A Friend in the Family

by Henry Farrell on July 23, 2005

Simonetta Agnello Hornby’s “article”:http://news.ft.com/cms/s/04a67d56-f8da-11d9-8fc8-00000e2511c8.html on the Italian mafia in today’s _FT_ is a little impressionistic for my tastes. Its final paragraphs, however, have a nugget of insight about the pervasiveness of the Mafia in modern Sicily.

bq. “Mafiosita” lurks within me, and it came out powerfully last summer. I was at our family estate in Sicily. My grandchild cut his hand; while I was holding him in my arms, blood flowed copiously. I rushed to the telephone and called a friend: “Whom do you know at A&E?”, I asked. Had I been in London, I would have gone straight to the local hospital. I thought long and hard on that episode, and was shamed. Distrustful of the ability of the local health service to deliver services without an “introduction”, I had resorted to the “known ways”: personal contact. My friend is just a friend, but for people less privileged than I, the Mafia is always ready – at a price – to be the “best of all friends”, and it has friends in all places.

What she’s saying here is very reminiscent of Diego Gambetta’s “classic essay”:http://www.sociology.ox.ac.uk/papers/gambetta158-175.pdf on the Mafia and trust. Gambetta argues that Mafia members have come to play a key role as interlocutors, purveyors of introductions and guarantors of relationships in a society, such as Sicily’s, where people don’t trust strangers readily. But mafiosi have a strong interest too in ensuring that individuals don’t come to trust each other independently of their contacts through the Mafia. Hence, they act not only to guarantee relationships, but to reinforce the social belief that unless you deal with the Mafia and are under their protection, you are liable to be rooked. The Mafia and the culture of _raccomandazioni_ (personal introductions and recommendations as an alternative to impersonal transactions) are intimately intertwined with each other. As Hornby notes in passing, there also appear to be close linkages between the Mafia and Silvio Berlusconi’s _Forza Italia_; one of the reasons why publications such as the _Economist_, which might otherwise have been expected to support a right-of-center party with a purported interest in liberalization, have such distaste for Berlusconi and his doings.



Brendan 07.23.05 at 12:43 pm

One other thing that tends to get forgotten is that the (Italian) mafia is a terrorist organisation. In the ‘war against the state’ the mafia planeted bombs, terrorised civilians, and generally did its best to impose its political views on the rest of the population. It also had (and has) strong links with the Vatican: in other words, it is a religiously orientated terrorist organisation.

I am not even going to comment on the hypocricy of Berlusconi who has appeased (and, some say, worse) this organisation. I have also been searching for quite some time amongst the ‘pro-invasion’ weblogs for condemnation of Berlusconi’s corruption and appeasement of terrorism, perhaps even an acknowledgement that Chirac’s corruption (no small matter) pales into insignificance when compared to Berlusconi’s.

However, of course, Berlusconi had the ‘right’ attitude to the invasion of Iraq, and like the Vatican, the pro-invasion blogosphere now has the ability to absolve him of his sins.

Berlusconi’s antics also put the question of Turkey into perspective. Huge amount of ink has been spilled on the subject of whether Turkey ‘meets our Western standards of democracy’, avoiding the salient fact that there is some doubt as to whether the mafia ridden, Berlusconi owned state of Italy would actually meet the EC’s criteria for democratic process were it to apply for entry.


Bertrand 07.23.05 at 1:02 pm

In traditional China the state did not effectively guarantee law and order at the local level, which was maintained by vigilantes organized by the local gentry. There were also bandit gangs of the Mafia type which sometimes fought the gentry, sometimes worked for them, and sometimes cut deals with them. Sometimes they were Robin Hoods and sometimes they were Pinkertons. Ultimately they were a predictable part of the system. At one key moment in Shanghai, one of the big gangs allied with the Kuomintang and massacred Communists.

I’d like to see the “monopoly of legitimate violence” definition of the state applied to XIXc China. The Ch’ing state seemed to subcontract legitimate violence. They only became alarmed when tax collection became impossible, or when someone set himself up an an Emperor (symbolic politics). And even in the best of times, local authorities skimmed a high proportion of the tax revenue.


Robert Gagnon 07.23.05 at 5:15 pm

Well I wonder when some bright creature will undertake to analyze the current US govt in the same terms that the commentors above have done of Italy, France and traditional China?

It is my modest contention that China today is freer than most Western states. But many will point to various Human Rights limitations and suppressions in China and I can’t deny that they exist. However, on the level of everyday life incountry and abroad my image of China is society, diplomacy and political force working to continue economic growth, harmony incountry and with other countries, even with Taiwan, their old bugaboo!!

Now what can I say about the US, mired in Iraq, Afghanistan et al in pursuit of precisely what aims, other than legitimate violence???????

I rest my case for now


seth edenbaum 07.23.05 at 6:09 pm

I think it’s too simple for Hornby to claim “‘Mafiosita’ lurks within me” because she instinctively chooses social networks. The mafia may help to maintain them, or even rule by using them, but that’s specific to Sicily. I can imagine a similar person in a simlar vacation setting at the old home in another country, or another part of italy[?] having the same response.
Politics is social life and ll politics is local.

Is insularity the result of corruption? But what about dialects, local architecture and food, all of which are the result of a forms of coercion? I prefer social networks, and I prefer societies based on them [which one’s aren’t! ed.] Impersonal networks should function as well, and in Sicily maybe they don’t, but I don’t trust the FT weekend section to tell me why.


Barry Freed 07.23.05 at 6:46 pm

I’m with Seth. Having lived overseas for a few years in North Africa I would have been completely lost without relying on those social networks I came to carefully cultivate. Both those among fellow ex-pats in the know (advice on local doctors, navigating the bureaucracy of a former colony of the country that invented the term, etc.,) as well as those of Maghrebis I was living among. In the latter case I relied upon them both for local information and, most importantly for my purposes in living there, for information about and introductions to the wide variety of scholars, Sufis, and other remarkable people who I wished to meet. I could never have meet such people nor had the kind of wonderful experiences and learned as much as I did (so much that could never be had from books) but for these social networks- without such personal introductions and recommendations. And nothing of it had a thing to do with anything like the Mafia.


seth edenbaum 07.23.05 at 6:53 pm

I may have come off as too glib; you shouldn’t have to ask who you know at the local hospital.
But my friends and I only go to one, because we have a friend there. If she’s not on call she phones in.
Maybe that just says something about NY


Bertrand 07.23.05 at 7:11 pm

Sufis can function like a Mafia. The Mafia isn’t as exclusively criminal as people think, and Sufis can be pretty hard-edged if they need to be.

In many traditional societies the official reality never works, so you need personal connections to get anything done. If you do have connections this all seems fine, but many people have no connections and they are the losers. And the old boys network always has a violent side.


Delicious pundit 07.23.05 at 7:45 pm

Gambetta argues that Mafia members have come to play a key role as interlocutors, purveyors of introductions and guarantors of relationships in a society, such as Sicily’s, where people don’t trust strangers readily. But mafiosi have a strong interest too in ensuring that individuals don’t come to trust each other independently of their contacts through the Mafia. Hence, they act not only to guarantee relationships, but to reinforce the social belief that unless you deal with the Mafia and are under their protection, you are liable to be rooked. The Mafia and the culture of raccomandazioni (personal introductions and recommendations as an alternative to impersonal transactions) are intimately intertwined with each other.

It is not original to notice that this sounds a little bit like Hollywood, too.


Henry 07.23.05 at 7:58 pm

Seth, barry, I think you’re underestimating the problems of this phenomenon. I’m a fan of informal networks of trust and cooperation in northern Italy – my Ph.D. dissertation, and the book that I’m currently writing are about their economic benefits – but the way in which they work across large swathes of Southern Italy is very, very problematic. Romanticizing informal networks _as such_ as an alternative to impersonal institutions can lead to some very big mistakes – a nasty society based on informal institutions can be as bad as – and arguably worse than – a nasty society based on impersonal ones. Fair enough that you don’t trust a _FT_ Saturday supplement on this, but you may want to take a look at the Gambetta essay that I link to, as well as his book, _The Sicilian Mafia_ if you can find it (it’s a classic). I understand that he had several death threats, the bullet in envelope routine etc while he was researching it. And there is a big difference between the use of personal connections as a minor social lubricant (something that is indeed mostly benign imo) and a society where virtually _everything_ is based on personal recommendations. The latter is what the _FT_ piece is talking about, as I understand it.


Glenn Bridgman 07.23.05 at 8:13 pm

Well, Robert Gagnon, whoever he is, is pretty clearly nuts.

I’m gonna side with Henry on this. I think it’s particularly clear if you look at it from a Weberian perspective. These powerful social networks prevent the formal rationalization of social structures–or perhaps, more precisely, provides an alternative, far less effective rationalization.


seth edenbaum 07.23.05 at 8:58 pm

Henry, I’m not defending the Mafia against Gambetta. I trust you when you say his essay is a classic. On that note I rememnber reading something about a book on southern Italy and the transmission the psychological traits -the neuroses- of corruption through generations. You might know it. I had the title scrawed on the wall in my studio for years but I was lazy and never bought a copy. But that concerns one sort of corrupt social coercion, and FT type globophiles and libertarians would argue against any form of it.
Community is coercive, or it doesn’t exist. There’s a problem there that I like. About the situation in Sicily itself I have no argument. (as I said, I might have been a little glib.) It’s a mess.


seth edenbaum 07.23.05 at 9:00 pm

And why does a dash become a strikethrough with WordPress!?


Matt 07.24.05 at 12:13 am

Having lived for some years in a place where you really need “informal networks” to get by I can say that I find it both less efficient and more annoying. And, it seems quit clearly to be one of the things holding back economic development in that place as compared to others in the former soviet union. Most people I know who have left it and come to the US or Western Europe also agree that while the informal system served a purpose at one point it’s vastly more of a drag than a plus.


Tim Worstall 07.24.05 at 6:51 am

My immediate reaction, when living in either Naples or Moscow (as I have), would have been the same as Hornby’s. When in the US, UK or Portugal I wouldn’t dream of trying to use a personal network like that, I would expect the impersonal one to work better.

Not a shattering insight I know.


H. E. Baber 07.24.05 at 9:37 am

I grew up with these “informal networks” in northern New Jersey–the Sopranos is an accurate picture. There were no-go areas and 1000 unwritten rules. The assumption was that everything was corrupt (and that was ok), all city jobs were bought, official procedures were just window-dressing, public facilities were just for the black underclass, and that the very ideas of fairness, impartiality and basic honesty were sugary myths for children–everyone took care of their own. The mob was viewed as an inevitable and essential part of civic life: who else was there to run the numbers game at the local candy store or the unions who saw to it that young guys whose grandparents came from the right part of Italy got good construction jobs?

When I went away to college in the midwest I thought I’d died and gone to heaven to be out of all that. I was furious when other students, who’d never seen that system from the inside romanticized that world and condemned the sterility and hypocrisy of upper middle class Anglo society. Hypocrisy is a great moral leap forward: it assumes that you live in circumstances where fairness, impartiality and honesty are valued and feel guilty or, minimally, ashamed when you behave badly.

I still have a visceral reaction when communitarians get the warm fuzzies for the kind of “traditional society” in which I grew up. Ask almost anyone who grew up in that kind of world and you’ll get the same answer.


moni 07.24.05 at 10:15 am

‘Had I been in London, I would have gone straight to the local hospital.’

Maybe she’d have gone straight to the local hospital even in Sicily, if she hadn’t been a wealthy estate owner with servants and accustomed to getting favours from friends?

Really, I think that reaction says more about her own privileged position than the mafia or ‘raccomandazioni’ mentality. After all this was a small emergency. Even a mafioso would seek favours from friends for bigger things than their children cutting their hands, I’d imagine. So I think even that final nugget is a little too impressionistic.

I live in Italy, though not in Sicily, but I am familiar with the region and would be wary of conflating different things there. First, corruption and favoritism are present in many other parts of Italy too, depending, especially at higher levels of power. They don’t necessarily have to do with the Sicilian mafia or that kind of organised crime. Secondly, going through friends to get something done is not necessarily to do with the mafia or corruption, either.

This sort of social networking can have either good or bad aspects, indeed, the bad ones include combined forms of age discrimination and nepotism. I think Tobias Jones described it rather well. There can be perfectly normal, non-dodgy forms of “raccomandazioni”, such as happen anywhere. Silliest example: you need a plumber or a builder, a friend knows someone who’s good, they recommend it to you. That’s quite different from pulling strings to get someone a privileged job in state tv, just because they’re a relative or friend of someone who has political leverage. So I don’t think the dividing line is between personal and impersonal networks. It’s between regular and corrupt relations; between normal social contacts and getting actual undeserved privileges via abuses of power.

I don’t know if emergency care is so bad in Sicily that everyone would distrust it, I find that hard to believe. Perhaps, again, it’s the author’s privileged position, to be automatically distrustful of state hospitals? Still, I think it’s very callous to describe as “mafiosita” something so harmless as that anecdote describes.

The kind of distrust the mafia thrives on is not simple distrust for ‘impersonal’ relations or institutions, it’s distrust for public authority and politicians and law enforcement, but that’s also because where the mafia thrives, it does so by corrupting local politicians and authorities and law enforcement, so it’s a big vicious circle. Besides, it thrives much more on blackmail than distrust. That’s where the pessimism comes from. It is not so much about people’s mentalities, but more about a closed system designed to perpetuate itself.

Sadly, both the mafia and generalised corruption are not a problem that started or got worse with Berlusconi. Wish it were so. It’d be easier to uproot. It’d been going on for decades, when the former Christian Democrats were in power. The ‘red’ areas of Italy that were locally governed for decades by (former) communists, on the other hand, thrived on the cooperative system, with no or next to no corruption, and they had the most efficient public administration and services.


cm 07.24.05 at 11:28 am

I feel reminded of the area of professional services and the crafts. When there is strict regulation, and professionals have to submit to exams and be licensed, you can assume minimal standards and go for “impersonal” service. (Reference is still used as an additional quality control.) Where regulation and licensing standards are weak or absent, people go almost exclusively by reference.

It relates to how strictly business and the whole society is run by the state vs. “freedom of enterprise”.


Yusuf Smith 07.24.05 at 11:47 am

“Mafiosita” lurks within me, and it came out powerfully last summer. I was at our family estate in Sicily.

Shouldn’t there be an accent over that last “a”? The -ita ending had me thinking it was a Spanish or Portuguese feminine diminuitive – i.e. a “little gangstress”, if you’ll excuse the coinage.


serial catowner 07.24.05 at 2:04 pm

The mafia, in whatever language, can be seen as a parallel government. In Sicily the social roots of the mafia undoubtedly reach back to the Roman use of labor contracters on the latifundia. Even the most cursory glance at Sicily’s history will reveal that Sicily was often nominally ruled by essentially foreign ‘nobility’ who seldom, or never, visited the island.

It is interesting to note that even presumably well-educated commenters on this thread find it hard to tell where benign personal networking ends and malignant favoritism begins.

The legitimate state and the mafia stuggle for monopolies in violence, the rule of law, and the division of the loot. As so often in human affairs, the end result is a continuing set of compromises, unless, of course, one side should become fatally weakened by the persistent attacks of the other.

Italy, a state formed by revolution that, eventually, had a king to receive Mussolini’s resignation, has a history of parallel governments and urban disorder to charm any historian. Considering the continuing influence of parallel governments, it might be worth studying just how Mussolini was able to get the upper hand of the mafia.


Antoni Jaume 07.24.05 at 2:57 pm

serial catowner, my pet theory of the mafia is that it is an effect of the Normand domination. Not so long ago I read somewhere on the web that Iceland in its first times had a system of justice that reminded me more of the mafia rule than anything else. The Roman latifundia, on the other side, existed too in other parts of the Roman empire, which are mafia free up to the date.



H. E. Baber 07.24.05 at 3:10 pm

Personal networking is never entirely benign–it’s time-consuming, stressful and inefficient and perpetuates arbitrary privilege. We put up with it when we have to but if we’re right-thinking liberals we do all we can to minimize it by installing impersonal mechanisms, formal procedures and merit based systems. There’s no line to draw–it’s always a matter of weighing costs: how much are we willing to pay to promote fairness and transparency, suppress prejudice and provide information so that people can make rational, informed decisions.


seth edenbaum 07.24.05 at 4:13 pm

No goal can be considered rational simply because one has a rational means to get it. The means of science are rational. The goals of most science are as absurdist as the goals of mountan climbing.
The market isn’t blackjack, it’s poker, and life is sloppy. You may be sick of all the Goomba Johnny bullshit- I lived in a Gambino neighborhood for 20 years- but the whole point of the mythologizing by Coppola, Scorcese, et al. is our ambiguous response. The Pleasures and Dangers of Community.

You represent the Robert Parker school of wine and life.
Your paradise sounds like hell to me, and illogical as well.


Henry 07.24.05 at 10:05 pm

I’m writing a paper with Jack Knight at the moment which tries to address the underlying question that seems to be dividing people here – i.e. when is reliance on informal trust etc rather than formal institutions ‘bad,’ and when is it ‘good.’ Short and oversimplified answer is that it depends on the power relations that are instantiated in the informal relations in question. Relatively egalitarian relations a la Emilia-Romagna and the red belt, good. Strong power asymmetries and informal relations, bad. Carlo Trigilia’s and Carlo Bagnasco’s work on the red and white zones is excellent (Grande Partiti e Piccole Imprese), also Trigilia’s work on economic development in the South (the latter isn’t translated into English though afik, and the former is available in bits and pieces in English, and also in a French portmanteau edition)


moni 07.26.05 at 6:36 am

but the whole point of the mythologizing by Coppola, Scorcese, et al. is our ambiguous response. The Pleasures and Dangers of Community.

That’s true, but that’s also because in general that mythologising of gangsters makes good fiction, good drama, good cinema or tv, with great roles for actors. Especially when the gangsters are built up to be epic figures and the focus is so much more on family and personal relationships, so that those can become symbolic in their own, regardless of the mafia context.

That kind of dramatisation has nothing to do with the reality of the Sicilian mafia and what it represents to an Italian audience, though. Even in the realm of dramatisation alone, if you see Italian films or tv series (La piovra) made about the mafia and set in Sicily, you’d notice a huge difference with the Hollywood films. The only mythologising is for the cops and magistrates, they are the heroes, together with other ordinary people who suffer the consequences. Like, innocent victims of terrorist-like bombings and assassination plots on politicians or judges, which were not what the mafia did in the US. So the mythologising of the mafia is made impossible by that kind of real context. The settings are a lot less lush and glamorous. There is a lot more space for politics and the mafia corruption of politics. It’s all a lot more drab and realistic and tragic and ultimately unwatchable because it’s so depressing. Just so it’s clear, I’m not suggesting there is a different “moral judgment” on the mafia, just a different history of the mafia in two very different countries, and a different approach in fictional representations of it. Also, different cinema and tv industries.

A series like the Sopranos would have been unthinkable if set in Italy, because it is so detached from the actual context of the Italian mafia. (And, well, because no one makes tv that good in Italy…)

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