Social Capital In Action!

by Henry Farrell on September 25, 2007

I’m doing some research on Italian mafia-type organizations at the moment, and came across this “great article”: (PDF) by Federico Varese on the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta and social capital. Those that have read Robert Putnam’s _Making Democracy Work_ will be familiar with his claim that the main reason for the differences between crime-infested and economically and politically underdeveloped Southern Italy and the relatively advanced North is their respective levels of social capital. Varese asks what happens when the ‘Ndrangheta tried to expand its operations from the low social capital South to the high social capital areas in the North. He finds that the ‘Ndrangheta has been more successful in transplanting its networks than social capital theory would suggest, but documents one case in which a ‘highly civic’ town – Verona – managed to repel mafioso drug dealers who were trying to infiltrate the city. The Catholic Church, the local Communists, and various social groups went into action to boot them out, and to get rid of officials and politicians who had taken bribes from the mafia. The end result of their successful efforts – a resurgent local heroin market run by vibrant community networks.

operators in the market belonged to the same social milieu that had given rise to a flourishing economy and adopted the same entrepreneurial spirit and straightforward commercial practices that characterized the legal sectors of the economy. Transactions in the illicit drug market took place according to shared rules of fair bargaining, and punishment took the form of exclusion from future exchanges and refusal to offer credit and discounts. In addition, a significant level of barter and individualized exchange existed in this market, and no third-party mechanism to punish defectors existed.

This did lower the rates of violent crime. Even so, I suspect that it’s not going to get prominent discussion in the Communitarian Newsletter anytime soon. Varese’s “book”: on the Russian Mafia is also an excellent read – his description of the sociology of the _vory_ in Russian prison camps reads like something from Dostoevsky.

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Mafia : NuT
09.26.07 at 12:52 pm



Jim Henley 09.25.07 at 8:20 pm

Er, sounds like a happy ending to me . . .


P O'Neill 09.25.07 at 8:24 pm

Not “Corsican” — although Corsican gangsterism is also an interesting story.


Tim Worstall 09.25.07 at 8:54 pm

“Varese’s book on the Russian Mafia is also an excellent read – his description of the sociology of the vory in Russian prison camps reads like something from Dostoevsky.”

As someone who spent the 90s working in Russia in the metals trade (especially scrap) I’d say that Solzhentisin is also a good guide to both the Russian Mafia and the Communist era managers who held on. “Vory” is very much a useful template (sorry, was).

Back then standard advice was to choose your “krisha”*. Your “roof”. They would get a cut of the action, protect you, and also provide your export licences etc. One really rather disturbing thing was the way that “krisha” in sign language was the two hands facing each other by the palms, the ends of the fingers touching and the wrists apart. Think “here’s the church, here’s the steeple and here’s all the people” and stick with the steeple.

When Viktor Chernomyrdin ran for Prime Minister, the posters had his hands in that position, under the party name “Nash Dom Rossiya” ….”Our Home, Russia”.

* We chose a scientific institute, no thugs, no special licences, no bribes and this is why I now have a small Russian metals business, not a large one. Plus, at least on this point, a clean conscience.


Henry 09.25.07 at 9:06 pm

thanks p o’neill – brainfart corrected.


SamChevre 09.25.07 at 9:42 pm

I have found it funny (in a disturbing way) how well-known and powerful local drug dealers are in my part of the country. Everyone knows who they are, everyone knows that they have a lot of political influence, and nobody cares. And this is the small-town South–the great bastion of the “Religious Right”.


vivian 09.26.07 at 12:42 am

I’m amused, but not surprised. There is no theoretical reason to think that “vibrant community networks” have to be forces for (things we here recognize as) good. In fact, if VCNs were biased towards the wholesome, you’d have a heck of a time explaining the persistence of things like the KKK, the nastier nationalist movements, football hooligans, and whatever snarky additions the rest of you want to make to the list.

But on the Putnam hypothesis, did the Veronese (high social capital) drug dealers function better/more efficiently/more innovatively than their Sicilian (lower SC) counterparts? Or are the mafias islands of high social capital wherever they are?


stm177 09.26.07 at 1:56 am

Japanese organized crime is, well, very neat and organized. The local police know who’s who, and in some sense, depend on organized crime to manage illicit activities and prevent gang wars.

It’s my impression that stimulants like amphetamines were the big popular drug. Back in the 90s, you’d alway hear of some man working himself to death after 48 hours straight at his desk or in his shop. Well, that’s a drug overdose actually.


Pete 09.26.07 at 10:24 am

People chose the local, fair-trade, protectionist drug dealers rather than the globalised exploitative ones?


Alison 09.26.07 at 2:33 pm

I read a story about a priest who went to a village in Sicily and began to help the farmers with their harvests. He worked for free and asked only for a meal and a place to sleep.

After doing this for a long while, the farmers began to trust him. He helped organize them to pool their labour at harvest time, share equipment, etc. He then helped them achieve enough financial security to gain legitimate financing and end their relationships with the mafia loan sharks. Until he came and injected a little liquidity and trust into the system, each farmer could only count on the financial support of the mafia, which came with an enormous rice tag. He built up the social capital, and the mob lost their marketfor eoensive loans.

I can’t find the reference.

Maybe someone else knows this story.


jk 09.26.07 at 3:04 pm

Ahh, that’s sooo cute! I wanna reach out and pinch Varese’s cheeks…


JamesP 09.26.07 at 6:58 pm

You’ve read VIOLENT ENTREPRENEURS, I hope? Easily the best book on “protection” out there.


Alex 09.27.07 at 9:14 am

I’m near Verona at the moment; maybe I should pick up some artisanal, organic smack?

Forget slow food, meet slow drugs!


Harold 09.29.07 at 2:12 am

Perhaps Alison is thinking of Danilo Dolci (not a priest, though). Wonder what happened to him.

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