Book Reviews

Guns and protection

David Lane: Into the Heart of the Mafia. Profile £15.

I didn’t expect a book on the Mafia to be all that interesting or relevant, but in fact Lane’s investigation can be interpreted as shedding some light on the operations of capitalism.

Italy became a unified state fairly late on, in 1861, and the south of the country was for a long time isolated and barely under the control of the central government in Rome. As a result, a sort of private police force filled the vacuum and administered its own kind of ‘justice’. Basically, a set of thugs and gangsters, they evolved into the Mafia, a term which covers at least the Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the Camorra in Campania and the ’Ndrangheta in Calabria.

Their activities now include robbery and murder, loan sharking, extortion and protection money. Anything that involves money-making attracts them, such as the university in Messina on Sicily,  which is the town’s biggest business. The construction industry, and public works in general, is another area where the Mafia can extract money. It’s estimated that about half of the £24 billion paid for reconstruction after an earthquake near Naples in 1980 ended up in the hands of the Camorra. Burying toxic waste with no regard for the environmental consequences also brings in big profits. All this goes on with the connivance of many in business, government and the Catholic church.

The south of Italy still represents a relatively unattractive place for companies to invest in, since a return on investment requires a level of security that is mostly lacking. Capitalism, then, needs its version of law and order, and the Mafia-controlled regions are a clear demonstration of what can happen when this does not exist.

For the working class, the consequence of Mafia rule are dire, with very high levels of unemployment and high drop-out rates from school. With legal jobs hard to come by, many are attracted to work for the Mafia. Someone who then wishes to break free may be killed as a warning to others. At the same time, though, members of agricultural cooperatives farming ex-Mafia land show a great deal of courage in resisting sabotage and intimidation.

As one of Woody Guthrie’s songs says, ‘Some will rob you with a six gun and some with a fountain pen’. There is more than one way for workers to be exploited and oppressed, and the Mafia are the way of the six gun.


Labour loyalists

A History of the Northern Ireland Labour Party: Democratic Socialism and Sectarianism. By Aaron Edwards. Manchester University Press

The reference in the title to ‘Democratic Socialism’ might well have been an acceptable tautology on the part of the author or, as it frequently is, a manifestation of misunderstanding of the meaning of socialism. In the case of this author’s work it was quickly demonstrated not only that he has peculiar ideas as to what represented socialism, but in dealing with the political events in Northern Ireland that are the background to his narrative, he is, also, below par regarding the acceptable nature of what passes for democracy in liberal bourgeois society.

The term ‘socialism’ was first used to define an alternative form of social organisation to capitalism. There already existed alternative political and economic suggestions for treating the myriad problems associated with capitalism but within the consensus of those who used the term ‘socialism’ was the conviction that such suggestions were inadequate or unworkable. What was required was the total dismantling of the system of class monopoly of the means of life and its replacement with a system of common ownership and free access to goods and services.

The more politically coherent elements among the reformers, liberals and trade unionists that formed the British Labour Party in 1906 would have accepted the need to replace capitalism with socialism but they thought they could circumvent the essential need to create a democratic socialist consciousness to achieve that purpose. Instead they would, by an ongoing and gradual process, reform capitalism out of existence. Their error is transparent in the bunch of self-seeking careerists and ruthless authoritarian Labour politicians currently grasping with yet another of the crises of capitalism.

Following the partition of Ireland by the British government in 1921 some disparate elements from a Northern Ireland community deeply divided into forms of conditioned politico-religious hatreds re-energised residual Labour support under the banner of the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP). The Party would have attracted the same elements as the British party but would have carried the baggage of political and religious division within its ranks. Contrary to Edwards contention it never made a class analysis of Irish politics; instead it joined the ward-healing process while nervously tip-toeing its way through the minefield of tribal divisions that were the political stock-in-trade of everyday political life in its territory.

Still, those divisions were reflected acutely within the NILP. Catholics, who almost exclusively suffered the tyrannies of the notorious Unionist government’s Special Powers Act (a sort of Complete Dictator’s DIY kit) as well as discrimination in employment and social housing, wanted a determined stand against these evils which would seem good political fodder for a reformist group. In this work the author further betrays his ignorance of socialism as well as his ambivalence to democracy by his sympathy with the NILP leadership’s view that a fulsome condemnation of anti-Catholic practices might alarm potential Protestant voters who supported these evils.

In the late 1940s, having failed to achieve meaningful political kudos from its fence-sitting position the Party openly adopted a Unionist position. Ulster Labour, it proclaimed was British Labour. In a display that would have rivalled that of the National Front, Labour election platforms, in Unionist areas, were festooned with Union flags, which traditionally was the banner carried by the Orange mob. The decision caused a major split in the Party; Catholics, reflecting the same political ignorance as their erstwhile ’comrades’, formed the Irish Labour Association (long since demised) predictably under the banner of the Irish tricolour. Curiously, no mention of this latter happening is found in the book.

In the 1950s the NILP won four seats in the Northern Ireland House of Commons. The new MP’s were all men, proclaimed as good men on the strength of their Protestant fundamentalist faith. Eventually, as traditionalist Nationalist politics went into terminal decline before more strident Catholic demands for the democratisation of the Northern Ireland state, there was an influx of Catholics back into the NILP. Again the Party’s internal unease surfaced: the Catholics more and more favouring direct action against the Stormont regime in which Labour’s four holy men were comfortably ensconced to the extent where one had accepted a white-washing position with the government.

The prelude to open sectarian conflagration in Northern Ireland left the gaping sectarian wounds of the NILP increasingly exposed and finally inflicted their coup de grace on its squalid political corpse. Edwards intones the requiem with the acknowledgement of numbers of its members cosying up to the sectarian murder gangs; a measure of what they had learnt in the NILP. His belated obsequies will find little sympathy with genuine socialists but should serve as a warning for those who put political expediency before principle.

Edwards is a Senior Lecturer in Defence and International Affairs at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. 


Unequal society

The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Allen Lane, 2009.

The main theme of this book, as summarised in its subtitle, is that people living in less unequal societies almost always do better than those living in more unequal societies. This unsurprising theme is spelled out in the nine chapters in the middle part of the book dealing with the costs of inequality in various areas of life and society: community life and social relations; mental health and drug use; physical health and life expectancy;  obesity; educational performance; teenage births; violence; imprisonment and punishment; and social mobility.

The first part of the book—titled Material Success, Social Failure—is an uncontroversial, even anodyne commentary on where we are now. Material success is a privilege of the minority: “the least well-off people even in the richest countries sometimes find themselves without enough money for food.”

Socialists are more likely to be interested in what the authors have to say in Part 3, A Better Society. Wilkinson and Pickett present themselves as good people with good ideas writing of the “need to create more equal societies able to meet our real social needs.” I particularly like the cartoon they reproduce of a rich, portly father explaining to his small son, “It goes in cycles, Junior. Sometimes the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Sometimes the rich get richer and the poor stay the same.”

But the authors are really not as radical as they pretend. They like the charitable, friendly society, mutual, credit-union side of capitalism more then the openly profit-seeking side. They want a nice capitalism, not a nasty one. So when it comes to “what can be done?” they list reforms like “plug loopholes in the tax system, limit ‘business expenses’, increase top tax rates, and even legislate to limit maximum pay in a company to some multiple of the average or lowest paid.”


Leave a Reply