Napoleons of crime

by Henry on May 10, 2007

Over at Eugene’s lair, Ilya Somin opines on Mario Puzo’s original novel of The Godfather, and the sociology of the Italian and American mafias.

Puzo recognized, as sociologist Diego Gambetta explained more systematically, that the Sicilian Mafia flourished because it provided better “protection” against crime and violations of property and contract rights than did the official authorities, who generally protected only the politically powerful elite.

I can’t comment on Puzo as I’ve never read him. But I’ve recently re-read Gambetta, and he doesn’t argue anything like what Somin thinks he’s arguing. Gambetta’s account of the origins of the Mafia isn’t a simple economic functionalist explanation of how the state failed to protect non-elites, and the Mafia stepped in to fill the gap, or anything like it. Gambetta’s interests are far more specific – he wants to know why the Mafia – a group of autonomous providers of protection emerged to create a violent and nasty form of social order in certain parts of Sicily, but not in other parts, nor in the rest of Italy (it spread later, but that’s a different story). Thus, he’s interested in the failures of the old aristocratic order less because it created a gap in the market that for entrepreneurs of violence could fill than because it meant that the Mafia could emerge as autonomous providers of protection, rather than bravoes under the command of more traditional elites, as in other parts of Italy and Southern Europe. The burden of Somin’s argument, as I understand it, is to suggest that the Mafia is the product of certain pathologies of the state – its failure to protect people and the perverse effects of its efforts to regulate certain markets. This may indeed be an argument implicit in Puzo’s bestseller. But Gambetta’s account directly contradicts this – he argues that the Italian Mafia preceded the expansion of the Italian state, and that its success can’t be attributed to the Italian state’s innate weaknesses (or over-repressive nature). The key quote:

In all likelihood, by the time Italy was unified in 1860-61 the foundations of this peculiar industry were already firmly in place. Not only did the state have to fight to establish itself and its law as the legitimate authority and a credible guarantor in a region where no such authority had previously existed. (my italics) It also had to compete with a rival, an entrenched, if nebulous entity which had by then shaped the economic transactions as well as the skills, expectations and norms of the native people. This is why arguments which blame the supposed weakness of the Italian state for the emergence of the mafia are unconvincing. The early Italian liberal state may have been confused … but it was neither significantly weaker nor demonstrably more repressive than any other liberal state of the period. [Gambetta: The Sicilian Mafia, pp. 97-98].

If Gambetta is to be believed, the problem of the Mafia isn’t a problem stemming from state regulation. It’s a problem arising from the creation and persistence of an alternative means of social organization, which stems from a period before the creation of a proper state apparatus in Sicily. In short, it’s a problem for some flavors of libertarianism (probably not those that Somin espouses) – a suggestion that in the absence of an effective state, and in the presence of certain conditions that Gambetta specifies, we’re likely to get the creation and persistence of Mafia type social organization.

Update: See also Jesse Walker for a somewhat similar take to Somin’s; Walker argues that the Mafia can be thought of either as a form of private order or as a sort of nasty proto-state, when it isn’t really either (it’s an alternative means of social ordering to the state). That said, there is a family resemblance between the early modern state and mafia-type organizations – c.f. Charles Tilly (slightly dodgy OCRed scan here).



John Emerson 05.10.07 at 2:27 am

The weak state would have been whichever small state preceded the unified Italian state.


Luis Alegria 05.10.07 at 2:38 am

Mr. Henry,

I thought this was well known. It seemed to me to be the conventional wisdom that the Sicilian Mafia long pre-existed the Risorgimento. Not only were the foundations present at the time, but it was present in its full modern power.

Lampedusas “Leopard”, set in the Risorgimento, is a modern novel but one I understand that is considered very well informed, has plenty of references to the mafia, both direct and not.

Sicily apparently had a contemporary reputation as a “secret island” and one of extreme violence.


Luis Alegria 05.10.07 at 2:40 am

Mr. Henry,

To add, Lampedusas explanation for the ills of Sicily is cultural, not structural.


Seth Finkelstein 05.10.07 at 2:50 am

I find it a revealing aspect that Somin is building his argument on a work of fiction. One deliberately engineered to appeal to a mass-market audience (from where it could be argued, stem some Libertarian-friendly plotlines about a corrupt state).

One might argue that the Mafia itself is a very revealing glimpse of what Libertarianism would be like – violence and murder at the whim of the superior to protect his business interests. And some (not all, but some) is very explicitly backed up by contract. As in, it’s well understood that by joining the organization, you agree that you may be killed at any time by your boss. In fact, one of the perks of advancement in the organization is a rider on the getting-whacked provision, that there’s got to be at least be a sign-off by the top guys before you can be murdered, rather than it being a low-level decision. Very Libertarian, and a real-world proof that people will go into such contracts if the system allows them.


Henry 05.10.07 at 3:05 am

John – Gambetta’s point is that there wasn’t really anything that could be described as state authority in the relevant parts of Sicily – hence my italicization of the bit about ‘no such authority.’ Sicily was really pre-modern in a whole host of ways, and what state apparatus there was didn’t really penetrate into the countryside as I understand it. More current Italian sociology seems to bear Gambetta’s main points out – I’m reading my way through Rocco Sciarrone’s work in on the Mafia (not available on the WWW or in translation afik) which again emphasizes how the Mafia, unlike other criminal organizations, is a kind of alternative to state power that arrogates to itself various governance features etc.


abb1 05.10.07 at 6:13 am

Probably just a tribal form of self-government, similar to Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. In these other places state authorities are using it instead of fighting it.


Antoni Jaume 05.10.07 at 8:37 am

Has anyone studied the relation of mafia with the Normands conquest of Sicily? I’ve read somewhere on the web about the criminal system of Iceland, and it seemed to me that it was very mafia-like.



Tim Worstall 05.10.07 at 8:48 am

You can also view the rise of the Mafia in Sicily as an expression of the resource curse. The lime and lemon groves were the foundation of the extortion racket. Hugely valuable export industries, very easy to ruin a crop or to prevent its being harvested or transported.

Thus the possibility for strongmen to move in and extract a rent from that industry.


Nathaniel 05.10.07 at 9:57 am

I don’t know if I’d consider the Icelandic system (of the annual thing) mafia-like. Admittedly, I think most conceptions stem from the sagas (again basing opinions on works of fiction, or at least somewhat adapted reality), but the main similarity one might see is that actual killings did not occur under the aegis of the state. Unlike the Mafia setup, the Icelanders had a network of hierarchies, based on the farmstead. n The wealthiest farmer in each area (or perhaps the original settler) usually had the most authority in that area. Each year the heads of every homestead either travelled to the thing, accompanied by a retinue, or sent representatives. There they would settle disputes, overseen by an elected lawgiver, who had memorized the law.

Thus, although there were conspired murders and other crimes with minimal state protection, either retaliation could be made, the dispute could be resolved by those involved, or the dispute could be arbitrated at the next thing. Decisions could include financial compensation or outlawry, among other things. If one was declared an outlaw, anyone in Iceland could kill that person.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that because of decentralized hierarchies and a system of arbitration it doesn’t seem to have involved as much contract or conspired killing, especially i the same household/homestead.

When it comes to the Normans (and the Scandinavian Peninsula) it should be remembered that, unlike Iceland, a central authority (along with vassals) existed that meted out justice. So when the Normans came to Sicily they certainly didn’t bring the Icelandic conception of the thing.


Barry 05.10.07 at 12:12 pm

BTW, any mention of I*elandic legal systems is likely to bring in David Fr*edman, *narcho-capitalist evangelical.

You have been warned.


Valuethinker 05.10.07 at 12:45 pm

Anyone read ‘The Syndic’ by Cyril M. Kornbluth?

The US government is replaced by a mafia-based government system, and then fights to restore itself.

The novel is surprisingly sympathetic to ‘family based’ government.

CMK was one of the great social commentator science fiction writers (see ‘Not this August’ for the definitive US-after-Soviet-invasion novel, and ‘The Space Merchants’ for the world is run by advertising agencies (50 years after publication, much of that world has come to pass, it reads less like satire, and more like prophecy)).

His tragic early death (he was a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, and had fatally strained his heart fighting in the snows and so died at 35 of a heart attack) robbed science fiction of one of its great authors.


Valuethinker 05.10.07 at 12:55 pm

Any linkage of the Mafia to the Normans has to explain why Sicily has the cosa nostra, and Normandy and England (and Ireland) don’t.,,1920825,00.html

Probably it has something to do with the long periods Sicily spent under foreign rule. Once the Norman kingdom was displaced it was Spanish rule, I think, for pretty much 700 years.


Valuethinker 05.10.07 at 1:00 pm

Another postulated libertarian state is the first of Joe Haldeman’s ‘Worlds’ trilogy.

Nevada is an independent libertarian nation. Personal nuclear weapons are legal (see also Marc Stigler’s ‘Dad’s Nuke’ and the Algys Budrys novel ‘Some will Not Die’). Kidnapping is a legal and large industry, etc.

I always wonder what is supposed to be attractive about such places, as opposed to say, the modern UK or Scandinavian countries.


Barry 05.10.07 at 1:45 pm

valuethinker, look at the people who are enthused about such systems. In my experience, they tend to be right-wing whackjobs, or simply rather strange, not well-connected to the real world.


ed 05.10.07 at 3:30 pm

I just finished reading Peter Turchin’s “War and Peace and War”, and he makes the argument that the pathology of Sicily and Southern Italy dates back two thoursand years. In other words, the mafia arose out of the Roman misgovernment of the island!

However, many more conventional historians trace the mafia to the secret societies that organized to liberate Sicily from the French, in the thirteenth century. The “Kingdom of the two Sicilies” that predates the Risorgimento was considered to be the most backward country in Europe, and many Italians think that incorporating it was a serious mistake.

Has anyone noticed that alot of the Italian-American mythos is a celebration of southern Italian, and often specifically Sicilian culture? By most evidence this area has been one of the more dysfunctional in the world. You would thihk Italian-Americans would want to downplay their connection to the region.


Bloix 05.10.07 at 4:30 pm

Sicily has never been fully integrated into Italy. It was a separate kingdom in the middle ages, then ruled by Spain, then Austria, then by a hated and violently repressive Neopolitan Bourbon monarchy, then by a central government in Rome. Even today the first language of most Sicilians is Sicilian, not Italian. After the Risorgimento Sicily rose in a rebellion seeking independence, which was put down by force, and a low-grade civil war continued for decades as Sicily was governed under martial law. The mafia did not arise and flourish under a condition of a “weak state” – it arose under a condition of an oppressive military occupation by a succession of foreign occupiers who had no popular legitimacy. The interesting question is not why the mafia came into existence. It is why the mafia evolved into a multi-national criminal organization, instead of a violently nationalist movement for independence along the lines of, say, the IRA or ETA.


zevatron 05.10.07 at 7:31 pm

Let’s not confuse two different things: the emergence of the Sicilian Mafia in Sicily itself, and the Sicilian Mafia and its activities in the US.
Gambetta seems to speak (at least from what I get from the post) only about the former. Somin primarily refers to the latter, particularly in regards to the Italian immigrant population in NYC. By the time they arrived there was clearly a functioning state.


avm 05.10.07 at 8:44 pm

to no. 16: let’s not beat Sicily for using the Sicilian dialect. Many regions in Italy use primarily their dialect, rather than the official version. I have friends from Bassano di Grappa, Veneto, who say that in school, most kids where speaking in dialect especially because they were coming from different regions (gossiping, making fun, etc). Italy was united very late – hence the dominance of dialects over the official language.


Bloix 05.10.07 at 9:10 pm

I’m not “beating” Sicilians for speaking Sicilian, which is a language, not a dialect. Compare the status of Sicilian, which although spoken by perhaps 4 million people is not used for official purposes, is not the language of any newspaper, is not a language of instruction in schools, and is not taught in universities (although it does have a literature), with, say, the status of Catalan, Basque or Irish Gaelic. My point is that in some ways Sicily resembles a colony and it is not terribly surprising that some Silicians have historically seen the national government as an occupying power and have instead turned to indigenous providers of social order.

What I don’t understand – and perhaps other readers here do – is why the forces in opposition to the state did not develop into a self-conscious nationalist movement, and instead took the form of a criminal enterprise.


john culpepper 05.10.07 at 9:59 pm

Greek was spoken in Sicily until Frederick II (of Hoenstauffen) made Italian the official court language of Sicily (including Apulia). He brought lots of Lombards (northern Italians) into Sicily and they are still there and are still called “Lombards.”

The highly cultivated Frederick (d.circ 1250) (and his circle) who wrote in Sicilian is/are considered the first poet/s to write in the Italian vernacular. Except for some regular sound changes, Sicilian resembles Italian more than Calabrian or other dialects (such as Sardinian or even Neapolitan) do.

All Sicilians remember that their greatest period of prosperity was under the Arabs and ended with the reign of Frederick.

I always heard that the MAFIA dates from the time of the Sicilian Vespers, the great revolt against the Angevins, whom the Pope intalled to replace Frederick (accused of heresy and irreligion) and that it somehow stood for Morte ai Francesi (death to the French).

However, I can believe this view has been superseded and that that present Mafia and the word really date from a nineteenth century novel. In any case, it is clear that organized crime in Sicily, Naples, and Calabria has undergone many changes, particularly in the last 20 years, becoming logarhythmicallly more murderous, international, and even mainstream.


SamChevre 05.10.07 at 10:55 pm

What I don’t understand – and perhaps other readers here do – is why the forces in opposition to the state did not develop into a self-conscious nationalist movement, and instead took the form of a criminal enterprise.

There is not that big a difference. The IRA and the Ulstermen are both to a non-trivial extent organized crime rackets. The same is true for a significant number of US ethnic nationalist groups(Black Panthers, American Freemen).


John Culpepper 05.10.07 at 11:32 pm

I think it is true of the Basque liberation movement as well.


Mike3550 05.11.07 at 5:37 pm

What is interesting is the similarity between Gambetta’s argument about the rise of the Sicilian mafia and the development of gangs in public housing projects in the United States. Sudhir Venkatesh‘s book, American Project describes how the breakdown of a “legitimate” governance system at the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago helped lead to the reliance on gangs as a form of protection because of the absence of state power and the distrust in the state power.


John Culpepper 05.12.07 at 2:40 am

There is real resentment in Sicily against the northern government. This has doubtless been fomented by the Church, resentful of the loss of its secular power. In any case, one of my Sicilian step relatives told me recently in all sincerity that all the problems of the South were due to unification and that Sicily had been far better off under the Bourbon monarchy. Like large numbers of Sicilians (unfortunately) his family is cynical and fatalistic and tend to be neo-fascist (as well as blatantly racist and highly anti-immigrant– though they employ a Filipino houseboy). They support George Bush.

Maybe this had something to do with it. Though a constitutional monarchy, the Piedmont government was a militarist state modelled somewhat on Prussia in which the army was directly under the control of the king (not parliament). After unification he used it on his own citizens, mercilessly putting down peasant and worker revolts and permanently alienating them in the process, historians think. (He also used it on a series of futile and doomed North African adventures, just as we are doing in Iraq.)

Wikipedia describes it:

“A long extensive guerrilla campaign against the unionists (1861-1871) took place throughout southern Italy, and in Sicily, inducing the Italian governments to a ferocious military repression. Ruled under martial law for many years Sicily (and southern Italy) was ravaged by the Italian army that summarily executed thousands of people, made tens of thousands prisoners, destroyed villages, and deported people. The Sicilian economy collapsed, leading to an unprecedented wave of emigration. In 1894 labour agitation through the radical Fasci Siciliani led again to the imposition of martial law.”

And so on. It’s not a nice story. Yes, under the Romans — they had latifundia — huge plantations run by absentee landlords and slave labor. The Spanish. The Church. But many of the problems today appear to have surprisingly recent causes that are somehow obscured by the romance of criminalty.

There is a great movie — Salvatore Giuliano by Francesco Rossi — for those that don’t already know about it.


Frederick Guy 05.15.07 at 12:49 pm

Anthony Pagden describes the decline of state functions in 17th century Naples. Sicily was under the same Spanish Habsburg government. It, in decline, concentrated on squeezing out taxes and exercising control through divide-and-rule of local notables. Naples, at least, was a prosperous commercial kingdom before this. The paper appears in a volume edited by Gambetta (Trust: Making and Breaking Cooperative Relations, 1988). In his own contribution to the same volume, Gambetta picks up where Pagden leaves off, saying that the late 17th century policies of the Habsburgs were continued by the Bourbons up to 1861. He suggests that it was this environment that bred the mafia and its mainland (camorra, ‘ndrangheta) counterparts – no need to look as far back as the Normans.

Comments on this entry are closed.