife, were really a degeneration of the political discourse in violence and acts of terrorism, which left space for organized crime to bring feuds and clan wars on the streets with no threat of retaliation from the State. The bloodshed and terror rampant in these twenty years led to a radical shift in the state / anti-state balance, and a more affirmative stance on organized crime. Any association of ‘mafious’ character and structure would eventually become felonious from 1982 onwards. To a certain extent, the State’s proactive approach also led to a shift in popular perception of the phenomenon, with it progressively losing its intermediary role.

Today, some have claimed that the Mafia has rarely been so weak and divided and yet, the turnover of ‘Ndrangheta today is greater than that of McDonald’s and Deutsche Bank combined, according to Affari Italiani, and yet people still mourn and idolize the one who was known as “The Beast” for his ruthlessness and cruelty. Is this the symptom of an absent State, or the one of a weak social tissue?

Whatever the answer may be, no one can deny the need to break the balance.

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