Italy and its Criminal State

In the run-up to the 2015 Universal Exhibition that opens in Milan this month, the mainstream media carefully resumed the image of the old mafia boss, Toto’ Riina, dispensing death sentences from his prison cell. This concealed the real criminal power of the Calabrian mafia, Ndrangheta, which has deep roots in the Italian political machinery both local and central.

During the scandal about Expo 2015 politicians of the left and right have been convicted of collusion with the mafia. They had been buying votes and doing ‘favours’ to secure the juicy Expo 2015 public contracts.  The Calabrese mafia has huge amounts of capital to re-invest. According to a convicted Lombard entrepreneur:

‘If the mafia sees something that works, they invest in it, no bullshit, maybe they also do other stuff, sure! I know that! However, if it’s a serious business, the Mafioso sees it just like me, in the same way. He has the means to invest and he doesn’t need to go crying for money to the Bank, because he invests his own money’ (Monzin from ‘Ndrangheta in Lombardia: in manette politico Pd, infiltrazioni in Expo, Il Fatto quotidiano, by A. Bartolini and D. Milosa | 28 October 2014).

The mafia has the cash and has infiltrated the State machinery. No wonder that Italy is a country where its President  has recently testified about the so-called State-mafia negotiation of the 1990s.

What is the mafia?

How did the Italian ruling class get so entangled with organized crime? Moreover, what is the mafia in the first place?

The mafia is not a cool young Robert De Niro gaining respect in his block among southern Italian immigrants in New York at the end of the 19th century. Even Bill Bonanno, son of legendary American mafia boss Joseph, who had every reason to cultivate a myth of his world, said that ‘The Godfather’ film gave a romantic image of the mafia. This image, though, still influences the behaviour of some young ‘Goodfellas’. The mafia is much more complex than a strong Italian accent, a big ring and a bulldog face.

A good overview in English of why organized crime was and is so nested into the Italian political and social structure, and why the mafia system has become so successful globally is given by John Dickie in his MafiaRepublic. For those who read Italian Salvatore Lupo’s Storia della Mafia is definitely a must.

Nowadays,mafia is a general term used to identify a secret organization which operates according to its own set of rules that are outside the legal order of the bourgeois State. The means that the mafia makes use of are: violence (retaliation), intimidation, extortion, corruption, collusion of bourgeois institutions. Violence is usually the prerogative of the bourgeois State, but the mafia not only uses it, but counts on it to obtain silence from its own victims (omerta’). This silence is not a cultural tradition, as is often believed.

The mafia had its origin in a bargain struck with the Bourbon rulers of southern Italy and Sicily who were too weak to maintain internal as well as foreign order, combined with the weakening of the aristocratic class. During the occupations of the Italian peninsula, first by Republican and later Napoleonic France, the Bourbons did not mind using outlaws or brigands (briganti) to organize resistance. The Bourbons also made use of field wardens (campieri) as rural police (Compagnia d’Armi) to control public order, often giving weapons and power to common criminals. These emerging henchmen, either rural, in Sicily, or urban, in Naples, kept the Bourbons’ hated enemy, the liberal bourgeoisie, underdeveloped. Times were changing fast and the old regime had to keep up. Whereas in England Cromwell’s revolution had prepared both the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie to cope with the emerging capitalist system, the old French, Spanish, Austrian and Neapolitan regimes were either crumbling or struggling.

The second even greater bargain that the southern Italian mafia entered into came with the Piedmontese occupation of the South of Italy (an occupation also called the Unification of Italy) after 1860. The political role that the occupying power gave to these secret groups during the Unification was vital. It set them up in the post-Unification capitalist era. A clear example of this can be found in how Garibaldi’s regime in Naples, represented by Don Liborio Romano, police prefect of the city, administered public order, nominating as City Guard the Onorata Societa’ della Camorra, namely the head of a band made up of little tyrants, loan sharks and racketeers. As Alexander Dumas wrote at the time, ‘Camorra’s power is the only real power Naples obeys’.

Not the same today

However, it would be a mistake to think that mafias, in Sicily called Cosa Nostra and in Naples called Camorra, were what they are today. Lupo captures this very well: the mafia

‘determines…internal hierarchies, independent from the general ones of the economy and politics, but throughout the entire first part of its history it remains a minor power compared with the power of major landowners and notables… the mafia during the liberal era or during the first republican period did not think at all to determine the content of the laws, leaving this type of problem… to major notables‘ judgment or… to local lobbies’ judgment. Then, things changed…  big landownership disappeared as a political and social entity… the notable gave way to the party machine… mafia affiliates… had much more freedom to interfere with politics itself, because politics redistributes the growing flow of resources it manages, by doing so paralyzing the administrative, public security and juridical apparatuses of the State’.

The third basis of the mafia was its discovery of America, and in particular, the Prohibition years. As a result of the colonial policy of the Piedmontese in the South of Italy, to which should be added the natural impoverishment caused by capitalism (described by Marx for England and Ireland in Capital), a huge mass of peasants who could not find jobs in the very few local industries, such as the salt and sulphur mines, nor in the northern industries, had to look for fortune overseas, mostly in America.

During the USA prohibition years, Italy was ruled by the fascist regime. The main reason why fascism reached power in 1922 was to stop workers and peasants causing trouble, which had characterized the years after the end of WWI. During WWI, in 1917, a self-proclaimed workers’ revolution succeeded in Russia and in 1919, for a few months in Germany and Hungary. Worker and peasant protests were widespread over the whole Italian peninsula. There were occupations of factories, such as Fiat in Turin, and of land, and mutinies of army regiments in Trieste and Ancona. The ruling class (upper bourgeoisie, landowners and industrialists) felt the need to suppress such movements. Thus, the violent acts of fascist squads against the workers and peasants were tolerated, and often welcomed, by the national and local authorities.

These fascist squads’ actions occurred mainly in the north and centre of Italy. In the South, and in Sicily in particular, the repression of workers and peasants was carried out by the local mafias. However, when the fascist regime won executive power it engaged in a campaign to destroy the mafias. There is general agreement today that only the lower layers of the mafias were touched by this. This was because the top layer was in bed with the political elite and so untouchable. In any event, many mafia affiliates moved to the USA, where business was good. Prohibition laws became the best business opportunity ever for the American mafia. It gave the American mafia led by families of Sicilian origin the chance to become the first organized crime network in the USA and to make a huge amount of money.

The Allies’ invasion of Sicily and the consequent second post-war period meant a real triumph for organized crime in the South of Italy. As Lupo points out, it is plausible that the Sicilian mafia organized itself at the end of the fascist era round the American model of Luciano, Coppola and Genovese, who had been expelled from the USA. Lupo thinks that without this American component the Sicilian mafia would have died out. But once more, the mafias in Italy acquired a political function.

At the end of WWII fascism had formally collapsed, while the Russian bloc had not. Worker and peasant conditions were the same as, if not worse than, before the war. There was a real risk that workers would again organize the same movements suppressed by the fascists between the two wars, and bring the country to the other side of the Iron Curtain. The risk was so stark that the US intelligence service was actively organizing prevention plans (e.g. a coup d’état).

It should not surprise anyone that there was a link between freemasonry, politicians, upper class members and mafia bosses. In the South, it was common for the Allied forces to put ‘men of honour’ in charge of local municipalities. Moreover, the suppression of those backing peasant struggle was carried out by the local mafias. In Sicily, the mafia killed 4 leftwing activists in 1945, 6 in 1946, 8 in 1947,  not including the 11 victims of the Portella della Ginestra massacre. The number of killings to suppress the peasant turmoil decreased only when in the 1950s agrarian reform brought about the systematic dismantling of the peasant cooperatives. Even so, it would be a mistake to think that at this stage the mafia had a political plan. Its aim was just to gain full control over its territory.

Business enterprises

The post-war reconstruction period (Marshall plan) was a key moment in the history of mafias in Italy. The mafia ‘does not make distinctions between sectors: agriculture, construction, commercial. What is important for the mafia is its monopoly on certain activities, first of all control, it is important that this is reserved to the gang (clan)’ Salvatore Lupo, Storia della Mafia). During this period, the mafias went through changes. They become less and less linked to the rural heritage and more and more to the entrepreneurial spirit, following the American model. Where the large landed estate system (latifundium) was dying, the mafia transformed itself, taking possession of public funding for reconstruction. Although this was a parasitic entrepreneurial system, entrepreneurship became a mafia speciality. This is the time of il sacco di Palermo (sack of Palermo), where ugly buildings would appear anywhere like mushrooms. The now republican State did not oppose this criminal entity, but actually became a tool of development for the mafia phenomenon. This is captured by Paolo Borsellino’s statement:

‘Mafia and politics are two powers, which rely on the control of the same territory: either they fight each other or they reach an agreement. The ground on which they can reach an agreement is the division of public money, the illegal profit on the public works’.

Christian Democracy (Democrazia Cristiana, DC) represented the ideal political party with whom to share reconstruction money. The DC-mafia machine was just perfect. It was based on the old clientelism and patronage. This machine formed in a few years a huge inflated service sector, while industrial development remained paralyzed because of the mafia regime. This was a colluded Keynesianism, where public money went to Cosa Nostraand Cosa Nostra ensured DC political domination. Now ‘the mafia associate does not camouflage himself as entrepreneur: he is an actual entrepreneur, who makes use of the additional advantage of being part of Cosa Nostra’ (Giovanni Falcone e Marcelle Padovani, Cose di Cosa Nostra).

Beside the big public funds business,  in that period the business of the century — drug trafficking — grew. Sicily became a central hub for the refining and distribution of drugs. This was because of their preferential channels of distribution with the American families (clans) of Sicilian origin. This huge amount of money soon needed to find laundering outlets. It was no coincidence that during this period, the ‘60s and ‘70s, financiers, entrepreneurs, and constructors emerged from nowhere. In short, this was the time for people like Sindona and Berlusconi.

Not just Sicilian

Mafia in Italy does not mean only Cosa Nostra. In the ‘50s and ‘60s we see other criminal societies emerging, such as the Calabrese Ndrangheta and the Neapolitan Camorra. But these mafias should not be understood separately from Cosa Nostra. They already existed from the second half of the 19th century, but they too now follow the Sicilian-American model and have become modern. Even though those three mafias are fairly independent from one another, they are still interconnected.

If we analyse the last 30 years we can see three main transformations in the mafia world: the decline of the Sicilian mafia in favour of the Calabrian Ndrangheta; the capillary expansion of the mafia into the North of Italy; the infiltration into the State apparatus — the Anti-State that becomes the State.

The myth that the mafia is a problem only in the South of Italy is indeed a myth. Mafias expanded systematically thanks also to the forced exile of convicted Mafiosi to the northern regions of the country, such as Lombardy, Piedmont, Emilia Romagna, Liguria. This showed the poor understanding of lawmakers of the mafia phenomenon. The mafia no longer depended on the control of the poor rural territory of the South. The mafia was a form of violent and rule-less entrepreneurial bourgeoisie. The North was an ideal virgin land for them. The Ndrangheta, in particular, was very effective in this expansion, because unlike Cosa Nostra, it clones itself, looking for the same basic criminal structures as the original. For example, Lombardy is also the name of the criminal organization bound to Ndrangheta, which has the same rites, language, customs, structure and hierarchal order as the Calabrian Ndrangheta (Atlante delle mafie. Storia, economia, società, cultura, a cura di Enzo Ciconte, Francesco Forgione e Isaia Sales, Vol II).

In the North the mafia, and in particular Ndrangheta, has evolved from the criminal point of view, in its ambitions, projects of control of the entrepreneurial and economic activities; broadening its relationships with public officials and public security and becoming attractive partners to earn votes in the elections. Ndrangheta is now present on the five continents, in particular in Canada, USA, Colombia, Australia, Switzerland, and Germany. Today Ndrangheta is the world leader of cocaine trafficking.

We can now see why the Italian ruling class got so entangled with organized crime. It has always been and on several occasions has made political use of organized crime to accomplish its own aims. The mafia changed itself and became an integral part of the State. It is clear that the mafia is a criminal organization that today has only one interest, profit.

So the question arises: What is the actual difference between the lobby system and the mafia system? It is the code of written and non-written laws, but these two systems have the same aim. Both are based upon exploiting non-paid work. Both systems make use of force. The mafia system, on the one hand, is less predictable, but, on the other hand, it still needs the beneplacito agreement of the bourgeois State, which has a repressive capacity hugely bigger than the mafia itself.

Finally, will the ‘legal’ bourgeoisie be able to defeat the mafia or will it accept it as an expression of itself? The problem is not only a moral one but also an economic one. At the moment the ‘legal’ bourgeoisie has used or has collaborated with the mafia, allowing the mafia to grow and to become competitive even in the ‘clean’ sectors. Since the bourgeois State has in principle the tools to annihilate the mafia, but so far has not done it, this suggests that it does not want to; but on the contrary, that it wants to make use of it.

Nowadays, the mafia has infiltrated the structure of control of bourgeois power, so things have become rather complicated. A pure repressive action may no longer be sufficient. It is a bit like the situation that the fascist regime had to face. In Italy, as well as in other countries, destroying the mafia means also amputating a part of the bourgeois State itself. The mafias have worsened workers’ quality of life and even working conditions, and the bourgeoisie did not, and does not, hesitate to make use of it to exploit or repress worker and radical movements. Therefore, the struggle against capital means also struggle against one of its peculiar expressions, which is the mafia, regardless of the ruling class’s moral crisis.


Leave a Reply